Watching my father rest in his bed in the corner of the aged room, I realized the weight of all the years he had behind him. He has always been a small man—his frame was humble but father-like, and it seemed as though his cancer made him look even smaller than I could recall. He looked like a sleeping newborn cramped on the side of the bed. I decided it was better to keep my distance by the door so as not to disturb him. I turned the knob softly but his voice surprised me, “Aly…”
“Dad,” I said, trying to keep my voice as low as possible. “I didn’t know you were awake.”
“Well, now you know I am,” he said, with a weak smile. I tried to conceal the disappointment that overtook me for seeing him this frail, as well as the fright for what may happen in the operation. He needed reassurance, I said to myself, don’t give him any more worries.
“Feelin’ better?” I said, immediately realizing how thoughtless it is of me to ask if he is feeling okay. Of course, he isn’t.
“Not the best, but there’s really nothing to worry about. Don’t you have a duty at the hospital today?”
“I asked Julius to take my place, it isn’t really busy at the hospital these days,” I said, despite knowing all too well that every day is a busy day for public hospitals.
“Julius? How’s he?” he said. I can see he was trying to make me feel light and normal, but my heart was getting heavier as we talk, and the lumps in my throat can no longer keep themselves intact.
“He’s fine,” I briefly answered to cut the conversation short. He needed not to see me cry. “Take your rest, dad, I’ll be here in the kitchen if you need me,” I said before he can ask any more questions.
It is hard to miss the dismay in his face as I turn my glimpse away, “Alright, wait for your mom. She went to the market.”
I closed the door as quietly as I can as if any sound I make can further damage his deteriorating condition. Each step away from his room felt like kilometers of growing distance from the father I have known. I am still perhaps clouded by the myth of the invulnerable parent one is inclined to believe in his childhood. I have been an optimistic child subjected to the belief that her parents are superheroes—and I guess it’s something inherent to young people. Adulthood is something young people dream of until it slaps them straight at the face will they realize they’d do everything to remain as a child. My father once told me that children are the luckiest people at any given time, and probably he was right.
I sat on the chair closest to the window and tried to remember the happiest memories I have of my father. He used to take me to the park every Sunday back when I was roughly seven, and along with my sisters, we’d look for the perfect spot in the grass where to put our blanket. I remembered mocking my sister for drinking from the bottle I used to collect tiny grasshoppers and gave her the title “grasshopper eater” in jest. Some days, I would watch my father paint outside the house. I can still vividly recall the way his canvas comes to life with every stroke, it was a magic trick for my little mind. But many people devalued his artistry as a laughingstock, and I grew up secretly adopting the same opinion. For what function this art meant to him, I didn’t know.
It was his passion for art that distanced him from my grandfather, and after years I realized that it was the very reason why I got closer to my grandfather than to him. Mom told me that grandad’s dream was for him to pursue medicine, like many fathers of their generation who craves success, but my father made sure it won’t happen. My grandfather told me that you could never make a living out of painting, and I started to blame my father for being naïve. I refused to talk to my father for a week after my grandfather died because I felt like he had wronged my grandfather for not resolving their issues—I felt like it was his fault for insisting on his ambition.
The windows revealed the emptiness of the house, with the specks of dust covering most of the surface. The walls—jeweled by father’s paintings—resemble a visual art gallery. I couldn’t help but notice the change of color in the paintings of my father throughout the years. As a child, I used to see him paint meadows and sun-streaked mountains, but I noticed that some of the pictures—I reckon the recent ones because the strokes have become sloppier—are dominantly grayish. The paintings had become quiet and pensive. I stared at one of the paintings until I realized what this dull and leaden color is unveiling—my father’s loneliness. A tinge of guilt ran through my chest from realizing how lonely my parents must’ve felt, constantly growing white hairs with all their children out of sight. I sighed, thinking it was all inevitable, yet sadness overcomes me still. My parents insisted on staying in this house, despite my offer to provide them a new one, somewhere else. I couldn’t blame them for wanting this sort of peace. Even I would choose to escape the rush of the city had I been given the choice.
Several empty bottles of San Miguel Pale Pilsen occupied the right side of the area below the kitchen sink. I put them inside a plastic bag one by one, thinking that if only my father listened to me, if only he stopped being childish, none of this would’ve happened.
“That’s a bleeding tumor,” my co-resident said, pointing to the suspicious mass on the left side of a patient’s brain imaging.
“Most probably,” I said, trying so hard to shift my focus back to the tests to be conducted after the assessment, “the only option is to operate and take out the mass.”
“Right,” he said, studying my reflection in the mirror on his side. “You okay?” he said, trying not to sound so concerned.
“I have no choice but to be okay,” I sighed, taking in more air than I could exhale. I tried to keep my thoughts together. “his surgery’s tomorrow, what if something goes wrong?” I said, more like a call for assurance than a question.
“Your worrying wouldn’t help your father, you just gotta be strong for him. Besides, we’ve got the best doctors here,” he said with a smile, revealing all his white front teeth. “What you need now is rest. I’ll take care of this, go.”
I walked along the deserted hallway leading to my office room, and for the first time in my stay at the hospital, I felt like a child uncertain of direction. I had always been meticulous with every step. For the past eight years, every gesture of my hand during operations is a calculated decision. But that day, I felt like I have earned the right to be incompetent, to be clueless, to be fragile.
I had never felt so restless as the day I knew my father wouldn’t be with us for long. The doctor from another department who supervised his tests required him to stay for another two weeks after conducting partial hepatectomy. The tumor has spread on both lobes of his liver, and the operation must be done on one lobe and let it regrow first before operating on the other. But his stay extended when the test revealed that the tumor has spread on nearby lymph nodes too. After two months, the doctor confronted me to admit that nothing more can be done to improve his condition.
My mind reeled to all possible measures they haven’t considered. He might be wrong, he’s just human after all. My mother’s silent cry beside me drowned my thinking and my heart flared with seething anger and helplessness. Leaving my sobbing mother in the corner, I walked towards the room where my father was, deciding which words need to be uttered.
I turned the knob of his room in the ward and quietly sit at his bedside. I tried my best to convince myself that inside those sagging skin was the father I knew. The thought of his lungs and heart straining behind his ribs dissolves my sanity. It is his liver that I despised the most.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said, startling me. “‘ I told you so, dad.'” He said, mimicking my usual know-it-all tone.
“I’m sorry, dad,” I uttered, not knowing what else to say, and what better way to say things.
“Don’t apologize for something that isn’t your fault,” he says in a serious tone. I stare at him until I can no longer put up a carefree façade in front of my father.
I never thought it is possible for this house to feel any emptier. The walls whisper of the many things I should’ve said to him, like how much I miss his jokes, or that I still remember the sound of his voice on the recording when he sang Depeche mode‘s Somebody to my mother.
I stay at the house for days, accompanying my grieving mother until we can both walk on our own again. My sisters left the day after the funeral, so I decided to sit outside when my mother goes out to avoid the drowning emptiness of the house. Some days I’d brave to look at the paintings and try to understand it as much as I can—maybe my father intended one of these to tell me something. But some days, they just feel like voices reminding me of the chances I wasted to know my father well.
I wake up one morning to the sound of a rooster crowing. I need to arrange my things because I’d leave this afternoon. I tell myself he’s probably out there, painting a landscape in the garden, or sleeping in his room, or somewhere else helping out my mother. My heart persists and persists for it seems like the only thing it is capable of doing today.
I find myself unwittingly walking towards his room. I turn the knob, ever so gently, trying to make sense of the odds that I’d find my father there. I feel stupid for being so disappointed. Sitting in his bed, I try to recall how it felt like when he was still here. The room has the same scent.
I see a canvas facing back on the corner of the room and pick it up. I expect to see a painting of a meadow or a mountaintop, but instead, I see faces smiling at me. It is our family portrait. I didn’t even know he painted anything more than landscapes. But this painting looked surreal—as if we weren’t humans but astral projections—with the colors invading my senses and soul at the same time. It is hard to look at each of our faces without shedding tears. The emptiness of the house that engulfs me drowns at the presence of my father’s painting, and I feel like it is not the canvas I am seizing in my hands, but my father’s hands.