Saturday, April 23, 2011

Here's to long life.

We are having pancit tonight, lovingly prepared by Mom. Funny how pancit in our family is treated like ulam with a platter of steamed white rice on the side.

It is a late dinner even by our standards (we usually eat between 8:30pm and 9:00pm), having returned from the Easter Vigil mass which ended at 10pm. There still is a bit of kare-kare and adobong pusit left over from the past few days, but we had those already for lunch. All these festive dishes remind me of Noche Buena and Christmas Day, as we celebrate the Resurrection with a special feast. However, we gather for each meal quietly, with a somber and reflective mood, as it is our first Easter without Dad.

It's times like these when I miss Dad the most. He would be second to the last to come to the table for a meal (I would be last), and everyone would hear his deliberate sigh and the heavy steps leading to the dining room. I knew I only had a few seconds left on the phone before I would hear him call me three times. "Chise, Chise, Chisey!" (he corrupted all of our nicknames to his liking.) I would then hurriedly say my whispered goodbye over the phone before he would blurt out, "Tama na yan! Oras na ng pagkain, puro telefono pa rin ang inaatupag!"

Meals were sacred at home, and everyone was expected to be at the table even if one had already eaten out. I was seated across him, and he would always scrutinise what I ate (and what I didn't). It would revolve around permutations of me eating too much rice or why I suddenly stopped eating rice, and how he loved to watch me eat. Magana raw, at nakakagana akong kumain. He always expected me to like anything he liked, and he was right most times. He would encourage me to eat the food of his days in Malabon, and I indulged him. In fact, it was an unwritten rule that any male friend or suitor who would visit the house would win his approval (to at least visit the house) if he had the appetite for an unfamiliar dish served to him -- be it eel (igat), horse (tapang kabayo) or sinigang sa dugo. He would actually feel a bit insulted if the offer to eat was declined, but it was almost always welcomed with gusto, since he also ate his meals so heartily, he could even make a man eat dirt if he wanted to.

Thus, meals at home were not just instances to feed our stomachs, they were important social events. It was at the dining table when we were at our most candid selves, and if ever there were any misunderstandings or grievances, it was always settled over a good meal. Somehow, food was usually enough to ease our misery because it just tasted so satisfyingly delicious.

When Dad started becoming very weak, I made it a point to dine with him whenever I could, be it early breakfasts and dinners during workdays, and every meal on weekends. Sometimes, when I would bring Mom to mass on Sundays, I would sneak back home and join Dad for his late breakfast, since he would just be waking up when we were already preparing for church. I wished that each time I ate with him, he would eat a bit more. His favorite was pancit, and we had it at least once a week, and, of course, with steamed rice on the side.

When I had trouble eating these past few weeks, I thought about Dad a lot. I never missed a meal while he was around (or at least I was good at hiding it), because he was always asking me to eat with him. He would even call me at work to check if I had lunch already; and if I left my lunchbox at home, he would drive to the bank to give it to me. That fateful day when I was hospitalised, I was having our favorite brunch fare of pinangat na banak, and I knew Mom ate it with me not because she liked it (she preferred it cooked paksiw-style) but because she wanted to see me eat again. Honestly, though, I felt all the more lonely because I missed Daddy.

Tonight, as I count the minutes before Easter Sunday, I look at the pancit served before us. More than the usual symbol for long life, it is an invitation for me to celebrate what my life has given me thus far. Here is Daddy, asking me to eat with him, and to let go of my loneliness. I sit beside my Mom, and get some. I make room for rice on my plate, and I imagine him laughing at my appetite for carbs.

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