A Clumsy Surrogate

These days, I can’t stop reading: the thought of leaving even an hour to spare between finishing one book and beginning another gives me the same amount of anxiety that you would expect from walking on a tightrope in a skirt without underwear on a windy day. The thing that everyone tells you about losing a parent is true: you never get used to it, you simply distract yourself.

I’ve been missing my Dad terribly. I recently got a very big opportunity to teach a workshop on short stories abroad and from someone who hasn’t traveled a lot outside of family trips, I was thrilled initially. I began looking up bookshops in the area, trying to pick which stories I would discuss, what writing exercises I would give the students to work on. And then I started visualizing the logistics of the trip: booking a car, heading to the airport, checking in, and then I remembered the last time I flew alone back in 2011. My flight had been at 11:00 pm and my Dad picked me up from school and went with me to the airport; we ate Yellow Cab while waiting for them to announce that passengers could board the plane. I remember feeling bad for keeping him up past 9:00 pm (older people can’t stay up very late, or they shouldn’t), but when I told him I would be okay if he felt sleepy, he gave me the look that I think is the signature look he gave everyone: the that’s out of the question look, the you don’t even have to ask look, the don’t even me with your politeness look. When I got back five days later, my Dad was at the gate waiting for me in his pajamas and jacket. We ate at Jollibee. The thing about being the youngest in a family like mine where the age gaps are pretty far apart (my eldest sister is 14 years older than me, my youngest brother is 7 years older than me) is that everyone is already themselves when you are in your formative years so you tend to shape yourself around them. I was 17 when my Dad first had to be rushed to the hospital because he was suddenly shaking and feverish and we found out that he needed bypass surgery. Throughout the years, I suppose, I have learned to mold the things I want to do with my life around taking care of my Dad or at least being near enough to look after him if there’s an emergency. I had wanted to become a Doctor at one point, but it seemed to expensive an endeavor given my Dad’s medical history. I’d gotten an opportunity to work for Nikon but it was all the way at the tip of QC which kisses NLEX and I didn’t want to be that far from my Dad. I was delayed a total of around 2 years from graduating in college because my Dad had a stroke nearly yearly since 2009 and I’d skip school for days to stay at the hospital with him. When I got my first salary at my current job, we ate Omakase for lunch because my Dad loved Japanese food. When I applied for my HMO plan, I listed my Mom as a dependent (my Dad was too old to insure) so that whatever medical costs she had could be shouldered and the remaining funds could be used for my Dad.And I must say, as a disclaimer, it isn’t even that I am a particularly patient or selfless person, it’s only that my Dad was such an easy person to love.

In November, I was super excited when we installed our landline in the apartment because it meant I could call my Dad; I applied for a landline to be installed back at home in Alabang. They called to ask if they could come install the line a day after my Dad died. There are so many things about my life that I have built around my Dad being proud of me, helping give my Dad a better life, or at least make him happy in a life that wasn’t going to physically get better and it feels to me like I am reaping the rewards too late, like now I am being given the things I worked hard for but what are they for, now?

My family is a tough bunch. In a way, I feel like my Dad was the only one of us who was truly a person in the full sense of the word. The rest of us are more ambitious, more hard-headed, sharper, all edges, self-centered. And it isn’t that we don’t love each other, but that expressing that love doesn’t come naturally to any of us. We are people who are used to being brought together, we are not the people who do the bringing. It comes out forced, awkward, there is always a sense of what now?

Last week, I got sick and had to be rushed to the ER. I initially had texted my Mom, but when she called, I knew she was busy. Through the phone, I could hear the buzzing of chatter from the conference she was at, hear the clatter of cutlery. I knew she would do the thing I admire most about her: do what needs to be done, but also that it would fill me with an endless feeling of having kept her from what more important things she’d had planned, from real business, from bringing home the bacon. It would be a point counted against me. Thinking about it later, as I sat in the waiting room, nauseated, the problem was not hesitation on my Mom’s side (she called almost immediately), but on mine. If my Dad were there, I would have called him in a heartbeat. Not to say he wouldn’t have had other things planned or that he wouldn’t have been irate, but that I would have known he would be able to take it.

I have only encountered that unquestionable quality once before: in books, in fiction. The story is always there, can be counted on, can take your hate if you hate it or your love if you love it. There are no answers, but there are ideas, there are scenarios. There are things you can agree with or disagree with. There are problems that somehow become solutions and even more problematic solutions. It is a clumsy surrogate, but reading is the only place where I feel like I can be a child again. It has become a stand-in. I read to write, read to get up in the morning, read to function, read to still be a person in a world that will kill people you fight so hard to keep alive.

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