There are two kinds of days for those who have lost important people in their lives: the easier days and the hard days. Easier, because death always stays with you no matter how long it’s been. It gets easier but not easy.
On hard days, I find myself lost, lonely and aching behind smiles, bearing an urgency to trace back roads to places my stepfather held close in his life – for comfort, above all.
And one Sunday, I just did.
Days beforehand, I had this unsettling feeling. We have been living in a financial rut for many months since he passed. It has been taking a toll on me, my daughter, and my family.
A relative offered to take me to Canada on pay-when-able terms to practice nursing. The practical and obvious choice was to leave and make use of my studies, which my stepdad purposely told me to take to help in the family finances. I wasn’t able to fulfill that promise.
Instead, I took off with my engagement ring, dabbled in the one profession I have been dreaming of since childhood (and which he would never have approved of if he knew how small the across-the-board compensation is), and had a kid.
Every fiber of my being went against all reason. I had endured so many years fighting for writing, fighting for love, fighting for a meaningful life in the country for my daughter despite the long, difficult and endless road to there. Sometimes I tend to be stubborn when I know I’m right, and this time, it felt that I was wrong about being right.
“Catch me a butterfly and show me the way,” I prayed to the old man. Because I don’t want to leave. Not without Lia.
On that given Sunday, I made my way to Manila to give in to the month-long compulsion of eating ice cream in Gary’s in Taft, where we, as kids, shared ice cream with my stepdad one languid afternoon. Unable to keep up with the times, Gary’s, it turns out, has been closed for nearly a year.
I move on to trace back steps to places my stepfather held dearly to his Chinese heart when he was still here. Maxim’s in Ermita has closed down, too, and cannot attend to my craving of chicken feet and white chicken that he and I both love. My feet took me to Emerald’s Garden next, where I should have had a last meal with him before he died, if only work and traffic didn’t interfere. It turns out, I was two hours too early for opening time.
Here I was, an idiot searching the streets for some sense of direction in the grand scheme of life, a spoon of nostalgia as my sole purpose, and time barred me from that privilege. They were all closed – permanently or temporal – and all that’s left of them are cakes of dust and a sad shade of white.
White. The color of his ashes burrowed deep into a cold forgotten urn in a sad corner of someone else’s living room. The way my skin turned pale when I received news of his passing eight months ago. The shade of forgotten walls and chairs that reminds one of things lost. It’s a color of sadness more than anything else, and I wear it with much reverie on all burials I attend since I became adult enough to know not all melancholy is spelled with black.
As I wandered aimlessly at the heart of chaotic Ermita, where there were no greenery in sight for miles, a large brown-streaked yellow Mariposa darted from nowhere right to my eye. “They have all moved on. Have you?”
Catch me a butterfly and show me the way, I asked. Here, in my favorite city in the world, he caught me a butterfly and showed me I was exactly where I should be: home.
Along the way, I came by flocks of churchgoers getting ready for the morning mass at Nuestra Senora de Guia. Sacristans garbed in their white robes, coal and incense fleeting from their swinging thuribles. Senile altar servers, both men and women, beamed at Lia as I carried her to the pew to pray. Pax et Bonum, the wall’s inscription said. Peace and goodness.
I got out of church before Mass started. At the corner of M.H. del Pilar, from the street across Manila Bay, I halted the aimless journey and hailed a cab; I was no longer lost.
“Don Inggo’s. Harbour Square,” I told the driver. I had no idea if the restaurant was still in operation. The last time I was there I was around 10, and me and my stepdad ordered our favorite breakfast on the menu: daingsilog.
A boy and his family greeted me by the open gates. “Open?,” I inquired, frightened of hearing another No. His nod was perhaps one of the most liberating moments that day. I had the most delicious daingsilog in the world in one of my stepdad’s favorite restaurants – one that packs so many indipensable and cheery childhood memories – along one of his favorite bays.
Goodbyes were most repugnant during my father’s wake. I sat on a separate pew devoid of other mourners, three feet away from my mother and newfound siblings that totaled to a whopping 22. The entire ceremony, I was convinced my tears wouldn’t budge. But as we sang Our Father, I welled up just like most of them. Not of sorrow for my late biological father, but of remorse for my stepdad.
“This is beautiful, all this choral elegy, this gesture of painting coffins with holy water. All that good-willed farewell, white limousines and all. I wish we had this grandiose luxury of goodbyes for my stepdad. He, above anyone else, deserved it. Instead he had his body thrown into a burning chamber by people who detested him and rejoiced in his death,” I thought as my arms shivered around my chest.
It’s what’s most unfortunate of things past, that inability to say goodbye and leave lofty last thank yous. But today, as the sun ushers in the first year of his moving on to a plane from where no happy soul returns, I cast heaps of remorse to the wind and take the time to be grateful for the things I wasn’t able to thank him for when he was still with us.
Thank you for sitting me down whenever I screwed up. Thank you for the privilege to be fathered, even if most times, I didn’t deserve it. Thank you for those eye-opening, spontaneous 3am trips to anywhere. Thank you for showing me how to hold myself up in a world where nature and culture dictates I can’t without help. Thank you for allowing me to experience the sheer wonder of life: its miseries and joys, all its spellbinding details.
And thank you for always showing me the way when I am lost. You have always been the best navigator I known.
You are always remembered. Always.