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The year I started my life project (and Amang completed his)


By Joem Antonio

I hope that it is common, as it was back then, to hear an adult tell you that your father was a good man. Such was my experience whenever one of my father’s former students would approach me.

“Your father’s a good man,” they’d tell me. Or teacher. Or lecturer. Or mentor. To me, as a child, my memory of Amang was always as a father: somebody who didn’t mind his kids playing in his office as he worked, or somebody who’d lend his laptop for an hour to indulge us with some computer games. He’d never buy us a console though. His reason: it was too expensive a toy. That’s the closest I’ve seen him as an economist when I was a child.

A FATHER'S GIFT The author writes about the fulfilled life of his Amang and how he was shaped by it

A FATHER’S GIFT The author writes about the fulfilled life of his Amang and how he was shaped by it

When I grew older, Amang knew how to get me on the right track whenever I got lost. Once, in high school, I had this low key rebel streak that nearly all my grades were barely passing. That time, I feared that Amang, who hardly ever raised his voice, would finally do so upon seeing my mediocre performance. Instead, he just looked at me and said, “Joem, you’re old enough to know what you’re doing.” Those words, calmly said, were enough for me to get my act together.

I lost my way again soon after graduating college. I quit my first job barely two months in. Discouraged, I ended up doing what my generation calls, “soul searching.” All Amang had to say was, “As a father, I support you in your soul searching. But as an economist, it’s my duty to warn you that your market value will drop…” Those words got me to apply to teach in a University (the same one my father works in), pursue a PhD, and develop a career in writing.

For most of my professional life, I spent my mornings attending mass and having breakfast with him, talking about anything under the sun. Amang was also my movie buddy, and we’d sometimes sneak out after work to catch whatever was showing in the cinemas.

Such was Amang, and he was a good man.

Then, one February in 2012, after mass, Amang begged off from breakfast.

“I have a headache, I’m heading home to sleep it off.”

For some reason, I felt worried. I knew Amang wasn’t going to be around forever. But was this it? It was just a headache, but I couldn’t shake off the feeling of dread. True enough, a few days later, the headache didn’t disappear. It only became worse. By the end of the diagnosis, I heard the words I dreaded: nasopharyngal cancer, stage 4.

Reactions within the family varied. Amang was all for palliative care, as he felt that he had already lived a full life. My older brother Eman was married already, and I had my PhD and was about to get married, and my younger brother Mar was about to graduate. We were all quite self-sufficient and ready to help Mama in whatever she needed. But Eman insisted that if there’s hope for cure, we should aim for more than just palliative care. After some family discussion, Amang conceded. We’re giving the cancer one big fight and hope for the best.

MY AMANG'S LIFE was an accomplished one.

MY AMANG’S LIFE was an accomplished one.

We relocated Amang from our house to a condo that had no stairs and was located near the University. I stayed with Amang for most of 2012, still accompanying him to his daily mass in the morning, but no longer for breakfast, as he preferred to sleep right after. Unless asked, Amang never talked about his pain. He had that serene smile in his face despite that subtle scowl that reminded me of his cancer. His chemotherapy was taking a toll on him, but signs leaned towards improvement. Come December 2012, I got married. I moved out of the condo, and Mar took my place.

Then came 2013. Amang’s cancer got worse and it spread to his liver. I heard about it on my way home from work and I knew the chances for recovery were pretty low. I prayed really hard, raking my head for reasons to give God that Amang’s life may be extended. I couldn’t find any. Amang was a pious man, praying and going to mass daily. He was a good man, as his students and colleagues would testify. And his goodness was very much grounded on his piety. This impending death was his way to God. I ended up facing two grim conclusions: that this cancer was Amang’s last stretch before he can make it to heaven,and that all my reasons for him to stay was to indulge my own selfishness. My wife Joy was pregnant at that time; at the very least, shouldn’t Amang see his first grandchild before he passes on? But, if there is an afterlife, wouldn’t he see his first grandchild anyway, even after death?

At this point, I could hardly visit Amang. The cancer has made him more susceptible to other illnesses, and it was advised that I keep a safe distance in case I carried an illness to my pregnant wife. As a son, this was a painful decision, but I was also a husband now, and a father-to-be. I made it a point that my sparse visits were going to be optimized, and probably these were the most touching of the moments that I did visit him.

In one of my last visits to Amang, when he was still lucid enough to talk to, he revealed to me that there were some economics projects he was hoping to accomplish, but he had given up on. “In the end, it’s all just vanity,” he said to me. Nothing excited him anymore, but not in a pessimistic way. He was excited for the life to come. For the whole time that I knew him, he went to mass every day, receiving Our Lord in Holy Communion. In the last few months of Amang’s life, my brother Mar would drive him to mass, on a wheelchair. When even that became impossible for Amang, the priest visited him regularly. When Amang was too weak to receive the Host, the Host finally came to him. That’s how Amang passed on. In my eyes, and in the eyes of those who knew him, a good man. A holy man.

But there was one thing that I do need to share, (and this is probably why I felt this is worth writing down): Amang still did get to see his first grandchild before he passed on. Days before my wife gave birth to my daughter Geen, Amang had gotten worse, and we feared that he would not make it to the end of the month. Thankfully, Geen was born a little over a month before Amang passed away. In the hospital, as I was looking at my crying newborn, I knew my life was never going to be the same. This crying baby is now my life’s project; someone I’ll nurture, and teach, an endeavor whose end I hope I’ll never get to see. In the same way I was Amang’s. I looked at Geen and thought of how Amang probably looked at my brothers and me the years we were born. I thought of Amang in his sickbed. To me, it was a father’s life summarized, but beyond the grotesque image of decay and illness, it was an accomplished life. Or in Amang’s words, a full life.

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