Filipineses


“Papa,” the last time

His gaze lingers, unblinking, as if he were seeing me for the first time. I wonder if I don’t look grotesque in the closeness of an ambulance cab we have been packed into. And yet his eyes graze every spot I worked at concealing like a bug-shaped mole on my upper left cheek and a shallow dimple he couldn’t possibly find because I, too, am gazing down at him baffled, unsmiling.

His cheeks defined by sharp high bones like mine, now webbed with track lines of the years have been drained of anxiety—some perhaps his own of his younger years and mine of evenings he waited for me to come home. His lips held by a round chin like I have, a bit wide like a woman’s flaked—they always did from some kind of vitamin deficiency like mine—and slacked as if about to say something but stays mute.

The paramedic edges closer and leans towards me. He whispers, “Say something to keep his mind awake. His hearing is still sharp.” But his thoughts like mine could be drowning in the rhythmic rise and fall of the siren as the ambulance hurtles into space that for the first time do not pull us apart like they did when as a child his visits home seemed years away. 

What could I tell him now? “I love you” or words akin to it that we never did exchange? He did sign letters I received as a child, “Love,” answers to letters I scrawled that asked for dolls—he sent books instead, saying these were easier to find: the first ever on my eighth birthday, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper he dedicated with a noble quote beyond a child’s grasp: “Education supplants intelligence but does not supply it.” 

He worked in the city a whole evening away and schooled nights, too. I remember birthdays I waited for him to step off the only bus trip that got to our town—it did stop at our gate for the driver to drop off a parcel of golden delicious apples and walnuts and a greeting card every time all those years that I read only recently: “Darling Baby…” 

“Papa” was a word I could say properly accented in the last syllable the Spanish way my mother taught me. But as it was foreign to my friends who sat on their father’s lap whom they called by the native term not “Papa”, it was a mere idea for me—the absent arms that could have caught me when I fell from the stairs once and scraped my knees or whom I imagined brought home chico, a brown fruit I craved during my malarial delirium, the figure who should have pinned my ribbons in grade school when I attained first honors, and who could have led fans as I rode on the open top of a bedecked convertible being muse of our Senior Class. 

When chosen to represent our school in a regional secondary oratorical contest, he descended like Zeus into my existence—writing my piece, training me in elocution, whipping me with his serious stance as he listened to me recite every evening on our balcony to a phantom crowd. Like a sword dangling in the night sky instead of the moon, a gold medal he had aimed for me haunted the hours—my stomach churned acids that kept me in the bathroom retching every morning. His presence had turned so venomous that I refused to go to the competition if he stayed—in the battle of wills I won; he left on the eve of the contest. I got a silver medal. He wired a note and sent me my first gold wrist watch. 

By the time he could afford to bring my mother and sister over to the city and we lived as a family, I had started working in the publications office of a university. He critiqued any piece I wrote—I faced every blank page terrorized by standards he pointed out in books he shoved at the dinner table. I broke down one evening tossing out the books, raging at his indifference to the child he doesn’t know for whom he wasn’t present ever. He had cried, quivering as he is now. 

“What’s happening?“ I rasp. The paramedic whispers, “a slight convulsion, don’t worry. We have it under control. Hold his hand.” I take his left hand in mine. 

It is the first time our hands clasp—his feels so fragile, so light like butterfly wings. I am tempted to squeeze it, to drain that power he had so held me in rein but the hand fluttered like a fallen wing. 

Is that a blink of one of his eyes? “No,” the paramedic tells me, “just muscle contraction.” The gaze continues to lie on my brow. 

What could be missing that he seems to search beyond me? I realize I don’t have time to ruminate, as he would call indulging in thought. With words, alien words, English words were how he kept me as a child clasped to his without being there, without being present.    

Discombobulate, was another word he loved. When he tore up tangled phrases and sentences I wrote, he hammered the rules of clarity. Work on language that paints pictures, he later added, as he earmarked pages of books on the craft of fiction writing. By then, my writing had turned murky—I had fallen in love and my emotions kept me etherized. But love was a word that he never talked about. 

The sirens wind down to a whine. “Papa,” I hear my voice and it sounds like a child’s. He blinks again and is that an attempt to squeeze my hand? The cab doors fling open. Paramedics push out the gurney and I let go of his hand. His gaze moves to the sky. Out on the hospital lobby, a river of moving legs seems to flow ever away, bringing my father.

It has been two decades since and here I am writing the way he would have loved, present in each moment that I craft words.

Copyright © 2010 by Alegria Imperial

Published in Timeless Spirit Magazine Vol. 7, Issue #4, May 2010

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