*This was written right after Papa passed away. I found that writing about my feelings at the time helped relieve some of the heartache caused by his passing. But come to think of it, the pain never really went away...
Death had not knocked on our family’s door in a long time. I am the eldest in a family of two girls and three boys, and all of us, especially my Mama, had not expected that life would deal us such a painful blow that early. I, for one, had taken it for granted that nobody really knows when our time here on earth will run out, and this reality was rudely thrust upon me last November 27, 2005.
Papa was one of those individuals who just couldn’t sit still for one minute. At 54, he decided to opt for early retirement to enjoy life more: play tennis, groom the dogs, take care of his garden, and romp with his grandchildren. We were all surprised when he suddenly announced that he was quitting the job he had held for more than 20 years, but he quickly adapted to life at home with Mama, who reveled in his attention. Their roles had been reversed: Mama, who tended to her small business in Cubao, had become the ‘breadwinner,’ while Papa waited on her hand and foot. He brought her to and from the office, cooked their meals, and did the laundry as well as all the other household chores.
In his day, Papa was breathtakingly handsome, a dead-ringer for Sylvester Stallone with his deep-set eyes, thick eyebrows, and long, straight nose. He also had charisma, his ticket to success in the competitive world of sales. When he stepped into a room, everyone was sure to look up and take notice. Admired and well-liked by his peers, he was what one would call a “people person,” and those he came into contact with were certain to remember him. Papa was also the number one supporter and organizer of family reunions, and that job was a handful when it came to the Arias Clan. He didn’t mind, though, because he had all the time in the world for others.
As Papa neared 50, his hair started thinning out and went from gray in places to almost entirely white. There were times when he would decide not to use his supply of black hair dye, but this came in handy during inter-club tennis tournaments when rival team members, thinking he couldn’t be such a good player because he looked old and all, would pick him to challenge. Tsk, tsk, big mistake! Anyone who’d seen my Papa play would be amazed at how graceful and athletic he still was at that age. When he was at the top of his game, I believe he would easily have beaten any 20-year old intermediate player. He was an athlete at heart who played a wide range of sports aside from tennis (table tennis, basketball, swimming, bowling, and billiards). He was, for me and my siblings, truly a Super Dad who was capable of anything and everything he set his mind to.
Papa was like that when he decided to take up something – he gave his time and energy until the craft was perfected. He had taken up tennis in his late thirties, and in three years’ time was playing like a pro. He was also an amazing coach; aside from teaching me and my brothers how to play, he also got Mama (who had absolutely no athletic bone in her body!) into the game. His grandchildren were next on his list of trainees, of course, but before that, he made up his mind to build a swimming pool for them in our front yard. He slowly dug a hole, which grew bigger, deeper, and in a year’s time, there it was: Papa’s swimming pool. And oh, how the children loved it! I still remember Papa’s smile of satisfaction, and how he was quick to remind us that we had all scoffed at his idea at first.
I got pregnant at 20 without having finished college. I saw the anguish and disappointment in Papa’s face when I finally told him why I hadn’t yet enrolled that first semester of 1992. I knew that the man I looked up to the most had such high hopes for me, and from that day on, I decided that I would make it up to him someday.
Twelve years and two other children later, I finished law school and invited my parents to our graduation rites. My most vivid memory of that day was not being on stage as my name was being called, but of Papa taking me aside afterward as we were on our way to the car and whispering in my ear in a choked voice, “Anak, I’m so proud of you.” I remember how tight I had hugged him and how I had wiped my own tears of joy because finally, I knew I had redeemed myself in his eyes. I was also the proudest bar-passer come oath-taking day at the PICC, because both parents were there to celebrate with me and witness the event (my husband, the sweetheart that he is, was kind enough to relinquish his seat in favor of Papa).
I had always thought Papa would be there to witness my eldest son’s college graduation as he was there for mine. Mama and I would spend hours over the phone laughing about how Papa was always worrying what he would do when he was too old to play tennis, and how he hated it when youngsters called him “Lolo” behind his back. We talked about how Papa dreamed of spending the rest of his days with Mama, tilling the land he had purchased in Lucena City, Quezon where he would build a nipa hut near the creek and take his grandchildren camping. But I guess the Lord knew my Papa couldn’t handle such an existence: having such an active mind, eager to do so much, coupled with an old, tired and unwilling body that could no longer play tennis, let alone manage any other strenuous activity.
Just as Papa filled our lives with such joy, his passing left a painful void in our hearts no one else can fill. He suffered a massive heart attack that fateful night of November 26, 2005 while he was in one of his favorite places on earth: the tennis court in Lagro, Fairview. He never recovered. Even while he was gasping for breath, he had the sense to lie supine, and gave instructions for someone to call my youngest brother, and when Jay-ar arrived minutes later, how to carefully carry him to the car. He was immediately rushed to the hospital, but his life force was slowly ebbing away. One of his last words to my brother was, “Take care of your Mama,” and to Mama he said, “See you in heaven, one day soon.”
As my sister and I were on our way to the hospital, I had a painful knot in my stomach. We were hoping against hope, but there was the terrible realization that Papa was about to leave us. My life with Papa literally flashed before my eyes: throwing me up in the air as a child, his infectious laughter, his handsome face smiling at me, the way his stubbles grazed my cheek whenever he kissed me in greeting, everything he gave to us, how much he loved us all.
Papa was pronounced dead at about 1:00 a.m. the following day. He was 59 years old - an occasional drinker who had never so much as smoked a cigarette in his life.
I miss him so. Going to Fairview on weekends with my family has never been the same ever since. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for Mama at night, lying awake, thinking of Papa. But like my husband says, we have to let her be. Ultimately, we all have to face grief alone.
When I was 19, I signed up for a five-kilometer run with Papa. Fueled by youthful pride and my desire to win the race, I made the mistake of giving all my energy and sprinting through the first few minutes of the run. Papa was warning me to take it easy and to pace myself, but I wouldn’t listen. Soon enough, I had a gut-wrenching stitch on my side and I felt I couldn’t go on. We slowed down, and Papa instructed me to breathe slowly and focus on the rhythm in my steps. He prodded and encouraged as we ran and somehow, I persevered and was the first female to finish the race.
I remember that day in difficult times, and I swear I can hear Papa’s voice in my head and feel his warm embrace. He whispers words of encouragement, reminds me to be strong, that I can do anything I set my mind to, and that no matter what, he is proud of me.
You will always be remembered as the loving husband, the perfect father, and a good friend to everyone you knew. We love you, Papa.