Learning to Grieve
In memory of Francis C. Macansantos
(some names have been changed)
When my mother called me on July 28, 2017 to inform me of my father’s sudden passing, it was a cloudy winter morning in New Zealand, heralding the sort of gray, abysmal day that often made me wish I were home. As a writer, I had chosen to live overseas for much of my adult life, picking up writing fellowships from time to time to support my career. Life in New Zealand, where I had been awarded a scholarship to pursue a Creative Writing PhD, was often lonely, with me spending much of my time at my desk, chugging along with a draft of my novel. Though my parents lived far away from where I was, they were a constant presence in my life: they were the first people I’d message at the beginning of the day, and the last people I’d message before going to bed at night. We had the sort of bond that those who grow up as only children can best understand: unflagging in our affections, undistracted in our attentiveness to each other’s lives.
My father was my best friend, and was the kind of parent who was so hands-on with his child’s upbringing that he knew his daughter inside and out. Our bond, though invisible to many because of the years I spent away from home, was constant and indestructible. He was also a writer, and understood the difficult decisions I had to make for my career, like moving away from my hometown, and even the Philippines, to find support for my writing. He loved me dearly and I’m sure his heart broke a little whenever it was time for me to leave again after a yearly, month-long visit. And yet he’d also tell me that these partings were necessary, and that he did not want to hold me back as I lived the dreams he had as a writer in his twenties.
As I broke down, my mother, who urged me to be strong, offered me to buy a two-way ticket for me so that he could say my final goodbyes to my father. I had wanted to give up my PhD at first, and return home permanently, for how would I have the strength to accomplish this difficult work alone, now that my father was gone? But she insisted that I book a two-way ticket so that I could return to New Zealand to finish my PhD—“It’s what your father would have wanted,” she insisted, as she cried on the phone. I found a flight to Manila that departed from Wellington the next morning, and my Institute’s administrator was kind enough to offer to drive me to the airport in the wee hours. As I informed my advisers about my father’s death, made sure that I had returned or renewed library books I had borrowed, and checked that I had enough cash from my scholarship stipend to pay my rent while I was away, all I wanted was to collapse on the floor and weep. My father was dead, and life went on, indifferent to his passing.
I made a post on Facebook about my hurt and confusion over my father’s sudden and unexpected death, and about not knowing whether I even wanted to return to New Zealand to finish my PhD after this. A good friend was the first to respond, messaging me to offer help with airfare costs because, as she said, “we have to get you home”. If I needed someone to talk to, Ellie said, we could always chat or Skype, which we often did across the Pacific Ocean, she being in California. I proceeded to tell her about how amazing a father he was, and how, after I had once called a girl a “slut” in high school, he had sat me down and told me never to call any woman by that word. “Virginity is a myth created by men so that they could treat women like property”, he had told me that day, and Ellie and I agreed that to have such a father was precious and rare. The second person to reach out to me was Elizabeth McCracken, my mentor during my MFA years, who told me how sorry she was for this to have happened, knowing how close I was to my father. Many more kind friends, relatives, and acquaintances responded to my post, telling me to take care of myself, to hold my mother tight, and to allow some time for my grief to settle before I made any huge, life-altering decision. Many expressed sorrow, and many simply responded with the word, “Condolence.” It was a standard response from many friends in the Philippines that struck me with its lack of intimacy, and yet, as my grieving mother pointed out to me after we buried my father, these people had also taken the effort to reach out.
When someone else’s grief is so private and deep, how, exactly, does one offer comfort? I had never experienced such a profound loss before this, and when a friend lost a loved one, I was probably one of those who offered up the standard responses, perhaps not truly understanding the full extent of their sorrow. “My deepest condolences.” “At least he’s in a better place now.” I am guilty of using these hackneyed phrases in my sincerest efforts to offer solace to friends and acquaintances who have just lost a loved one, not knowing that these clichés actually give little solace. And yet how else can one expect others to comfort you, especially when one’s grief is so private and intimate? That day, a Filipina friend in Wellington who had lost a father just two years before said that the word “Condolence”, said to her many times during her father’s wake in the Philippines, felt to her like a meaningless word.
And then the announcements of my father’s death started pouring in from colleagues of my mother at her university, and from writers in the Philippines who were familiar with my father’s poetry, or with his reputation. An irrational rage began to well up within me; I was still in shock that my father was dead, and why did they keep announcing to the world that he was dead, when to me, he was not yet dead? This was just a joke, I wanted to tell them all. A writer from the university where my father did his Master’s degree asked me if he could edit a photo I had just posted of my father and I that had been taken the previous Christmas, for a collage he was making. I told him that I was not yet ready for a collage involving a photo of my father and I; at the time, it felt like a violation of my private sorrow (even if I had posted the photo on social media). Another writer who taught at my mother’s university asked me if the following Monday would be a good day for him and a few other local writers to do a reading of my father’s work at his wake. At first I said yes, thinking it was improper to say no, and then told him later on that I wasn’t ready for this yet, that I was still in shock. (Later, at the wake, my mother convinced me to allow them to do the reading, for he had been a mentor to some of them, and that they were grieving a loss too.)
I cried when my plane lifted from the ground in Wellington in the dark hours of morning, and again when it took off from Sydney, where I had a short layover. On the plane I alternated between fits of crying and an unexpected numbness punctuated by random episodes of Girls. As I waited in line to use the bathroom, I started chatting with a young woman who was carrying a toddler in her arms. As I played with her daughter, I revealed to her that I was flying home to bury my father. She told me that the seat beside them was vacant, and would I want to sit with them, so that I could have someone to talk to? This I did later on, and as I played with her daughter, it occurred to me that my father could have easily made this child laugh. But he was gone, I had to remind myself, and would never have the chance to meet his own grandchildren.
My two cousins, Chito and John, were supposed to pick me up at the airport and travel with me, by bus, to Baguio, which is a six to seven hour trip from Manila. It was winter in the southern hemisphere, and I was unprepared for the heat that rose to my head and saturated my thoughts as I exited the airport’s cool interior. Half a year ago, my father had waved at me as I stepped outside the airport. Now, I was going to travel by bus to our hometown, where he lay, lifeless, in a casket.
Outside the airport, Chito held me tight as he embraced me, more reconciled with the reality of my father’s death than I was, while his girlfriend, who remained seated, raised her eyes from her phone and smiled at me as she said, in a jarringly pleasant, singsong voice, “Condolence”. Perhaps it was my grief that made me feel as if she had made the word “condolence” sound like “happy birthday”. “She’s coming with us,” Chito said, and I tried to remember whether he had asked for my permission beforehand to bring his girlfriend along. Was my mother informed that this woman would be staying at our home with my cousin? The girlfriend raised her eyes from her phone again to ask me, “Do you know when you’re supposed to bury him?” I was shocked by the way she spoke, as though she had assumed that I was at peace with the ordinary business of burying my father.
Later, my cousin John arrived from work, and the couple informed him, in front of me, that they were going to stay at our home, which was also the clan’s ancestral home (but which had been mainly inhabited by my parents and I for the past few decades), for an entire week. The girl seemed excited about traveling to Baguio; it was a tourist town far up in the mountains, its cooler, rarefied air a brief respite from Manila’s oppressive heat. I kept wondering if they had spoken to my mother beforehand about this, for if she didn’t know, I didn’t want her to deal with the unannounced presence of this stranger at our house while wrestling with her own grief. I would only be in the Philippines for three weeks, and the time I had to grieve with my mother was limited. Would I have to spend the first week after my father’s burial grieving in front of this stranger, who appeared oblivious to the full extent of my shock?
I asked John if I could have a word with him in private, and when we were out of earshot of our cousin and his girlfriend, I asked John if my mother knew that she was coming with us. “I only found out thirty minutes ago, when I was on the bus coming here,” John said. I told him that I would be unable to grieve in front of this girl, and felt assaulted by Chito’s brazenness in bringing her along without asking us for our permission. As I spoke, John held up a hand and waved it in front of me while shaking his head, as though to chastise me, gently, for my mean spiritedness. “Forgiveness and reconciliation, that is what healing is all about,” John said, which sounded like a line he had lifted, without much self-reflection, from one of the many self-help books he devoured. “They are here to help you,” he added. “I came here to heal, and that can’t happen in front of her,” I said, as I watched her tap her phone from afar. John appeared to be sympathetic, and said, “We’ll deal with it when we get to Baguio.”
Chito and his girlfriend stayed on at our house for a day after the funeral, but later had to leave, since my mother and I found it impossible to confront our private sorrow in front of this couple, who seemed too wrapped up in their blossoming romance to feel the weight of our grief. We parted on a positive note, with Chito telling me to keep chasing my dreams despite what many people had told me during the wake, that it was my responsibility, now that my father was gone, to take care of my mother.
“Take care of your mother”, “Be strong for your mother”, and “finish your PhD so that you can come home and take care of your mother”—these were the parting words that many well wishers, who braved the torrential rains to come see us at the wake, reserved for me after consoling my mother. Perhaps they all believed that the thought of taking care of my mother, and being strong for her, would help me weather this storm. Strength, in their minds perhaps, would bring me solace. Surely these friends of my mother also knew that I had lost a father too, and that with his loss came the feeling that I had been cast adrift in this world, with one less parent to steady me as I faced an avalanche of pain. I wanted to embraced and cradled. I didn’t want to be told, over and over, to be strong—I wanted to be given permission to collapse and weep. If my father were around, he would have cradled me as my body keened. But he was no longer around to console me, and I had to handle these exhortations with the sort of stoicism that would have been easier for me to summon up if my father were still around.
During the final evening of the wake, I withdrew to the private room at the back of our private chapel to get some rest and gather my thoughts. My cousins, Chito and John, also withdrew to this room, and I ended up unloading upon them my frustrations about being reminded of my responsibilities to my mother as my own grief seemingly went unrecognized. They both sympathized with me, with John saying that he could only imagine how difficult it was for me to confront my father’s death while having to be reminded constantly of my duties as my mother’s only child.
I appreciate how many came to my father’s wake despite the heavy rains, and perhaps this reminder to take care of my mother came automatically to them as they tried to console me. It is in our culture to regard a child’s duties to her parent as sacrosanct, forgetting that the child has her own emotional needs that the community cannot just disregard. Maybe these people felt that by taking care of my mother, I would also be addressing my sorrow just by fulfilling my sacred duty to my only surviving parent. It is a cultural quirk that I continue to struggle with as I wrestle with my grief. Perhaps the time I have spent in Western countries has made me too demanding, but feeling the need to have my own pain acknowledged does not negate my desire to care for my widowed mother. I am mourning too, and while taking care of my mother, I also want to be seen.
Among those who came to console us, it was my father’s closest friends who provided the greatest comfort to me just by feeling as much grief as I did, and by refusing to give the usual advice doled out to me by well-meaning friends and relatives that I had to “accept it”, “let go”, and “move on”, because “that’s life”. “I’m mad because we were supposed to meet this Friday,” said Pyx, visual artist and partner-in-crime to my poet father. “Now I have no one else to talk to in this town. He was the real thing, you know, a real artist who took his work seriously. We talked about you all the time, too. Whenever we got together, we’d talk about the stories you wrote, your latest achievements.” In being honest about their grief, they recognized the legitimacy of my own pain. “Move on? I say, don’t move on, there’s no such thing as moving on after this,” Pyx continued, pointing at my father’s casket, where he had left a packet of my father’s favorite Sultana biscuits the previous day. Because if you had a father like my father, why on earth would you want to let go?
Pyx’s friend, EJ, brought a stereo with him, and together we sang along to Frank Sinatra, whom my father loved singing along to whenever these three men got together at Pyx’s studio. “If the note was too high for him to reach, he’d stand up and point in the air, just to reach that note,” EJ said, imitating my father as we all laughed.
“Your father lives within you, and every time you write, you are allowing him to live on within you,” Scott, a student of my father, told me. “He raised you well, and just by being true to yourself, you are already honoring him.” I was happy to hear this from Scott, seeing that my father’s wisdom and generosity of spirit lived on.
Fiona, my college roommate, came to visit, and though she barely knew my father, she came to his casket and pressed a blown kiss upon the glass.
“Do you feel bad that he died while you were away from home, and that you never had the chance to say goodbye?” the wife of one of my mother’s colleagues at the university asked me, as we sat inside the funeral parlor the evening before his funeral.
“But he died in my mother’s arms. It’s sad, but beautiful too, that he passed on peacefully in the arms of the woman he loved.” I found solace in my own words, but the more I thought about it, the more the woman’s words stung.
“But did you ever keep in touch with him?” she continued to press me.
“Mostly through Facebook messenger, through my mother.” My father wasn’t technologically adept, and usually depended on my mother to keep in touch with me.
She looked disappointed. “How about Skype, or phone calls?”
“We talked on the phone sometimes, but I always felt his presence from afar, even when we weren’t talking,” I had to reassure her, as if it were my job to quell her doubts.
It took me a few more days before that conversation gave me pause. There is always that temptation, among curious onlookers, to prod and pick at a victim’s wound in order to understand the victim’s pain. The intention to hurt may not be there, but there is a strange, unthinking cruelty that is unleashed within us when we depend on “raw” facts, instead of our capacity for empathy, to understand someone else’s tragedy. A friend calls it the “reptilian instinct” that gets switched on in his mind whenever he comes across episodes of Dr. Phil on TV. Perhaps it’s best for me, as I process my pain, to dismiss this conversation as just another moment of careless cruelty in which this woman had no intention to harm. However, it is also difficult for me to understand how cruelty works without tracing its origins to a common thoughtlessness that occurs in many of us, including me.
A few days after the funeral, my cousin John tagged me in an album of the wake that he had posted on Facebook. In my mind, memories of an unreal time flickered back to life. John had taken pictures during the wake, and at times pointed a camera lens at me when I was uncomfortable about being photographed. Once, when I stepped away from the camera lens and waved at him to stop, he said, “This is for record keeping,” and pressed the shutter button. This, I guess, is how all events must be covered in the Philippines, for if it wasn’t photographed and posted on Facebook, it’s as if it never happened. I kept wishing that this event never had.
John was a constant presence during the wake, making himself available to us whenever we needed someone to buy food for visitors or keep vigil upon my father at the funeral parlor whenever we had to return home to get some rest. He chose to play Christian pop during the first day of the wake, and when I politely asked him if he had any classical music on his playlist (since my mother and I couldn’t stand the thought of my father lying helpless in his casket as the kind of music he detested kept playing during his wake), Jon quickly put on some Mozart. Little did I know that I had just sown a tiny seed of resentment in his heart that would finally achieve dangerous fruition two weeks after the funeral. Although I was wary of his help, I myself was too paralyzed by grief to run necessary errands during the wake. He was known to demand constant gratitude and unquestioning loyalty from us as payment for his good deeds, like a savvy Filipino politician who kept track of his constituency’s debts and used these for political leverage.
I didn’t want to remember my father like this: as a lifeless body in a casket flanked by flowers, a tarpaulin with his dates of birth and death printed below a picture of his younger self. I remember a cousin from America asking for my permission before posting pictures of my father while he was still alive on Facebook, so when John asked my mother if she wanted the pictures to be emailed or posted on social media, I also assumed that he’d ask for my permission before posting them on my profile. Since internet was spotty at our home, I could not untag myself from these pictures, and so I messaged John to say that while I appreciated his help during the wake, it was perhaps best for him to untag me from the album because I was not ready to look at the pictures. This he did, silently. Afterwards, I thanked him for the short tribute he wrote to my father, for some pictures he posted of my father when he was still alive, and again in a private message, in which I thanked him again for his help. To these messages, he responded with silence.
A few days afterwards, John posted an article on my Facebook profile. I checked to see what it was, expecting the usual advice on how to deal with grief. It was an article about “how complaining rewires our brains to be negative”. It was an act of passive aggression that shocked me.
In our family, Jon was known to post political articles on profiles of relatives whose politics he did not agree with, in the hopes of provoking an argument. In a private message to him, I asked him what he would feel if he had just lost a parent and had seen a news article, similar to what he had posted on my profile, posted on his profile without his permission. His response to my message shocked me even more.
“For the longest time I listened and supported you despite all your hate stories, your victim stories and all your drama, even though I was so tempted to tell you how you, even though you are only child, that you have such an overwhelming sense of self-entitlement and privilege to all your judgments, opinions, negativity and expectations (sic). Not just because your parents surrounded you with so much love and attention that you think you can command the attention of the rest of the universe, sorry but it does not and never works that way (sic),” he wrote. As though to make light of my grief, he added: “If you cannot handle people or even stressful situations, I can just imagine that instead of bending like a bamboo tree in times of stress, you would rather choose to walk out of their lives including your very own family.”
I had memories of him being a cruel babysitter when I was an eight-year-old child and he was a jobless young man in his mid-twenties who derived a perverse pleasure from mocking and bullying children. I was nonetheless in disbelief as he went on to tell me about how he had heard from my classmates at a tai-chi class I had taken in 2004, when I was just 17 years old, that I was arrogant and stuck-up.
“Let me also remind you that despite all the self-help books that I may have and share, the piece that I could have shared with you was actually very scientific and not meant to provoke you but make you think twice before you continue with your belligerence and obstreperous attitude (sic),” he added.
As I write this, I find my cousin’s tone amusing in its infantile belligerence, but when I first received these messages I felt a sharp pain in my chest, as if I were about to have a heart attack myself, just like my father. It took some time for me to pine for my father’s protective presence as I absorbed the viciousness of my cousin’s words. My father was gone, and not even my grief could protect me from the cruelty and thoughtlessness of someone who was closely related to me, who had borne witness to my pain during the early days of my father’s departure.
Perhaps there was some truth in what my mother’s friends had told me during the wake: now that my father was gone, I had to be strong. Not just for my mother, but for myself.
This is not to say that the world that my father left behind for me has been completely cruel and unkind. He was the kind of man who made complete strangers laugh, leaving a trail of goodwill wherever he went. At his wake, we met vendors from the public market, electricians, carinderia owners, and security guards whom he had befriended, who braved the stormy weather to pay their final respects. An old student of his traveled all the way from Manila just to come to the wake, hopping on the next bus back to Manila right after saying goodbye to my father. Everyone with whom I spoke was in shock that he was gone, as though none of them could picture a world without a man like my father who could so easily, and unexpectedly, make them laugh.
A few days before I flew back to New Zealand, my mother and I spoke to a woman who worked at the information office of my mother’s university, who had befriended my father just a year before, when she was still new at her job. Her office published the university’s monthly newsletter, and my father was quite fond of her since she had majored in English at another local university and maintained her love for letters long after she had earned her degree. After visiting Pyx’s studio across the street from the university, he’d come to Jenny’s office to read the Philippine Daily Inquirer and chat with her while waiting for my mother to come downstairs and meet him. “That’s his chair, right there,” Jenny told me, pointing at a low driftwood seat where my father and I had sat to talk to her just months before.
She then took my hand and said, “Just two weeks before he died, he was sitting here, and he asked me if I could be his daughter’s friend. ‘I’m worried that she’s lonely in Wellington,’ he told me. Naku sir, I told him, you can’t just force friendships to happen. They have to blossom organically.”
“But we can be friends,” I told her, touched by my father’s kindness in life which persisted in this world long after he had left us. “I’ll be back for the holidays.”
“Take care of your mother,” she added. I promised her that I would.
Monica Macansantos was born and raised in the Philippines, and holds an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in WSQ, Day One, The Masters Review, and Thin Noon, among other places. She is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.