LIKE my father, I am made inarticulate by emotion. But studying in a university that wrote down polemical arguments even on empty cardboard rolls left in comfort rooms, I was encouraged to gather my words and, wrapping these around my grief or anger, try to batter my way through the high, thick walls of my father’s disappointment or hurt.
Only the very young can be numbingly persistent. Though I spent whole nights composing the letters, which I left beside the cup I knew he would always overturn for his first sip of coffee at dawn, I never could spy on him to check if he opened my letters during that blue hour when he woke to read for class, as well as have his first smoke.
The letters were always gone, of course, by the time I sat down for breakfast. But my father never let on that my pleading left a chink in that wall of his. I had no certainty even that the paper I wrote on was ever unfolded and all those emotions, released.
In the end, I chose to retreat and lick my wounds with more words. Rather than escalate our hostilities, I did not take to the streets with comrades but stayed behind to write and rewrite another statement calling for the expulsion of foreign military bases from our shores. Rather than stay out with a boy I was besotted with, I wrote pallid poetry and incoherent treatises on the nature of intimacy.
My father knew better. He did not trust words. Yes, he loved to read. He sometimes enjoyed a rant or two, but this was often solely addressed to the radio transistor blaring out a diatribe that offended his logic or politics.
But when it came to other concerns—should his daughter volunteer for a task force probing human rights abuses, must a child of his prove that love’s purest expression is sex without the entrapment of commitment—my father did not turn to words.
He knew there was no help there. He sniffed at the false sanctuaries offered by words as an animal warily approaches some spoor or strange stirring in the air. He did not trust the door left open, expecting a trap.
I think that when his marriage floundered after he exchanged “I do” with my mother, my father realized that words could shift shape, be friend or foe, raise or betray you.
What might save words, though, was owning them: taking all that sharpness and embedding this in the naked yielding core of one’s desires— a writer’s ache to retrieve what slips away, a journalist’s hope to do some good, a daughter’s attempt to make up to a parent without losing her self-respect.
Recently discussing with fellow teachers how we can get our students to write more and to write better, I remember how my classroom and newsroom mentors have shaped me but no more than my father’s silences.
When he broke yet another round of hostilities by leaving again toothpaste on my toothbrush so I would discover this, his entire apology and only explanation, before I went to bed, I long ago learned how wordlessness can be a beloved’s way of startling words to take flight.
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* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 10, 2008 issue