My father’s letter to his father

Defenseless before death, but still armed with the logical and moral clarity of one who had studied the law all his life, my ailing father wrote his long dead father a letter.

He was doing it, he said in the letter, not to disturb his soul, which deserved its peace, but to make a clean breast of the resentments that poisoned their relationship from the day he was born.  He didn’t want the anger to harden and haunt him in his grave. He desired a closure with his father, and chose the path of a 5-page single-space typed letter.  He composed this letter in a rich Shakespearean style so different from the dry legal opinions he used to draft, and titled it “To a dead father: a soliloquy.”

I can only suppose that the choice of a literary vehicle gave him some distance from these profoundly personal feelings, the better to see them objectively and put words to them.  He wrote it in Kapampangan, the language of his father.  But the addressee had been dead for almost ten years when the author wrote it.  It took my father all that time, when he was nearly sixty and dying, to sort out the emotionally bruising relationship he had with his father.

He died two years after writing this “soliloquy” without telling anyone about it except possibly my mother, who outlived him by twenty years.  She must have read it, but did not show it to us, probably believing that death should be allowed to lay these pains to rest. After she passed away, one of my brothers chanced upon it while going through her personal effects.

One bright Sunday morning, we, the adult descendants of two strong-willed patriarchs, gathered in a quiet corner of our parental home, far away from our own children, to listen to a voice from the past. My father’s letter was as much a reckoning with his father as it was an attempt to define the meaning of his life.  It was replete with references to incidents he considered important, including the curious fact that he had to be born in the house of a kin where his pregnant mother had sought refuge following a distressing quarrel with her husband.

As if to contrast the loving family he built with the conflictful one in which he grew up, my father drew portraits of his wife and each one of his thirteen children. How he admired the strength, wisdom, and resilience of his wife. How proud he felt for each one of his thirteen children, his real treasure, he said, and the one true measure of a parent’s worth.  As we listened, we began to understand this sad and alienated son.  We also felt we understood our family better.

His monologue was full of ambivalence.  He was pouring out his bitterness in buckets, yet he never came close to rejecting his father in spite of the powerful feelings that came between them.  He continued to thirst for his affection and recognition, as if asking him to acknowledge the honor and respect that he, by the practice of his profession, had added to the family name.  Not once did I ever disgrace you, he wrote, and beyond that, you can be proud of the way I have raised my children.  More than an accounting of one man’s failure as a parent, this was a lament for a human being who could have been loved had he been kinder and less self-centered.

Now and then I read my father’s letter and I never cease to wonder how a letter like that could have saved a severely injured relationship had it been written much earlier.  It would have shaken and tempered my grandfather, and we would certainly have had fonder memories of him.  For grandparents always have a special place in the hearts of children.  They tend to be to their grandchildren what they often could not be to their own children – generous, funny and eternally forgiving. But not my grandfather.

That between father and son must be the most difficult of all human relationships.  Even traditional fathers can be affectionate and demonstrative to their daughters, but they will always be firm and formal with their sons.  Fathers spend hours lecturing their sons about correct behavior, and careers and life choices they would have wished for themselves.  Sons spend their youth trying to fend off these intrusions, fearing their fathers, rebelling against them, but ultimately feeling guilty when they do not quite measure to the old man’s expectations.

It is a pity that fathers and sons are usually too embarrassed to talk about their misunderstandings.  When they want to reach out to one another, they do so through their spouses or through the grandchildren.  Seldom would they write letters to each other, unless one of them initiates communication and acknowledges his share of the blame.  Our culture prescribes that sons must take the initiative. But the truly character-defining moments come when fathers can bring themselves to admit their own mistakes and reconcile with their sons.

These reflections all come together for me not only because today is Father’s Day, but because, as I write this, a young Filipino son living in Australia is charged with the mysterious murder of his parents and sister.  The evidence is purely circumstantial – the investigators have uncovered information that he was a battered child, and so he had a motive to kill his father.  Slaying one’s father is not as common in our culture as the figurative equivalent of suing him in court or having him declared mentally incapacitated.

My father could do neither.  He wrote his dead father a letter instead, not really to reconcile with him, but to finally free himself from the resentment that had imprisoned him.  At the door of death, he faced the unknown with a clean slate, hoping to catch up in the afterlife with the father he wanted so much to have loved.


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