I thought it hard, this one, as it hit me so hard. On the day of her birth anniversary, the four-year-old-turning-five young and inquisitive daughter asked me if I would be at her birthday party. Her mother had promised her, as was last year, to have her party at her small school.
I said, in frankness and sensitive to the possibility that she might not understand, that I did not think I could make it.
Hawaii is so far away, anak.
Bakit kasi ang layo? she asked, resisting the thought that she would not see me on her birthday party.
All my classmates will be there. Sayang, ano, papa?
I am so sorry, anak.
Pero susubukan mong umuwi, ha, papa?
Suddenly there was a lump on my throat. I held back the tears. I looked out the window and the vast Pearl Harbor greeted me with the luminosity of the afternoon glow, the last lights of the breezy afternoon refreshing me a bit and reminding me that that was not the time for crying rivers.
I remember I have known what tears are made of for the many years that I have stayed away from my family in all the special occasions that a family ought to be together and enjoying each other’s company: the New Years, the Christmases, the wedding anniversaries, the birthday anniversaries.
I remember the first daughter telling me two Christmases ago: “Do not worry, pa. Tomorrow, on December 26, Christmas would already be a day away. It would no longer be Christmas. We can make it together, can’t we?”
I did not answer my younger daughter. There are things that need not said. There are things that are better understood in the gaps and silences of speech, in that muted quality of language.
I left the younger daughter when she was just a year old, not knowing where I was going in much the same way that I did not know exactly if I would ever make it in the United States.
I was just trying my luck when in 2003, two years after that second EDSA, I realized the country was not going anywhere.
As in the 1986 EDSA People's Revolution, I had hoped for bigger things, for better days, for brighter mornings. I was willing to give the new administration one chance to prove that the Filipino people were first in the order of priority to making things different for the country and our people.
The hopes turned to dust. Nothing.
Panic grew in me. The first born was in college and had chosen to study elsewhere, away from the Diliman campus of the State University. It could have been easier for us all, less financially draining. But the Los Banos with its mountains and forests and hills beckoned and had blessed him and so there he went, living life in the best way he knew how and depleting our financial reserves quickly. I had no right to complain and neither was his mother. Children are on loan to you and parents are duty-bound to lead them where life holds so much promise.
While struggling to put food on the table and send the children to school to have their education, the writing bug bit me hard as well, and each night, each night, I would feel guilty not having been able to write a line or two.
It was one of those nasty and terrible bouts of guilt because the curse and blessing of writing had to be recognized and having recognized that curse and blessing and doing nothing in return made me sad, so deeply sad I wished I had not learned how to imagine what a good poetic line looked liked.
In between teaching, I would write on anything and about anything, always discovering where the poetic promise lay and where the food money would best come from. With a salary from the State University that was barely sufficient to give you a decent meal, the gas money would have to be sourced from some place, the tuition money from payment of a commissioned work, the books from some consulting fees you were able to scramble.
Panic grew on panic.
I realized I did not have the time to sit down and gather my thought and think thoughts about my art.
And each day that I went through all these rituals of survival, hell was breaking loose and was always on the road.
You go through this and you blame yourself.
You blame fate.
You blame the country, the government, the politicians, the president, all presidents, all congressmen, and all senators. I did all of these.
Ha, I was going bonkers?
Enough, I told yourself. I could only take in so much Calvary.
And so I left the country to find peace in some place I hardly knew from Eve, passing by Honolulu, and ending in Los Angeles, this last one the city of my terrors and surprises, the city of my sad poems and joyous stories.
Ano, papa, uuwi ka? The end of the line was clear I could hear a pin drop.
I do not think so, I said.
Bakit naman kasi di mo pa ilipat ang Hawaii dito? Ang layu-layo kasi diyan e. At saka, umuulan dito. Umuulan din ba diya? May bagyo pa. May bagyo ba diyan, ha, papa?
I counted the saddest second of my life: 1-1000, 2-1000, 3-1000…
I had to hold my feelings. I told her in a firm and loving voice, “Happy birthday, anak. Enjoy your cake and friends. Enjoy your ice cream.”
“Opo,” she said. “I love you, papa. I miss you. Ba-bay.”
I heard the click of the phone so far away.
Night had gathered at the Pearl Harbor and in the hills in the west.
A Solver Agcaoili
August 20, 2006