By Janet Villa
Forgiveness changes the past: that is my hope. That the past—a different country—would soften and settle less like a stone but a warmer weight, rearranged to cradle the core of me, buttressing, making me stronger.
It brings a new way of remembering.
When Papa turned 79, he got up after midnight, dressed and demanded to be let out to play. He thought he was seven or eight, and Mama, who restrained him, was his mother. It would’ve been tragic had he not looked funny, for Papa held up his fraying shorts with a hand and hoisted black socks to his knees, a schoolboy with thinning, gray hair. He shook a bony fist at Mama, and would’ve hit her had his eyes not been rheumy and his joints not hindered by arthritis.
Before dementia steadily eroded what had been my father, I sometimes kidded him that I could summarize my relationship with him and with Mama in a single sentence: All the bad in me I got from him; all the good in me I got from my mother. He would laugh. He had, after all, given me my sense of humor. But he also knew that while my teasing was a massive misstatement, it was one laden with a few non-negotiable truths about the good and the bad that I had inherited from him.
My love for words came from Papa. He was not averse to filching a book from his friends’ or children’s shelves, reading and keeping it until you forget you ever had such a book. He was like a Rottweiler: he grabbed a book and didn’t let go even after gnashing of teeth. Before there were National bookstores or bookshops of previously owned books in Cebu, Papa had already known where to find those dumped by U.S. public libraries and middle schools.
Books were the priority. Our house, built in the ‘60s on Mama’s GSIS loan, had only two-and-a-half rooms for six children. Space was limited, but my parents invested wholeheartedly in a library, on a mezzanine that overlooked the living room and the dining area. The library was bigger than my sister’s tiny half-of-a-room (I didn’t even have a room), with Britannica volumes that lined the shelves, Reader’s Digests since the ‘50s, and a huge atlas that was bigger than one of the windows. And books. Oh, the books. I know now that my almost manic stockpiling of books springs from the need to recall the best part of my childhood. They are my link to my father. Perhaps the only link.
Papa thought and wrote in images; maybe that was why he could never find, even now, the words to tell us he loves us. (He gave me an awkward pat a few times.) When I needed assurance that he loved me, I should just have asked him to write me an image, instead of creating a card that began with If you truly loved me (I was only nine, and I never gave the card). At my wedding, he took to the stage with much pleasure, piling on the audience the image of him and my mother riding into the sunset, and talking much about Will Durant. A philosopher.
In my junior year in law school, I wrote an impassioned plea for him to fund my extracurricular studies in French. Money was hard to come by—Papa worked for the local government, Mama was a public school teacher, one brother had just finished medicine, and yet another was finishing medicine—and he replied with the only letter I ever received from him, one I still keep in my Happy Box. He wrote that if he were an outsider looking in on my life, he would give his eyeteeth to be my father.
He signed his letter not with his name or with Papa—he had lovely, elegant and extravagant penmanship, eruptions of his creativity—but with a drawing of his square glasses, the lines heavily etched onto the paper. I would often feel the ridges it had created on the other side. “I am old, decrepit,” he wrote on the last line. He was only 59.
He didn’t end his letter with the usual, familial complimentary close, Love or With love. He was of the old school, where parents were strictly figures of authority. My eldest brother told us, “Papa wants to be respected, not loved.” Such sternness was the likeness I projected onto God—God was a Father, after all, and I used to cringe before Him, even in prayer. Jesus—him I can deal with, he was a brother, see. God, well, He had an iron hand. It took several years of patient loving from my husband and from my uncle PaDanny for me to understand and then accept that though all the power in the whole universe is God’s, still He chooses to be tender. That though the Holy God should be the righteous judge of sin in me, He chooses to love me gently.
Oh, the gentleness I craved, for Papa had quicksilver moods, shifting always to his default mode: anger. I know how rage tastes. But I don’t know how it looks like: it has no color, not the red that angers the bull or the white heat that blinds. It has a burning that starts from between the shoulder blades that flares down in an instant to the palms, where it seeks release.
I’m now 47, but trapped inside me is a little girl who needs her father’s approval. Many years ago I sent Papa drafts of a few stories, needing the father-writer to affirm me at that crucial turn in my life after I had spurned his and Mama’s advice, left law practice, and took up writing, the road less traveled by.
He never said anything.
A year or two after he read my stories, I received an SMS from my sister. “Jan,” she said. “Papa wanted me to text you that he thinks your stories are good.”
That almost beat the eyeteeth line.
Now, in my father’s house, I see Papa struggle to remember how to make coffee. His cheeks redden, stark against his vitiligo—the loss of pigmentation unearthing white patches on his forehead, his eyebrows, his chin. His face is peeling. “What is this?” He points to the sugar. He doesn’t know what it is for. As his age advances, his mind retreats.
He talks to me, genuinely interested, leaning towards me. He asks me who I am, what I do, and where I come from, like he is meeting me for the first time. And on so many levels, that is true. This time he sees me. The past no longer clouds his eyes. His dementia has released the baggage—words shouted, anger thrown, scornful silences.
I am careful around Papa, burdened by memory. How can I forgive someone who does not remember? He cannot recall his absences, his dismissal of us. Dementia has robbed him of remorse.
With his mind slowly ebbing, the issue boils down to heart. Not his heart. Mine. Forgiveness is a decision, and perhaps the heart will follow. I accept the apology I will not get.Sometimes, at odd moments, when I’m driving or taking a shower, I cast the words to the air, “I forgive you, Papa.” I do it often, as many times as it takes—“not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Forgiveness changes the past: that is my hope. That the past—a different country—would soften and settle less like a stone but a warmer weight, rearranged to cradle the core of me, buttressing, making me stronger. It brings a new way of remembering.
Forgiveness is an act of grace. Forgetting is an act of love. And, with the mysterious physics of the heart, I love my father. More than he knows. Perhaps there lies the problem: he doesn’t know.
My father stirs his coffee, rattling the cup with his teaspoon. I ask him if he remembers this person or that occasion, and his dim eyes struggle to keep me in focus. Then he shakes his head. “That’s OK,” I tell him, touching his shoulder. “I will remember for the two of us.”
Janet Villa practiced Law for nine years before she received a fellowship to the Philippine National Writers’ Workshop and to the UP National Workshop. Her first published sotry “Undercurrents” won the NVM Grand Prize in 2003, and her sond “Closopen” won the NVM Grand Prize Special Prize in 2005. She is now finishing her MA in Creative Writing. Her biggest adventure is being best for husband Jojo and daughter Anna, while pursuing her passions in writing and teaching. Janet maintains CreW, the creating writing special interest group of Mensa Philippines after being the Mensa Philippines president in 1998.