Sunday, August 18, 2013

Saying Goodbye to Papa, a personal essay by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

Good morning, dear Readers! I'm sharing a personal essay about my dealing with my father's death. I hope it's not too sad for this beautiful Sunday! ~ Cecilia

Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

     I don’t remember if I said goodbye to my father before he left for Hong Kong, before he died.  It was October when he, my mother, their friend Dingding, my oldest sister and brother left.  This happened a long time ago, in 1957, and through the years, I've rearranged scenes in my mind, mixed things up so that I'm uncertain as to what is real and what is fantasy.  I see the child that I was playing outside in the huge yard, climbing up the starapple tree, daydreaming as I often did of imaginary places. I liked to travel far to a magical land with dark forests and princesses and enchanted beings, and a huge pearl called the mutya resting deep in the heart of a banana flower. 

     I heard these stories from the servants in the outdoor kitchen with open hearth where the cook prepared our meals in huge black pots and pans, the scent of garlic wafting through the smoky air.  In the evenings, I'd sit on the wooden bench and listen to their tales, which they shared in between grating coconuts, slaughtering chickens, peeling and chopping vegetables.  Sometimes they listened to the radio soap operas, and I remember some of those stories too - illicit love affairs, out-of-wedlock children, and those catchy radio jingles for Carnation milk or Camay soap or Brilliantine hair pomade.

     My mother and father had planned this holiday for a long time.  They'd been married for almost 25 years, and wanted to celebrate in a big way.  Papa had worked hard in his construction business; he was a civil engineer, a contractor who built roads.  Mama too had her own buy-and-sell venture; and she was also very much involved in Papa's business.  Many nights, they worked overtime in the building of the Talisay highway, my father's last project.  I remember staying up late, watching the men mix sand and gravel and cement in the huge concrete mixer, then pouring the mixture onto huge wooden frames on the ground.  When I could barely keep my eyes open, I crawled into the back seat of Papa's red jeep and fell asleep to the buzzing sounds of the numerous mosquitoes and the distant clanging of men and machines. I scratched those mosquito bites, and sometimes they got infected.  When my legs developed ugly sores, Mama washed my legs with a hot solution made from guava shoots to prevent scarring.

     After Papa finished the Talisay Highway, they finalized their vacation plans.  By this time, Papa was 63 years old, with rheumatism.  Later on, long after he'd died, I learned from my brother that Papa had been on an experimental treatment using cortisone.  His legs hurt him terribly and he wanted to be able to walk normally again, perhaps even play tennis as he used to.  This athletic side of my father was something I didn't know because he was 56 when I was born. My classmates used to ask if he was my grandfather.  There were many nights when as a little girl, I used to rub Sloan's Liniment on his swollen legs.

     Dingding, my mother's friend and business partner, was part of this 1957 expedition.  So were my brother and oldest sister, who were both in college and on semester break.  My other sister and I, who had school, had to stay home with the servants. 

     This was nothing new to us.  My parents were often away - in Manila or Negros Oriental when my father worked on the Binalbagan Highway.  And Mama traveled often to Hong Kong for her business.  We were used to a life that revolved around school and classmates: up at 6:30 a.m., school, lunch at home, school, home by 5 p.m.  Sometimes after school, we had friends over or we visited them.  And  in the evenings, after I'd played hard and smelled of sour sweat, I hung out in the dirty-kitchen for that magic time of stories and down-home living - beheaded chickens flapping around the room, or gigantic coconut beetles landing on the ancient wood table.  We had supper by 7, then we did our homework, and I was in bed by 8.  In my family, I was renowned for falling asleep at exactly 8 p.m., just like a clock, no matter where I was. 

And so I thought nothing of their leaving that October day.  I was resigned to following our routine until they got back.  I'd given them my wish-list: a walking doll and a tea set.  And there must have been a lot of shouting from Mama's part because that was how she was when she became excited.  And they must have spent a lot of time packing and leaving instructions to the servants.  And that day when they finally piled their suitcases in the car and jeep, I must have been up that tree lost in my dream world because I have no recollection of having said goodbye to any of them.

     As the days passed, my excitement built because they'd be coming home soon with all our presents.  But one Wednesday, mid-morning, a student summoned me from Redemptorist church and told me Reverend Mother Superior wanted to talk to me.  We ran all to the way to her office.  Reverend Mother Superior, a tall, slender and serious Belgian nun, asked if I'd heard that my father died.  I shook my head.  I don't know when exactly my tears fell but by the time we were in the chapel praying, I was sobbing.  I have forgotten many things from the past, but never that moment when I learned that Papa died from a heart attack.  That moment was a knife wound in my heart that has never healed completely, despite all these years, and despite numerous retelling of that moment to try and exorcise it once and for all. 

     One of the things they brought back from Hong Kong was a tape-recorded message from Papa.  "Hello, Baby, hello, Nene," he said in a cheerful voice.  It was one of the things that made his wake and funeral feel unreal.  He really wasn't dead, I'd convinced myself, but had gotten lost in Hong Kong someplace. 

Many years later, when an inexplicable sadness and feeling of great loss took a hold of me, a therapist told me to imagine myself in a safe place.  I imagined a cool dark church, and I saw myself kneeling on the pew in front of the altar.  Picture your father in front of you, she instructed.  And I did - Papa with his gentle smile, with his cane nearby, his crossword puzzle in his hand.   And I followed her directions to say good bye to him, and my heart broke once again because I knew in a most definite way that my father was gone.  

Top-my father as a young man
Next - My father's last Christmas, l-r: my sister, Papa, and me
Next - l-r: my sister, brother, and me with the doll. 
Bottom -I found an early picture of me posted below.
Read also:
My father's picture in Tau Alpha Fraternity, UP

The Bachelors and Femina Days of Cebu - Memorabilia photos
Old Photographs and Memories 

The Schools I attended, Part 1, St.Theresa's College
The Schools I attended, Part 2, UP & Maryknoll
The Schools I attended, Part 3, UCLA

Death of a Carnival Queen
Lola Remedios and her Sayas
Roots - Pictures of my mother and more
Archbishop Jose Ma. Cuenco and Spain's Generalissimo Franco
75 Cebuano Families of Distinction to be honored in Cebu

tags: Cebu, Philippines, Philippine, Mariano Manguerra, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Cecilia Brainard, Laguna, Manguerras, Cuenco

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