(For all the children of exiles, the children of the Philippine diaspora, and the children of overseas Filipino workers. For Nasudi Francine who asks a lot of questions.)
Each time I call home since days before Christmas day, the youngest daughter, who sometimes picks up my call, have had these moments I call ‘the wages of exile.’
I am thus writing this piece to assuage her hurt feelings. Let it be said, and this is to remind her, that the wounded feelings of a father who goes away are no different from the wounded feelings of children left behind.
When the daughter, at six, shall have grown up a bit and will be able muster her emotions and sort our the emotional deficits that have attended to our exilic lives, I hope that she will get the chance to read this piece, read between the lines, and read the harrowing loneliness that is hidden in the first laughter I try to blurt, painfully, each time I dial the numbers home, the thirteen numbers needed to hear the ringing of our home phone more than seven thousand miles away.
Like the clown, I laugh to hide away the pain. I guffaw so the children would not sense that on the other side of the vast sea separating us is their father trying to eke out a life for them all and trying to chase a dream whose contours come in vagueness at times, as vague as the dark clouds that have visited Oahu for since many weeks ago, with our share of flash floods and raging rain and roaring thunder.
Hello, I say. Aloha, darling daughter.
Hello, papa. Malungkot ako ngayon. Malungkot talaga. (I am sad now. I am rally sad.)
I laugh. It is now the second time she tells me this. The first time was a horrible experience. I was caught off guard and I did not know what to say, initially at least.
Why so? I ask her.
I try to shoo away her feelings.
Now, now the children, all three of them, have always been emotionally intelligent.
Her brother is the same, that one boy who at seven months came into this world hurriedly and catching us unprepared of so many things including the training that we needed to give him the special formula for three-pounders like him, his weight at birth at 3.14 pounds one reason why we nicknamed him Mr. Pi.
And because her brother was born pre-term, he did not have all those special gadgets that we have to procure, baby bottles included before that day, two months in advance, that he was supposed to be born.
The boy came into the world during the turbulent times of pre-Marcos rallies and and street demonstrations, a number of which I participated in as a concerned citizen and aware of the politics of callousness that had been holding us hostage and shanghaiing our rights as hardworking people, not ‘smart’ like the ways of the ‘smarter’ others perhaps, if we go by the vision of the writer Manlapat, but diligent, tax-paying, and law-abiding ‘ordinary’ members of a country that was all too wrong--a country that was not the correct one for us but which was the only we have got nevertheless.
For at that time, I had seen the big dramas: Pope John Paul II had come to bless us and beatified our Lorenzo Ruiz; the same pope had come again the second time around to visit and blessed of our faithful and country and offered us our first saint, the martyr whom he beatified; President Ferdinand Marcos had lifted Martial Law and the summary execution continued; and then the first-ever People Power revolution in the whole of human history courtesy of the peoples of the Philippines who have grown so tired of the social injustices and all forms of tyranny they had to endure in a long, long time.
The first-born was just a few months old when you opened your mouth and the following you are imprisoned or salvaged. Knowing the fragility of the political situation, I had my share of parental worries, with my instructor’s salary unable to fend for our needs, and with the cost of living in Manila the blighted city spiraling everyday. The infant formula almost doubled without me knowing and the Catholic university where I was teaching was depriving us of our legal share of the increase in tuition.
Those were hard times, harder than any other time I could remember, not even those times that I spend years and years in a walled, convent life trying to entertain a delusion of grandeur that I was ‘called’—yes, the mysterious word was ‘called’—to the vowed life.
That was not true, of course, and I soon realized that my world, my authentic world, was to be one spent in the classroom for years and years, which, even in exile, is the only work that I know, and the only one that I know how to do it with grace and patience.
Her sister, their age difference almost fifteen years, is the same. She is emotionally intelligent, and always demonstrative and expressive of her feelings, telling you in brutal frankness what she feels about things and how she feels about issues, complete with gesture and the pitch and tone of the voice.
So there, when children are emotionally intelligent, you can never tinker and play with their hearts. You ought to be always on guard, on the move, on defensive side.
Bakit ka malungkot? I ask her, the youngest that is my phone pal almost everyday. Why are you said? (I take a mental note: why did I have to ask her that. I call myself a moron for the first time in a long while. I know, I know: I am stoking a fire here.)
Kasi po wala ka dito! Papaano ko mararamdaman ang pasko? Sabi sa school ko, di mo raw mararamdaman ang pasko kapag wala ang tatay mo. (Because you are not here. How will I feel the spirit of Christmas? In my school, they say that when your father is not around, you cannot feel the spirit of Christmas.)
Oh, is that so, I tell her. But this is only temporary, darling daughter. You know…
Pero wala ka nga dito, papa. (But you are not really here).
Oo nga, pero next year, dito na tayo lahat. Magpapasko pa tayo sa Disneyland sa Hongkong! O yes, but next year, we will all be here. We will spend Christmas in Disneyland in Hongkong!)
Gusto kong mga laruan ko pink lahat-lahat! (I want my toys to be all pink!)
Ok, I will send them to you. All of them pink.
Kelan mo ipinadala ang box? (When did you ship the ‘balikbayan’ box?)
Soon I will send it.
Kelan darating? Pero sana, nandito ka sa bagong taon? Nandito ka ba sa bagong taon, papa? (When is it arriving here? But, will you be here on new year’s day? Will you be here, papa?)
No, I don’t think so, I say. I turn the lights of my office off. I am using my cellphone so I can easily move to the entrance to turn off the switch.
Sige, anak, I say. (Ok, child, I tell.)
Sige, papa, I love you, I miss you, Merry Christmas! (Ok, papa, I love you, I miss you, Merry Christmas.
I love you, baby, I say.
I permit my tears to flow profusely in the deep, deep dark.
A Solver Agcaoili