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Remembering my father on his 11th death anniversary

My father died at 10 am on a Monday exactly 11 years ago. He had spent the night in the ICU of Cardinal Santos Medical Center, where we had rushed him the morning before, after he had trouble breathing and started vomiting food and bile and blood.

It’s been more than a decade, and his passing still hangs over our family. It’s especially affected my brother, who, at 30, still questions how a good and just God could take his father away. On bad days, my father’s absence is an ache, once sharp and fine, now dulled, but still throbbing. It especially hurts this year, since January 26, the day of his passing, once again falls on a Monday. The ironic thing is that he would not have wanted us to be sad.

My father was funny. He used to tell us stories about how he was a tough guy when he was younger, but all we knew was the sweet family man who liked to make stupid jokes. For example, he would tell people that my mother’s grandmother lived to a hundred and never needed glasses. Once his audience made the requisite oohs and aahs, he would add that this was because she was blind. If you’re one of the poor souls who have been subjected to one of my corny jokes, now you know where I get my humor from.

The night before he was rushed to the hospital, he sent my mother and brother to pick me up from work because he was feeling poorly. We thought nothing of it, even brought home some congee for him, then laughed when he said that he felt too sick to eat it. We should have taken it as a warning. At 5’7 and over 250 lbs., my father was never “too sick” to eat anything.

He was up at 5 am the next day, dragging himself to the bathroom, where he stayed for an unbearably long time, shitting and vomiting. He was rushed to the ER, then moved to the ICU. Nobody knew what was wrong with him.

What nobody wanted to talk about was how he had been depressed for a long time. His fairly successful marble business had collapsed during the 1997 economic crisis, and he was having trouble providing for the family. He had to close the company. We had to move to a smaller house. Our last car was taken away. My sister was in medical school. My brother was in college. My father always took pride in being able to provide for his family, and when he couldn’t do that anymore, he grew depressed, and desperate.

He entered into shady deals, nothing illegal on his end, but ones that I intuitively knew would leave him cheated–and when they did, it just pushed him deeper into sadness. Out of work and with no options that befitted a ‘respectable’ Chinese family man, he spent his days napping on one of our armchairs, my cat resting on his belly. We thought it was adorable. We were too young to know that it wasn’t healthy.

His death was a circus. He had barely flatlined when we began getting phone calls from random people offering their services. Did he have insurance? Did we need a funeral package? Where did we plan to hold the wake, because we could get a discount. Death, I realized, was a business.

We eventually secured the help of Uncle T, a family friend who had been in the funeral business for quite some time. He sold funeral plans and helped grieving families maneuver their way through the various Chinese rituals and superstitions, which could change depending on your province, horoscope, clan, and sometimes, I suspect, mood. My father’s body was taken out of the hospital and brought to the funeral parlor. And that’s when the fun began.

We couldn’t find a casket big enough to hold him. Calls were made to different branches of the Funeraria Paz, then to different funeral parlors. It was three hours before we found one of the right size, shiny and white and gleaming, that had to be brought in from some far flung place like Bulacan.

My mother and siblings were sent home to rest and prepare for the wake later that evening, while I stayed with the body. My then boyfriend accompanied me, and was supportive throughout the whole ordeal. “It never gets better,” he said, repeating his mother’s words about her own father’s passing. “It gets easier, but it never gets better.” I took the opportunity to pick the flowers that would adorn his coffin, choosing an all white ensemble, like the stage decor in Nirvana’s episode in MTV Unplugged, where Kurt Cobain picked white lilies that would later signify his death.

I wanted to watch the body get embalmed. I had witnessed the procedure being done on my paternal grandmother. My father had been the one standing guard, and for some reason, he thought that it was okay to let his 13-year-old daughter to accompany him. This, among many decisions now questionable in hindsight, is one of the many reasons I love my dad. Uncle T let me stay in the viewing booth for as long as he could stand, asking me over and over again if I was okay, before finally ushering me out before the embalming started for the sake of his sanity.

The wake, I remember, was one of the best parties I have ever attended. It was five days of nonstop activity, with so many people paying their respects that we had to move to a bigger room–the biggest one on the floor–on the second night just to be able to contain everyone, and even then, the guests still spilled out into the lobby. I knew that my dad was friendly; I didn’t know that he was that well-loved.

My boss and colleagues dropped by to pay their respects. One of them, who we knew was psychic, looked distinctly uncomfortable and kept her head down throughout the time they were there. I asked her what was wrong. She said, “A lot of your father’s deceased friends are also paying their respects. He was a popular guy.”

What I remember from the wake is that there were lots of stories and lots of laughter. My father liked being the center of attention. He would not have wanted it any other way. But he also sometimes had a weird sense of humor, and we would later discover that he wasn’t done saying farewell.

I mentioned that the Chinese have many superstitions when it comes to the dead. You can’t wear bright colors. You aren’t supposed to say goodbye to the bereaved family when leaving the funeral home. You’re supposed to stop by a restaurant before you head home after visiting the deceased. Said superstitions quadruple on burial day. Depending on who you are, you have to wear either a red or white cloth band on either your left or right arm, much like the color bands people used to wear in the 70s to denote their sexual preferences. You’re not allowed to enter the funeral parlor once you have exited. People born under horoscopes in conflict with that of the deceased are not allowed to attend. All of these are observed to ensure that the spirit of the deceased does not accidentally follow you home. My brother, the only son, had to carry my dad’s photo, the casket following behind him. He had to push the funeral car, his head on his lower arm in a show of mourning, his tears hot and real, his rage a slow burn that would last for years and years.

My sister and I voted for cremation. My mother refused, on grounds that “it wasn’t Christian.” She secured a small plot in Manila Memorial Park. “Is it big enough to fit the casket?” I asked the night before the funeral. “Of course it is,” she said.

It wasn’t, of course, and instead of laying him to rest and leaving before lunchtime, we and the rest of the burial party spent the next three hours securing permits, looking for a backhoe, and making the hole big enough to take the casket. The humor, dark as it was, was not lost on us. “Daddy’s trying to be funny.” “Daddy’s playing one last joke.” “It’s daddy’s weird way of saying goodbye.”

There is one exception to the stop at a restaurant rule: after the funeral, the immediate family of the deceased must go straight home. This is to ensure that the spirit of the loved one follows. We arrived home depressed, exhausted, fatherless. My mother placed my dad’s picture on a side table in the living room, which became our family altar. His picture is still there to this day.

We dealt with his loss in different ways. I fell into depression, preferring sleep to waking, because my father was always alive in my dreams. My sister lost her fear of ghosts, because there was always the chance that daddy could be one of them. My brother drowned his sorrow in anger. My mother, who could count the number of times she spent away from my father on one hand, would go downstairs in the middle of the night and fall asleep on the couch next to my dad’s picture.

Every year, my mother tries to get us to visit my dad at the cemetery, and every year, us kids find reasons not to come along. It only makes us sad, we say, and all daddy ever wanted was to see us happy. My ex was right. It doesn’t get better, but it gets easier. Year by year, month by month, day by day. That doesn’t mean, however, that you forget, because love is forever.

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