Cruel February

Fiction by | February 5, 2017

Today is the first day of February. But unlike the previous Februaries, this one is not merely the second month of the year having twenty-eight or, as in the case of leap years, twenty-nine days, this month might be daddy’s last.

The smell of newly applied paint could have lured me to stay longer. I like the house better now with its green walls and white ceiling. However, the stench of the canal continues to permeate the house. The living room, empty of appliances, creates a dull and muffled sound to my ears. When I suggested that either the radio or the television should be returned to the sala, I was told that a sick man does not really need much.

I went to visit daddy today. They finally resigned to put his bed in the living room. Hospitals are for those who could afford to postpone death. I would like to think that we can’t instead of we won’t.

He looks thinner now than he did when I last saw him. Strength abandoned him completely. Daddy cannot tuck his cigarette between his middle and forefinger anymore.

The problem of a human mind, I think, is the idea of free association.

We watched an action movie after dinner. Before the lead actor goes into battle against a major drug syndicate, Mama suddenly wailed. She claimed that the actor (his mestizo features, compact physique and arrogant stance) looks like daddy. I agree with the claimed similarities.

But there is a difference.

The actor takes the part of a good man, a hero. Daddy is a villain, a nasty and cruel father. I hope to write that he was. Not because he is dying but because I would like to say he has changed. My uncles and aunts say a man who can afford to starve his family and provide for a number of mistresses has a slim chance of changing. Mama does not comment on this. Anyhow, the difference upsets me.

Like the parables of Jesus

I was supposed to go shopping with my friends tonight. But Papa called and said that he will not be able to go home early. That leaves me with no money. I grumbled to Mama.

She told me this: Daddy never bought her or her siblings anything. Not even a Mongol pencil #2 that she needed for high school entrance exam. “I am not a millionaire,” Daddy would tell them.

I do not know how to interpret the anecdote. It might be that Mama wants me to realize that I demand much from my father or that her story summarily reveals that Daddy remains a dark, recurring figure in her consciousness.

Today I am reminded of an episode from my childhood. My sister told me that the story I recounted to her never happened. I formed a counter-argument. This reasoning is circular but I contend anyway. It is the memory that reminds.

As a little child, I used to associate Daddy with money for he always had coins inside his pocket. My cousins and I called him Daddy rather than Lolo, thinking that he was richer that our fathers. At fifty, he retired from his job and with the separation fee he received from the company, bought a second-hand taxicab. As a means of livelihood, Daddy became the driver of his own taxi.

I took my first holy communion when I was in third grade. Mama had other things to attend to that day so it was Lola who went to church with me instead. After the ceremony, Lola promised to buy me ice cream from what was then the most popular mall in the city. To my surprise, I saw Daddy standing outside the church’s gate, waiting for Lola and me. He said he will not be able to drive us around the city but that he has a present for me. Daddy handed me a small, brown pack bag. The bag was filled with countless two-peso coins. “That’s all yours,” I remember Daddy telling me. My nine-year-old heart felt so happy that I jumped and jumped and laughed loudly, unmindful of the mass that had started inside the church. It was the moment when I was most convinced that Daddy is truly a rich man.

This is one of the odd times when the reality you built as a child is better than what you currently have.

The beggar

I saw an old man begging for money outside the school gate today. I wanted to give him a few pesos. I reached for his opened palm but he grabbed my arm and tried to snatch my wrist watch. Terrified, I ran away from him.

Maybe, the idea of forgiving finds its way inside the minds of Daddy’s children sometimes; just as the idea of helping crossed mine too. What scares them I think, is to find remains of the monster that has survived inside the man’s withered body. I suggest that they try. And hopefully, proves themselves wrong.

I do not know whose side to take. What difference does bringing him to a hospital make? If his life’s extend to another day, months or even years, would his death feel lighter?

My sister told me that my parents fought this afternoon. Mama insisted that Daddy should be taken to a hospital. She wanted to give her father a decent place for his last days perhaps. My father refused, saying that he cannot shoulder hospital expenses. They stopped fighting when Mama’s brother arrived. Uncle Jones claimed that my father was right. Daddy is not worth saving after all, according to my uncle.

Glad I was not home yet when this incident happened. I freak out easily when there is much anger involved in a situation.

Six months ago, it was Mama who took Daddy to the hospital. He was complaining of terrible back pain among other things identified as symptoms of cancer. Three hospitals and five doctors after, we learned he had cancer of the bones. Daddy rarely left his bed after he was diagnosed. That was when the whole ugly game of watching him deteriorate every day began. One of the doctors declared daddy would, in the longest possible time, last for six months.

This month is the sixth.

Accepting death: a voluntary requirement

I did not go to class today after I realized that I had not seen Daddy for a while. Mama went to the grocery store and will follow me shortly to Daddy and Lola’s home. But I do not feel like going anymore now.

A black butterfly flies around Mama’s garden. The scent of burning candles fills the house. These usually happen when somebody stays here alone. Right now, it is me who is hanging on to the reminders of eminent death.

I do not know if this is right but somehow these signs help to recognize the authenticity of death.

Mama filled me in with the details I missed when I decided not to visit Daddy yesterday.

One of Daddy’s former mistresses paid him a visit. When she arrived, Daddy was asleep but Lola ushered her inside. Mama said they even kissed each other cheek to cheek. Unlike your regular wife, Lola never harassed or assaulted any of her husband’s mistresses; not even when she caught the adulterous couple together. Whether time has made her numb or her composure is a means of defense mechanism, I have always admired Lola’s temperament.

Like good old friends the two women conversed lengthily until they woke Daddy up. According to Mama, Daddy and his mistress did not speak a word to each other. Instead, they looked at one another’s eyes intensely as if trying to remember every detail of their faces. I pictured them like teenagers feeling love for the first time, wanting to freeze the hands of clock dead on their track, just because…

The scene went on until Daddy, unabashed, urinated in his bed. The mistress looked away and broke in tears. Hurriedly, she said goodbye and walked out of the house.

This ending is anti-climactic but so are several other endings—like the anticipated end of Daddy’s life.

Day of hearts

Calls kept on coming. Roses and greeting cards gathered around Daddy’s bedside. There were so many people who dropped by the house today asking about Daddy’s health. I hoped all these things would miraculously heal him.

Apparently, family friends and people we have not heard from for years had a different idea in mind. They converted valentines into a “pre-condolences day”.

Generally, every conversation centered on cancer; its causes, symptoms, stages, cure(?). Then the visitors talked about the times they shared with Daddy. Interestingly, nobody claimed that he was a good man. Others ventured into euphemisms like saying, “Jimmy has a different attitude towards work from other employees” or that “He has quite a charm with women”. I remember one particular visitor, a bearded, stout man who nonchalantly said, “Educational attainment and work experience do not matter much to Jimmy.”

Daddy smacked that visitor’s head many years ago after he asked the former to run an errand for him. This happened when the latter was newly employed as the resident engineer in the company Daddy had been working on for fifteen years. During his younger and healthy days, Daddy had a powerfully built body. I could almost hear his hand hitting the visitor’s head, whapak!

What amused me most today is how every person unfailingly remarked, “I am praying for his soul” though the man is, technically speaking, still alive.

Hypochondria at its worse.

Today is a soggy February morning. Rain started pouring at 3 AM. Well, pouring is not really the right word, sprinkling or drizzling seems more appropriate. The wind had been blowing strongly, its unseen movement creating a series of whispers that I wish to comprehend if only to listen to something else apart from the word “death” reverberating inside my head. The soil in our backyard had turned swampy.

I am terrified of the fact that cancer is hereditary. In my dreams, I see my mother and relatives inside a white room that looked like a hospital ward. They each laid in beds placed next to each other, looking as weak as Daddy looks right now.

The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man. —Ernest Becker

I spent the whole afternoon with Daddy. A wooden study table and a plastic chair did the trick; I pretended to be studying for an exam and sat near him for hours. It was one of the rare afternoons when Daddy wasn’t asleep. Told him a lot of stories—that I argued with the taxi driver on my way to see him because the driver refused to turn down the volume of his stereo, that I failed my math exam last week, that I wanted to leave the city to study somewhere else. In response, he would smile at me. Later on, I noticed that it was thirty minutes passed four already so I told him to take his afternoon nap. He retorted, “I will rest forever after this month.” I was so unprepared for that kind of response that I rushed to Lola’s bedroom. We both broke in tears.

To die is just as regular as to breathe. Still, we ask a lot of questions. How does a wife survive without a husband? Children without a father?

Tita Judy provided an answer. There is no difference between Daddy’s death and Daddy’s habitual absence for months from their home years ago, she said. I refuse to validate the accuracy of her answer.

And we wept.

There is something about the presence of a sick man in one’s house. We cry more and more every day for Daddy since Monday of this month’s last week. Depression is contagious. Though we are not exactly sure if we shed tears for the same reason, we cry anyway when somebody starts sobbing.

Oftentimes, I force my tears to stop. It is as if I am obliged to preserve sorrow inside my heart should Daddy’s children refuse to cry when death finally takes him away from us.

The month is about to end; Daddy remains unforgiven.

We ate dinner at Lola’s. Surprisingly, all my uncles and aunts and cousins were there. Nobody warned me about tonight’s family reunion.

And yet, nobody noticed too that Uncle Dudes slipped out of the house before dinner. Hours later, he came home drunk, though Papa told him to go inside, he remained in the lawn, grumbling curses to himself.

Then it happened.

He began screaming and throwing stones at the house. He was harassing the next door neighbor who got curious of the commotion. He shouted things like: “you must die now, Pa,” “you brought all kinds of curses in this family,” “I was never sent to school,” and “die with your women”. His filament of cusswords reached into the black sky. Then he spoke the sentence, “and damn you, mother! You did nothing but to let that man fuck you over and over again.” He was screaming until Uncle Victor had enough. Armed with a 2×2 piece of wood the family keeps inside the bedroom, Uncle Victor chased his brother outside.

Uncle Dudes began to run as soon as he saw Uncle Victor heading near him. After about four giant steps, Uncle Dudes lost his footing. Head first, he stumbled to the ground. Uncle Victor, who was running close after him, had the perfect chance of getting even. But as soon as he lifted the wood in mid-air ready to attack Uncle Dudes, the latter gave out a loud, mournful cry. The wood dropped to the ground.

Everybody froze.

Six cups of coffee after, I realized what has happened, Uncle Victor could not hurt his brother because Uncle Dudes presented a part of the family that everybody struggled to suppress since Daddy got ill. In fact, nobody admonished Uncle Dudes after the incident.

While I would like to negate myself, I remain convinced that Daddy’s children have not absolved him of his inadequacy as a father.

Not just yet, I hope.

Aftershock.

My parents refused to see Daddy today. Can’t really blame them. After that big scene, we walked a distance of about fifty meters to get a taxi with our heads bowed and as quietly as possible. Nobody’s prepared to do another walk of shame right now.

Papa bought a half-gallon of chocolate flavored ice cream for our afternoon snack. Everybody dug their spoons earnestly into the gallon as a miner would hungrily break up the Earth for gold. Then my brother casually brought up, “chocolate is Daddy’s favorite ice cream flavor, too, right?” nobody answered. One by one, we stopped eating.

It is my wish that things get a little better for everybody.

26th of February

We received a call from Uncle Jones at 2 AM. After Mama put the phone’s receiver down, she told us to get dressed at once.

Is this what we all have been waiting to happen?

I remained quiet on our way to the morgue, trying to forget that some two nights ago, I saw Daddy weeping in his deathbed.


Jamae Concepcion R. Garcia is a graduate of the Creative Writing Program of the University of the Philippines. She works as a Public Relations Assistant at the Davao City Water District (DCWD).