I’ve often wondered how magical it would have been to take my Dad flying. Pay him back for all the airplane stories he told me when I was a boy. Sons secretly crave their fathers’ pride. He is long gone, so I will never find out.
Or so I thought.
I’m am only son, third in a line of eldest sons. I have three sisters. Brothers were a big mystery. I envied my Ateneo classmates who had brothers. When my third sister was born, I ran upstairs so no one would see me.
My Dad had one brother, Carlos. When I was young, Uncle Carlos, affable and easygoing, would come to our house and raid the refrigerator. He paid for his meals with stories about James Bond and hand grenades. I listened wide-eyed.
Uncle Carlos left the Philippines on a passenger ship. My family stood on the pier, and he tossed us paper ribbons from the deck of the ship. He held his ends of the ribbons, and we held our ends. As the ship left the pier, the ribbons parted. I watched the ship sail past the breakwater at Manila Bay.
My grandfather was an accountant — obsessive and disciplined. Worked for decades at Tabacalera and never learned to smoke. In retirement, he raised chickens and turkeys. Once I watched him ink onto his ledger, in painstakingly precise script,
Two chickens killed by rat.
In the same precise writing, on stark white cards, he wrote stories. He once wrote me a jewel about how my Dad used to recite the Our Father backwards at the Ateneo. “Amen. Evil from us deliver and, temptation into not us lead, … .”
“Hoy, Rivera! What are you doing?”
My Dad told me lots of stories. During World War II, he saw airplanes diving down from the sky to attack ships on Manila Bay.
He told me of a fighter plane that flashed past, just 20 feet above the rice fields, looking for enemy soldiers. The pilot — a real pilot! — looked at my Dad.
My Dad died suddenly when I was 19. He was 50.
Heartbroken, my grandfather lived but a few more years. He never wrote me another story again, on those stark white cards.
In America, Uncle Carlos’ daughter, Karla, overheard him tell a visitor about some risky surgery. He didn’t think she understood their Filipino language.
Later that week, that same visitor came to see Karla at school. Her father, my affable, easygoing Uncle Carlos, had died on an operating table. Carlos did not tell anyone in our family about the open heart surgery.
The last storyteller was gone.
I was the only paternal grandson. If I had no sons, the family name would die with me.
But I have three sons!
I tell them that if my Dad had lived long enough to retire, he would have waited for them at school everyday, to buy them ice cream and tell them stories.
Thirty years after my Dad died, I earned my pilot’s license. My biggest regret was that I could never take my Dad flying. I wondered how magical that would have been.
I also wondered if I would live longer than my Dad. I had similar ailments. If I lived past 50, I would take every day as a gift.
The year I turned 50, my son Carlo also got his pilot’s license.
Carlo flew me as his first passenger!
I knew then exactly what my Dad would have felt, flying with me. I no longer wondered. The magic overflowed in my heart.
When Carlo flew me as his first passenger, a son flew with his Dad. The circle closed.
Stories do count. After our years run out, the stories are all that are left. Without an oral history, everything that was us is but a flash in the universe.
As I watch three sons grow up as tightly-knit brothers, my cup runneth over with stories.
Imagine the stories the grandsons would have! I can’t wait.
Or maybe I can.
Posted from Manila, September 10, 2009.
Fifty-two years! Every day is a gift.