Notes to My Father

It is the third year of the great hollowness.  As I write this, trees glow in the sun. As I write this, it is spring, and I am thinking of the bright sky of my childhood, of the past and the future. I find myself in a world of vagueness and possibilities.

Let me begin on that sunny three o’clock September afternoon, a cloudless blue sky, when out of nowhere, something wiped out the light of day for a few seconds. I was sitting in a bright living room facing a large glass window that looked out into the clear sky when it occurred: a shadow just passed before me. I ran to the balcony for an unobstructed view of the sky, to check if I had gone mad, if it was all in my imagination. But first I was taken to a time when I was nine or ten, in our house in the countryside where I had wasted the hours inside my head. I didn’t create an army of fictional characters, but I did think that an ogre lived in the old mango tree that stood right outside my bedroom window, and that the ghost of my grandfather roamed around the house making acquaintance with the granddaughter whom he had never met. That was the extent of my imagination. So I stood on the balcony for a few minutes, confused at what occurred. Did a cumulus cloud pass through? An airplane? Later that evening, the unexplained waft of dark cloud that made me shudder turned into sad news. “Dad is gone,” my brother said. “I know,” I replied strangely and with calm resignation, as though the shadow that briefly passed through me was how I first got the news about my father’s death, as though my father’s spirit had travelled all the way from Cebu, Philippines to Los Angeles. In an odd, incomprehensible way, I felt that it was his way of saying farewell to me before he departed the realm of the living.

I was very close to my father, and like all daughters who think that their fathers are supermen of sorts, indestructible, I was devastated when my dad passed away. I am not sure if devastated is the right word, perhaps it is, but five times heavier; it is a hollowness, an unfathomable silence.  Since his death, it seems like I’ve become a stranger trudging along an unfamiliar place.  Sometimes I feel like a girl of seven, afraid of being left alone in this big raucous world. And then there are days when I feel old, say seventy-eight, and my idle time is spent on nostalgia, reminiscing about the old days. I am sitting on a chair facing the sea, and every ripple and wave is a fragment of the past. I see myself as a happy child playing on the white sands of San Remigio without a care in the world. In the blink of an eye, I am twenty-five, wide-eyed, in love with the world and all its possibilities. And there I am in my thirties, sometimes lost, sometimes self-assured that I have found my place in the world. But every now and then, there are hours when the tick of the clock snuffs me out of the haze and takes me to the present, to my life of books and papers and melancholy music. I mull over my acts, even the way I am drawn to concocting words as though they are my nourishment, and I scream at the universe to tell me the meaning of it all. But I get no response, just the world going about its usual ways, indifferent.

A few months ago, I bought on impulse Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking from a local bookstore.  I did not know that the book had to do with grief. I was on the Blue Bus heading home when I opened it. I read the first few pages, and then more, and I felt a thrust, a tearing of the heart, if it is the heart where grief resides.   I suddenly felt cold and then tears fell from my eyes. We passed a mall along Westwood Boulevard.  I looked out the window and scanned the people’s festive faces. I felt the passengers on the bus staring at me as more tears fell from my eyes. I wanted to look back at all of them and say, It’s just that, my daddy died. In my head I heard my own voice saying the word daddy in a childlike tone, as though I am not a grown, independent woman, as though I was the little girl who sat in his office chair, my feet barely touching the floor, waiting until he got done with work, then we’d head home and listen to Frank Sinatra in the car. On the bus ride, it seemed like I was drowning in the sea within.

I did not relish going to counseling or joining grief therapy sessions as some well-meaning friends had suggested. I was not dismissive about the idea. I just felt like I needed to be, whatever that be entailed. I wrote an email to those dearest to me and told them that I might not respond to their calls and messages at this time, and that I was aware of and grateful for their support and concern. “If there’s anything you need at all, please do not hesitate to reach out,” they said. I remained distant and did not take any phone calls. My voicemail was always full, and I hardly checked messages. I steered clear of those who knew how hard I took the loss because I did not want to hear condolences. I did not want them to ask me how I was doing. Perhaps I was still in denial.  Besides, I thought it would save them the awkwardness of combing for the right words to say. For there are no words that would offer comfort.   Meanwhile, I could not remember to eat. I stared blankly at my surroundings. I forgot where I put things. I could not work. I repeatedly listened to Ennio Morricone’s music and nothing else. Weeks passed, months, a year, two years, and still the yearning, the melancholy, the hollowness. Meanwhile, I gained new friends. I socialized. I spent more time with my new friends than with my old ones. The piano was my therapist, my prized possession. I played the keys for hours at a time. I wrote a lot. I wrote notes to my dad; some handwritten, some typed on my computer. They were random messages; some were sad, some were matter-of-fact as though he was sitting next to me and I was telling him the sorry plight of my personal life.

Once in the middle of a work meeting, I had a panic attack. I did not know then what it was or what incited it. I felt lightheaded, and something about the four walls of the room felt so constricting that it made me dizzy and out of breath. My panic attacks began after my father had died. I also experienced insomnia, anxiety, weakness, sudden onset of feeling cold despite fair weather, etc.  C.S. Lewis said, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear…The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.” In an article I read at The New Yorker called “Good Grief” by Meghan O’Rourke, it says, “…new research suggests that grief and mourning don’t follow a checklist; they’re complicated and untidy processes, less like a progression of stages more like an ongoing process – sometimes one that never fully ends.” The bereaved are also unbalanced physically.  Perhaps this explained all my sleeplessness, restlessness, palpitations, panic attacks, etc. But lately my sleeping has improved, and so did my appetite.  Perhaps I am coping better. It is cliché but it is true – take it one day at a time– has been the only way for me by far.

Some weeks ago on the bus, I stood next to a woman who made remarks about how unpredictable the Los Angeles weather had been lately. Our chat then transitioned to other things; she started to talk about her children. I do not know what possessed me to ask her if she had a favorite child, the one closest to her heart, even though there was a gentleness to her that told me she loved them all equally. First there was a pause, a brief contemplation, and then a soft yes, that it was her son that was her favorite but that he had passed away at age 30. I apologized, feeling like an idiot for asking a stranger such a personal and emotional question. She said it was okay, that talking about it now did not hurt as much as it used to. I wanted to say that I knew her even though we had just met, as though having gone through grief we both immediately fostered a sort of kinship. I listened to her and asked her questions without telling her about my own grief. Maybe I wanted to listen to her in order to understand my own experience and find answers to my own questions. And unbeknownst to her, she provided answers. She said it took about four years before she had begun to accept her son’s death, that during those unbearable times she could not do anything but sulk, that she had isolated herself from her own family and friends, that she did not see any therapist, that she had grieved in her own way which involved talking to her son constantly and listening to his favorite music. When our conversation ended, she thanked me and waved me goodbye. Bless you, I said to her in my mind as I watched her get off the bus and cross the busy street.

Elizabeth Gilbert said, “Deep grief sometimes is almost like a specific location, a coordinate on a map of time. When you are standing in that forest of sorrow, you cannot imagine that you could ever find your way to a better place. But if someone can assure you that they themselves have stood in that same place, and now have moved on, sometimes this will bring hope.” In the past I had witnessed a dear friend go through grief when his father had died, and at that time, I had very little understanding of what he had went through.  He seemed to be wasting his life away, drinking to excess, taking drugs and abandoning his promising career. But over time, he got back on his feet, took up running, got a cat, and made positive changes in his life. What he told me when I opened up to him about my grief was this: Give it time. Give yourself time.

Once at an acquaintance’s party, I met R, a former student of my father’s many years ago when he was a dean at a university. R told me that my father was a great law professor, well-loved by the students even though he had no qualms about failing half of the class, and that years later, when R himself became a lawyer, other lawyers had spoken highly of my father. I had heard similar stories from my father’s colleagues and friends, from our relatives, and they all pointed out to the same thing – that he was a kind and remarkable man. And it’s stories like these that outweigh the sadness I feel whenever I think of him although at times it also makes me miss him more. And I think what I miss most is talking to him. I miss his tenderness. Also, I miss being loved by a father. Many years ago, my best friend and I had talked about the inevitable fact of death that will happen to our fathers, how our world will collapse when the times comes, how we would not know what to do when the time comes. And that’s how we phrased it—when the time comes—because we could not put father and die in the same sentence. We believed that when our fathers die, we would die, too. And yet. Here I am, still alive, and most days, doing quite well. Which is to say that I do have relapses but there are small victories, too: each day I am beginning to see life again, I am beginning to live again. I am learning to live with grief.

Two weeks after my father died, I dreamt of him. In the dream, he was trying to tell me something, but I could not hear him. We were sitting on the sofa facing each other, and I could tell from his eyes and gestures that he was telling me something important but no voice came out of him so I could not make out what he was saying. Last week I had the same dream. All this time I had been trying to decipher what my father had tried to tell me. When I took a walk yesterday afternoon, a brown butterfly flew next to me. This was not the first time that it had happened. It is a Filipino superstition that a brown butterfly signifies the presence of a deceased loved one. When the butterfly followed me for most of my walk, I strongly felt my father’s presence. “Where Do I Begin” started to play in my head, a song from the movie “Love Story” that he had often asked me to play on the piano. As I walked the road, I paid attention to the little details like I used to do. A hummingbird hovered above the cobalt blue salvias. Fragrant gardenias thriving on the sidewalk brought to mind a flower from my childhood, the bell-shaped ylang-ylang. Colors flooded my sight—yellow primroses, pastoral greens, crimson fence, black graffiti on white walls. Stories wafted in the air. ‘We’re not together anymore,’ said the man to his friend as they crossed the street. Laughter ensued from behind the low wall of a white bungalow. Desperations, little dramas, moments of elation unfolded in hidden corners. Parked bicycles swarmed the alleys. The calm sky spoke of hope and faith. As I approached the beach, I paused and deeply inhaled the salty air. I sat on the sand for another hour, waited for the streaks of orange and red in the sky to appear and signal the death of the day. Then it occurred to me, as the sun descended on the horizon, that what my father was trying to tell me in my dream was this: Life goes on; life must go on. I stared at the sunset as though it was the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen. As I stood before the immensity of the sea, I composed a short note to my father. Dear Dad, what a wonder to stand small against the world, to heed the world, and sing a hymn to life.


JJ Quijano is the author of the novel “The Unfolding.” Their work has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Ang Diaryo.