By Eric James A. Sotomil
Philippine Daily Inquirer
September 23, 2008
I was sharpening my pencil that afternoon, oblivious of the weary adults going in and out of the house. As a four-year-old, if I was not scribbling with a pencil on the door, I would be at the back of our house drawing trees and houses on the concrete pavement using charcoal from the kitchen. My younger sister often joined me in that creative pursuit and I, like a real master dedicated to his craft, would scold her if I thought she was destroying my masterpiece.
We lived in Antique province and my childhood was filled with activities typical in a rural area. At harvest time, we rolled in the hay pretending to be acrobats—never mind if we would later itch all over. When it rained we bathed in the street and ran around the plaza. At times, we joined workers picking golden “kuhol” [snails] and collected them in a sack that we then placed on the highways to be run over by vehicles. (How few were the vehicles back then!) At other times, we caught dragonflies by their wings (only to set them free after a while), flew kites, made paper planes and played hide and seek. Our idea of play and fun seemed always to involve running. When we ran, we put our slippers on our wrists or arms. That way they looked like shields of some sort, and we liked that.
This is the general picture of my childhood, except for that one afternoon on Aug. 29, 1989 when my sister cut herself with a pencil sharpener. Blood flowed then and more blood would flow.
I continued with my activities while my sister was being taken care of. It was just a minor cut, so I couldn’t understand why my mother was so much worried. Some people came and asked her questions, and they too seemed anxious. When they left, mother led us inside the house while the helper closed all the doors and windows.
Then, I heard gunfire. “Nanay” [Mother], who was pregnant with my younger brother, told us to lie flat in one corner. She herself kneeled down embracing a pillow, careful not to drop on her belly. I couldn’t remember how long the exchange of gunfire lasted. What I remember is that we lay there almost motionless, save for the Sign of the Cross my mother and a cousin were making.
My young mind could not process all the emotions I was seeing among the people around me. Was I seeing fear? Hope? Resignation? I didn’t realize the gravity of the situation, but how would a four-year-old know? I became worried about my mother because that was what all the others seemed to feel. Strangely other than worrying about her, I felt nothing—not even fear.
When the place turned quiet, Nanay and “Yaya” [Nanny] Arlene opened the front door. Nanay seemed to be even more worried. If her face could speak, it would have asked if her husband, my father, was fine. The look she wore was a look I would never want my mother to have ever again.
After a while, I saw trucks filled with uniformed men passing by. It was the first time I saw vehicles with double tires. My father wore a uniform like theirs. He was a soldier like them.
The year 1989 was a year of turbulence. Our newly reinstalled democracy was under threat from renegade military men. Armed rebels were active and growing in number especially in the countryside. What happened that August afternoon was emblematic of the troubled times.
From a newspaper clipping 19 years ago, I have learned that the rebels planned an ambush. They held up and burned a delivery truck at one end of our town. This later proved to be a decoy intended to lure government troops into a deadly trap. “Tatay” [Father] was among the military men who responded to the attack. Two soldiers fell that day. He was one of them. A bullet tore through his left shoulder and pierced his heart. He was 30 years old then.
Tatay left behind a young wife, a son, a daughter and an unborn child. Nanay gave birth to my brother one week after Tatay died and five days before his funeral.
People came in droves to the wake. They were there for various reasons, but most came to sympathize with our young family. Others came to honor a hero. Some speculated about the role of a female rebel in the attack. She was allegedly involved in a love affair that had gone sour and she was supposed to have made sure that the bullet of vengeance —the one that ended my father’s life—would be fired by her.
Apparently, nasty rumors follow a man to his grave. But I have no reason to believe this one.
Nanay was uncertain and fearful about the future but she courageously carried on. She resolved not to remarry for the sake of her children. She wanted to focus on bringing us up and having a new man in her life might have complicated things. But this I know: In matters of the heart she will always be with Tatay—six feet of earth separating them, notwithstanding.
We moved on quickly because of her resilience. She is a strong woman. Ours was not exactly a life of privilege but she provided for all our needs. We never felt we lacked anything. From her, we learned to trust God, to respect others and to be grateful for every blessing that comes our way.
I did not grow up having Tatay around to teach me about courage, honor and responsibility, but he more than made up for it by showing us the stuff he was made of that August afternoon. I keep fond memories of him: of untying his shoes when he arrived, of racing with my sister to get his slippers, of going to the beach together, of punching his palms, of riding the Ferris wheel with him by our side and of making us laugh with his coin tricks. I miss Tatay dearly and my heart goes out to my younger brother. I can’t imagine how he feels about not even being able to see our father alive.
It has been 19 years since that fateful afternoon. It was the day I first glimpsed the two faces of courage: in Tatay, the courage to face death; in Nanay, the courage to face life.
Eric James A. Sotomil, 23, is a certified public accountant working for an oil company.