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Father’s Day in the Time of a Pandemic

“Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” (Exodus 20:12)

“Let’s have another Zoom meeting on Father’s Day.”

We had a great meeting last Mother’s Day; it is only right and fitting we set up another one on Father’s Day. In the US and in many other countries, including the Philippines, Father’s Day is celebrated on the third Sunday in June. Other countries celebrate it on specific dates. In Catholic Spain, for example, Father’s Day falls on March 19, the feast of St. Joseph. In Taiwan, on the other hand, it is celebrated on the eighth day of the eighth month, because the Chinese Mandarin word for the number eight sounds like the word “papa.” While thinking about our plans, however, my mood suddenly changes from light to sad. I’m thinking of the many children who have lost their fathers, grandfathers, foster fathers in the past few months as a result of this pandemic. More than sixty percent of those who died were men. Statistics also show that the virus has taken the lives of men aged mostly above forty.

Our situation these times has been likened to a state of war, a war that has resulted in many young children losing their fathers at an early age. As a result, I could not help thinking: perhaps this was the collective state of mind at the height of World War II when many children had lost their fathers.

My own father was fortunate enough to have survived the war. But he was not fortunate to have seen his father survive. His father (my grandfather) was tortured by the Japanese Imperial Army and died as a result of wounds sustained during torture. My father was never able to say goodbye nor attend his father’s wake. I still have no idea how painful this must have been.

In this war against COVID-19, families are not allowed to be with their loved ones, whether in the hospitals or in the funeral homes. The pain these families have had to undergo is indescribable.

Perhaps some thoughts on the fourth commandment are in order:

First of all, I think the fourth commandment is addressed not so much at young children, as at adult children and their relationship with their aging parents.

I think that as we treat our parents, so our children are likely to treat us, not because of any intrinsic law of causation, but because our children will learn by our example how we treat each other across generations. In other words, if our aging parents were treated with annoyance and irritation in our homes, then we should not be surprised if our own children would treat us with equal annoyance and irritation. In simple terms, they who do not honor their parents will not be honored by their own children.

For adult children, I think the challenge is to learn to forgive their aging parents for their flaws, real or imagined. One of the hardest things to learn is to accept that parents are human, and therefore not perfect. Our images of childhood were filled with memories of perfect parents. They are not; they never were. As we grew up, the images of dad as a cool guy and mom as the perfect mom faded, and the reality took some time to sink in before we came to terms with our parents’ flaws.

The fourth commandment, therefore, is not only about honor but also about forgiveness. But until we ourselves become parents, we will not suspect that our unforgivingness was merely a symptom of our fear of discovery of our own flaws, flaws that only surface when our time came to be parents ourselves.

These days we worry a lot about who are dying of COVID-19 (and we certainly should). But do we worry about our own aging parents? Do we appreciate or even take notice of the things they are doing for us, despite their infirmities in their final years, to please us? Or do we have to lose them in death before we realize too late how precious they were?

I have not been very appreciative of my aging father’s going out of his way to babysit my son, until many years later, after his death. He babysat my son so that my wife and I could both work. I never realized that in that short period he was able to implant in my son a pride for his Filipino ancestry.

I am proud of the tributes and stories that have been written about my father’s war exploits, but none of them can compare with the time he gave us to babysit my son in his formative years. That was the time I got to see him every day and he taught all of us to enjoy the simple things in life. That was also the time I learned from my conversations with him how he found forgiveness in his heart to the people who tortured his father and caused the death and torture of his other siblings during the war. Those were the times I also realized his deep love for Jesus and Our Lady of Penafrancia.

For me those were the real “father and son bonding” times that I will never forget. Soon my son grew up to young manhood, and my father had more time to devote his later years in fighting for Filipino Veterans Equity Rights in the US.

And then he permanently retired in the Philippines.

Shortly after, I got a message from one of my brothers that my father was seriously ill and dying. I was able to speak with him over the phone for just a few seconds, for I could hardly understand anything due to his feeble voice. I told him to wait for me, for I was flying home to the Philippines with my other brother Oggie. We immediately purchased our airplane tickets, but did not make it on time to say goodbye. He passed away on the day before we boarded our flight.

My father did not die alone like many fathers who died in this pandemic. I wish I was beside him to say goodbye, but I was comforted by the thought that my older brother was with him all the way until his last breath. Before he breathed his last, the last words he heard were my brother’s words intoned loud and clear in his ears: “Viva la Virgen.”

That was many years ago. In a couple of weeks it will be Father’s Day. In a couple of months it will be September again, the feast of Our Beloved Lady of Penafrancia. I do not know if there will be a Traslacion or a Fluvial procession this year. By October perhaps a vaccine will be available.

Be that as it may, this I know: honoring our parents -- and the aged -- is a necessary prerequisite for a long and healthy life.

Thus it is declared in the Decalogue.

Happy Father’s Day!

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