Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Separation Anxiety

It’s that time again. All OFW kids know what I’m talking about, the inevitable parting, when a parent has to go abroad again. Whenever Papa comes home, I know that it’s not permanent, I accepted long ago that he has to go away. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. And we all have our coping mechanisms in the family, mine is to deny it until I’m blue in the face because I want to act normal and be happy with Papa for as long as I can. Because if I keep thinking about him leaving, I just get sad. I don’t ask questions about how long he’s staying or until when, being the denial queen I am. If I broach the subject, then it becomes real, and it’s so painful and I can’t deal with it. So even when I know it’s coming, I don’t want to acknowledge it because I want to hold onto Papa just a little longer.

It starts out innocently enough. Papa goes about the house tinkering, fixing, cleaning. He tightens bolts, replaces light bulbs, fixes creaking hinges, that sort of thing. He rearranges furniture and tidies up clutter. And that’s when I begin to suspect. He’s the only man of the house and he doesn’t like leaving us to our feminine devices with carpentry, plumbing, electrical work. He always makes sure that everything is in order before he leaves because it will be months before he comes home and there won’t be anyone to take care of household repairs when he’s away. And then my suspicion turns to certainty when Papa goes to the office for meetings and he attends to paperwork, like renewing his passport and visas and other documents. And then Mama buys him vitamins and maintenance medication by the bulk. Then in a casual conversation they drop the bomb and tell us Papa might be leaving in a week’s time, or possibly two days from now. Every time, it still comes as a blow, still leaves me stunned when I find out the end is near. But then since it’s already there, I just have to face it. Not a minute sooner though. I can’t take the knowing. That’s for Mama to bear. I can’t do it.

Papa might have to leave on Saturday. It hasn’t been confirmed yet, but it will be tomorrow. This has happened before, really short notice. Actually even Mama was reeling. We all thought we’d have more time. Papa came home in January, so this time we’ve had him for just a little over three months. On average, Papa’s vacations are usually four to five months long, and his contracts six to nine months. We’re all in public schools now, two of us in UP Diliman, and the youngest is in Philippine Science, so tuition is less of a burden, than when we were all in private school. It used to be that Papa’s contracts would last eleven months to over a year. But for Papa’s latest departure, they’ve planned it so he’ll be home for my graduation next year. It’s a strange combination, sorrow at parting, and the pressure to graduate without any delays. It’s as if it’s hinging on me.

But that’s my own future. That’s nothing next to going to sea for months on end and being on your own, away from family. In the media, it’s almost always the side of the family left behind that gets represented, and the OFW side gets less exposure. There are less accounts of the sacrifices, the thankless work, homesickness. Most of the time, it’s the hardship of those who are left, yet media is barely able to scratch the surface of the pain of those who have to leave. Of course we as a family miss him, but at least we’re all together and we have each other for support. But what about Papa, he’s all alone? He’s a rock, and he’s been a seaman long before he and Mama got married, and it’s the only thing we know as a family. Papa’s always been a bread winner, a provider, and I’ve never heard him complain. Not once. He’s that kind of man, dutiful and selfless. Generous and gallant to a fault, even. I used to wish that Papa and Mama would think more about themselves sometimes, but then I guess you don’t have that luxury as a parent. One day I hope to do them proud.

If you’ve seen the Vilma Santos film Anak, it shows how the children went astray and ruined their lives because they didn’t have the guidance and presence of their mother, but our family isn’t like that. We’re the other OFW family stereotype, the over-achieving children type. But then I believe that’s because Mama and Papa taught us to always do our best. Even if Mama’s a single-parent, and Papa’s an absentee father, they’ve always compensated. I don’t feel like I lacked anything, growing up. Technology has certainly played a big factor in helping us stay connected and to help us feel each other’s presence. When I was younger, we would use radio, and we would say “Over” when we finished taking our turn talking. There were prepaid phone cards, and satellite calls. There were letters and cards for my birthday. One time, Papa sent me a pair of shoes, but they weren’t my size. Then e-mails and video chat came along. Last year, when Japan had a tsunami, Papa’s ship was on its way to Japan and we were all distraught until we heard from Papa. They were in the Pacific Ocean, but thankfully, too far to be affected.

When I was younger I actually thought Papa was in the navy because he had a uniform with epaulets, and I thought he was a soldier. But in a sense, Papa is a soldier, and he’s going away for a tour of duty, to serve his family and give us a good future and security. And on our part, we have to be strong and to hold down the fort, so to speak. We can’t fall apart when he’s gone, is what I’m saying. In the movies they always portray those tearful scenes at the airport, but our family isn’t like that at all. We’re so used to it, it’s practically a way of life, that we comport ourselves, and bid Papa farewell, with the promise of return. I personally hate hysterics and waterworks because I want to keep faith in Papa coming home safe and sound. Crying and bawling is just not my style, and it sends a message that we’re not going to see each other ever again, and that is out of the question. I don’t ever want to entertain that possibility, so when we see him off, I put the thought of reunion in my heart.

It’s the only way I can carry on.

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