Have you ever jumped off a plane without a parachute?
Where your heart is in your throat? Your heartbeat ringing in your ears?
That’s what it felt like when our Dad passed away.
Life became an unending free fall. Imagine being on a rollercoaster plummeting down its steepest hill without a seatbelt – the security, that solid foundation, we knew our whole lives, just ripped out right under our feet.
At 20 years old, I came to Melbourne as an exchange student at RMIT University from Miriam College. I was meant to stay only for one semester. The purpose of my Australian study was to be out of my comfort zone and find out what I’m really made of without the security of my family. I, together with two other classmates, Zarah and Kristine travelled to Melbourne. Little did I know, I would get more than I bargained for.
Twenty days after arriving in Melbourne, I got the worst phone call of my life.
It was my Mama. She said.
“Anak (Child), Dad is gone. I am here with him at the morgue. We were in an accident.”
I do not remember much after that. I think I mumbled “okay” (when I was clearly not), ran to the bathroom, and started the shower. I jumped in fully clothed and stared at the grey tiles. With water mixing with my silent tears, there stood Zarah, knocking on the door. Apparently, I’ve been there for over half an hour when it felt like mere seconds.
The next few days, I was on autopilot. Prior to our flight, Mama through a mutual friend contacted the Palmon family. And it was with their help that we found a place to stay. They were the ones who comforted me and helped organised my flight back to the Philippines.
Upon arrival at the airport, I was greeted by my siblings, all six of them, and my Auntie Minet (Mama’s sister). We were driving straight to Naga (around 8-10 hours by car depending on the traffic). The three youngest ones (Karl, Kristoff and Josh) did not know yet that Daddy was gone. Whilst the older ones (Kurt, Kim, Keiser and myself) knew the real score.
Mama wanted to be the one to break it to my younger siblings. It took all we had to act ‘normal’ in front of my youngest brothers. We could not reveal the reason for this sudden road trip.
We finally arrived in Naga, a couple of blocks away from the funeral home. My aunt called Mama and she came down to meet us. She had a massive black eye, some cuts and abrasions on her face. She held all of us. Got down on her knees and told my brothers about what happened to Daddy.
“Mga anak (My children), your Dad is a hero. We were in a car accident and he saved me. In saving mama, he has gone to heaven to be with Lolo Pids, Lola Oming and Lola Goa. (Grandpa Pids, Grandma Oming and Grandma Goa)”
We, then as a family, walked solemnly into the funeral parlour where Dad’s wake was held. And it was there, right in front of Dad’s coffin, that I saw my brother, Kristoff’s heart break, as tears coursed silently down his face in an unending river of grief.
I will never forget that moment.
That night, I cried myself to sleep.
Questions filled my mind- What will become of us? How will we survive?
My last thought before succumbing to exhaustion was a plea to the heavens- Lord, please help us.
The next few days went by quickly and slowly at the same time.
Memories of that time don’t flow in chronological order rather they seem suspended in crystal fragments with jagged edges. Recalling them would require marshalling my courage because every poignant moment feels like tiny little papercuts lacerating my heart. To this day, that is what it feels like when I think about losing Daddy.
Whoever said time heals all wounds got it wrong. Time dulls the pain, but the wound remains.
A piece of my heart shrivelled up and died the day we lost our Dad and never has ever been quite the same since.
Waking up the next day in Naga felt surreal.
After all, I just spoke to my Dad three days ago while I was at the foyer of St Francis Church in the CBD. We talked about moving to Australia since I loved it here. We rattled on about the rest of the family and as we said our goodbyes, Daddy suddenly interjected:
‘Anak, Kristel, promise me that you will always look after your mom and your siblings.’
To which I laughingly replied:
Daddy, where is this coming from?
You’re healthy. You have no vices; you eat healthy meals most of the time.
But he repeated himself:
‘Kris, promise me. Just promise me.’
So I did. I promised him that I will always look after our family.
At 20, I literally had no idea how to do that.
Our life changed in the blink of an eye.
From the world being our oyster to the world being our adversary.
Many people who we thought were our friends turned their back on us.
Many people who said they would help were just paying us lip service.
Many who said they were only a call away suddenly weren’t picking up their phones.
We weren’t back to square one.
We were operating on a huge deficit.
And the only thing, the most important thing, we’ve got was our faith.
Every day we prayed.
Every time we were sad. We prayed.
Every time we were hurt. We prayed.
Every time we were treated badly. We prayed.
Life after Daddy
We had to learn how to function with this new normal.
A whole new world without Daddy.
I went back to Australia to finish my exchange program at RMIT University.
I wasn’t a college graduate yet and I didn’t want to be a college drop out.
Education was very important to my father.
He always said “Money and possessions can always be taken from you. What can not be taken from you is your mind and your character; so make sure to nourish both”.
Life back in Melbourne was harder with Daddy gone.
I still had the apartment that was more or less paid until the end of my stay. The exchange program at RMIT University only lasted for a semester (July to November). I had to find a way to survive the next four months or so.
After Daddy’s death, I came back to Melbourne with $100 in my pocket and bank card containing all our money in the world Php 250,000 (around $6700) to support all six of my younger siblings. My mom told me that if I truly needed it, I can make a withdrawal. All I needed to do was just let her know. I nodded but deep inside, I promised myself that I would not touch a single cent of it.
Walking everywhere became my new normal. Connex (now Metro) still charged for trips around the CBD area. We still had paper tickets and Metro Melbourne still went up to Zone 3.
We had an apartment on Wreckyn St – just across the Royal Melbourne Hospital (at that time, it was still in its build phase). I learned that organisations at Uni would have teatime during meetings and there would be biscuits and refreshments provided. I became quite an avid attendee of those meetings. Always making sure to carry a large carry on bag so that I could subtly fill it with purloined goodies. I pushed aside my conscience, thinking to myself.
Every time I did this. I was making sure that my siblings and Mama had more. More money to spend on food, to pay the bills and to fund their education. I survived on that and two-minute noodles. And whatever food my housemates were willing to share.
Luckily, Marie, one of my close friends, worked at Bread Top at QV. So whenever she was closing, she would call me to meet her. She would hand me a big garbage bag of unsold bread that was destined for the bin. I would freeze that bread and share it with my housemates.
I met a lot of kind souls in Melbourne. There was, of course, my Tito Boyet and Mia who always checked on me. I knew that they were only a call away. There’s Jeff who is my brother by choice.
And many others who have shown me kindness in their own way.
I thanked God every day for all the blessings that He provided.
Yes, I still missed my Dad. But I promised myself that I needed to finish my education. I was already in my final year at university. I just needed to get through this few months and then I can focus on providing for my family.