When I was a child, my father was my hero. He was everything to me. He was a soldier who was brave and strong and could do push-ups even when I was sitting on his back. He was the kind of dad who mostly believed in experience and discipline. He didn’t believe that “sheltering” us was the way to teach us about the world.
He was the kind of dad who threw us into the sea to teach us how to swim. My mother was horrified. But I remember him saying, “They are children. Children always find a way to survive.” Of course, he had to dive in after us. He would swim just beyond our reach so that we couldn’t reach for him and half-ass the lesson and stop…but he could always reach us when he knew we were very likely going to drown if he didn’t pick us up.
He was the kind of dad who taught his 10 year-old daughter how to shoot a gun. Again, my mother was appalled. But he was the father who reasoned that he was a soldier and guns would always be around. His children must know how dangerous they were, how to disarm the weapon, and how to treat them with respect.
He was the dad who took us on “wilderness survival” treks. We had bolos (a large curved dagger) and hatchets. I was no older than eleven. My brothers were even younger. He taught us how to climb trees and how to find food. He taught us how to break open a coconut without any tools. He taught us how to be brave.
He was the Father who disciplined us. We were terrified. We used to stand in the corner and face the wall, and be afraid of belts. We once had to kneel for hours on rock salt. Once, I remember, I was in such big trouble. My father had told me he would pick me up from school at exactly 4:00 pm, or 16oo hours as he used to say. I was supposed to be waiting at the gate. I was 10 years old. I decided that I was having a hell of a lot more fun playing tag with my friends. I forgot.
I was punished.
My father sent the driver to pick me up at 11:30pm. I was the only kid left in school. I had dinner with the Nuns (a terrifying experience, if you ask me). Of course I was in trouble when I got home. I cried for hours.
Finally, at 5 in the morning, typically the time when soldiers started their morning runs just outside our house, my father called me to him. You see, it was my mother’s birthday the night before. They had a big celebration planned. Except that, everything had been ruined because I had not shown up. My dad, he explained to me what responsibility was. He told me that I could not always think about myself. Other people can be affected because I did not think, did not feel, or simply did not care. And he whispered, “Do you know why I am teaching you this?”
I shook my head.
“Because I love you. And you are the oldest. You are a leader. You have to be the kind of leader people will look up to. You have to be the kind of person people will believe and trust. Do you understand?”
I wasn’t sure back then, that I really did.
I was the oldest child who would dive headfirst into danger, into fun and adventure. My brothers happily followed me. We were the kids with the scrapes and bruises, the broken bones, and grime. My mother used to lament at how dirty we always were.
I was the kid my mother punished because I ran back inside our burning house. There was a fire, you see, and we were all running out. My brothers and I, nerds that we were, all saved our books and backpacks for school over anything else. But my mother was herding us, she told us it was time to run far away because my father had weapons and gunpowder and grenades hidden in the house. We lived in a military camp. But I realized that Nanay Lucing, our old maid, wasn’t outside. I disobeyed my mom and ran inside the house, into the fire.
It was hot and really, really smoky. I wanted to cry because all of a sudden, I was really, really scared. I remember finding Nanay Lucing, she was trying to pack all her belongings. She was really poor and I understood that everything that she had really was everything that she had. I tried to get her to leave. I was crying at this point.
One of the soldiers came and took us away. He didn’t ask, he just picked me up and grabbed Nanay Lucing’s hand and we ran outside the house.
I was that oldest child that you really wished had more sense because her younger siblings really would follow in her footsteps. My mother was so mad because my brother, Alfonso had run in after me. She was able to grab him in time. My mother had been so angry and said that I had been stupid. I was defiant back then, despite the fear. I had yelled back, “Daddy would have saved her!”
If anyone had asked me back in those days what I wanted to be when I grew up, my response was simple. “I want to be just like my dad.”
Both my brothers had also wanted to be just like Dad.
My father was teaching me how to be just like him, only not by being able to break open a coconut against a sharp rock, or by not being afraid of beetles and spiders or centipedes, or by being able to make the perfect salute. He was trying to teach us to be good.
It took me a really, really long time after his death, when looking back wasn’t so painful anymore, to really see some of the lessons I learned from him. It took me a long time to understand that he taught us so much when we were so young because he knew he would not be around to watch us grow. How tragic it must be, to be a parent and know that you must leave your children behind long before you are ready–long before they are ready to be left on their own.
Some people thought he was really hard on us growing up.
But he never broke our spirit. We were still a pretty wild bunch of kids. In fact, he was often with us on our adventures. He only got mad when we strayed, when we gave in to a little bit of mean-spiritedness, when we disrespected other people and nature. He taught us that our actions are never without consequences.
Once, when my youngest brother stepped on my homework, I kicked him. He cried and ran to my father. My dad called me to the room and asked me to explain. I explained with as much indignation as I could that my brother had stepped on my homework. My father kicked me. Lightly, of course, but enough that I fell backwards.
He said, “You woke me up. Does that mean I can kick you because I am angry?” He looked at me, his face very, very calm. “Is this how you want me to treat you?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“Then why do you treat you brother that way?”
Naturally, I had no answer. I could say that I was angry. But that would have been circular. I stood quietly knowing that there was nothing I could say to explain. He said, “Look at me. ” I looked him straight in the eye, terrified. “Do you treat other people this way also? Do you hurt them? Do you say mean things to make others hurt?”
“I don’t know.”
“You have to know this. You will have to be kind, you will have to learn to forgive. And you will especially have to learn how to control your temper. Because someday, you will wish someone was good to you.”
“If people are mean to me, why can’t I be mean back?”
“But I don’t want you to be mean first, do you understand?”
He never did answer my question. But I sort of got his point. At least it made me feel kind of better that my brother had to stay up late with me and help me fix my homework.
But no matter how many lessons my father taught us, I was still headstrong as an adolescent. When I was fourteen, I had a BIG fight with my father. And I was mean. No, worse…I was cruel.
I said, “You can’t stop me. You can’t even stand anymore.” And with that I left the house to go do something stupid with my friends.
Two days later, he died.
To this day…I regret those words. I think it was only fitting punishment for me that in the last hours of his life, when I came to say good night, he had looked at me like I was a stranger. He asked me, “Who are you?”
I had turned my back on everything that he had taught me. The universe decided that it would probably be a good idea for my father to completely forget who I was.
Do you know what heartbreak feels like?
Heartbreak is looking into the eyes of someone you loved and adored, and not see a glimmer of recognition. Heartbreak is grabbing a hold of someone’s hand like it was a lifeline, and realizing he was not holding your hand back. Heartbreak is wondering if all the years of memories were gone, too and that you just ceased to exist for that person who was your whole world.
Heartbreak is saying sorry…but knowing that it didn’t mean anything to that other person. Heartbreak is wishing I had been a better person. Heartbreak is staring at a headstone in a graveyard loving and hating that person at the same time, so much that your heart feels like it’s about to burst, your blood is boiling, you get tunnel vision and it’s hard to take a breath.
Heartbreak is knowing you had disappointed the one person in the world you wanted to live up to, and knowing that you had lost all chances of making it up. Heartbreak is sitting in a chapel, head bowed, tears rolling down your cheek, heart full of regret–hurt, betrayed, disillusioned–yet still sitting there because you need to believe, need to find comfort, need to be forgiven.
Heartbreak is opening your eyes and still seeing nothing. Only the memory of the hurt in his eyes one night, and the emptiness the other.
My father was my hero. I was Daddy’s little girl. I wanted to be just like him. It breaks my heart to know that his last memory of me was breaking his heart.
Two years ago, my mother told me that my dad had told her the night before he died that she had nothing to worry about. The kids are good, he had said. My mother told me that my dad had said I was going to grow up to be beautiful and strong. And my mother hugged me and said that Daddy told her not to worry about me, because I would be beautiful inside, too.
When I grow up, I want to be that girl my Dad said I was going to be. I want to grow up to be Daddy’s Girl.