I know we all have heroes. But there is one hero in my life who perhaps never knew I saw him as one. And it is simply because he left me too soon.
Being a self confessed Daddy’s girl, I grew up thinking my Dad was some kind of a superhero. My father was a gentle fellow, and he always reminded me of Santa Claus, due to his thick beard and mustache (which was his standard accessory) and a full, rotund belly. He also had this full-mouthed laughter that used to color his cheeks red and make his round eyes disappear. I guess children will always have this idea of their parents as some kind of superhuman but mine was always different. I thought my dad was invincible, my super hero who will always be around for a long, long time, and to my young mind years back, perhaps someone who will still be standing by my bedroom door saying goodnight each bed time, even when I was already a married woman with grown-up kids.
As a spoiler, he was the generous type, and I do not mean by saying this that he spoiled us with merely material things. As far as I can recall, he was always the one who carefully covered all our new schoolbooks with acetate to keep them looking new, the one who hung a “ Congratulations” banner on the wall to surprise me on the day of my elementary graduation, the one who would get up in the middle of the night to check on me when I was slaving over a math exam due the next day, the patient one who would carry me like a baby, even at ten years old and suffering from a simple fever, from my bedroom to the dining table just to make me eat my dinner.
As a young child, I was quite shy and unsure of myself, but he always had this way of appreciating the little achievements that I earned from time to time that made me believe I was indeed, a pretty, smart, and talented girl. Whenever I would make an effort to dress up for some occasion, he always had these precious compliments reserved for her eldest princess. When I was about ten to twelve years old, I remember having penned my first poem entitled “My Father”, and seeing him read my humble composition with an unbelieving look in his eyes, gave me a calm sense of pride. At fifteen, when I was trying my hand at painting, I once showed him my colorful renditions of art, however humble they had been at the time, and I could sense how he loved my careless creations all the same, saying that with a few strokes more, I could become quite good at the craft. And during the course of my fleeting childhood, I remember having nightmares for weeks on end and keeping mum about it for fear of being teased as a scaredy-cat. During those nights when I could not sleep, just hearing my Dad cough audibly in his sleep was enough to calm my restlessness. I would begin to drift off, safe and happy as a clam, realizing that my Santa Claus was in fact, just one bedroom away.
But when I reached adolescence, I no longer saw my Dad as an adorable Santa but more of a stern parent. He began to lay down rules and I was not too happy about it, thinking that I deserved to have my own freedom. I was ordered to go home straight after school, no buts and ifs, and the class schedules should be posted on the fridge door for easy reference. No television after prime time news during school nights. No phone calls from guy friends or if there were any, the poor chap would be subject to a string of interrogations. No late night partying, only parties with formal invitations were allowed. Preferably no grade below 85, and definitely no failing grades. No dating, no suitors, no boyfriends before college graduation. It’s either you follow the rules strictly by heart or you leave the house.
And as an adolescent born in the generation of MTV and pop culture, I had a hard time acceding to all the rules, and when I did, I did so religiously but not without resentment in my heart. I followed their orders and through my high school and the onset of my college years, I never had a life outside the sheltered little life I had at home. But I was not happy with this and was silently wishing I were somewhere else, or were someone else’s daughter. My parents sent me to a private high school, possibly the best in our city, but I cannot even say if at that point, I had the best time in my life. For one, when I began to cultivate feelings of admiration for the opposite sex, as is normal for teenage girls at the time of their blissful youth, I could not talk openly about it for fear that my parents would think I wanted a boyfriend. I had wanted to spend time socializing at school with my friends and mentors, and join organizations which I believed would hone whatever God given talents I had, but my parents would hear none of it, stating that extra-curricular activities were simply a waste of time and hard-earned money. Going to the movies with friends was a rare event and so was my attendance at weekend project meetings, acquaintance and farewell parties. Perhaps, it was in my nature to be fairly competitive and outgoing and the manner with which both my parents brought me up had stifled this very nature.
My father and I began talking less and less each day, conscious of the widening generation gap and the little antipathies that I had amassed over the years. He would still get up in the middle of the night to check on me while laboring over my notes, but it was either that I would ignore him, or I would simply utter a perfunctory greeting without much interest. He would joke about something but finding nothing funny with what he said, I would just fake a laugh and busy myself with something else. There were fewer and fewer topics that we could talk about each passing day, for I knew that he would barely be interested with the things that concerned me during that confusing period of my adolescence. Oftentimes I saw him as nothing more than a nuisance since, ironically enough, he was always poking his nose at things I’d rather deal with alone.
Perhaps it was because I knew he will always be there, and I meant always, that made me confident at what I was doing, knowing that there will always be time in the future, when my teenage angst had finally dissipated, that I will see him as my adorable Santa once more.
But that time never came. Soon, and sooner than we all had expected, he developed kidney complications from his diabetes and was eventually unable to do much physical work. He soon retired from his job at a government office and stayed more and more at home. I was already a sophomore in college when he began to weaken physically, but the gap between us was finally too ominous to repair all at once and I, on my part had a hard time bridging whatever was left of our relationship. And of course I denied too loudly within me that that something was wrong with his health. I thought to myself, ” Maybe it’s just the flu”, and instinctively push away thoughts of fear in my subconscious, repeating to myself like a mantra that my father was, is, and always will be invincible. And hey, he was never hospitalized even once in his four decades of existence, and what is diabetes anyway? My family always knew my father has had it for roughly twenty years already but we never saw manifestations of ill health on him. For all my arrogant ignorance, I had chosen to believe that diabetes was no worse than a simple flu.
One weekend morning, the summer of 2001, I woke up and I saw my father in our living room, his features clearly illuminated by the harsh sunlight. That, I recall, was the first time I looked at him closely in a long time, or chose to look more closely, after my episodes of denial. He looked like he had actually aged in days. He was losing a lot of weight due to dieting and I could clearly see the outline of his shoulder blades through the thin shirt he was wearing. He still had his belly, the one I was so fond of as a little girl, but it was no longer round and full but soft and flabby. His skin was beginning to show signs of wrinkling and had slightly dark pigmentation due to his disease. And his beard, his once thick and well groomed beard, was now growing jaggedly across his jaw and his mustache almost covered the tip of his upper lip. He was staring blankly at the television barely taking in what was showing on the screen. His eyes were sad, almost nostalgic, and he appeared to be in very deep thoughts.
I recalled at that point that he had been behaving very oddly the past months, not talking much to anyone at home. “Maybe he misses his work and his friends”, I simply rationalized. At that point, I had wanted to sit on his lap once more, kiss him with butterfly kisses and tell him how much I love him but I could not move. It had felt absurd being too distant all this time and at that instant, to act like my Santa’s lovingly spoiled daughter once more. But more so, I was afraid that I would break down and give in to tears even before I can stop myself.
During the following days that summer, I was falling apart. I saw my beloved superhero reduced to the poor stature of an ailing old man at the age of forty seven. He had developed complications on his right ear early on, and now had difficulty balancing his walk. His legs would wobble without warning, and he would immediately clasp on to anything- a chair, the edge of a table, or anyone nearby- for support. His hair had now thinned and his smile had become less genuine. He spent most of his time staring blankly at space, or playing solitaire by himself. Since we weren’t really well-off, my mom had to work in order to support his medications, and most of the time it was just the two of us left at the house. I took care of his meals and gave him snacks twice a day, religiously following doctors’ orders that he should be fed regularly. I would attempt to start an animated discussion with him, anything to spark his interest, but sadly, gone was the lively storyteller of my childhood.
Perhaps he was in a lot of pain at that time and was keeping silent about it. But I never dared to ask him anything about his illness, or what he was really feeling, or if he was going to leave me soon. I just could not bring myself to ask the last question, or bring myself to even think about it. Nobody in the family talked about the possibility of his leaving us. For all of us, the idea was absurd, even impossible. My Santa is and always will be invincible.
He left us more than a month after his first hospitalization. He was admitted to the hospital and subsequently checked out four times in less than two months. And during the times when we would leave the hospital because his condition had somehow stabilized, we celebrated his homecoming with joy in our hearts because this offered us a glimpse of the same laughter-loving fellow without the oxygen tubes, the dextrose needles, and the blood transfusion tubes against the blinding hospital walls. We had come to accept the delicate condition of his health and had clung to nothing else but our faith, no matter how flimsy it may become from time to time. Each morning, I would kiss him all over his face, hug his flabby tummy, and play with his beard like the Daddy’s girl I always had been. I would comb his thinning hair and link my arm with him and lean my head on his bony shoulder while watching TV. Something in my heart was telling me I will never hold him, or touch his face, or smell the very essence of him ever this way again. But none of us talked about death or dying or him leaving us. Nobody started the topic and childish as I was, even when I saw how ill he had become, I still felt that as long as my Dad would not tell me to my face that he was dying, I would never believe he was actually dying.
He was my adorable Santa, my Mom’s sweetest teddy bear. He could not die. He is invincible.
But I guess, superheroes do not live forever. And it is simply because they give so much of themselves, so much of their own strength that in the end, they just fade with the wind, immortal in their own oblivion. And that same night my beloved Santa breathed his last; I held his hand, pressed my face to his heart, and tried to feel his heartbeat. The hospital room was cold and smelled of medication, disinfectant, and of subdued tears. I was cold myself and the finality of the moment stopped all emotion.
I knew life will never be same again. Nobody will spoil all of us as he always had, nobody will cough in the middle of the night and reassure me out of my nightmares, and nobody will take pleasure in my artistic leanings and encourage me at them. Nobody will be giving my Mom sweet nothings on Valentine’s Day, as he had faithfully done all of their married years, and yes, nobody will walk me and my sister to the altar on our wedding days, and give us our last waltzes.
In my dream of dreams and heart of hearts, I shall see him again one day, at a time and place my imagination cannot reach. Then I shall tell him affectionately, and not without profound love in my soul; “Papa, you’re really just like Santa on Christmas Eve, you left all of us as silently as you came.”