He stood at 5′ 8″ and weighed in at 160 lbs. He had a lean body with a relatively round belly. He preferred his hair black and greasy while making sure that each strand was in the right place. His sideburns were long and his beard felt “spiky”. The bags under his eyes were indications of his lack of sleep. His nose was quite wide and rounded, which only got wider and rounder when he was upset or had a headache. He had a slouchy posture and limbs that would tremor when tired. His legs were bowed and his knees were arthritic. And with the exception of his numerous tattoos, my father was a close resemblance of the man I’m still trying to learn—myself.
There were numerous legendary stories about how he lived his life, all of which portrayed a man who wanted nothing more than to protect and to provide for his family. From his historic childhood challenges during the famine and violence of World War II, where he would pick potato peels from the dumps and bring them home to help feed his family, and during which, his life was saved by the American soldiers twice, to his noble and romantic adventures to find and win back my mother when he was only a teen, when he jumped from ship to ship from Manila to Davao with barely any money, then searched through streetless jungles, only to be met with numerous physical and mental trials and one very angry future-mother in-law.
In the poor town of Tondo, he and my mother raised eight children, and fostered an occasional few, with very little money and a lot of faith. He was a shoeshine boy. But with hard work and talent, my father landed decent paying jobs while my mother started her own beauty parlor and tailoring shop. My father became the multipurpose employee: a messenger, a decorator and props person, a gardener, a shoeshine and repair person, all in one. And yet, the only thing he would brag about was all the food he was able to bring home from their company Christmas parties, where he chose to eat little of his share only to save the rest for his own family.
As dangerous as our neighborhood was, I feared nothing. Not because I felt that I was invincible, but because my father had taught me how to stay away from trouble and how to use diplomacy when faced with danger. Growing up around violence all his life, he became against fighting. He wasn’t physically imposing, nor did he possess weapons of mass destruction, but the community respected him because he was a very kind man who was always willing to help those who were in need. Be it money, food, an extra hand, advice, support, or a prayer, he made himself available. In a way, he rid himself of his enemies by making friends. And he and my mother continued their acts of altruism when they migrated to the U.S. later in their years. Much of the very little money they made working as a housekeeper and kitchen aid were sent back home to the Philippines to help their immediate and extended families and a few friends as well. And when I once criticized them about not saving money for retirement, I was told the most humbling philosophy: that we are called in this world to help one another and that we stop living when we stop helping others. And as they retired back in the Philippines, people continue to knock on their doors.
He was a very protective, and quite unconventional, father. He had numerous tattoos on his body (there was a picture of my mother, Jesus Christ, a crucifix, angels, and more) which he claimed was to make the violent people in the neighborhood think twice about messing with our family by tricking them into believing that he was an ex-con with a violent past. He had strict rules about the friends that we made and any outdoor activities, if allowed at all. But in a town with the highest crime rate in the country, you could appreciate his intentions. I was probably the most obedient out of all my siblings. But that didn’t exempt me from occasionally making the wrong decisions. Yes, I learned how to ride a bike without his supervision. And yes, I went swimming without his permission and I almost drowned. I even played tag in a busy street on Christmas day and got hit by a car. I anticipated yelling “I told you so” when he arrived at the hospital, but he kissed me and told me he loved me instead. I did get spanked on other occasions for sneaking out or getting into physical fights. But when he did spank, he would apologize and explain to me that he was doing it because he loved me.
He would wake me up, help me get dressed, feed me, and walk me to and from school five days a week up to when I was thirteen. And believe me, I appreciated what he was doing back then until my peers started teasing me about it. And so one day, during our walk and just a few blocks away from school, I gathered the courage to tell him that he could no longer walk me to school because I was too old. I anticipated him either getting angry or heartbroken. But instead, he told me that he understood. He told me to be careful and that he loved me. And then sent me off with an encouraging smile. I felt very safe with him.
He was very loving and tender with me and spoiled me rotten. I was his favorite. I remember how we used to watch boxing together and, to make it more interesting, we would bet on opposing men. Whenever my boxer won, he would buy me ice cream. And when his man was victorious, he would still buy us ice scream to celebrate. I never lost with him. The only battles he hated were my battles with illnesses or pain. I knew in his eyes that he was troubled, but he tried to hide it by encouraging me and keeping me entertained. He made up a lot of fairy tales about healing for me. One of them was his magical nail and hammer. He would gently rub the nail on an area of my cheek where the toothache was while saying that the nail absorbs the pain like magnet. Then he would hammer the nail on a block of wood so that the pain would be stuck and not come back. And just like that, my toothache would disappear. And if that didn’t work, he was always with me at the doctor’s clinic and prayed and prayed with me. He continued that kind of tenderness with my own children when they were still here in the U.S. I watched him love my children as he did me as he told me that it was easy to fall in love with them because they reminded him of me.
Although he only finished elementary school, he was the smartest, most talented, and most creative person I’ve ever known. He taught me everything I know about shopping, haggling, cooking, gardening, building, drawing, painting, crafts, and, yes, even photoshopping. And despite of his harsh upbringing, he knew how to have fun and make people laugh. He was a great jester. His favorite prank was wrapping a little gift several times with many boxes and different wrappers to make it look bigger. The gift would usually be a piece of cheap candy or a rock. He also enjoyed bantering for fun. And on the evening before his passing, he was unmercifully talking trash to my cousin while playing pool. He was, as he always had been, full of life. And he looked just about the same as I’ve always known him.
I found out that we lost him as I was waking up for work through a Facebook message from my nephew in the Philippines. He suffered a massive stroke while watching his favorite game show, Wowowee. I was, at best, confused. Not knowing what to think, or how to feel, or how to proceed, I went in the shower to prepare for work. Why? Because that is what my father would have done. That is how he reacted when he found out about my grandmother’s death. Not that he did not mourn for her that day, but his instinct to go on, survive, and be there for all the people that were relying on him was great. My wife finally made the decision to keep me from leaving the house. And right there and then, I immediately lost it. I am very thankful for wife for all her love and support.
I’m very sad for my mother. He was the only man in her life and the most reliable partner. I trust that her faith, as it always has, will give her strength and comfort. I am very grateful for my siblings in the Philippines for being there for them, especially Ate Rosie for her emotional and mental strength and tireless efforts. I miss him. I appreciate and admired all the things that he had done and taught me. I miss all the time and stories with him and I regret not being able to watch Manny Pacquiao fight Floyd Mayweather with him. He was the greatest “Lolo” for my children. And to remember how he made my children laugh with the silliest of objects and sounds, and comfort and carry them in his arms and very close to his heart, brings tears to this grown man’s eyes.
But as sad it may seem for my children, it gives me comfort to know that their Lolo will always be here. His legacy will not only be remembered by stories and photographs, but mainly through me. Hopeless romantic. Protective. Strict and affectionate. Emotional. High sense of responsibility. Good faith in God. Diplomatic. Prankster. Creative. Artistic. Cheap. As I look in the mirror, it is becoming more and more difficult to describe myself without thinking about my father, my idol. I, in so many ways, have proudly become my Tatay. And I thank God for him.