People say I look almost nothing like my mother, but everything like my father. When I came out of the womb, the first thing family friends noticed was how my eyes resembled a puppy’s. Papa was known to have eyes similar to that of a dog. My nose, jaw, and even my stubby toes were like his. They would always liken the daughter to the father, but I preferred to think I was nothing like him. For one, he was left-handed.
Since birth, I have only seen my father write using his left hand. Whether he was ambidextrous all his life, he had to give up writing the way he was used to during an accident at the Philippine Daily Inquirer office before I was born. A diligent worker at the factory, he had no idea he was going to lose a small part of him one day in that very place. All because of his friend’s carelessness, Papa lost most of his right index finger.
As a child, I was fascinated by the absence of the upper portion of his finger. I would ask him a lot of questions: How did the accident happen? What was the machine that chopped it off like? Can he fold it? Will a nail still grow? I can only remember the laugh that would escape his lips preceding the answers I have long forgotten. Other people have not been as fascinated as I was. There were some occasions when people would flinch at the sight of what remained of his right index finger, refusing to let their eyes land on it a second longer. When I demonstrated to a friend how my father’s right hand looked, he backed up in shock.
After his work at the Inquirer, Papa became a jeepney operator. He fared better than everyone thought he would at his new job. It gave me a sense of pride that my father was a boss at his work even if the combination of his and my mother’s salaries was meager. He was good at handling jeepneys, but not so much at driving them. He would never admit it, but I know driving made him anxious.
I rejected the thought of being like my father. He had the worst fashion sense. No matter the weather, he would wear shirts with sleeves torn haphazardly and khaki shorts that looked too small for his belly yet too big for his legs. His toes always rested on the thick insoles of his blue Islander slippers. I have never seen him use an umbrella or wear anything reaching past his knees. Whenever it rained, he would take a sando bag (often red) and slip it over his head before going out. The stares and jeers never bothered him.
I hated how easily people earned his trust. In return, they gave him violence disguised as companionship, scams disguised as harmless loans, threats disguised as innocent smiles, and debt disguised as promises for a better future. At the end of the day, a few bottles of Tanduay or Ginebra San Miguel were enough compensation in his book.
A few days after my 14th birthday, Papa died. I cried when my mother woke me in the middle of the night to tell me that he was already dead, but I went to school and laughed with my friends later in the day. After his funeral, I did not shed a single tear for him for the rest of the year. Some of my closest friends only found out about his death through our homeroom teacher. Some expressed their awe at how good I was at managing grief. I believed what they said about my handling of Papa’s death, but when a classmate made a dirty joke during the Angelus in class on an otherwise forgetful day two years later, I was reduced to tears. It was not the offense I took from the joke that broke me.
I have cried in front of people over tragic movies and my friends’ breakups, but I stayed silent and dry-eyed for my father. Like how he adjusted to losing a small part of his body, I tried to adjust to losing a much bigger part of my life. I mastered the nonchalant act of reciting various illnesses in response to people’s inquiries about his death: “cardiac arrest,” “heart attack,” and a vague answer to mask the complexity of the cause, namely, “heart disease.” I insisted to people who knew him as a drunkard that it was not his vices that killed him, but in the back of my mind lingered the thought of blaming the alcohol and the daily cigarette smoking that led to his demise. It was never grief that I became a master of; it was lying.
It took years, but during college I finally learned how to look out for myself. I feigned independence, but in reality, I was heavily depending on the memory of my father. I relied on the very traits I hated him for having when I was growing up. His lack of care for the comments on his looks translated into my assertion for the choices I made for myself. His openness to people was something I mimicked through my inclination for taking care of others. While his anxiety over his skills was among the weaker parts of him, it was a weakness I would grow fond of, if only at a time too late.
Another thing I have only lately realized was that Papa was not strong in coping with his finger accident. He was merely adjusting to a circumstance out of his control, to a part of him that would never return, and this is a lesson I am still in the process of learning. In my mastery of lying and rejection, I have refused him the mourning he deserved, and the day I let myself cry for him in front of the same people that have looked up to me in the past for doing otherwise will be the day I can proudly proclaim that, yes, anak nga talaga ako ng tatay ko.