“One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love.” ― Sophocles.
February 14, 2023. Today is another day of the year when our hearts seem to palpitate more than on other days of the year. After all, it’s Valentine’s Day! This day of the hearts, where the loving feeling is in the air, is more popularly associated with romantic love meant for lovers and couples in love. Through the years, we have kept this happy tradition, and it never bothered me whether or not I had Valentine’s date, for Papa was always my Valentine. However, I grew up celebrating Papa’s birthday on this day who was born Manuel Tayko Guingona on Feb. 14, 1925. His birthday was a happy occasion for us to gather together as a family around one big table to thank God for his precious gift of life.
Time flies by swiftly, and it’s been, sadly, eleven years since he passed away on November 25, 2012. But the memories of Papa will always stay in my heart. Since he was a man of few words, I cherish all the more those words he said to me during my growing up years until the last chapter of his life’s journey.
“Marj, you can do it…I will be here for you! His words of encouragement were all I needed to deliver my salutatory speech during our Grade School graduation ceremony at Fr. Urios College in Butuan City. I admit I was nervous in front of a large crowd, but the speech must have been so powerful, for many congratulated me, saying that I did better than the Valedictorian. Thanks to Papa, who took the time to mentor me and did not settle for less until I mastered my speech well and with firm conviction.
“Marj, mama, and I love you, and we are willing to take care of your child.” What? Me pregnant? How could it be? I do not know any man! This was my startled response to Papa’s words of unconditional love when I was down and out and vomiting as if showing signs of morning sickness. I can’t blame them. I have been coming home later than usual from a theater rehearsal in our parish, and the young men in the neighborhood would often walk me home. They were so relieved to find out later that I had Hepatitis A, and they immediately took me to the hospital for treatment, where I was confined for a few days.
“Marj, it’s alright to feel the pain of losing someone. It’s better to let go now before it’s too late.” I can’t forget crying my heart out in Papa’s arms when my first love didn’t work out. I doubted if I made the right decision to break up, for it was a painful letting go. However, the comforting presence of my parents near me, especially Papa’s warm embrace, was enough to console me at my young and tender age. His words healed the pain of parting ways with someone whom I realized in hindsight that we weren’t meant to be for each other after all in the first place.
“Marj, know that you always have a home to come home to. We are here for you should you decide to come back home again.” Leaving home for good to set out to an unknown future scared me. And yet, Papa’s words of assurance made me shed tears of profound love and gratitude. He gave me the audacity and the courage to dare follow the calling of my heart, that is, to follow the footsteps of Jesus in the religious life as a missionary with the Guardian Angel Sisters in the highlands of Lakewood, Zamboanga del Sur. Their love and support gave me the wings to fly, making all the difference until today.
“Marj, please help me get on my feet again.” This was the last time I ever saw Papa stand up again. I felt his tall body overpowering the little strength I could muster. We struggled to move together to make a step forward so he could walk. Somehow, the pain on his right foot was so unbearable that he had to beckon me to put him back in his chair again. I felt the pain and sadness in his eyes. We both knew that the moment had arrived for him to say goodbye with the finality of his cherished freedom and independence. He was 85 when he last drove his car and 86 when he last stood on his own two feet.
“Marj, thank you for being here with me. I know you should be out there in the missions.” His words of deep gratitude moved me unexpectedly, for I realized how much of my time as a youth and more so as a missionary has been spent with others that he never once complained or begged me to spend time with them. I humbly assured him that if there were one place I would rather be at that moment, it was there by his side and that I would be there for him as long as he needed me. A promise I made to mama before she sadly passed away almost a year before Papa died.
Marj, kindly scratch my foot! It’s itchy! – Which one, Papa? The right foot? He nodded his head, so I silently went through the motions of scratching his already “phantom foot” the day after it was auto-amputated by the doctors. On this day, he was like a little boy so afraid, and I was like the mother by his side, comforting him that all shall be well, though deep inside, I was crestfallen. Never in my wild imagination that at his old age (87), he would have to suffer an amputation unreasonably as it had reached a point that his foot had turned into a corpse-like object almost dangling apart from his wobbly leg.
Yes, I find myself alone on this quiet day of the hearts, overlooking the verdant hills and valleys. The memories of our home will always linger in my heart. For it was there that I first experienced what true love is. My father, my first Valentine, was far from perfect, but he was the best father to me, for he had sown the seeds of love that perhaps, without my realizing it, has grown through the years. It has been blown constantly by the winds of change, sundrenched and watered by the rain showers of life’s daily battles and struggles. And yet, through it all, it is love that matters. It’s what makes life worth living and dying for every single day of our lives. Yes, life is a gift from our Maker. We need to be open and live it with wonder and awe. It is meant to be shared with others so we may continue to give life to so many, especially to the least, the lost, and the last in the eyes of our world.
HAPPY VALENTINES TO ALL, and HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PAPA, IN HEAVEN!