The paradox in any exilic relationships is this: that many times, one has to be absent in order to have the gift of presence.
I have felt this way in the more than three years that I have been away from my family.
I try to rationalize this paradox by justifying my absence.
The trick is simple enough, like a threat: I put some face and figure and form to that absence. In simple terms: wala tayong kakainin, walang tayong pambayad ng utang, wala tayong pambayad ng tuition, walang pambili ng ambong.
By now, these are veiled claims familiar to may family, more to the children.
Or I intellectualize this absence so no one would understand what exactly is it, this 'metaphysics of absence' that is wreaking damage and havoc in our memories or this 'ontology of presence' that is making all of us aware of each other's significance in the fragile fabric of our family life negotiated on a daily basis of not seeing each other in person.
Indeed, it is true: that from afar I have seen my children most, I have seen the wife most, I have seen more the other family members whose daily presence in my life I did not truly recognize.
Or like that pestering neighbor who made a mockery of our blood compact in the whole of our neighborhood to maintain silence at all cost. That was to be our sacred duty and when finally I packed my bags and went on to this journey, I missed the daily noise that the neighbor made.
From a distance, you do not have much choice with how to come to terms with absence except to review the myriad details of our gift of presence to each other, that gift of presence now in a new form.
Except for the occasional out-of-town and out-of-country sojourns academics like me went through in an effort to equip ourselves with scholarly and research skills to help produce more relevant human knowledge, I had not gone away for so long.
Not for a year, not for three years in a row.
Like this one, this protracted exile that I had come to hate and love and despise and accept.
The feelings are mixed, for obvious reasons.
You have to hate absence.
It is the negation of a world, a kinship, a care, a concern.
Exile, by its own nature, masks itself with presence, with some presencing, but in reality, everything in the glamorized, romanticized, even exoticized exile's life is this nullity, this vacuity, this emptiness.
There is only that numbing nothingness especially in dark and cold nights, in winter nights that you sing yourself to sleep.
There is no way out, and this is one hell of a trap.
It is like that Catch-22 condition: damned if you do, damned if you don't.
Walang kawala, and we begin each day with these emotions of loss and loss of love. Sometimes, we end the day the same way.
The worrisome net-result is that the exile might eventually love the loss, like it so, that exile itself might become his or her way of life, that exile itself might become an ethos that is difficult, if not impossible, to redeem herself or himself from.
I was afraid of these possibilities even at the start.
I am still afraid.
I fight this fear with the courage to name the deep scars and sorrows of exile.
This is why I make it a point to connect with the kids as regularly as I can. I pick up the phone when the phone card has been purchased. I email the wife each day, each day of the week, each day of the month, each day of each year even if sometimes my wife does not email back for many reaons.
Or now, this blogging that has become indispensable to me. When I am away from home, I can blog more because I am more attuned to my exilic wounds and pains.
Or this e-mailing as necessary as breathing and praying and remembering and memory-making.
With the snail mail, I got to connect with my family in the beginning.
Never mind if I had to walk ten blocks more to catch the next bus somewhere in downtown Los Angeles for as long as I could send the letters that I would painstakingly write each night that I was home from this nasty job search with employment agencies owned by Filipinos whose only talent was to hoodwink the unsuspecting countryman.
For three months or so, I wrote to my family at least three times a week.
I would memorize where the post offices are: in Wilshire, this area, down towards the sixth, many blocks from the St Basil Catholic church that I would go to pray and pray hard; in Gardena, this area, past the Mas Fukai Park towards the west, past the city library; in Torrance, on the way to the Del Amo, the shopping mall that is probably the size of the Mall of Asia in Macapagal Avenue in Pasay City; and in Carson, that road leading to the JC Penny or the Sears, past Freeway 405 south leading to Disneyland.
My world revolved around these post offices. They make my day after the trip, by bus or on foot.
My world revolved around churches whose locations I have also learned to memorize, go to even on a bus or the metro. The churches became landmarks to mark off more of absences that needed to be dispelled by presences: the presence of faith, the presence of belief, the presence of mind to ask for grace, my personal presence before the Presence.
My world revolved around libraries whose books I would devour as if I have never seen so many books in my lifetime.
But which I did, of course.
The University of the Philippines Main Library is perhaps one of the best in the country.
There, in between its shelves, there I would pour out my heart, open my mind, rip open my soul to gather all the knowledge I could find from the better books, books I could not afford to buy with an assistant professor's salary and with children to send to school.
In the libraries in Los Angeles, I had my fill, and the presence of books even up to that last moment before closing my eyes in order to take a short sleep prior to going back the following day to a lowly assistant's work somewhere in a lowly office in Wilshire twenty miles away from where I lived was a delight, a salvation, a panacea to all the ills that afflicted my spirit that was also on exile.
These were all presences: the letters, the books, and the memories that went with them in my first year, and then on to my second year, and then on to my third year, and now, on to my fourth year as an exile.
I left when my firstborn had just stepped into college. Now he is going to graduate school, and except for the occasional visits that lasted only for a few weeks for work and economic reasons, I really have not returned, gone back home the way it used to be.
I have become an exile, true and true.
But I resist the temptation to go on exile forever, preferring the shrieking presence of a young daughter who was only a year old when I first left or the sometimes domineering ways of an elder daughter whose show of love has not waned through the years.
I prefer presence.
I prefer the particulars of presence, the presences, those that cast a spell against absence even if I know too damn well that absence and presence are two sides of the same coin when we refer to the meaningful and the substantial in relationships, in the sharing of gifts, in the giving of ourselves to others.
But then again, all I need is this gift of presence.
Nothing more, like that return to the familiar to make your presence felt.
A. S. Agcaoili
June 5, 2005