A Belated Happy Father’s Day Greeting For My Papa

Mark Paulo Jabay
9 min readJul 19, 2020

Weeks ago, it was Father’s Day. Photos of dads with their families flooded social media feeds the world over, and my Facebook feed was no different. I enjoyed seeing the outpouring of love for dads, and it was nice to greet some newbie dads as well. What newfound joy they must have felt! I imagine it was something like what pa felt decades ago.

I wish he did a Simba on me, à la The Lion King XD

Yet, it wasn’t all light and merry. I knew two or three people who had recently lost their fathers. It was probably a hard day for them.

And if I’m honest, it was slightly a hard day for me, too. Pa passed away more than a decade ago, and there’s nothing quite like a Father’s Day to remind you that you don’t have one anymore. Not in physical form, anyway. But I spent much of my day thanking him privately, and reflecting deeply about the relationship we continue to build together.

A Wistful Glance

“Tati, when I’m gone, take care of mom.” Those were the last words I remember him saying. Pa uttered them maybe 4–5 months before finally succumbing to cancer.

We were in a long-term care facility. He stayed there for many weeks while recuperating from a heart attack. He survived the heart attack, but I don’t think he survived the emotional devastation of his terminal diagnosis — one made the same day the heart attack happened.

Darn lung cancer. Already Stage 4. All that smoking finally did him in. Or maybe not. Apparently, the kind he got wasn’t due to smoking, but I have my doubts.

Anyway, it was a balmy spring afternoon, and I think pa was trying to have a heart-to-heart. “Tati, when I’m gone, take care of mom.” In all of my childhood, that was only ever his second or third attempt at a heart-to-heart with me (at least that I can recall), if it could even be called one at all. It was awkward, uncomfortable. Still, he tried, and so did I. I probably could have tried harder, though. I wish I had known how to at the time. I muttered a quick “Yeah, but I’m sure you’ll get better soon.” Silence ensued. And that was that.

He didn’t really get better soon.

These days, sometimes I greet dad as I pray or meditate, and sometimes as I climb the stairs at home and glance wistfully at the blurry photo of him.

Mom and I had a tiny photo of pa magnified probably a hundred-fold. This one captured him at his happiest. He was at work, where he could be our great provider. He took pride in that, and we were so lucky.

I don’t think I grieve for his physical presence anymore, but a lukewarm yearning creeps in every now and then. Sometimes though, it comes to a boil, as a brief but profound sense of remorse. A remorse for not having had a closer relationship with him — the kind where heart-to-hearts were free-flowing; belly laughs, abundant; discussions of the everyday, frequent.

Throughout my elementary years, his parenting style was tender. He lavished me with affection, often while tickling my belly. He always asked for a kiss when he got home from work. And as I grew older, he’d continue to spoil me with toys, books, and KFC. We bonded over tennis, movies, and algebra.

But over the years, we gradually grew apart. I obsessed over earning good grades at school. That was partly how I compensated for adolescent insecurities, like my morbid obesity. And maybe he obsessed over maintaining a tough exterior to hide his worsening health problems. Still, he trudged on as the strong provider. But he grew sterner over time, more stoic, maybe a little more emotionally distant. And I think I did as well.

I didn’t know how to get out of my head, how to warm up to him again. I think deep down, he wanted to warm up to me, too. But none of us knew how to break through the deafening silence. In all of our doing — everything he did because of what he thought a father had to do, and everything I did because of what I thought a son had to do — we lost touch of our being: a father and a son, with a father-son relationship.

But he tried, as hard as it must have been at times: the awkward jokes, the forced smiles, the stilted conversations about this and that. Yes, he tried…until he stopped trying. Until his health started to fail, until he got laid off, until his world began to crumble because of ESRD, and then collapsed because of the heart attack and cancer.

I should have tried harder to pick up the pieces by then, and I wish I had known how.

He tried one last time: “Tati, when I’m gone, take care of mom…”

But you can talk only as deeply as the listening. I should have listened damn harder.

“Say It Loud, Say It Clear”

https://youtu.be/MdCqKG7eCJc

In a story I wrote a couple of weeks back, I talked about how God calls us even in the most ordinary moments, like when something on TV moves you to tears. I mentioned one show, American Horror Story: 1984, whose ending did just that.

With all its gore, it’s a strange show to elicit such a reaction. In one of the final scenes, a man named Bobby visits a summer camp to learn more about his dead father, Benjamin, who once worked there. But to Bobby’s surprise, Benjamin’s spirit appears — just in time to save Bobby from being killed by an evil ghost. Benjamin tells Bobby to scram before the evil ghost resurrects and tries to kill him again, but Bobby can’t just leave. Not without connecting with the man who loved him so dearly first.

So teary-eyed Bobby locks Benjamin in a tight embrace, and thanks him for having sacrificed his life to give him a good one. “You are worth it,” Benjamin says. “And know, that I will always love you.”

After the heartfelt exchange, Bobby runs off, sees a bunch of friendly ghosts who’ve been protecting him, and then meets his dead uncle (still a kid), dead grandmother (still a youthful woman), and Benjamin again. The spirits of his family bless Bobby goodbye, and he leaves the camp having found closure. It was a very poignant scene.

The idea of finding closure with our loved ones after they’ve already gone is moving. But what really tugs at my heartstrings isn’t so much the show’s final scene as that scene’s background music: “The Living Years” by Mike & The Mechanics.

The power ballad is about a son who regrets not telling his dad everything he wanted to say before his dad passed away. The chorus goes like this:

Say it loud, say it clear

You can listen as well as you hear

It's too late when we die

To admit we don't see eye to eye

To be clear, it’s not that pa and I had irreconcilable disagreements or a volcanic falling-out. (I think that’s what happened between the song’s original singer and his dad.) My dad and I didn’t not “see eye to eye” in that sense. It’s more that we just didn’t see much of each other’s eyes in the first place. So if eyes are windows to the soul, regretfully, I don’t think I ever got a chance to peer into my dad’s soul. Not when he was alive anyway. And I don’t think he got to peer into mine.

And that’s not my only regret. One more lyric in that song — “I wasn’t there that morning when my father passed away. I didn’t get to tell him all the things I had to say” — strikes a fragile chord, because that’s my story, too. I think pa was alone in his hospital room when he took his final breath, and I deeply regret that I wasn’t around.

The Father-Son Thing

In one of my favorite books, Everyday Grace, author Marianne Williamson recounts her final moments with her cancer-stricken sister, who lay on her deathbed. Their brother was with them, and Marianne burst into tears because she realized they had never fully experienced what it meant to be siblings. They were so caught up in their busy lives doing their own thing that they scarce did the “sibling thing” — to laugh, to deeply connect, to spend quality time with each other as siblings. They had taken one another for granted.

But in a moment of grace, Marianne’s sister said, “It’s okay, because we’re doing it now.” So it wasn’t too late, because they could still experience their relationship in its fullness at that very moment.

A rare big smile from pa. I don’t remember the occasion, but I love this photo!

Well, I’m not sure if pa and I ever did the “father-son thing,” at least not any deeper than what bonding over math or tennis could possibly allow. But we do it now, even after he’s passed. I just have to get still enough to hold his presence in my heart, and to remember and be grateful for all the “father things” that he did so remarkably well: shelter me, feed me, send me off to college. Of course, my mom was integral to all that, too.

So no, I don’t fully agree with that line in the chorus, “It’s too late when we die.” On a material level, that may be true. But on a metaphysical level, it’s anything but. For “whom God brings together, nothing can put asunder.” The line from Matthew’s gospel applies to any marriage of the heart, including those with our parents.

Death can’t sever relationships, because spirits don’t die. I think death but merely breathes life into a different channel for the relationship — something we can’t physically perceive, but can feel in our hearts.

It’s hard to let go of something when it hasn’t been fully lived. But by God’s grace, I can find closure on a physical level by keeping that channel open on a spiritual level. And I keep it open by honoring my dad’s memory and nurturing a relationship with him to this day.

Reconciling With Pa

The same story from weeks ago led to a friend recommending a beautiful movie called The Shack. It’s inspired by a namesake novel by William Young. Both are modern retellings of the Biblical story of Job, a man who grapples with the question of God’s goodness in the face of abject human suffering.

Maybe I’ll try reckoning with the theological “problem of evil” in another post, but what I want to highlight here is another poignant scene in which the movie’s living protagonist meets the spirit of his dead father. Both reconcile for their shortcomings when the father was still alive:

https://youtu.be/t_9GTwEOdkY

And that’s what pa and I have done and continue to do. If you sit still and quietly enough to focus on and maybe even talk with a loved one after they’ve passed, you’ll feel your relationship is still very much alive.

There’s a beautiful spiritual concept in ACIM called “The Atonement.” That’s when you call to mind a regretful moment in the past and decide that you’d do things differently if you could in the present. You remember that beyond the level of personality (one that sometimes makes mistakes), there’s a deeper level of reality that is the truth of who anyone is: love. And that love can never do wrong, for it’s everyone’s essential identity — one forged by the love of God Himself.

“Tati, will you please take care of mom?”

“Of course pa, I’ll take care of her, as she’s been taking care of me. We miss you so much! I’m sorry I was so closed off back then. I clung to a few familiar things I could control, like what I studied, how much, when, and where. The world was a scary place and I felt like I had to compete all the time! I didn’t mean to allow that to squander our relationship. All those times you invited me to watch a movie, I should have gone. All those times you made attempts to connect, I should have connected. I’m so sorry. I was so lost. Can you please forgive me?… I think I’m a little bit better now. I’m building a hard back and a soft front (as Brene would say). I try to focus on the goodness in people, and it makes the world a less scary place. When people mess up, I know they just didn’t know how to show their love at the time, as I didn’t know how to show mine to you. But it’s there, and it’s all around. So don’t worry, we’ll be all right. This love thing is so powerful, and I have so much of it to give. Thank you for being a great dad, pa, and I love you so much.”

https://youtu.be/ahgIpnStbGg

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Mark Paulo Jabay

I see the world through a spiritual lens. It recognizes that at our core — regardless of religion, tradition, or any label at all — we’re one and the same.