The pains of trading Christmas for oxygen tanks instead

The pains of trading Christmas for oxygen tanks instead

Six months. I counted the months when my father kept blasting an old CD of Filipino Christmas songs in the car when I was in high school and college. It played Filipino carolling classics like “Ang Pasko ay Sumapit” to more obscure ones like Mimi Baylon’s “Ang Maganda Kong Christmas Tree.”

Nowadays, I can only recall the songs that were in them, not the title of the compilation album. What I can remember though were the years these tracks played non-stop in our car. My father puts the CD on full blast. The CD wouldn’t see the light of day until April or May at the latest.

Whatever Christmas pep I have in my non-Catholic body, my father pushes up the ante tenfold. He is in love with Christmas, despite that we live in an Iglesia ni Cristo household. Even if he eventually converted to the religion when I was 10 years old, he still embraced the Christmas spirit.

Christmas wasn’t about the birth of Christ, really. It was more of the warmth of the Christmas spirit, encouraging love, peace, and joy. They’re all of the traits my father finds difficult to be capable of for the rest of the year.

Hence, this old Christmas CD ruled my family’s lives every “‘ber months,” but I haven’t heard that old Christmas CD play in our car for the past two years. No “Ang Pasko” nor “Christmas Tree.” Just Yuletide silence and the occasional puto bungbong for merienda.

My father is a man who loved Christmas and how effortless he plays any tune on his piano. But he’s also a man of burning passion and untameable rage.

My father isn’t the perfect father, to begin with. He makes the mandatory dad jokes, sneezes in demonic volumes like every dad on earth, and has an “I-can-fix-everything” attitude. But before our fathers and mothers are our parents, they are their own person. This is something my mother and I never forgot about my father.

My father is a man who loved Christmas. He could play any tune on his piano. But he’s also a man of burning passion and untameable rage. His screams can fill a cold, already repentant bedroom. He is not above humiliating his own kin if he feels he has been wronged.

But anything burning—no matter how intense—can be put out.

2018 is the year my father got diagnosed with depression at the age of 78. This is something my mother and I both knew at the back of our minds for years. Since my mother doesn’t understand mental illness the way she understood the complexities of orthodontics, she refused to act upon my father’s demons.

Then his demons progressed to something worse. My mother and I can no longer limit his mental illness to late night dinner table discussions after work hours. It’s something we all have to admit as a family.

This is him right now. This is his truth. A once passionate old man, filled to the brim with Christmas joy, now remorseful and exhausted in every way. I know remembering him this way will kill him faster. So despite his problematic behavior, I choose to remember him as the jolliest man in our family during the Yuletide season.

A once passionate old man, filled to the brim with Christmas joy, now remorseful and exhausted in every way.

I may not hear “Ang Pasko ay Sumapit” nor “Ang Maganda ‘Kong Christmas Tree” in our family car these days. But like this old CD, our family car hasn’t been touched by my father for two years now. It sits in our garage. It’s occasionally driven by my uncle when he aides my mother with groceries and other mundane tasks.

My father hasn’t held the stirring wheel for what seemed like an eternity. But sometimes, we catch him at night where he just sits in the driver’s seat with his key in the ignition. The engine is turned on but the car doesn’t have plans to go anywhere.

When I do hear those old Filipino Christmas songs in other places, I don’t see that image of my father sitting alone in a revving car. I see flashes of images where we were there in that car with him as we head to places out of the comforts of our home for the Christmas season. And of course, those flashbacks always have these old Filipino Christmas songs playing in a loop.

We are a small family of three. My father never really had close friends. We all describe him as a lone wolf. So when he says we are his family, he means it with all honesty. No matter how difficult or how joyous it is for him to be with us, he fails to show this to us for the rest of the year. But during Christmas? It’s all he wants to show and make us feel.

We are a small family of three. My father never really had close friends. We all describe him as a lone wolf. So when he says we are his family, he means it in all honesty.

For someone like me who’s religion refutes the validity of Christmas, Dec. 25 became an excuse for a family road trip. My father was always the first one to ask my mother where we’d go for the holidays. He’d ask this during casual conversations, months before December hits everyone. He liked planning ahead. Growing up as an army brat, time is something he didn’t want to waste.

The first trip my father coaxed my mother to take me was in Baguio during Christmas when I was seven years old. It’s almost second nature for my parents to fight. They fought in this trip too, but I was too young to notice. I only remember feeling the intense chill of the Burnham Park air, no shouting or arguing. I would never forget the iconic photo in the AFP camp nearby where the huge scale size soldier’s hat and accouterments resided.

Sometimes, we spent Dec. 25 in his hometown of Bicol or a two-hour trip in Tagaytay at a chic hotel my mother saved up to afford. Those trips involved unspoken traditions that are not so different from a Filipino family’s. Our Christmas trips involved food, the occasional argument than making up, hot chocolate, and Christmas tracks sung by my father in his best impression of Nat King Cole.

Christmases, growing up, were also impromptu mall trips. One I love recalling with perfect clarity was when the COD mall in Cubao still stood. I may have witnessed the last time the Christmas animatronics hovered over the bankrupt department store.

But this is my proof that not all mundane routines are inherently bad. Some are just cherished family traditions.

It’s amazing that my father pushed these trips every so often back in the day, but we also liked staying at home. We are a bunch of defacto homebodies, so sometimes Christmases were spent at the comforts of Cainta. There was a time when we decided to stay home and my father accidentally cooked ham in a pan that still had soap in it. My mother just shook her head and moved on.

Whether we were in and out of the comforts of our home, the routine remained the same. We would eat, laugh together, and sing Christmas songs brought on by a beaten up old Filipino Christmas CD. It’s a routine. But this is my proof that not all mundane routines are inherently bad. Some are just cherished family traditions.

I don’t know where the CD is now. I’ve forgotten the name of that compilation album and its whereabouts. But whether I remember or not, it doesn’t matter that much. Whatever traditions we have during Christmas are gone. Or at least, have changed for everyone.

Two years ago, my father’s 65-year addiction to nicotine gave him a run for his money. Emphysema is an illness that will slowly weaken a person’s lungs. It’s also a sickness that has fucked my dad over and has screwed over my mother’s financial plans. As for me, it only made me grow up faster and more numb about the fragility of mortality.

Back then, I measured years through the holidays. I measured it with memories of the open road and how many times he played that old Filipino Christmas CD. Counting the scratches on the damn thing would give people the years we have enjoyed and loved.

Back then, I measure years through the Holidays we spent happy.

Christmas of 2017 brought the shift in our traditions for good. I don’t remember open roads nor that overplayed Christmas CD filling every sound wall in our car. What I remember are sleepless nights and hospital beds. My father’s ashen defeated face sported by his frail frame looking at me for answers on mortality I do not have.

Nowadays when my mother plays Christmas songs, he didn’t sing along or got immediately struck by the holiday spirit. He gets angry. A storm will brew instead of overwhelming warmth.

“Masyadong maingay!” he’d exclaim.

My mother will barter for a couple more minutes. But they’ll spar, and spar, until my father wins. The music will stop. Then, there’s the silence between three people in a huge house they all built for a decade now.

Sometimes, he would look at our old holiday photos by himself. There would be times that my mother will show them to him. He always cries. Regardless if my mother was there or he was alone, we knew he always cries, mourning the memories of Christmas past.

Sometimes, he would look at our old holiday photos by himself. There would be times that my mother will show them to him. He always cries.

I’ll mourn, too, when laughter over fond memories no longer greets me. Instead, it’s tears and an overwhelming stack of hospital bills. I never showed them remorse or the overwhelming sensation of possible passing taking over me. I don’t want to worry them. We don’t want to worry each other that much.

We try not to think about it that much as a family. But we know it’s there, like I knew his sickness will eventually take over his body and leave his lungs useless.

It’s been two years since he got diagnosed with his terminal illness. By God’s grace, he’s still with us. He’s still an angry, old man who makes ultimate dad jokes to people who would listen.

He got better somehow this year, unlike the late months of 2017 when he can’t even crack a single smile. Still, he never loved Christmas the same way when we were both younger.

To be honest, I loathed that old Filipino Christmas CD. The lyrics of every song took over me due to the Stockholm Syndrome type scenario where it played for months end. Nowadays, I only hear the songs in random public places.

I never heard these songs again in our car with the three of us travelling somewhere. I think I will never bear witness to another Christmas road trip with him on the wheel.

When I do feel like crying, I try to mouth the lyrics “Ang Maganda ‘Kong Christmas Tree” to myself. I may not remember the title of that compilation album nor where it resides now in our family car, but at least I still remember the words to the songs we all used to sing together.

Art by Renz Mart Reyes

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Rogin Losa
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