Father’s values

I guess it is perfectly understandable that Father’s Day was established almost as an afterthought to Mother’s Day. Sonora Smart Dodd, who started it all, thought of it as a way of paying tribute to her father—a single parent who raised six children all by himself. It is mothers, more than fathers, who exemplify the “gift-love” that binds parents to their offspring.

The writer C.S. Lewis describes this incomparable sentiment by calling attention to its paradox: “She gives birth, gives suck, gives protection. On the other hand, she must give birth or die. She must give suck or suffer. It is a Gift-love but it needs to be needed.” In the film “Philomena,” the lead character powerfully played by Judi Dench spends her entire life searching for the son who had been taken away from her. She needed to know if, at any point in his life, her son ever thought of her, or at least wondered where he came from.

Perhaps it is difficult to say that of fathers. In most cultures, they tend to be as detached from their children’s lives as mothers are, from the start, fastened to their young. Rare indeed is the father who, after learning he had unknowingly sired a child, would spend a lifetime looking for that child. Fear of resentment would easily erase any desire to meet a stranger drawn from one’s own blood. There’s simply nothing in that sheer biological tie that is as powerful as the gift-love that a mother forges with her child from the moment of pregnancy.

Be that as it may, fathers figure in their children’s lives in many other ways that are just as significant. Of these, that of being a good provider is probably the least memorable, something often mentioned in grudging acknowledgment of one who wasn’t there most of the time.

Yet, perhaps because it is usually complicated if not conflicted, our relationship with our fathers tends to grip us by its ambivalence. We see their good and bad traits mirroring each other in ourselves, in vivid demonstration of how they are sprung from the same genetic well. We often smile at the uncanny similarities, marveling at the mysterious way in which someone so distant could possibly shape us.

My father was an affectionate and demonstrative man. But, he could also be unreasonable to the extreme. He was quick to anger, and, while he seethed, he used painful words. This harsh side of him, however, never lasted more than an hour. When he cooled down, he felt invariably embarrassed by his outburst, half-wondering how he got into that state. He would then awkwardly try to soothe whatever wound he had caused. He was like a child in that sense. My mother’s virtue was that she knew exactly how to deal with his anger. She understood him thoroughly and, for all his irrational outbursts and expensive whims, loved him unconditionally.

They married during the last months of the Japanese Occupation. When the war ended, it was my mother who pushed my father to go back to the city as soon as the universities opened to resume his law studies. While she had been a brilliant student herself, she opted to stay home, take care of their first child, and earn a living for the family. But her mind was never idle; she studied his books and mastered the law almost as if she had gone to law school herself. She became his most abiding collaborator and editor.

After a short stint in private practice, my father was appointed as a fiscal, a public prosecutor. In this role, he was greatly influenced by the secular moral principles implicit in the modern legal system. These modern norms often clashed with the instincts of traditional society. My father applied these principles resolutely in his professional work as well as in everyday life. As a public servant, he was incorruptible. He took pride in his work and would often talk about the cases he decided at supper.  That is where we, the children, first encountered the values that were to serve as our own guideposts in life.

He earned barely enough to support the needs of a rapidly growing family. But he seemed unmindful of this. He commuted by public transport every day almost until his last years in the government service. But he had expensive tastes. He bought pedigreed dogs the cost of whose meals alone severely strained the family’s limited food budget. He expected good food on the table at every meal. He collected exotic flowering plants and pet birds that cost a fortune, and freely gave them away to guests who happened to fancy them. He spent a good part of his Christmas bonuses on carved furniture that seemed out of place in our simple house. My mother would often tell him that his priorities were those of a rich man—to which he would counter that man doesn’t live by bread alone.

My father was barely 60 when he died. Forced by illness to take an extended leave from his post as first assistant city fiscal of Manila, he spent the last year of his life sorting out family pictures and meticulously labeling and filing these between the covers of expensive photo albums. Shortly before his death, he gave my son, CP, the eldest of his many grandchildren, a 3-month-old cocker spaniel—the last of his lavish purchases.

Had he lived longer, he would probably beam with satisfaction watching our families.  All of us, including the grandchildren, have become dog lovers. We buy plants and keep our gardens well-trimmed. When we get together, we celebrate our father’s memory by preparing the best of our mother’s dishes. We have transformed the simple house in which we all grew into a beautiful home that our parents would have built for us if they had the money. Most of all, we have tried to live by our father’s values—honesty, a good name, love of country, and generosity.

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