My first really serious talk with Roman Mabanta, my father-in-law was around May 1977. I asked for his daughter Lydia’s hand in marriage. I remember him waxing sentimental saying that he had wondered often what this moment would be like, a stranger asking for one of his daughters’ hand in marriage. And now here it was!
Throughout my life with Lydia, I had known my father-in-law as a strong yet distant figure. He sat at the head of the table, often quiet, but quite imposing in his presence and when he felt the need to express his conservative moral views to us, he did so with emphasis. It was difficult to imagine that he would enjoy a ‘wala-lang‘ kind of conversation even if once in a while, we actually could, and that was a big deal. It was better not to engage in banter though unless there was a point to it. He was quite a serious man. Sometimes, I feared him, tiptoeing around him so as not to arouse negative judgment or comment.
Not too strangely, I also admired him because he was mostly what I was not. He was a lawyer, a man who dealt with the concrete issues of life–property, money, ownership, rights, justice, fiduciary trust (he explained this to me one time, thanks dad) and stuff like that. His world revolved around the corridors of power and wealth which demanded measured responses. I guess this was part of the territory and had become embedded in him. I was, in many ways in awe of him. I saw myself on the opposite end– an artist, a man who delves in ideas and abstract things like art, music, poetry, creativity, literature, etc. In short, he was, at least in my eyes on the reserved and serious side of life while I lived on the relaxed, and more easy going side of the street. But one thing we both had a passion for, albeit expressed and appreciated in different ways was our deep interest for the spiritual life! But even here, we were not exactly on parallel paths. He found God in the traditional Catholic way while I did through a more oblique, circuitous route, and continue to discover God largely outside of any tradition. He spent a lot of time in prayer, as I did my zen sits. His faith gave him great solace. It was the bedrock of his existence, and for that I admired him.
But we hardly talked about religion then, not early on, and when we finally did, it was close to the end of his life. We mostly talked of other things–politics, the news of the day, his law firm, etc. A light but memorable conversation occurred at the onset of my married life. I remember talking to him about the difficulty I was having making ends meet which I had blamed then (as I percieved it) on Lydia’s extravagant spending habits. What should I do, I asked him. Half-smiling, he looked at me, and with a playful wink said that based on his own experience with my mother-in-law, the only solution was to ‘earn more’! And even if it was said with a laugh, it was advice seriously given and earnestly taken!
Other talks I had with him occurred when my mother-in-law was gravely ill in the US. Those were times when I first saw glimpses of his vulnerability, that behind the veneer of decisiveness and distant strength was a man who could also have big doubts, as it became obvious he greatly needed support from others. In fact, he felt dependent on his children for many decisions that had to be made. It was a turning point in how I knew him. It opened up a more intimate, human side of him which his family was seeing for the first time.
After mom died, I saw him reaching out to his children and grandchildren more. He still had it in him to stress the obligations and duties that he wanted us to adopt in living out the faith. But at the same time we also saw a softer, more relaxed, less judgmental, and approachable side of him. One could banter with him, make jokes and he would smile, laugh more often. He also seemed to enjoy everyone’s company more, and allowed himself opportunities to bond with his loved ones perhaps realizing the tenousness of life since mom’s death 3 years ago. My own children would kid around with him, and he seemed to enjoy being a doting grandfather generously giving in to their requests for this and that–a job he used to relegate to his wife. We had a chance to travel together during one Christmas vacation to Davao and even if I knew he was missing Mom a lot, he was light and fun to have around. He was making up for lost time. When Lydia had her bout with breast cancer, I even recieved a few concerned calls from Dad asking how I and the rest of my family were as he even offered financial assitance to tide us through the mounting expenses of treatment.
Dad (center), in the midst of family he loved and who loved him back.
When it was his turn to be diagnosed with cancer, he was devastated. Lydia and I were not surprised. Statistics say that a great number of husbands follow their wives to the grave within 3 to 5 years of losing them. Throughout his illness, few things could make him smile. One of them was Ananda, his great grand daughter who could make him forget momentarily what it was like to suffer. Perhaps because her middle name was Aleisha, close to the name Alice, the love of his life, she could do no wrong except delight him even if for brief moments.
During his last days, I took the opportunity to get to know him more, to bond with him, and to help him cope. Perhaps, I needed to do that for myself too. During one of our many talks, I expressed to him how I felt I never really had a dad since my father died in a plane crash when I was six. I explained to him how long it took me to call him dad but I was glad to do so and that I am able to talk to him. I told him I loved him that day, and in the following talks, I would tell him so repeatedly. He was teary-eyed. He always had a problem expressing himself emotionally, and more so when people did so to him.
During one of our last times together when his voice had already been reduced to just a soft, barely audible whisper, I made an attempt to bring comfort to him amid his pain. He was clearly suffering and miserable. He wanted to die and join his beloved Alice as soon as possible. If he could have his way, that moment was as good as any. I sat beside him, gently rubbing his hands as I always did, and told him that I was so sure that strangely enough, amid all this pain, God was here in the room with him. I asked him to just focus and stay in the moment, and leave tomorrow’s suffering for tomorrow, and just be here for the ‘gift of now’ which God was dispensing every moment. Eternity was now. God was here. We just had to stop resisting seeing Him. He was here asking us to focus not on the temporal body of pain but in the eternal spirit that was free of it and already saved by Him. Despite the tyranny of suffering, He was there with gifts that would tide him through this. Things were as they should be, and every moment, including this one had its own blessedness.
After awhile, he closed his eyes and seemed to calm down. We stayed in silence, my hands still holding his. When he opened his eyes and looked at mine deeply, purposefully, the way only a dying man can, and with great effort, he took a deep breath from his cancer-filled lungs and mustered a loud ‘thank you’, loud enough to sound like his normal voice. It was moment frozen in time. I was touched. I pressed his hand, and whispered back an “I love you, dad’ to him. That was my last conversation with him.
Lydia, Dad and I
Dad, I thank you for the gift that you were in our lives. From you , I learned a lot about integrity, decency, strength, and many other aspects of what being a good father and a husband ought to be. I love you, and even if I never had a chance to say that to my own father, I know you are equally deserving of it. I hope that even in a little way, I was worthy to be some sort of a son to you.