this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on May 3, 2001.
For 13 long years I waited for the moment. I was at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport with my mother and my sister, waiting for my father to arrive from the Middle East. I felt like I was 7 years old again, and my father was leaving for Saudi Arabia to work for the first time. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but being young, I thought it was all about chocolates, toys, imported shoes and lots of US dollars. But it also meant not having a father during those important years of my life.
While most kids in school bragged about their fathers who were doctors, lawyers or engineers, I would stammer and reply whenever I was asked, “My father is…a…an overseas contract worker.” A sense of inferiority went with that confession, and it was not because my father was an OCW but the fact that he was never around during the years that I was growing up.
When he was abroad, my father called every week. He would come home every three years and stay for three months, and go back to Saudi Arabia.
In later years, he went home yearly, timing his visits with special family occasions. For instance, he was home when my sister graduated from elementary school and I from high school, and again when I graduated from college and my sister from high school. He also came home when my sister celebrated her debut. Of course, every visit depended on whether he got a big bonus from his foreign employers.
If I hug Papa on his birthday and tell him “I love you,” he’d probably stiffen and feel embarrassed. I can’t blame him. He has never told us how much he loves us, although I have always wanted to hear him say that. I guess he is simply the kind who can’t express his feelings openly. He simply shows his love by giving my sister money or buying me new pairs of shoes and the best leather jackets. You can’t believe how many leather jackets I have accumulated and how many shoes I have collected since he started working abroad. My shoe collection can’t match Imelda Marcos’, but I sure have lots of them.
One time he came home in February. I wanted my parents’ Valentine’s Day together to be special, but I didn’t have money since I was just a college student then. All I could afford were a red cartolina paper and a few sign pens.
While they were sleeping on the eve of Valentine’s, I was in my room cutting out small hearts. I wrote all the things I wanted to tell them like, “I love you Mama and Papa” and “I am blessed to have you as my parents.” I pasted the small hearts with these messages all over the house-on the ceiling, on the walls, everywhere they might look.
When they saw what I did the following day, all they could do was smile. I knew they were touched, but we never talked about it.
Not having a father was tough. There were things I could ask my mother or aunt about, but there were some things only a father would have understood. Sometimes when I answered his long-distance calls, I wanted very badly to tell him about my problems in school and our barkada. I wanted to ask his advice but then I’d think it’s unfair to add to his worries. So I would tell him everything was okay.
I had friends who didn’t have fathers, too, either because they were working abroad or separated from their wives. On Friday nights, we’d go to the movies and have fun. They smoked and drank, and I would join them sometimes. But I was always bothered by the thought that my father didn’t deserve such acts of rebellion. He wasn’t having a grand time abroad; he was working thousands of miles away from home to give me a good future.
With the money he earned, we were able to build a house that was probably one of the best in the neighborhood. We bought a car, we had the latest wristwatches and we walked around in imported rubber shoes. We had a good education. We got so many things and continued to buy some more.
But as I grew older, I knew my father was growing older too. I knew he wanted to come home and stay with us. But he set the idea aside, convinced that as the head of the family it was his responsibility to provide us everything possible even if it meant being away from us.
Then I made a pact with God: If He would let my father come home permanently to enjoy his remaining years with us, I would be willing to make any sacrifice.
After one whole year of praying, I got a call from Papa. He never said anything definite, but I knew God had answered my prayer. I told Mama that same night, “Papa is coming home.” She couldn’t believe it.
But four days later Papa called to tell her he was retiring from his job.
Mama cried that night. She said we still had a lot of obligations to settle. Papa would get some retirement benefits, but that wouldn’t last long.
But I knew God had heard my prayer. After more than 13 years, Papa was coming home for keeps.
As soon as Papa arrived, the arguments between my parents about the state of their finances began. And they seemed to be arguing more as the days passed.
I would retire to my room, thinking it was my fault. I suspected that the many years that they were apart had somehow made it difficult for them to adjust to living together. But even if they argued almost every day, everything would be okay before they went to sleep. Papa wanted to win back Mama’s favor whatever the cost even if it meant swallowing his pride.
Months after my father’s return, they decided to buy a taxi for my father to drive. I knew that the idea hurt him. He was a supervisor in a shipping line when he retired. He was used to working in front of the computer the whole day inside an air-conditioned room and giving instructions to others. He drove his own car, and he had never been a taxi driver.
When he started driving his taxi, he’d come home late every night looking tired and defeated. I never heard him complain.
One time as he was putting down the day’s earnings on our dining table, I started to see him in a different light. Who is this man in front of me? I asked myself. Who is this person who frowns the same way I do and is as stubborn as I am? Where has he been all these years while I was growing up?
After all those years of imagining him holding hands with my mother as they walked in the mall, or having intellectual discussions with me, here he is looking old with his thin hair. After all those years when I didn’t want to wash my leather jackets lest the imprints of his hands would vanish, here he is transformed into a new man whose pride has been taken away from him. He stoops a little now, but I still see strength in his eyes. This challenge will not defeat him, I know.
I waited all those years so that I could tell him that I don’t need the shoes or the jackets. The years of separation made me think that maybe we were different. But every day I discover that we are very much alike in many ways and it makes me proud to be his son. He gave me a good education and allowed me to experience the good things in life. He was willing to sacrifice so that our family could have a wonderful life. We may not have the luxuries we used to enjoy, but the good things we have now are worth enjoying even more. It was worth the long wait.
On his coming birthday, I don’t know if a hug would be enough to show my love and gratitude. I don’t know if messages on paper hearts pasted all over the house would make his day. Maybe I should shine his shoes or buy him a new shirt or a new pair of slippers. I can prepare his favorite dishes together with my mother, sister and aunt. Or I can write him a letter. I just don’t want to pass up this opportunity to make him know how great I feel about his being home with us.