Remembering My Dad: 10 Years Later
After all these years, I've never lost my sentimentality. My memory has faded faster than anyone I know would have hoped. I've been blindly forgetful for some time now, and at 25 with a life that sometimes poses as elaborate, I still haven't completely evaded that particular scruff of irresponsibility. My facial recognition skills seem to be worse than a 2008 smartphone's, and I catch myself zoning out when I hear other people talk. The poor quality of listening I criticize in others is rooted in a wandering that I, myself, am capable of. In short, the last decade has made me a worse human being in terms of the way I communicate with others and interpret the world. Save for the fact that I can still remember dates and times from long ago to a T. I haven't forgotten the details for any calendar-marked event that's posed any amount of significance to my life. Which is why I can't let the clock strike midnight - or in 2017 terms, let the date change digitally into tomorrow - without acknowledging the very important anniversary that is today.
It's January 11th, and this day of this year marks a full decade since my father passed.
It wouldn't surprise me if you've just met me in the last year or two and you've never heard me talk about my dad. It isn't because he was an absent figure in my life and I'm plagued with daddy issues that I can't bear to talk about. Quite the opposite. My father, Marcelino "Gino" Valenton dela Torre, was my best friend and the first true love of my life. He was my primary parent growing up. A smoker since his early teens, his habit had finally caught up with him when he died from pneumonia, a complication from lung cancer, ten years ago. He was headed for 56 and I was headed for my sweet 16. You can imagine how sweet that birthday really was for me that year, and every year that followed, especially when my father's birthday followed mine by one week. My birthday is April 19, and his is April 26. I'm an Aries on the Taurus cusp, and my father was the epitome of a raging Taurian bull. He had a soft spot for me, though as I would discover the more I knew him, very few others. My memories of my father sound fabricated to nearly everyone else who knew him. He was far from a saint. His temper was out of control, he was violent, he brought the roots of mental illness into our family even though they went undiagnosed in him, and he struggled with gambling addiction. His marriage to my mother was tumultuous and my memories of him and her in the same room still make me cringe. When I sometimes dream about the three of us in one room, I wake up panting, braced for the violent altercation that I'd have to bear witness to. He first got caught with a mistress a few years before he died, a woman from my parents' church group. Quickly following that affair, my parents separated and my father moved to Edmonton, beginning the mandatory one-year of separation required to file for divorce in Alberta, where we lived. He tried to start his life over there, and in that time he reconnected with another woman from Talavera, the small city where he grew up in the Philippines. It was an ample opportunity for him to fall for her, and he did, and the woman took care of my father until his death. Then, she stole his money. I don't believe my father was conscious of what was happening to him when he was dying; from what I understand, the cancer put him in unbearable pain and he was unconscious by the end. I wasn't with my father when he died. I received a phone call from my Tita Angie, his youngest sister, on the bus home from school that day. When I came home, the rest of my family already knew. I was the last to know, the worst impacted, and as the youngest and his closest child, beyond devastated. That was ten years ago, and I haven't been the same since.
I had the chance to visit Talavera this summer when I took three weeks touring my parents' homeland, attempting to trace my roots and understand both of them better. I visited Bicol, the province my mother grew up in, as well. Both my parents were devout catholics when I was growing up. I moved away from the church shortly after I found out about my father's affair. At that time, I didn't understand the complications of affairs, the complications of adult relationships, or the reasons why good people "sin". But I did find it deeply hypocritical that my religious father was committing adultery via the church, and this talk of "forgiveness" wasn't something I was bearing witness to. Instead I was watching a game of angry manipulations and mind games play out, within our family alone, and then things were made worse by the cruel ostracizing of my entire family from the network they had through the church. I didn't know why this shame had to blanket our family in our time of need. I tried to speak out about it, talk to friends about it, but at thirteen my friends at school didn't know how to coach me through any of it, and my openness about our family business upset my siblings and my mom. I learned how to keep quiet after that. Eleven years later, when I boarded a plane from the desert to the tropics to ultimately land at NAIA Airport in Manila, and in all the long car rides on the NLEX and SLEX that followed as we swam through endless rivers of brakelights, I stayed quiet, too. I watched. I listened. I tried to understand.
It's impossible to deny the influence of the catholic church on life and culture in the Philippines. I had been an ex-catholic for so long by the time I got there that it all seemed absurd to me, an entire country of perfectly capable individuals blind in their faith. That visit did help me understand my parents more. I thought it would make me love them, more too. Forgive them, even. For their shortcomings as parents, for the times they didn't stick up for themselves, didn't stick up for us. I wondered if seeing where my parents came from and how they struggled would make me forgive my mother for being my consequently absent parent, immersed into the thick of her career and far less interested in me, the job that you can't quit, even when you've already done it three times before. Visiting Nueva Ecija, the province my father is from, rekindled my love for him and made me miss him the way I did in the first few years after he died: viscerally and uncontrollably. But learning about the past made me angry at him, too. Angry at all of the societal and social constructs - [religious] conservatism and its encompassed misogyny, being the primary - which validated my father's behaviour and way of thinking, enforced my parents' miserable marriage, and allowed their misery to drag on in the name of saving face and being a good catholic. It made me angry for all the subsequent pain my siblings and I had to go through. It made me angry that in grieving my father, I was alone, but my siblings and battered mother finally found relief. I was furious and ashamed of my father being capable of things so awful that people were happy to hear he was gone. And that somehow, I had showed up to save him without my knowing. I'd already known that my father saw me as a type of last hope for him to turn his life around. For that, I became angry all over again that he treated me better than my other siblings, that he showed that he loved me more. I resented him for carrying guilt over that relationship for so many years. There were never any safe spaces in our house, verbal or physical. Having open conversations with either of my parents had always been a lost cause. The only opportunity I had to express myself was out loud, outside the home, and those listening were never the ones I cared about being there to hear me. No matter what I was going to say, my parents weren't going to be there to hear it. My mom wasn't going to listen, nor did she ever care to make the time. As for my father, he never would have gotten the chance to listen at all, dead or alive.
The last ten years have taught me that people are just as complicated in death as they are in life. Grieving my father without religion as my base has allowed me to explore that complication in a healthy way, without the hypocrisy. I'm very thankful now for the ways I began questioning the role of the church in my early teens and the early breakthrough that allowed me to open my mind, and ultimately grow up as a truly awake, liberal, atheist woman. It did, however, take a lot of time and the seeking of resources outside my family. The years growing up without my dad were difficult. Not difficult in the way I would imagine not having a dad at all would be. My father's vices took him away from me and my other siblings more than they should have, but compared to my mother's consistent absence in my life, I was happy to receive his loving affection when he was around. I never doubted that I was loved when my dad was alive. I never doubted my worth, my value to the world. I knew instinctively the moment he died that a part of me died with him, only I didn't know that that was part was my soul. Nor that rebuilding confidence and a solid sense of self in a world where women are taught to shrink and accommodate the needs of everyone else before them would be difficult, but in a family construct that hated him, it would be impossible. For better or for worse, I turned out just like my father. I repeated a lot of his mistakes. I, too, became volatile in relationships and found myself isolating when I craved connection. I made a lot of people feel small when I felt small, and I acted out for show. My sweet 16 was the big house party I threw where I got drunk on my mother's liquor while all my sober friends took care of me, cleaned up, and tucked me into bed. At 21 I became a mistress, and was shamed, bullied, and deeply traumatized from the experience, compounded by the realization that I had done the same horrible thing that ruined my family. (Granted, that happened simultaneously with a sexual assault - I literally got caught the morning after the night I got assaulted by someone else - so I know the trauma weighed on me heavier and for longer than it otherwise would have.) Around this same time, I stumbled upon my first experience with a medium. The experience was both jarring and joyous, wholly overwhelming. I'd spoken to my father often after his death, but with a medium, we could have conversations. It was comforting to know he hadn't changed. That comfort turned to irritation, however, in the weeks following that I used to process the experience. Again, I became angry, over all of the same things that pissed me off about his mortal self. He transcended this earth to be a spirit forever and yet he couldn't acknowledge my pain, my brothers', sister's, or my mother's pain. He had the nerve to tell me to make amends when he couldn't, and I was still trying to clean up the mess he left behind. I was disappointed. But it didn't stop me from talking. At least now, even when I was angry, I knew that he would be listening and that he could hear me. It was onward from here when I learned that it did me no favours to believe that people die to become absolved of their crimes. The flaws and shortcomings of people are not erased; even in death, no one is infallible. Whether or not you believe in mediums, spirit, or any associations of the afterlife, I can tell you that I've talked to my dad more in the last ten years than I did in the fifteen before, when he was alive. I can also tell you that we've worked out a lot of our shit. Or at least, I have. The parts I can.
I look in the mirror and I see my father. Moreover, whenever I open my mouth I hear my father in a female voice. I inherited his darkness - his impatience, his temper, his angst, and his insecurity - it's a question of how much of that I want to filter out to be my own. An interesting thing happens when you lose your parent at an age when you're trying to find your own identity. Biologically, I'm half my mother and half my father. I've inherited the light and darkness of both of them. But in death, it's the loss which replaces the half that was my father. It was the pain that became my identity, the trauma, the horror, and the unforgiving emptiness that not only snatched up my dad-half, but ate away at the rest of me too. I spent the last ten years walking around as a shell, not of myself, but of my father's unfinished business. I've carried his regrets and misunderstanding; his pain, which all of his vices and deviations were rooted from. I never became a smoker or a gambler, but particularly in the last year, I've found myself in the same lonely private spaces my living father would linger in: nights alone in hotel rooms, eating in empty restaurants, and hours upon hours out on the road. A lesser-known, quieter, and cursedly contemplative side of my father lives out through me completely. It is from my father, after all, that I get my timeless sentimentality. I remember dates and anniversaries because of him, he gave me my creativity, and I stubbornly traverse the beaten path in search of the beauty in life because of him - my father, under all the layers he used to try to numb the pain, the misunderstood, troubled, and perpetually lost, romantic soul who never got to be what he really wanted.
I think of what both my parents gave up for my siblings and me. They left the Philippines in their early 20s, both of them engineers. My mother was better at her job, with her shit together early. My father was simply determined to get what he wanted, and he was into my mom - the disciplined, no-bullshit pretty one who was more than intellectually out of his league. When he persuaded my mother to come to Canada with him, he was lucky enough to find work in his field, but my mother wasn't. She took care of my older siblings while they were young and worked at night. I don't like the stories I hear from this time. Let's just say I understand why my dad's last dying breath was perhaps the first deep breath for the four surviving individuals who share my DNA. I arrived more than a decade later. My parents were Canadians by this point, wealthy, who had built a nice house in a suburban white neighbourhood. They effectively hated each other and by then, they'd settled into their preoccupations of choice for escaping the unhappiness of their marriage: my mother the workaholic, and my father, the everything else. My siblings were navigating early adolescence without much guidance. No one wanted to raise a baby, not in that climate, but they did. Not willingly, not wholeheartedly, but collectively. For better or for worse, I know the problems I have today are luxuries in and of themselves. I know it had it ten times better than my own siblings, even. I have both of my parents' sacrifices to thank for that. I came out with my own scars, isolated by way of an experience no one around me could fully understand. But I am lucky. I was and I still am; even on my worst days, I know someone's looking out for me. It seems I've always lived and moved by the grace of last chance.
The only possession of his that I have today is a hollowed-out gold ring. I don't know if it was his wedding band; I'll never know. I do know that when he used to wear it, it was much heavier with a large solitaire diamond laid into it. Now, that diamond is gone, and so is the bulk of the ring itself. Empty like his marriage was, void of substance or weight. How the ring became this way is unknown to me; I've only had it for a few months. I strung it onto a repurposed brass chain that I hang off of a screw on a ladder. On that same screw, there's a cheap wooden keychain carved into a shape of a leaf. It's a souvenir my father brought back for me from the Philippines, on the last trip he took there, two weeks in the summer of 2006 he spent with his girlfriend. When they got back to Edmonton, he found out he had lung cancer. "Love demands trust!" it roars, sprawled across one side in messy human handwriting. The back used to say Philippines but the piece of tape on top of it came off long ago, leaving a few stray Sharpie marks that used to be L's and I's. Always hypocritical, just like my father. But I suppose, like him, it means well. After losing him, I never quite learned how to trust again, and I struggled to love and find love which would suffice to fulfill. I certainly didn't learn the acts of trusting and loving by emulating my father's behaviour towards others, and yet, he's the one person in my life who's ever given me both of those things unconditionally. He's the only person I could trust unconditionally, and without any hesitation, I loved. At this particular crossroads in my life, it isn't just the significance of this anniversary that makes me want to talk to him, all the time. I'm starting over, too. I spent 2016 wandering. I left home knowing there was nothing left for me there; it felt overdue, but leaving has still proved harder than I thought. Shortly after I reached Vancouver Island and started to find my bearings, I fell in love. It was an ample opportunity to fall for him in the confusion and loneliness of it all. So I did, and then he stole my money. I didn't expect to be marking ten sullen years without my dad like this. Single and sexless in the middle of the forest, sitting on a cushion on the floor of a rented cabin. I'm wearing my ex's Montreal Alouettes hoodie (cabins are freezing at night), and I'm prodding at my keyboard in the dark, save for the light of an electric fireplace on the wall and the white of these fake Write 2 pages. I finished half a bag of Sour Patch Kids while I wrote the first three paragraphs; it seems I'm also on the verge of inheriting my father's diabetes. At 25, my life moves in slow days that are lonelier than ever. Like my childhood, it looks fantastic from the outside. I've gone super Hemingway, "livin' the dream" as my brother says, camped out here for the winter trying to write my life story. Yet the life I've lived feels too short and too long, and none of it makes sense after recent events, or after any of it, really. I question how much of my story should be about my dad, weighed against how much of my story IS my dad's story, but lived out half a century later, across the world, through his youngest daughter's eyes. This is the last place I would have expected to be ten years ago, but the what-if game works both ways. The way I thought my life would've been if my dad never got sick, if he beat cancer, or if we both just had a little more time is a series of fantasies I can't conjure anymore. I know they're too impossible. I know that all I have is now, my now happens to be out here, and I happen to be totally clueless. I know that time is limited, and nothing truly belongs to us while we're here. So the best that any of us can really do is hang onto things while we still have them. It's far easier said than done.
I'm running my thumb along the thin band that remains of my father's gold ring. I'm thinking about the shell of what's left of it, how it's lighter now. How he's lighter now. How I'm not. I know I want to move on and leave all of these burdens behind; I recall this being my objective when I boarded my first plane of 2016, and also my last. I want to be more than just the girl who lost her dad. I want to do more than simply explore and emulate the ways in which this loss, and all of its intersecting affects, have broken me. I want to achieve on a significant scale, and after all this time, I still want to make my dad proud. I know he wants me to heal more than achieve; it's a luxury he didn't have for himself. So even when the story makes no sense, and it doesn't even seem like it's worth telling, I suppose I'm doing one thing right for being here. For pushing through, as isolating, lonely, and misunderstood as this journey of mine is. It doesn't make it that different from his. I understand now that healing me also heals the parts of him that I carry around with me. So here's hoping that ten years from now, I've filled all of my empty spaces. Even though hope, as the last decade has taught me, guarantees nothing. Whether I approach life with emotion, with logic, with predictability, or I avoid it and choose danger instead, the outcome, ultimately, is still out of my control. I have my days. Some are more promising than others. I'm armed with everything it takes to survive loving broken people and losing them all in the same. Some days, that is not enough. The healthiest grief never brings back the person you lost, even if you know that person is still alive in your own reflection. There are days when it doesn't feel possible to live life without my father, even though for ten years I already have, but some comfort exists in knowing that for better or for worse, I turned out just like him.
I hope you're proud of the woman I've become
I'm half of your mistakes
and all your best intentions