One man’s duty and honor

My father died shortly before he was to turn 60.  Had he lived longer, he would be exactly 77 today.  I have often wondered how he would have lived in retirement.  He was a lawyer, and a very good one.

He went back to law school as soon as the war ended.  Because the Ateneo was still closed, he resumed his studies at UST.  After a very brief private practice,  he was appointed an assistant fiscal in Pampanga.  It was the 50’s, and to him was assigned the difficult and dangerous task of prosecuting the leaders of the Hukbalahap.  I remember the succession of soldiers, sent to protect us, who had to live in our house while the cases were being tried.   I remember the names of the prominent subversives of that period.  That of Luis Taruc particularly left a lasting impression on my mind.

My father came home  one day after Ka Luis’s arraignment for the crime of rebellion.  Over supper, he was narrating what transpired in the court room.  He told us of the quiet and dignified man he had to prosecute, and the woman beside him who held his hand throughout the proceedings.  It was the rebel’s mother.

“These are good people,” my father said.  “But they fought the government, and it is my duty to prosecute them.”  I was too young to know what being a rebel against government meant.  But I knew what he meant by duty.

His entire life, I think, may be accurately summarized as one lived for duty.  Yet ironically, he was also very much a rebel.  He had a difficult relationship with his father, and I saw how he often agonized over the contradictory claims of duty and of self-respect.  The strategy he chose in turbulent times was avoidance of any encounter with the stern patriarch.  Yet he made sure that we, his children, would continue to perform whatever familial obligations he thought he owed his old man.

His mother, whom he adored, was a mild-mannered and eventempered woman.  When she died, my father went into a deep mourning that I could not understand for a long time.  He bought a missal and a Bible.  And for a whole year, he went to church everyday, waking up at dawn to catch the early morning mass.  From the church, he would go straight to the cemetery, where he tended a beautiful garden for his departed mother.

The local parish priest thought that he had acquired a new devotee. But my father’s piety was a simple act of duty.  Exactly a year later, he reverted to his ways as a non-church-going Catholic.  In his mind, perhaps, he thought the duty was done.   He had followed a year’s cycle of prayer as his way of closing the memory of his mother.

As a government servant, my father never earned enough.  Certainly not enough to raise a family of thirteen.  He dutifully turned over every centavo of his fortnightly salary to my mother, and when that was done, he left it entirely to her to figure out how we would live.   In a sense, he was a penniless aristocrat.  He loved good food and expected it everyday on the dinner table.  He loved gardening and never hesitated buying expensive pots of rare African roses for his garden.

Every weekend, he would play an old game of Spanish cards with our neighbors — mostly carpenters, housewives, vendors, and jueteng collectors.  Sometimes he would play all night.  He played with the same passion that he infused in his work as a fiscal, and as a gardener at home.  It was as if he approached every form of activity as an act of relentless duty.

But at the same time, he was a perfectionist in everything he did.  He would not sleep and he would not rest until he thought he got it right. As a fiscal, he wrote every case in long hand first before he would commit it to the finality of the typewritten text.  He bled over prepositions and awkward phrases, and since he never worked with a dictionary, he was not above waking up his wife or his children to help solve grammatical puzzles.

I remember how aphids once attacked his rose garden.  He refused to use chemical insecticides for fear that the heat of the poison might damage his plants.  He read somewhere that nicotine was effective against these soft-bodied bugs.  So for the next four weeks, we had to retrieve the veins of tobacco leaves from the dumpyard of a local cigarette factory, and light these underneath the delicate plants at dusk to drive away the offending bugs.

Ironically, I don’t think that my father truly enjoyed even one moment of leisure.  For even the things that were recreational acquired, for him, the character of necessary chores.  Perhaps it was all connected to some notion of honor.  He used to say – if it is worth doing, it is worth doing well.  With everything he did, he put his self-worth on the line.

Life’s purpose never bothered him.  He was too preoccupied with the duty of living to ask what life was all about.  He was reckless with his own health.  He never saw a doctor until just before his death. He died when he was just a step away from the top position of the Manila City Fiscal’s office.   I know he would have wanted to be City Fiscal, or perhaps a justice in the Court of Appeals.  But I don’t think it really ever bothered him.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s prose would have appeased him:  “These are great incentives; not for any of these, but for the plain satisfaction of living, of being about their business in some sort or other, do the brave, serviceable men of every nation tread down the nettle danger, and pass flyingly over all the stumbling-blocks of prudence.”


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