I was taught how to pray before I knew how to write. But my father made me learn both at the same time.
While my mother wanted me to memorize the Lord’s Prayer at the ripe month of six months, my father, a non-Catholic, had explained that a prayer only consists of four words: Thank, You, God, and Amen.
That, my father explained to her daughter, who would one day tell him she is a lesbian, is all you need in prayer.
So when I had learned from my CLE teacher in Grade 2 that a prayer had four parts instead of four words, I was skeptical in making my own prayer. I remembered thinking that my father knew prayers so well, maybe that was the reason the Lord’s Prayer started with an “Our Father”—to honor fathers. Years later, I would learn that the “Our Father” in the Lord’s Prayer was a form of adoration.
Being the ambitious kid who wanted to have the best written prayer, I told my teacher I didn’t know where to begin. Years later, I would take up a degree in Creative Writing and would still ask that same question—especially when I write about my father. My then late-30s teacher wrote the acronym A.C.T.S on my paper with her veiny hands and said, “This might help you write.”
A prayer must always start with adoration. Think of it as a letter heading. Put an addressee so that the letter wouldn’t get lost.
I had to make sure my prayer was heard by God and no other deity. It is meant to be sent. My CLE teacher told us to always start the prayer by saying His name or an adjective that connotes praise before His name. It shows respect to His power.
I hated myself for not having an adjective to describe my father. I felt like I had no respect for him since I couldn’t associate him to an adjective. Maybe generous? Because he gave me the toys I wanted and the books I wanted to read. As early as two years old, he knew I preferred books to toys.
The first book he gave me was a children’s bible with watercolor illustrations of all the books of the Bible from the colorful Creation Story in Genesis to a more child-friendly version of the end of the world in Revelations. The bible was white like milk and thick as a hollow block. It was quite heavy for a child beginning to read since she had woken up every morning to the image of her father lying on the sofa or bed, one hand behind his head while the other held a John Grisham or Higgins-Clark novel, his brow always furrowed while reading. Because he read a lot, his brows always met in the middle, a permanent scowl, which made people, and myself, intimidated (if not afraid) of him.
This was the book where I had first read the story of the Golden Calf. Years later, I would watch the movie “The Ten Commandments” for CLE class and see the scene where God’s voice roared like thunder over the people dancing around the calf. I was in second grade that time, the same year I heard my father’s thunderous voice began ringing in my ears.
The first Bible story I’ve read was the Creation Story. Creation stories always fascinated me since there are a lot of versions. I’ve memorized the Story of Creation in Genesis since I grew up as a Catholic School girl, and I’ve learned about the world being created by the Limokon bird since I went to a University people referred to as “Walang Diyos” for college. Apart from those different versions, I imagined a God who was tired with all the loneliness thus conjuring man, whom, according to my teacher, was created in His own image and likeness. For my father, I lived up to neither.
Apart from my brown complexion and rough skin, reminiscent and fondly called by other people as “chicken skin”, I bore no resemblance of my father. I was a carbon copy of my mother: slanted eyes that learned to smile on their own to hide fatigue, hair as thin and fragile as sotanghon, and a body built between chubby and healthy. But I believed I was fat since he called me “taba” when he was drinking with my uncle. And since his words were powerful like God’s, I believed him. It became my adjective. The word felt like a cross I bore on my shoulders. My mother would sometimes pester me to fix my posture but I couldn’t explain to her why my shoulders felt heavy.
Perhaps I couldn’t find a word to put beside his name as adoration. No single word could hold all the respect I give to my father. On the night I came out to my father, I only uttered the word “Pa.”
Say how sorry you are for your sins. After you addressed him with respect, show you are humble enough to ask for forgiveness.
I may not be able to be molded in his image but I did my best to be molded in his likeness.
My parents both worked for the government. My mother was an accountant and my father used to be a forester before he retired. When I told them I would study in UP, they immediately wanted me to take up a degree in Agribusiness Economics because it was convenient to let their child study a course that had both their specializations. But I was different. I wanted to take up a Creative Writing course—the degree program where I met my first girlfriend, the reason I came out to my father. I believed I had the gift of words so I wanted to become a writer. I started writing stories because I had no one to talk to when I was growing up. I used to be a timid kid who watched people from a comfortable distance because I would rather read in a corner.
My father was also distant. He loved to do things in solitude: he read alone in the sala, he went to malls by himself to have a cup of coffee, he didn’t want other people around when he cooked. He loved to have a world he could call his own. When my lola, his mother, told me about him, she said that he was well loved as the bunso in their family of nine. But sometimes he hated being the youngest because his older siblings were already in college or working abroad. Thus, he began to read his older brothers’ law and college textbooks. He was smart but he was a black sheep, according to my lola. My father would not go home to Baguio for days because he said he was busy studying in Los Banos. My lola had then discovered that he went on a rally against President Marcos when she saw her then longhaired son, being hosed down by the police, on television. “Your father always did what he believed was right,” my lola said. Maybe that was why like God, his word was law.
Despite expressing my plans to enroll in Creative Writing, my father still placed me as a waitlist under the program he wanted.
“Anong gagawin niya sa English na course? Hobby lang iyan,” my father snapped.
But I never wanted to stop writing. So I shifted to Creative Writing. During my first day in the course, he told me he had expected that I would shift courses.
“Kasi quitter ka naman talaga,” he said over diner.
He then recounted the times I didn’t continue my training for the school’s swimming team despite the persistent recruitment of my coach; my piano lessons even though my teacher told me I was a fast learner; joining a sorority (which he disapproved of since it wasn’t the equivalent of his fraternity) even when I was closed to my final rites; and now my Agribusiness Economics degree. Those were the things I tried just so I could be shaped according to his likeness. But he never knew how much I cried to achieve those things until I couldn’t continue to fool myself anymore.
When he said “quitter,” I remembered the scene with the Golden Calf in The Ten Commandments movie where God, whose voice bellowed like thunder, stated his commandments. As he spoke, lightning flashed and etched his words on the rock wall. I was like Moses, back against the mountain wall, mouth agape because of fear. That was the first time I was afraid of God. What scared me wasn’t thunder or lightning, or the burning of the Golden calf. Rather, it was God’s voice which reminded me of my father’s loud one when he scolded my mother or our kasambahays whenever they forgot to heat water for his morning coffee.
I knew he didn’t scream like God did at the sinners. But every word he said weighed like 10 rocks. Each word was a rock thrown at my direction, hurting my bones. This was the reason I shake when my father talks. Thunder roared in my ears growing up. I guessed that was why my friends teased me bingi. I’d just joke that my thoughts were loud. But my father’s words were louder.
I had always wanted to tell him I was sorry. Sorry that I wasn’t the daughter who would make all his words come true because I had words I wanted to use on myself, including the words writer and lesbian.
Of course, after you apologize, you say thanks. Be grateful for the things He gave you. He is a giving God.
My father really has power in his words though he’s a man of few. He had words that were cool to the ears like David playing on his harp and singing praise to God. Whenever my father asked me what toys I wanted, I would always ask for a Beyblade or a Crush Gear, spinning plastic tops and battery-operated cars—toys people referred to as “boy toys.” There was one time my father and I went to the toy store because I earned a gold medal being ranked first in our class. The cashier looked at me then to my new Dragoon bit beast Beyblade before she remarked, “Pang lalaki man ito.”
I suddenly felt conscious that I was called out for buying a boy’s toy. But my father, taking a 50-peso bill from his brown leather wallet that he still uses until now said “Ito gusto niya eh. Let her have what she wants.”
I waited for the next time he would tell me those words. But it never came.
Another thing I was thankful for about my father was he didn’t care about how I dressed. In fact, he never stopped me from wearing baggy maong pants and Scooby Doo t-shirts. While my mother threatened not to bring me to church if I didn’t wear a dress, my father allowed me to dress whatever I want to stop me from crying. That time I had always wanted to tell my mother that it didn’t matter what we dressed since God will still love us. But looking back on it now, I thought that what really matters is how I dress didn’t matter to my father.
But I was most thankful for the stories he told. We used to live in a village that always flooded during the New Year. My mother always had work during those days in ComVal so my father and I were stuck to struggle with the New Year flood.
I felt we were in Noah’s Ark. Because of the high level of water, we fled to the roof with our dogs, hens, and roosters. At night, my father told me stories to make me forget how cold it was on our metal roof. He talked a lot. And I loved watching him from behind the candlelight. There were no lines of age on his face and his eyes were filled with glee.
He told me stories of him in Pangasinan, his childhood home. He and my uncle, the one my father was drinking with when my father called me fat, loved to swim in the sapa behind their home. Both of them would latch on floating logs from upstream and held on for dear life, entrusting their fate to the water. Of course, lola would find out about this and give a “hearty sermon”, as what my father said.
“I had always been a rebel,” my father said while he gave water to our three dogs on the roof.
My father also talked about his days as an activist in UP Los Banos. Those were my favorite stories. He once climbed up the mountains with his friends during the time of Martial Law. He recalled living on kamote tops for weeks. There was one day when my father and another activist were tasked to get supplies from the town. After getting the supplies my father told his friend Go ahead. My back is aching. The friend agreed and my father never returned to their camp.
“I got tired. I wanted to see your lola,” my father explained to me. The next day, he found out that their camp was ransacked and his friends were all killed. He laughed at how lucky he was.
“Matagal talaga namamatay ang masamang damo, nak.” Then he snorted and I laughed. I was in the presence of a rebel who wouldn’t die.
Years later, the only times my father and I would talk was when he drove me to my dormitory in Mintal. That was when my literary works started to get published online and in print. He would always talk about random health facts like which fruits contained the most fiber, or what kind of water (purified, distilled, etc.) should I drink. He learned all about this through his favorite health magazines. And if I was lucky, sometimes he would rub my head and I would get teary-eyed.
But I would always remember how much he talked on that roof, our Noah’s Ark. His eyes twinkled like the night sky that crowned his head. He stood up to fold the blankets that I would lie on. And I saw him amidst the starry sky. He looked like he owned the sky but his feet planted firmly on the roof we shared. His stories not only made me forget about how cold the roof was but also how dark the night was. It was in these moments where I saw him as a human and not a deity.
Because of my father’s stories, I wanted to make my own. His stories reminded me of how memories are preserved. And relishing those memories through stories is how we could keep the memories alive.
Sometimes I felt God planned to send flood every January 1st for a new beginning for me and my father, like what he did with Noah. While my father cursed at the flood every time, I loved beginning my year with overflowing stories.
Eventually my father got tired of the flood and decided we move to a private subdivision where people all have garages for two or more cars and where the drainage system was outstanding. He called this “our new beginning.” This wasn’t a flood, but I was thankful for all the new beginnings that my relationship with my father could have.
You conclude your prayer with a wish. You’ve asked for forgiveness and you have said your thanks. You’ve been good. Pray for what you want. Nothing is impossible with God.
I was thankful for my father’s stories but now I wish for a voice. A voice brave enough to tell him how I wanted to bring back how close we were when we were on the roof, gazing at the body of water that kept us stuck together.
When I shifted to Creative Writing, I saw writing as a means to communicate. I remember a writing activity we had in high school where we had to answer the question “What would you like to say to your father?” I don’t remember all the things I wrote but the words on the paper were thrice the number of words I’ve actually exchanged with my father. These are all the words I wanted to say to his face. But I would always hide behind a pen and a paper.
My father needed written words too. That same year where I had puked words I could never say to him on paper, he went home one day to see a pair of black leather school shoes for men. He was sure it wasn’t his and I swore that was the last time I brought a boy home. My father banged the locked door on my room and said my name, which he rarely does. It took a while for me to answer since the boy and I were busy scampering for our clothes. The next thing I heard was the sound of father’s car driving away. Right after that, text messages began to flood my phone.
Palabasin mo iyan.
Bakit kayo nag-lock ng kwarto?
Ang pangit niyan. Babae ka pa naman.
I tried my best to lie and told my father that the boy had left. I had locked the door because we wanted to watch a movie privately, and that I was sorry for being less of a woman with what I’ve done.
I felt guilty that he believed me. I knew he did because he still offered his cheek for me to kiss when he arrived home. I felt guilty he trusted my words more than his instincts. My father had never shouted at me. Like God who never went down to earth to visit Adam and Eve, he talked from a distance, scolded from a distance, and punished from a distance. Do fathers always love from a distance?
I wrote about my father but I realized I have never written to him. The only time I thought of writing to him was when I wanted to come out as a lesbian. I knew the words I wanted to say would just arrange themselves once my pen scratches the paper. I started to write a draft of the letter but I stopped writing. It was about time I say these to his face. We had hidden behind words after all these years and my father needed to hear it. He was the only one in our house who didn’t know about me. And I believed him hearing my voice would fill the distance between us.
On the night I told him, I said everything in long exhale, thinking I would breathe better after all of this was through.
“Pa may sabihin ako wag kang magalit lesbyana ako.”
Everything went silent. The kind of silence the priest asks from people before they pray. I bowed down my head and prayed hard.
He took off his glasses and said, “Prangkahan lang, I’m disappointed. At nalungkot ako. Para akong binuhusan ng malamig na tubig. Buti na lang sanay ako sa lamig.”
The thought of his daughter was a lesbian felt like having cold water thrown on his face. It was a good thing he was used to the cold. What made me curious was the image of cold water. He was used to it because he grew up in Baguio. I couldn’t help but think that I was his cold water—a presence he would eventually get used to out of a routine. Our relationship was made out of routines: whenever he arrived home, I kissed his cheek; whenever I took a minute longer in taking a bath, he called me a burden; and when I couldn’t get his instructions right away, he called me stupid.
But I was tired of routines. I wanted to have a moment on the roof with him once again where I saw him as a father not to be honored with prayers, but my father whose stories made me dream to be a writer. With all the strength I could muster I tried to get a few words out from my mouth.
“Okay lang, Pa?”
“You are still a disappointment,” he replied.
I thought letting him hear me was the new beginning of our relationship. That he would tell me, just like he did when I bought “boy toys”, that this would be okay. But here I was again—wanting say sorry for disappointing him again.
Since that night the silence between my father and I became heavier but I felt that nothing changed, and I primarily thought it was a good thing. Sometimes when I went home, my father would read another John Grisham novel on the sofa and his reaction never changed. He’d see me, give me a nod and move to his bed. By this time, all my relatives knew. Since everyone in the house knew about me, I began to long for this indifferent gesture of my father. He was the only one who didn’t look at me as if I didn’t belong in this house. And it somehow comforted me. We might never have a flood that would bring us together but we would have this space of silence between us, waiting to be filled.
I dealt with the distance between us the best way I know how—by writing. I wrote about him not for revenge but for self-comfort. And write about him I did. He was part of my undergraduate thesis collection, which won a distinction award, signifying my success in the program he hated.
On the day I would submit my manuscripts to our college dean, I noticed my manuscripts have disarranged. I panicked at the thought that my father has read it. I lashed out on my sister over dinner, blaming her for touching my stuff even if I knew she hated reading. I knew it was my father who had read it. My father reprimanded my sister and I felt the windows in our house shook. But I thought he would scold me for letting him know my thoughts about him in this way—in between pages. Words and memories preserved.
I never knew if he had read my thesis. I wasn’t even sure what to feel if he did. I was afraid he would read it and scold me for writing about him in a demonizing way. But I secretly wanted him to read it so that he’ll know what I feel. Writing is like prayer. You close your eyes and murmur words to yourself the way you share your thoughts—bond between your thoughts and the page—while hoping to be heard. I write to be heard. And I pray for change.
Each piece I wrote about him was a prayer: a prayer of adoration for the almighty storyteller who became the reason I wanted to write; a prayer of contrition, asking for forgiveness that I would never apologize for disappointing him; a prayer of thanksgiving for the gift of words and voice; and a prayer of supplication, a wish to begin my year with his stories once more. With God, nothing is impossible, right?
Since I came out to my father, I felt that the distance between us had somewhat faltered. I don’t hear thunder in his voice anymore because he chooses to be silent. Because of that, I started hearing better and I started speaking better. Until this day, I wasn’t sure if he had read my thesis. I guess that was my real coming out and him reading it was a heard prayer. But I didn’t regret hearing his thunder and carrying his hurtful words like a cross. It has somehow led me to salvation.
My father, like God, still loved from a distance. I still write to him unknowingly like how I pray to God. His silence became my sanctuary. It is in silence, as I’ve learned from my CLE teacher, that God speaks to us. Here I am, patiently listening. We’ll always have this distance. But I know my prayers are heard.
Ria Valdez is a Senior High School teacher in Davao City National High School. She loves Penongs Inato 4 and Jollibee Super Meals.