Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The invisible ones

FATHERHOOD must be the only occupation rated at its best in absentia.

Years ago, I entered a warren of inner-city hovels for an assignment. I found enough strange things to think I was in another world: a city made of cardboard scraps and tarpaulin floating above a sea of ooze, a smell that dogged my steps like a mangy canine out for a bone, any bone, even the one my ankle was still attached to.

It was noon. Women with children were preparing lunch. And the men were just stirring.

Of all the oddities, this was by far the most curious: that all these men—young or middle-aged, fit and able—were not at work.

The bourgeois portrait of fatherhood is all about an empty space beside smiling spouse and children. Fathers provide; mothers nurture.

Women have to be everywhere, in the bedroom, in the kitchen, at work, in the PTA. Fathers go off to work; when they come home, they have a license to disappear into a newspaper, TV set or laptop. When children are told not to disturb Dad, it really means that they are not supposed to question the disappearing acts: to retreat to work, to escape from work.

In that city growing above ooze, I rediscovered fathers.

Wondering what kept them sleeping till noon, I let my bourgeois biases color my assumption. What else but the illegal and the covert must drive these men to follow lifestyles in total reversal to the normal and respectable: while others slept, they worked; while others worked, they slept.

But the sleep-deprived can also include a taxi driver on a 24-hour shift or one plying a jeepney route thrice a week. The night watchmen and the dope peddlers: aren’t both providers, with one difference? If one provides for the family, isn’t that already meeting the all-qualifying criterion for fatherhood?

In incest cases, there is a pattern of women becoming blind to a partner abusing a daughter or blaming the daughter for “seducing” the abuser. Such women would rather sacrifice a daughter or two than jeopardize the survival of the whole family, which will happen if the male partner and breadwinner is put in jail.

Absent fathers or growling guts?

Wandering among the hovels, I noticed how few of the children drew near the men. No male arm or knees dandled an infant.

The kids clustered instead around the women, who, because they were busy with chores, either ignored them or swatted them away and harangued them. When the women’s curses faded away, the children drew closer again to the women, who renewed swatting and cursing.

The only ones unbothered by the press of small bodies in that cramped place were the men. They leisurely stretched and scratched several parts of their body. They chewed on toothpicks. They openly stared back at me, a stranger.

Even when some men are at home, they remain invisible. They cannot find their socks. Their children cannot see them.

Yet when a child runs away, or is caught slitting a stranger’s throat, or winds up slitting his own throat, the family case study specialist will often theorize this reason for wildness: an “absent father.”

But isn’t fatherhood an occupation in absentia?

So the case study writer used one adjective too much: fatherhood is an exercise to eradicate the proliferation of “absent” in modern English usage. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s “Matamata” column in its June 21, 2009 issue

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