I wrote a play in 1988 about my mother. Although my father is talked about a great deal in Mother Tongue, he never actually appears in the play because I always thought he deserves a play of his own and that, one day, I would give him his due. I still want to, but every time I think about him now, all I hear is his silence.
In December of 1969, seventeen months after I left the Philippines for the United States, my father died. I wrote about those first seventeen months away from home in a short story called “Flight.” The story was published in 1970 and has been included in a number of anthologies, but I must admit that I haven’t read it, not since I wrote it, until just moments ago.
Here are bits and pieces from “Flight.” It begins with my family seeing me off at the Manila International Airport.
I kissed my mother goodbye and told her to stop crying….Then I turned to my father. There were so many things which I had wanted to tell him, but the words wouldn’t come. They never do, when you most need them. And then they sound false. Luckily, my father understood….He grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously. The strength of his grip surprised me. I realized with a start that I had never shaken his hand before! I withdrew my hand quickly, but he grabbed it again. And this time he pressed his calendar-watch and amethyst ring into the palm of my hand. The actual physical contact was brief, but his touching me like that brought back a load of childhood memories, many of them unpleasant as well as embarrassing.
Again I did not know what to say. I could not imagine my father without his old calendar-watch and amethyst ring. He had worn both for as long as I could remember and now he was giving them to me!
The calendar-watch had hands which glowed in the dark, so you could tell the time all the time. It made no difference whether you were in your bedroom at 12:00 midnight or inside a darkened movie house at 12:00 noon—you could still tell the exact time because of those big luminous hands. As for the ring, it seemed almost too large and ostentatious for anyone’s hand except my father’s. The enormous purple birthstone was flanked on both sides by tiny white diamonds, and the whole ring sparkled with life every time light fell on it.
I fastened my father’s old calendar-watch on my right wrist and slipped his ring onto the ring finger of my left hand. I wanted to embrace him, to tell him that I loved him, but I checked both impulses as I disappeared into the departing lounge that hot and humid day at the Manila International Airport. I vaguely heard my father’s voice ringing after me. “Don’t forget to reset the calendar date on the watch when you get to America! Be sure to turn the hands back. You gain a full day when you cross the International Date Line!” Those were his parting words.
They were also the last words he ever said to me. My mother called me the night of December 6, 1969 to tell me that my father had died. He had not been well for a couple of years, and now he was gone. It was Sunday afternoon halfway across the world. My father had died ten minutes past midnight on Sunday. Mother said many of the people from the church were at the house. They were a great comfort to her. No, she didn’t want me to come home for the funeral. She said my father would have wanted me to stay in school because it was the week of final exams, so I can graduate after just one more semester. “You can come home in May, after you graduate.”
I went to the kitchen and poured myself a Scotch-and-water. Back in the living room, I remembered with a start that, seventeen months ago, my father and I had been drinking Scotch-and-water at the bar in the airport. It was the first time we had ever drunk together. I thought it ironic that the first time also turned out to be the last.
The living room was uncomfortably still. Left to myself, I decided that I wanted noise, clatter, music, life. I looked through my records—flipping through Liszt, Chopin, Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart—rejecting one and all until I chanced upon the “Farewell, Angelina” album by Joan Baez.
Joan Baez. Her voice has an airy quality about it which reminds me of lofty rooms and high ceilings, rainy mornings and windy afternoons, snowy evenings and cold December nights.
“You must leave now—
Take what you need you think will last;
But whatever you wish to keep,
You’d better grab it fast.”
I poured myself another drink in the kitchen and turned off the lights in the living room when I came back. The house plunged into eerie darkness. I looked at my watch. Its hands glowed luminously in the dark. It was only 11:30 P.M.
Then it dawned on me.
I realized with a start that I had been staring at my father’s old calendar-watch. I was wearing the watch he had pressed into my hand the last time I saw him! What had I done with his amethyst ring? Why wasn’t I wearing that, too? Again I stared at the watch, my eyes following the voyage of the second-hand as it overtook the minute-hand and then the hour-hand.
I remembered my father’s parting words at the airport: “Don’t forget to reset the calendar date on the watch when you get to America! Be sure to turn the hands back! You gain a full day when you cross the International Date Line!”
Saturday night was nearly over in Lawrence. Then I realized with another start that, soon, it would be midnight. Soon it would be Sunday. Soon the luminous hands of my father’s old calendar-watch would indicate that it was ten minutes past midnight, in mid-America. Technically speaking, right here, right now, my father was still alive, and he was going to die all over again, for my benefit–in Kansas!
“Yonder stands your orphan with his gun,
Crying like a fire in the sun.
Look out! The saints are coming through.
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.”
I swallowed the rest of my drink and held back my tears.
Forty-one years later, I still haven’t wept for my father. Perhaps because I wasn’t with him when he died, perhaps because I did not go home for the funeral so I never actually saw him dead, for whatever reason, there has never been any closure for me when it comes to me and my father. In my mind, he’s still very much alive, although these days I no longer remember what his voice sounds like. He never spoke much, to begin with. And now all I hear is his silence.
Today is Father’s Day. Bless me, father, for I have been remiss.