Blackbird

For as long as I can remember, I was closer to my mother than to my father. He always felt like a distant figure–working during the day and glued to the television by night. We never had the bond daughters had with their dads I always read in books or see in movies. He wasn’t the wise and compassionate Atticus Finch to Scout and Jem in To Kill A Mockingbird, nor was he the protective and loving Marlin to Nemo in Finding Nemo. He was just my dad. Short, brown skinned, and with greying hair.

Every time my classmates would talk about how close they were with their dads, I would just blink and nod in admiration. I remember in sixth grade we were huddled in the corner of the classroom during recess break, and they were talking about boys and how no one will measure up to their dads. Wide-eyed, my classmate Kiana would always mention how she wants her dad to be her first dance when she comes of age. I try to picture the same image with furrowed brows as she narrates her dream dress, but I flick away the thought as soon as I realize we were too awkward to be like that. I was frisky and talkative while he was reserved and silent, which was why I didn’t know how to speak to him. I grew up listening to all these memories full of warmth and laughter, while I wonder why I never got the piggyback, teach-you-how-to-ride-a-bike kind of dad. Safe to say, I wasn’t a daddy’s girl. I look around my nest and he’s never there.

The interactions we had were minimal and almost estranged to me. Every time my mother was too busy tending to chores or my siblings, I had to turn to my father to teach me math. He was impatient, and I didn’t understand math, which always resulted in tears as I tried to remember what 7 times 8 was. He was irritable and busy, and I was fragile. For the times when my mom couldn’t handle our stubbornness or when we did something more untoward than usual, she would turn to my dad for the final verdict, and that was the cue to brace ourselves. Sitting on the sofa chair, he would put his newspaper down to get the plastic clothes hanger, or a tsinelas to hit our thighs with, whichever was nearer.

I didn’t hate him, and he wasn’t a bad person. Just aloof, it seemed to me. The only space that held us close to each other was in mutual silence, listening to music. Often during car rides to and from school, or lazy afternoons when he would listen to the radio for background noise to fall asleep. He constantly listened to music, occasionally humming the tune and tapping his fingers like drum sticks. It was his constant companion. I know he’s already up and drinking coffee in the morning when I wake up to The Carpenters playing on the radio in the background, and during car rides in the evenings heading home from his cousins in Makati on weekends, it’s Frank Sinatra singing The Way You Look Tonight that lulls me to sleep. It’s only when the music stops that I know we’ve arrived home. Music was the most we shared together, however unconsciously. He was old-fashioned in every sense of the word, from the music he listened to, to being the quintessential father in the 60s that went to work in the day and came home too tired to play with his children.

My father had us when he was older, which explains why he behaved the way he did. Having a child at 44 was not something he expected, nor was ready for. Throughout the years, parent-teacher conferences in school always surprise me when I meet my friends’ younger parents. Sluggish and nonchalant, he stood out in a crowd of frantic parents bustling through the school hallways. This translated to the type of music he listened to, which I can recall calling it ‘pang-matanda’ when I was smaller, almost always saying the term in a frown from distaste. He disliked pop sounding songs, arguing it was noise rather than music, while I was an eight-year old wanting to listen to Hannah Montana’s songs instead of old, boring melodies. My song was still of a hatchling’s–always cracking, while his was hooting from afar.

He was musically attuned, not much so with playing instruments, but with melodies and harmony. He could well put off a second voice to a song off the bat; something I couldn’t do even if I tried. I learned you have to have an ear for that, and it’s not something you can easily practice.

The bond we have through music stretched and followed through the years–even more so after my mom left the house. Our relationship started to shift closer, knowing that my siblings and I were all he had left. Their reason for separation was something I chose not to learn about, or even remember, but gradually, I saw him wane from this austere, distant figure to a soft, more defeated persona–like Gilbert O’Sullivan in his song Alone Again, Naturally.

I was about in 6th or 7th grade during my mom’s leaving, only about to go into puberty. It’s no surprise to me now recalling how all this opened up to me being closer to him. Being twelve years old, slowly awakening to the realities of everything around me, I asked him a lot about politics and the world, and he would answer diligently. He wanted to take up Law when he was younger, but my grandfather assigned him and his siblings courses to take for better management of our farmlands in Samar.

We didn’t have an affectionate connection, and so talking about politics to small mundane things was the closest we have to an expression of love. I would sit on the opposite side of the sofa whenever he watched television to ask him about what was on. He would reply to me without looking, eyes fixated on the screen and remote control in hand.

A distinct memory I have of the rare expressions of ‘loving’ exchanges we had was during my thirteenth birthday. I woke up to a note on the TV saying: “TEENAGER KA NA!”. Something that left me confused, because if you had to guess who was to leave any note in the house, my father would be the last to come to mind. It was a small gesture but a gesture still fresh in memory eight years later.

Now accustomed to hearing his favorite songs, I didn’t realize I was humming and bopping my head to the songs I used to hate hearing. Suddenly, the Bee Gees had good, funky music to me, and The Beatles had good lyricism. I only used to hear the tune in passing, never closely listening to its lyrics.

I began asking him about the music we listened to; what Robin Gibb died of, what he thinks the meaning of “Strawberry Fields Forever” is, or what Yoko Ono did to The Beatles. When I entered college, I had to stay in a dorm away from my family, and it was the first time I was far from home. He would bring and fetch me to and from Los Baños every chance he could, even in late evenings when he could have said no to rest. It takes about two hours to get from Biñan to Los Baños depending on the traffic, and when we set off for the road, it’s either he turns on his favorite F.M. radio channel or I connect my phone to the car’s bluetooth speaker to play songs we’d sit in silence for. We had music as our companion, just how it was for Michael Jackson in his song Music and Me.

It was in self-discovery that it registered how alike I was with my father. Aside from physical appearances, (which I also used to detest) I get comments every now and then how I’m like him. Being introverted, I didn’t like talking to people I wasn’t familiar with and I get labeled mataray most of the time. He was the same, he only talked to people when he felt like it, and he looked very stern.

I’m stubborn and free spirited, and I only learned that he was like this when my tita told us stories of him in college–he was the problem child. His whole class got expelled once and he used to take my grandfather’s car out during midnight to street race with his friends. She tells me how he pushes the car to the end of the street without turning the engine on so my grandparents wouldn’t hear him and come back just before dawn. Now, when I listen to music we shared over the years, I imagine him listening to those same songs the year they were released, and somehow it’s like he’s passed it on to me. He was an activist, and he still is. There never was a day when he didn’t read the newspaper or watch TV Patrol, and I credit much of how I see the world to him.

The song “Blackbird” by The Beatles is one of the ones we often listen to, and it was just recently that I discovered that it was written by Paul McCartney for people suffering from racism in the United States, and some of the lyrics go:

“Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly, all your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise”.

You could look at this song from a hundred different perspectives, but this would resonate with me as how I was raised by my father. I had a hard time connecting with him because he was hovering in a distance above me. Distant, but near in the space of music we share. Albeit from afar, I hear him hum a soft tune. He sings to me: Blackbird, fly.

***

To my papa: I’m still trying to gather up courage to express how I love you, but it’s in this essay that I promise I won’t let any more years subtract to say so.

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