MEMORIES OF MY FATHER
May 11th, 2020
Words by Zea Asis · Illustration by Violeta Fijalkauskas
At a time when days and nights blend into each other and empty hours need to be filled, I have only my memories to run back to
Growing up in a provincial town in the Philippines, nothing really remarkable happened to me—except that I collected a series of memories, which I continue to turn over in my mind even now. I was unbothered by the vacuity of my daily routines in the province. Time stretched out to make room for siestas and meriendas, convincing me that the sweetest aspects of life were just within my reach. A few hours after lunch, I would cook a light snack, sometimes maruya or banana fritters, the brown sugar coating glistening in the afternoon sun. My mother prepared hot cocoa for me by submerging chunks of unsweetened malagos chocolate into the boiling pan, then slowly mixed in the fresh milk. I couldn’t imagine anything beyond those usual pockets of time cradled by homely confections.
There were days when I had to be alone with my father because my mother traveled all over the state for work. It was during these times that the lull of my days was ruptured. I lost my spontaneity and felt tense, as if weights were attached to my heart, not knowing when I would receive a scolding or a hurtful remark from him. My father was a known tradesman and gunsmith in our town. Like any man, he took pride in doing work with his hands. Among his prized possessions was his assortment of shotguns, tool boxes, and camo clothing. Soldiers from the Philippine army visited his shop, bringing with them firearms for repair or renovation. As a child, the arrival of these staunch men piqued my curiosity, but also contributed to the impression I had of my father as a severe and inaccessible character in my life. It was quickly apparent that I did not elicit the kind of emotions in him as the visiting men did. Nothing I did lifted his spirits the way their arrivals did. He laughed at their jokes and examined the rifles with care and reverence.
There were times when I felt that his coldness formed canyons between us. I wrote letters to my mother and my siblings. I drew them flowers, made up why-I-love-you lists, and played with metaphors I learned in English class. I left these letters inside their closets, in between folded clothes, giddy for them to change outfits so that the surprise would be revealed. Letter-writing was a currency of my love. But there was no way I could translate my muddled affections to someone like my father. Acts of love were supposed to be simple at that age, the result of natural feeling, and yet I pined for words and felt paralyzed by a mix of longing and fear. His closet, which I surveyed carefully and secretly, revealed an earthy scent, long-sleeved polos, and a leather locking briefcase. No letter of mine ever found a place within its dark folds.
I felt relieved when he headed out to the mountains on Sundays to hunt for game. During those days without him, I stretched my limbs across the bed I shared with my parents, listened to the radio, and occasionally peered through the window to watch my mother hang the laundry. I ran across our one-storey house with renewed freedom, kicking my feet in the air as I darted around our backyard, the dirty kitchen, the living room, and finally the front lawn. He would be gone the whole day and I would only hear his pick-up truck pull up right after sunset. He would unload and defeather the mallard or whistling duck he had hunted and fry them into adobo—a simple Filipino dish prepared by marinating the bird in soy sauce and spices, then pan-frying and stewing it until tender. I looked at the dish on the dining table and felt my stomach churn in disgust.
My father commanded his own time. When I was ten, he quit his job as a sales manager for a manufacturing company and opened his own bar. This led to a few missteps in his middle age because he chased indulgence and easy reward. And yet, during the remaining years of his life, he returned to a simpler, more peaceful way of living. He became a farmer and bought a small cottage. I knew him as someone who had a deep connection to nature and a particular fascination for the scout’s way of living. Before he moved out of our home when I was nine, he built his own tree house in our backyard and devised makeshift locks to secure our front gate. He displayed wooden sculptures of miniature humans in sitting positions that reminded me of the Bul-ul or tinagtaggu, a carved wooden figure used to guard the rice crop by the Ifugao people in the northern region of the Philippines.
In the mountains where his farm is, tended now by some distant relative, I imagine his white pick-up truck settled under the shade of a large molave tree. Every morning he rose before dawn, reclined onto a wooden chair and smoked a cigarette. His hands were covered with scars from working all day. Taking care of mango trees required deep attention, and he divided his time between collecting fresh mango pits, slitting the hard husks and planting them above the soil surface. He pruned the leaves of fully grown trees to remove weak stems. When it came to farming, he understood the fragile balance of brute force and tenderness.
His longtime friends said that during his final years he was still a sharpshooter, hands firm and steady carrying a loaded gun. He grew mangoes that were golden yellow; in the soft light of the mornings, it looked like a thousand stars were hanging off the branches of his trees. Apart from these facts, I knew little of my father in his final years. Hearing these stories from cousins whom he lived with after he moved out was like listening to tales of a stranger. Who was this man they spoke of so proudly? When I was growing up, I witnessed the unspeakable things he did to my mother, while both my older siblings were away in the city for college. At an early age, I had felt rage, fear, and helplessness in the course of a single breath. I spent nights doing homework in dingy motels with my mother because home wasn’t a safe place for us, and I developed uncontrollable chills that wouldn’t go away. I went to school in the same dirty uniform I had worn the previous day.
The promise of finally leaving my small town and the bleak thoroughfare of my life after high school made it seem like my history was, in fact, escapable. In the city, I could begin again. It was only when I moved there for college and lost all connection with my father that I began to take note of all the dysfunctions that I had developed as a result of my particular childhood experiences. My trauma only manifested itself when I was in an environment free from danger, muddying the lenses through which I saw the world and slowly invading my mind like mildew. Around that time, I was diagnosed with chronic depression. It was revealed to me by a plump, mild-sounding therapist that I had been suffering from it since I started high school. It manifested itself in multiple ways: I alienated myself from people and tormented myself with my insecurities until I had no will to get out of bed, to eat, or to take a bath. In college sometimes weeks went by before I answered any of my mom’s or sister’s calls. I used all my allowance on cigarettes, and on some nights, I cried alone for no reason at all. For years, I had been flailing my arms at the world, confiding in resigned friends about my relentless fears and frustrations. I grappled with both the hard and simple questions: Will anyone ever love me? Will I ever be good enough? Why could I never fold my clothes correctly? Why did my mother keep forcing me to wear lipstick?
I feel grateful that I have mood stabilizers to get me through this period of self-isolation, when it’s easier to buckle under the mélange of thoughts clustering in my head. I take 10mg of escitalopram every day to keep my temperament neutral, so my emotions don’t dragoon me into retreating from the world, or compel me to cut myself limply with the blunt edges of a blister pack. But my anxiety still reveals itself in smaller, harmless ways: my habit of nail-biting has returned, and under my desk you’ll see bits of cuticles and misshapen nail clippings. Isolation has forced me to confront my feelings about my father and finally reconcile myself with the fact of his death. At a time when days and nights blend into each other and empty hours need to be filled, I have only my memories to run back to. They skim the surface of my thoughts as easily as cream rises to the top of a glass of milk, catching me off guard.
Sometimes I think about being another person and not having the memories that belong to me. After all, my path to healing is couched in my refusal to relive those times. But living in isolation is the reverse of running away. It’s scuttling around in your house, hoping routine and attempts at self-care will save you from the black hole of your own mind. Living in isolation is a series of minute undertakings in self-compassion: not letting your cups of coffee stack up on your desk, preparing a salad instead of opening up a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and forcing yourself to brush your teeth. I shimmy to the sonic reverbs of Mariah the Scientist on my bedroom floor when she spells out S-E-L-F-D-E-S-T-R-U-C-T-I-V-E, as the number of reported cases rises from 300 to 4,000. Living in isolation is an elaborate exhibit of dancing alone and winning your demons over everyday.
During these times, I have managed to reach a level of self-sufficiency that doesn’t seem to be the result of a desire to be away from people or a symptom of my chronic depression. I have learned to cherish my aloneness, something I have cultivated from years of being in and out of therapy and counselling. I think the premium that these years has given me is a healthy and positive level of self-awareness. But being isolated is precarious terrain. I struggle with being kinder to myself and accepting that brief punctures in peace are inevitable at a time like this. I see living in isolation as a way to process my grief, examine the contours of its face and body, and create a space where I can sit with it and learn from what it has to say.
I thought that my father would live until old age, that he would have grown into a more frail and less intimidating version of himself. Maybe then, with a pair of adult eyes, I could have mustered the strength to speak to him openly—the kind of strength that only time and age can will into being. When you’re a child, everything about your home seems amplified: things are bigger, wider, and more terrifying than they appear when you get older. You come home years later to find that the bathroom cupboard of your nightmares only contained a rubber toilet plunger and some disinfectants. That it’s not possible for you to climb over window grills over the narra sofa and feel miles away from the ground. As a child, needing to pee in the middle of the night meant having to cross an immense pitch-black safari of wild animals to get to the bathroom. Now, I cut across the moonlit darkness unperturbed and half asleep.
Like making bread, my path to healing requires kneading. I conjure positive affirmations and consciously shepherd myself to think of good memories. When I was a little girl, gumamelas and bougainvilleas grew out of cracked orange pots in our backyard. A lanzones tree stood beside the dirty kitchen, peculiar in that it never bore fruit, only small blooms that eventually died. I was in a state of peace despite the roar of the planes that came and went. Some mornings before leaving for school, I saw my father watering the flowers in our backyard, tossing a pail of water over them, the whole yard smelling of wet grass. He tended to a small pond, decorated it with marbles and coins that held the fish I made up names for. He watched as I took the colorful fish food and sprinkled it over the water.
There were nights when, fresh from the shower, I sat at the edge of the bed trying to untangle my hair and, all of a sudden, my father would take the comb from me and brush my hair himself. I froze. It was a moment that stood out of time, and I knew how delicate it was. I was afraid that if I moved or made a sound, we would both be whisked back into the reality we lived in, devoid of such affection. As I got older, I’ve developed a superficial hardness, but dissolve quickly as I’m seized by these memories. When my father died, I was left with his folding knife and a few white t-shirts I saw him wear. But it is this memory that haunts me now, one so rare that it exposes itself like a familiar, dull ache in my body.
Zea Asis is a Filipino writer based in Manila, where she is currently studying fashion design. For a living, she manages the online communities of a global design platform that aims to democratize design and empower non-designers to unleash their creativity. You can follow her on Instagram @zeameetsworld
Violeta Fijalkauskas is an artist and illustrator from Buenos Aires, Argentina. She loves to read and is currently illustrating books. She paints to know herself. Art has helped her become a healthier person so she hopes to inspire others with her drawings. She believes everybody is creative. You can follow her at @violetafijal and violetafijal.tumblr.com