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Contemplating Orphanhood And Better Living Through Grief

'To all orphans, even new ones like me, grief is a work in progress, and the journey may take long but the air of liberation is like hope: full of exegetes and rewards'
by Karl R. De Mesa | Sep 3, 2017
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I got the call on a work morning. My sister, on the phone, declared that it was over. “He’s gone,” she said and proceeded to tell me the details of our father’s demise and that the logistics of his wake would be such and such, and so and so.

I didn’t think I had such composure in me. I was able to finish the work day and, back home, discuss with my wife our plans for tackling this event, a big wall that had to be ascended and hurdled. A bit of composure and, perhaps, grace? A punk to a stoic. Hey, people can change. 

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Last time I talked to my father was in October 12, 2011, in a cemetery, when we were burying my mother. She passed on her birthday; five strokes and a host of diabetic complications proved too much for the new, that same day, senior citizen on her death bed. Most the wake and the burial remains a vague blur to me, the month wrapped in the fuzz of abstraction that grief imbues. It was a tumultuous year.

Previous to that day we had remained incommunicado for nearly a decade. His number on my phone listed him as “Lord of All Assholes.” I became an orphan on September 30, 2016. 

Family histories are double-edged in that joyful memories are counterweighed by less pleasant ones. 

I remember, in the mid-1980s, my father and I needed to go to the grocery and pick up supplies. But just getting there and back would take us hours. My father—bearded in salt and pepper, nerdily bespectacled, and intimidatingly tall yet far from fit for am obvious mestizo—would berate almost every adult he saw violating a legal or moral law: the jeepney driver smoking under a NO SMOKING sign inside his own vehicle, some guy pissing against a wall that prohibited exactly that with a clear neon sign, the woman behind a carinderia counter who hurled curses and regionalistic epithets at her waitress. These delays were only avoided by my nagging litany: “Gutom na ‘ko!” “Ang init!” “Magagalit na si Nanay!” Often in that order. He avoided seniors and children. I guess they didn’t fit the demographic or qualify for his outrage? Doing groceries, or any errand, was a bitch with him. Did he ever pull that stunt without me? Did he ever accost the wrong person and get beaten up? I stopped caring altogether by the time I was in my teens.     

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Good intentions do not condone awful manners. Or do they? But let’s not speak ill of the dead. 

I have two delightful memories of my father. The first: As a 10-year-old, my joy when he came home from long and unexplained absences was unparalleled, and we were able to play with my two toy swords. One was from the He-Man universe, the other was a cheap Star Wars lightsaber, both made of plastic. The second: I am being asked by my aunts to be the bigger man in an argument with my father that I now have no recollection about. Like a fool, a teenager in rebellion sensing there would be no point to it, I succumbed. “Apology accepted” he said and clapped me on my shoulder. I smiled and felt absolved but the thrashing voice kept yelling “stupid, stupid, stupid. now he’ll never respect you.”   

Family histories are double-edged: it takes time to reasonably assess your memories and classify them as good, or bad, or a mix of both.

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My mother, an obsessively energetic woman who resembled Nora Aunor in both size and skin color, had the same cut of confrontational philosophy as my father, but restrained it to friends and family. Every discussion of note would escalate into a debate about ideology and politics, layers of etiquette flying out the window as talks became more impassioned.

But let’s not speak ill of the dead. “Stand up for yourself and stand up for those who can’t,” was her mantra, and she’d drill that in me after I saw those heated arguments. She parlayed this into a career freeing political prisoners.  

Both my parents were activists and former Communist guerillas. Both had been imprisoned for their rebellions against the state. My father, a former priest, was dubbed Monsignor by his fellow inmates at a high security prison for political detainees. He wasn’t, though; he’d never attained such a rank.

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In the mid-1990s I was deep in my obsession with the tarot. My email was, horribly, styled

By 1998 I’d quit school to help nanay, by now a single mother, with our finances for my kid sister’s tuition. For the whole year, before I landed my first job as a rookie newspaper reporter, I used my skills with the tarot for reading fortunes from the storybook of the arcanas to help out as much as I could with money for small things—groceries, water, baon for school.

I crisscrossed various NGOs, left-leaning or otherwise in the activist network to read futures about migration, breakup, and death. I learned to eventually riff on scenarios of possible love, which people always liked. Nobody wants to know about the possibility of their loss. Nobody wants to know they might die within a year.

Once, at the office of a children's NGO, the Death card and the Six of Swords kept appearing in the spread of a loud and upbeat, middle-aged woman with pale skin. And I saw how the cancer, like a blitzkrieg montage of a movie, would devour her dry. In a year, two on the outside. Clarity is like a thunderclap on a sunny day. I strongly advised her to take that executive checkup she’s been putting off, then continued to tell her about the possible men represented by the two Page cards in her spread.        

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In traditional Rider-Waite deck iconography, the Six of Swords is two figures on a boat which is on a lake or a shallow body of water, their backs to the viewer. One is sitting and wrapped in a heavy robe or blanket. We are unable to tell if it is a man or woman. The second figure is the boatman, his hands on the staff he uses to push the boat through the waters. In front of them, blades down on the boat’s hull, are six swords.

The card is about transitions, reluctant voyages, rites of passage that are unavoidably painful but necessary. 

My father had died from a pain in his side that had ballooned into a hardness of breath and eventually into a heart attack—something he’d already had many of, bearing a disease of that organ.

I kept my calm at his wake. I had taken up grappling two years previous. Did the weekly strenuous exercise of sparring heavy men, who sometimes outweighed me by 100lbs, trying to strangle me help with confronting personal drama? I must believe so.

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When I saw him last I was unable to tell who this person in the coffin was. The same one who played swords with me and brought me joy and taught me how to possess principles? The same one who gave sanctuary to many young activists and taught community organizers to better care for those they sought to enlighten?

Six swords to take on a reluctant journey. I would have never gotten through the ritual of it without my wife’s presence and urging: where is your gratitude? It took a long time but I thanked everyone in that room, that day at the wake and repeated to myself that this was selfish but this was my closure. I didn’t go to the burial.

Memorizing tarot card meanings and possessing true sight are not mutually exclusive. It is much like reading between the lines. It is an art that is a tool, much like a ladder: you can stand on it and see a bit further than most. True sight is like kinesthesia. And the true art is in discerning what you see and reporting it back to your querent, without preconception or agenda.

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Reading the cards also don’t automatically mean discerning a clearer future for yourself.  See: the observer is part of the system and, at the end of the day, you’re still in the same maze as the rest of the hapless fuckwads of humanity even if you have a psychic ladder.  

My breakdown, when it came, was creeping but palpable.

For weeks, I could only slog past work on zombie mode, an almost literal darkness would obscure my sight during the most inopportune of moments. I would look at something I had already edited and spot fundamental rookie errors.

What the hell was happening? Freed of my model for what not to be, I was grasping for a new world view, one that did not include my parents or their shadow or their ways of condemnation and reward. 

I lost a day sometime during the end of January this year. I blacked out. And, when I came to, my wife was telling me to come back, come back, holding me in a grappling back take, hooks in and massaging my temples. I recalled nothing but, after looking at my journal, I’d managed to, the previous day, write something and, after looking at my records, even managed to pay some bills.

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I may remember none of that day but here’s what I wrote:


I praise you, fire starter

Frustrated with flint and tinderbox

In darklands that abhor any illumination

Except the moon in gibbous.

Thy destructions

Are worthy of exegetes.

Jesus, might as well burn the house

Down just to see the hand in front of me.

My mind is scarred.

Six swords and an agonizing journey. To all orphans, even new ones like me, grief is a work in progress, and the journey may take long but the air of liberation is like hope: full of exegetes and rewards. Thank you, father.

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