I wanted to re-post this, to clean up some typos and to add a couple of stories. Today is another gift.
I’ve often wondered how magical it would have been to take my Dad flying. He is long gone, so I will never find out.
He only ever took one trip by airplane. I would have wanted to pay him back for all the airplane stories he told me when I was a boy. Sons crave their fathers’ pride.
I’m an 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.
But I did grow up with three remarkable men, all great storytellers!
My Dad had one brother, Carlos. When I was young, Uncle Carlos, affable and easygoing, would come to our house and raid our refrigerator. He paid for his meals with tales about James Bond and hand grenades. I was 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. I once 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. Some were stories about how to torture grandma. But most were stories about my Dad. 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? Two hours of ‘post’!”
His best story was about my Dad’s graduation at the Ateneo High School, after the war ended. They were still recovering from the devastation. My Dad had to walk to the Ateneo. My grandfather could not go, because he had to work.
At the graduation, my Dad received his diploma, and a medal. In those days, a boy scout waited at the foot of the stage with a tray on which the medal lay. The boy scout would escort the graduate to his proud parents, who would take the medal from the tray and pin it on their son’s chest. (This tradition continues to this day.)
My Dad went down the stage, grabbed his medal from the tray, pocketed it, and told the shocked boy scout to “Get lost!” A Jesuit priest saw this and told him in tough Jesuit terms to get his blankety-blank butt over to his parents with the medal. My Dad was about to protest that his father was at work, then there appeared his father! My grandfather had walked all the way from Tabacalera, where he worked, to be at my Dad’s graduation.
My Dad told me lots of stories. During World War II, he saw airplanes diving down from the sky to attack ships in Manila Bay. It was not like the movies, he said. Not like beads falling off a string. No, they poured down en masse, and some were hit, fluttering down like leaves.
He told me of a P-38 Lightning fighter that flashed past, just 20 feet above the rice fields at Pagbilao, Quezon, looking for enemy soldiers. The pilot — a real pilot! — waved at my Dad.
My Dad died suddenly when I was 19. He was 50. The first storyteller to go.
Heartbroken, my grandfather lived but a few more years. He never wrote me another story again, on those stark white cards. The second storyteller to go.
In America, Uncle Carlos’ daughter Karla overheard him tell a visitor about some risky surgery. Uncle Carlos didn’t realize that his daughter, born in the US, 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 her about his open heart surgery.
The last storyteller was gone.
I was the only paternal grandson. If I had no sons, my 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 while taking them home.
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 was 46. If I lived past 50, the age my Dad died, I would take every day as a gift.
The year I turned 50, my son Carlo got his pilot’s license.
Carlo flew me as his first passenger!
I knew then exactly what my Dad would have felt, if he could have flown with me. The magic overflowed in my heart.
When Carlo flew me as his first passenger, a Dad flew with his son. The circle closed.
Carlo’s first passenger, Father’s Day, 2007
Look at me in the picture. My Dad died when he was that age. What a short life he lived. Every year, every day, is a gift.
Stories are important. After our years run out, the stories are all that are left. Without an oral history, everything that was us is a flash in the universe.
As I watch my 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.
Originally Posted from Manila, September 10, 2009, as The Cup Runneth Over.
Fifty-four years! Every day is a gift.