Let me be clear about the premises of this piece.
On the meaning of fathering, it is that literal rearing of children, especially those gifted with strong will and who know how to fight for their rights at the expense of the rights of parents. Well, this last one most of the time. They can be rational sometimes.
On the meaning of The Great Absence, it is that phenomenon common to the Philippines where parents are away eking out a life elswhere and never in the home country. Parents, out of guilt, justify their absence in the rearing process of their kids by invoking their divine right to be away because it is their divine duty to put food on the table. I call this The Great Bribe, veritably an argumentum ad baculum. There is a veiled threat here, and the key concept is "veiled."
There is, of course, one thing that is left out in these premises: that, indeed, parents do go away because they may have fallen under the spell of An Idea, the idea that a decent life is possible in other places.
This is how I come into the equation.
I left my family at the time when my first two children were testing the waters of my patience, that patience that I certainly do not have. But even from afar, they understand the meaning of my rage--and the kind of reach this rage has on people who cross my path, the two of them included.
I could be A Storm Signal Number 5 when the situation warrants it. At other times, and the kids can corraborate this, I could be the most placid of waters, of a lake, of an ocean, or of a waterfall--cool and enchanting, with my capacity to connect, tete-a-tete, certain and sure of my honest feelings and passion.
It did not help that my fist two children were born almost exactly two years apart: one on June 25, the other a day after in terms of the Julian calendar courtesy of whoever pope was that who blessed the tinkering of time by the powerholders of that Empire that produced the Crusades and whatever abomination we have during the medieval times.
But look at it this way: the first two children could have been born on the same day if one were to look into the witches' brew: same moody moon, same twinkling stars, same dancing and swirling sun, same gusty wind, same wild water, same passionate earth, same perennial fire.
In short, the same elements of fighting it out in this life.
So what have you got?
Two conspirators from Day One, two conspirators in your household, one the leader of the other, the other the leader of the other one.
Sometimes you do not know who is leading who.
You get to know it only when war between them has erupted and you get to witness the violence of words and their meanings.
The other one fractured her hand when she jumped from the railings of our window onto the awaiting sofa and had to be hospitalized; at another time, she had asked for a bike and after a few hours, she had the bike bumped onto a parked jeep. Twice she had to be hospitalized at the orthopedic in Banawe. The other child did the same thing with his bike, perhaps imagining that he was Tarzan on a bike.
So between them were three hospitalizations courtesy of oversupply of adrenaline and the miracle of hyperactivity. One hospitalization cost my whole summer pay in the state university such that after getting my pay in advance, I literally had to run to the hospital to pay the bill so the child could be discharged.
When they were children, you could not imagine a toy, any toy for that matter, getting on into the next day with its part complete.
You buy them a clay and after a few hours, you have the clay cooked.
You buy the girl all the Barbie you can imagine including her Ken and the following day they are headless, armless, pantyless, shoeless--in short, burlesque. The boy was more careful with his toys, but the cars could become skeletons in a few days.
Their mother, of course, would always recite her rage: We never had that and you never know how to take care of your things. I will have them locked in the cabinet.
The mother would get the hanger, any hanger, and threaten them both with The Whacking.
Well, some days the hanger threat is a threat.
Many days, that hanger is simply a hanger. You get the feeling that both of them were simply saying, Come on, come on, momsy!
And then one day, the two of them, in a duet, said: Isusumbong ka namin sa Bantay Bata kapag pinalo mo kami!
I come into the picture: You choose, I tell them, angry now, really mad. You become good or you get The Whacking.
There was a time I could talk to them rationally. If they committed one of those innumerable foolishness, I would ask them how many whackings they deserved.
The girl would always have a ready answer: three, the trinity of woes and patience, love and more love, care and more care.
The boy never talked back. He just got the whacking--and then sulk in his corner.
And so I get the Inquirer, roll it, and whack their buttocks for all I care.
That was when they were younger, when they were still under the care of some Angelic sisters down the road and when goodness was presumed to have been inculcated by them.
When the children got to be bigger--in their high school, when they have learned to fight for their right to speak and speak so loud they did, they told me of their secret: that they would put some karton on their buttocks before the whacking and that they never felt anything. It was the sound of the Inquirer that jolted them.
Whose idea was that, I asked one time.
The conspirators looked at each other.
I knew it. I did not pursue the cross examination. it was plain uselss.
Now that I am always away, that this Great Absence is what defines our relationship at this time, we get to miss each other, we get to long for each other's bile, each other's temper, each other's idiosyncracy.
For the children are as idiosyncratic the way I am.
You see this same temper and character in the last born.
Do not ever stand in the way when she turns the sala into a classroom by pulling all the chairs and putting all her toys on these chairs, and turning them all into her ever-willing and ever-loyal and ever-mute students, with Dora infront, in the first row, because she is the most intelligent of all her educatee.
This is the last born, a teacher at four, her chalk on hand, her blackboard reclining on another chair.
And her spiel of a lecture could run the gamut of a wikipedia, from the alpha to the zeta of a zing.
Hers is a social drama at its best, at its most playful--indeed a real play of language, word, scene, sign, symbol, personhood, dreams, ambition, the future, the present, the past, all the moments of Time purged and merged.
I miss these scenes many times over.
Each time loneliness creeps in, I run to the liquor store, close my eyes, fish the rare five dollar bill from my wallet, and buy that Super Asia to bridge the distance between us.
Or hook on to the internet, do a webcam, if our hours jibe.
Or the email which we do everyday.
It is still not easy going away.
But it is less difficult now compared to the time when the globe was still The Globe: large and monstruous, ovewhelming and unknown.
A father's absence is still an absence. One can only hope it does not any longer fall under The Great Absence with this act of memory-making.
A. S. Agcaoili
May 23, 2006