As we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family on 31 December, let us turn our focus to an important but often neglected role in the family – fathers. Djamila Burgos shares her memories of her late father and how he tried his best to nurture her despite his challenges.
A few hours before he passed on, Father whispered to me “Child, bless me. I will sleep soon.” My heart skipped a beat. Blinking away the tears that were threatening to come, I asked, “Did you mean to pray for you, Father?” “Yes”, he replied. “I’m sleepy already.”
That was how my father passed away in 2015 at the ripe age of 82 – full of peace, grace and strength in spite of the tough life he had.
In my heart, Tatay (“father” in Tagalog) will always be my role model of faith and first love. He was the one who taught me to trust in God despite the circumstances and showed me what it means to be singlehearted in love. While he only had Grade Three qualifications (the equivalent of Primary 3), he struggled to provide materially for the family. And though he suffered from ill health, Tatay made sure that we were never poor in love and hope.
The Practical Teacher
When Nanay (“mother” in Tagalog) died unexpectedly at 41 years, my two younger brothers and I were often taunted by others and called orphans. We were dirt poor with no food, no money, no mother and a sick father who could not work.
But despite the poverty, we never felt hopeless. Tatay often taught us through his words and actions that God has a great plan for us. Because of the hope he placed in our hearts, we could always find ways to make ends meet.
Every December, we would make and sell “parols” (Christmas lanterns) since all students must bring one to school and the start-up capital was only a few pesos. “Use the perimeter of the roof to display the ready-made lanterns and attract customers,” Tatay would tell us.
When the straps of my rubber slippers broke, Tatay showed me how to mend them by melting the broken ends in fire and pressing them together tightly. And when neighbours tried to claim my slippers as their own, Tatay taught me how to press heated copper wires into my slippers so as to mark them with my initials.
Reflecting on these experiences, I realise that sometimes the best lessons in life are those taught in the classroom of life under the loving gaze of a parent. Through these little moments accumulated over time, my brothers and I learnt the value of hope, perseverance and hard work in difficult times.
Djamila and Tatay on holiday
The photo of Nanay that Tatay kept in his wallet
The Faithful Lover
Tatay was only 48 years old when Nanay died. I will always remember the way he would look at Nanay’s photo whenever he missed her or felt lonely. He would tell us that Nanay was still single when she took that photo, which means he had been keeping it for at least the past five decades!
Even when his wallet became old and tattered, Nanay’s photo would still be pristine and perfect in that special spot in his wallet. That was how much Tatay loved and treasured Nanay.
Despite the many ladies surrounding him and the periods of loneliness, Tatay never had eyes for anyone else and remained a widower for 34 years till his death. The way he loved Nanay and his dedication to his marriage became my model for my own marriage.
The Attentive Father
Looking back, though Tatay struggled with his health, he was always sensitive to our developmental and emotional needs and seemed to know whenever his children were troubled or struggling.
Tatay would quietly ask our friends and neighbours whenever he sensed something was amiss. Yet, he would not intervene directly in our troubles but simply assure us that everything will be okay.
In this way, he gave us the confidence to handle our own worries and empowered us to stand on our own.
As a girl growing up amongst boys, Tatay noticed that I was becoming too boyish. So when I turned 13, he brought me to my first ball to remind me that I was a girl and would eventually be courted by boys!
Even though Tatay was not my first dance, he made sure that I was well prepared for it and even secretly peeped at the first boy that I danced with. Such was the care, protection and security that Tatay provided us as we grew up.
Djamila and Tatay at her University Convocation
Djamila and her two brothers on her silver wedding anniversary
The Innovative Educator
Despite his lack of formal education, Tatay was very intelligent and inspired in us the love for learning through his own example.
Tatay loved to read and always kept himself abreast with the local and international current affairs. Contrary to the local practice of renting comics, Tatay would borrow books on various topics from friends. He would also re-read his treasured copies of Readers’ Digest and World Almanac, periodicals he bought while he was still working.
Whenever we had time together, Tatay would then share with us his thoughts and learnings from the books he read.
To make learning fun, Tatay would play Scrabble with us and ensure that he was always one step ahead so that we could never be complacent. He would also make us read the dictionary and do the crossword puzzles in the newspapers. That was how he tried to help us excel in our studies.
Thank You Tatay
Because of Tatay, my brothers and I were indeed redeemed from poverty. When life got too tough and we could not go on, Tatay would remind us that God is merciful and has a great plan for us.
Growing up in this close-knit family, it was very challenging to live apart when all three of us had to move to different cities to pursue our university education. During the big earthquake of 1990, we lost contact with one another and scrambled to find news of each other. It was three days later before we managed to re-establish contact and meet up.
Though we were materially poor, we were blessed because of Tatay’s strong faith. Days before he passed away, Tatay confided that he was leaving in peace because he was assured of our steadfast love and care for each other.
Thank you Tatay for devoting your entire life to us and giving us ours. We can never repay you for this debt of love.