Friday, December 17, 2010

Lessons from my father

This time of the year is always hard for me. The holidays have been dappled with losses throughout my life and nine years ago tomorrow was the biggest loss of all. I realized today that a lot of the people who have become my closest friends over the past few years never met my hero, my father, so I decided to put together this small list of lessons that I was lucky to learn from him. I hope you enjoy the read.

Music is more than just notes.

My earliest memories of music are of sifting through my father’s records, curled up next to the record player, clutching Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits ( and listening to “Strangers in the Night” on repeat. Whenever I hear ol’ blue eyes sing “My Way” I still get teary eyed as that was my dad’s favorite karaoke tune (and boy did he love karaoke). At Christmas time I pulled out his cassette tapes of Perry Como and Johnny Mathis singing Christmas carols. My dad was always big on knowing more about the music than just the singer and that’s something I still look into today. When the radio still had an oldies station he would quiz me and my brother on the songs that played. “Who is this? Is this the original or a cover? What year was it? What album was it on?” And so forth. He was really excited when Forrest Gump came out because the music throughout that movie could have been my dad’s life soundtrack, too. He loved telling me stories about songs and it seemed like just about every song we heard had a story. “This was played at my 6th grade dance…” A big reason why I keep my XM subscription is because of Channel 6, and whenever we go to the Silver Diner every song I hear has a memory attached to my father. Now that Julian is obsessed with the Beatles, I am so grateful to share my dad’s passion for music with him.

If you see something you want (or in his case, someone), go after it with reckless abandon.

If you ever saw my parents together you knew they had a special relationship; a love story that any young girl could only dream of finding someday. I heard the story a million times. Here is the short version: He was a junior in college. She was a freshman running for class office. She walked into his science class one day to hand out campaign materials. She was wearing a peach fuzzy sweater, jean shorts, and platform shoes. He took one look at her and knew, “She is going to be my wife.” From that moment on he pursued her- followed her to her dorm, followed her to class, sent his frat recruits to carry her books for her. She would not relent. They were both in their own relationships which makes this story even more scandalous because he wanted her. She knew his reputation and she was *such* a goody-goody (still is). The government proclaimed martial law and everyone went home from school to their provinces, and while they were away boy and girl thought about each other a lot. “I wonder what they are doing right now?” Marital law ended, their other relationships ended, and they returned to the university town. Fresh off the bus, they were walking down the main road and they literally bumped into each other. They both claim they wanted to hug and kiss the other person but it would not be appropriate. He asked her out. She accepted. They went to a movie where he bought her some peanuts, and so began their life-long relationship. December 7th would have been 33 years married. They acted like two teenagers in love and their love story is my proof that true love- the kind you see in movies- does exist.

Ladies love the revolutionaries.

So my parents were in college in the Philippines during the Vietnam War. My dad said he would march in the protests not because he had beef with the U.S. government but because the ladies loved the revolutionaries. “Down with American Imperialism!” and the ladies would swoon. It’s ironic that he went on to join the U.S. Navy. J

Work hard. Play hard.

He was a workaholic but I wouldn’t say it was bad, although thank God Blackberries weren’t around when he was still working. I think it was because he could never turn off his brain. But still, he worked hard so he could play hard and every weekend (and quite a few week nights) you’d see him on the tennis courts for hours. He worked hard to take his family on vacation, take us to really cool places. I get my work ethic from both of my parents but he was definitely a model for me on how to balance work and life.

If you get a second chance (or third or fourth), make the best of it.

I didn’t know this until I was older but apparently my dad entered the University of the Philippines, the most prestigious university in the Philippines, as salutatorian of his high school class, to study engineering. He ended up being a Physics major. He partied a bit too hard and the engineering school kicked him out. The only school that would allow him back was the College of Arts and Sciences and that is how he became a Physics major. He was a brilliant man and it’s no surprise that he went on to get 2 postgraduate degrees during his career in the Navy. He took his second chance and did the best he could and I know it meant a lot to him that he was given that opportunity.

Look at the big picture.

I cried through my dad’s entire retirement ceremony from the Navy. These were not tears of joy but tears of disappointment that my dad did not stay in and go “for the glory,” as I told him, and get as far as he could. First Filipino supply corps admiral? I felt like he was walking away from his career and wouldn’t get the prestige that I felt he deserved. We had a big talk about it. At the time, his next posting would have been a move from Fairfax, VA to Corpus Christi, TX for my senior year of high school. He said he looked at the big picture of the move, its impacts beyond his career advancement, and decided it was time to move on from his career in the Navy and do what was best for his family here. After having been on a solid track in Fairfax County there was no way I’d be able to take the courses I needed to get into a good college in Texas. (Not that anything is wrong with Texas but I was looking at taking about 4 AP classes senior year that weren’t offered anywhere near Corpus Christi). What about VA schools? He could have gone alone for the year and left me and my mom in VA (Brian was at Old Dominion University at the time so he was away) but he couldn’t bear the thought of being separated from my mom for so long. And so it was, Mr. Practical, left his career as a Commander and went on to do some amazing things in the private sector. This is a lesson I’ve taken with me throughout my adult life, that I have to look at all the impacts of my decisions and do what’s best for all parties.

Always have plenty of toilet paper, water, and soap.

Did I mention he was a Supply officer? Commissary runs with my dad was like we were buying supplies to support a small village. Did we ever run out of essentials? Hell no. Our house was well stocked. For hungry teenagers, this was fabulous. As I’m finding with 2 itty bitties, you can never have too many wipes or crackers on hand. It’ll be interesting to see how that “essentials” list evolves as the kids get older.

Don’t wait to wear those clothes for special occasions.

My dad had dreams of being a singer upon his retirement. “Sitting at the dock of the bay” by Otis Redding was one of his theme songs. He dreamt of being a cafe singer in Hawaii, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, playing a ukulele, and hearing the ocean behind him. He had a stack of Hawaiian shirts that he kept for this specific occasion. He never got to wear the shirts. Lesson? Don’t wait to wear the clothes you want to wear or do the things you want to do. I have a couple of his shirts in my closet.

R.T.F.Q. and K.I.S.S.

God bless him, my dad had endless patience with me and math. I was pretty good at math until I got to Trig and Calculus where I might as well have been studying quantum physics. It was damn hard. There were times we’d be up late in our kitchen with endless papers around us with scribbles and marks and pencil points where he would point (with force) at formulas and say “RTFQ!” I was like, “what the hell does that mean?!” “Read The Fucking Question, Pamela!” Or he would look at my sad attempts at proofs and say, “Keep It Simple Stupid.” Throughout life I’ve written out these little abbreviations to myself if I am feeling a bit overwhelmed to remind myself to take a step back. My brother and I still laugh about these late night math lessons.

Remember your roots.

As a first-generation American, I always wondered what it was like for my parents to grow up in a developing country (is that P.C.?) and how it compared to how my brother and I were being raised. I loved hearing my dad’s stories of playing marbles with his brothers in the courtyard of their home or using sugar cane as a tooth brush (I think he told me the latter anecdote more to fuck with me than anything else. They weren’t that rural). When I was 10 we went to Hawaii on a family vacation and my dad climbed a coconut tree to get some fruit. Seriously? I had no idea he could do that. What I loved most about the Filipino connection was that no matter where we were or who they were, if my dad found a fellow Filipino whether it be in a grocery store or in a random city somewhere, he’d buddy up to them and before we knew it we’d be invited to this guy’s house for Christmas dinner with his family. We’re all related, right? I loved that my dad never forgot his roots and never held back in trying to share it with me and my brother. Does that mean I eat balut? Hell no. But I do remember him and my grandfather teasing me and my cousins with them.

Parenthood is not easy. Heck, life is not easy.

One of the last serious conversations I had with my dad was about him as a parent. I remember him thanking me for taking it easy on him and his parenting decisions because before he was a father he was just a man. He asked me to remember that he tried his best, to be the best father he could. That behavior extended throughout his life. He wasn’t perfect, he had his transgressions and his vices, but he knew them and he did his best by the people around him. I know that everything he did- making the Navy a career because it was the best way he could support his family (he didn’t intend on making it a career, but it just happened that way), moving us every couple of years- he did it all from a place of love and support. He did it all for us and I thank him. I thanked him all the time and I thank him daily now for the life he gave me and my family. In my eyes, he was a model father. He wasn’t perfect but he did his best and I try to live by that every day with my boys. (Mom, don’t think I’m not saying the same about you. You are absolutely the model mother and I can only hope to live up to the bar you have set for me).

Take care of the people most important to you.

I remember going to the Outer Banks the summer after 6th grade with a few other families. This was our crew when we lived in Philly, a group of Navy families that have watched me grow up from a wee one. My dad would stand in the water up to his thighs and watch us all play in the sound (our house was on Hatteras Island on the sound side so we could play without the waves). My dad didn’t swim (funny for being a Navy man). In fact, he didn’t like going too far into the ocean, but there he was, wading in the sound watching my mom windsurf and my brother and I go crabbing. The look of happiness on his face was overwhelming. Going off of my previous point, he did everything he could to bring happiness to the people he cared most about. He pampered my mom with trips to Europe, weekend getaways, dinners out- all because he knew he made her happy. How can someone get so much joy out of seeing happiness on other’s faces, knowing he’s responsible for it? I understand it now with my own family. I like nothing more than seeing my boys (Thad included) and my friends happy. I am so grateful my parents taught me this lesson.

As I read this list, I can only hope that someday my children can look back at the lessons I am trying to instill in them and think fondly of me. I know this list of lessons can go on forever but I think this is enough for now. I am a better person because of my dad and I miss him so much that my soul aches. I know that he is watching over me raise my family and I can only hope he is proud of the person I have become. I miss you, daddy.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Farewell, Fitzchivalry

You can keep a dog; but it is the cat who keeps people, because cats find humans useful domestic animals.

It was the day before Thanksgiving, 2005 when we brought them home. Thad and I had been dating for over a year and he just moved in that Columbus Day weekend. I was working from home at the time and, in my desperate need to feel social, told Thad that I wanted a dog to keep me company. He is not a dog person, or at least, wasn't. He is a cat person through and through. He gets cats. I joke that Thad is the Cat Whisperer because where most cats are aloof and run away from strangers, cats purr and run around Thad's feet. In compromise, we decided we'd get one cat and one dog. Good logic, right?

We found a cat rescue organization here in Fairfax that had two little grey kittens up for adoption. We didn't intend to get two, but really, how much more work is two than one? So off to Oakton we went to meet these two little furrballs. A Six-month old brother and sister pair who were dropped off at shelter in rural VA, we couldn't bear the thought of separating them so we decided to take them both after our vacation that week.

The first night here we watched them closely and they wouldn't come out from underneath Thad's easy chair. They were scared of the big screen TV and weren't too interested in letting us pet them either. Our roommate at the time said the first night here they howled all night. Little by little they let us get to know them and after a week or so we knew our home would never be the same.

First there was the little girl, Trillian, named after the main female character in "A Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy" by Douglas Adams. Then there was Fitzchivalry, named after the hero in the Assassin series books by Robin Hobb. They were identical but for size; if Trillian was Size 1, grey kitty, Fitz was Size 2.

If you asked me 8 years ago if I ever would have owned cats I would have laughed at you. I never really understood cats. I felt like they would sit there, judging me without getting a chance to know me. Cats made me feel incredibly inferior. Apparently this is normal behavior for a cat? I wish someone gave me this manual when I got the cats:

It's been a trying year with him. He's had to go to the vet several times for a recurring UTI coupled with total blockage; he has been through a lot. When we saw the tell tale signs again last night that something was amiss, we had a feeling that we'd be facing the same decision again soon- whether or not to keep treating the symptoms and then still wonder when it's going to happen again. Unfortunately all the tests kept on coming back that he was okay, so with no definitive answer on what was causing all these problems, we'd be back to square one. What do you do? I am so grateful to have other pet-loving friends in my life to help me be objective but caring about pet care.

And so it was today, sweet Fitzchivalry, at five and a half years old, continued on to kitty heaven. I've been thinking a lot about him and the adorable Fitz things he did. He loved to play. Julian has been using the kitty wand with the shiny strings at the end to play with him and despite his size, he was very quick kitty. He was deathly quick when he chased a laser pointer. He couldn't resist a cardboard box or a warm lap to curl up on. He loved to eat, everything from catnip mice to mango. He got out of the house a couple of times and he would be so excited about all the smells, he didn't know what to do with himself. Every night Thad's lap would never be empty as Fitz would jump up as soon as Thad sat down for the night to relax. Fitz also had an ally in Scout. Those two were buddies for sure.

Fitz also taught me about cats.
First and foremost he taught me that regardless of whether or not I was done petting him, he would tell me when it's time to be done. He also taught me to fear his claws. He taught me that even if cats seem to not care about you, they actually do. He kept me company while I was in labor with Dash, to the point of needing to remove he and his sister from the living room as they were sticking so close to me that they were getting in the way. He taught me that cats' purring could be LOUD. So blissfully loud. Really, he taught me about the unconditional love of a pet that no matter where or what we did, he'd always be waiting to sit on our laps and purr.

We'll miss you, sweet, cuddly, ever-purring Fitz.