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Op-Ed

Vanishing Act

On All Saints’ Day, families go to cemeteries to mourn their dearly departed. But for Ron de Vera, “I have been spending All Saints’ Day at home since my father disappeared when I was nine years old. Until now, I still don’t have a clue as to where he is, or if he is still alive.”

Today, All Saints’ Day, families go to cemeteries to mourn their dearly departed. But because my father is considered one of the disappeared, a desaparecido or desap for short, I am staying home. I have been spending All Saints’ Day like this since my father disappeared when I was nine years old. Until now, I still don’t have a clue as to where he is, or if he is still alive.

Ironically, my father disappeared during Father’s Day. It was four years after the EDSA revolution and almost a year after my parents started to live separately. It was the same year when involuntary disappearances became very common. This was a time when the country was just recovering from the aftermath of Marcos’ dictatorship. The government was trying very hard to introduce the country to the global community. But the underground movement was also becoming very strong in its own right. This was a huge problem for the government because political imbalance turned investors off. Since the country was still celebrating the return of democracy, incarcerating political detainees would stir public rage. Finding no other solution, the government resorted to military abductions.

My father was supposed to treat me out to lunch that day. We always went out on Father’s Day so I headed for his apartment to wait for him. There I was on my favorite chair, patiently peering through the window. I waited for him all day, but he never came. As the sun set, a strange feeling came upon me. Somehow, I knew something was wrong.

My mother felt this too. But she was not the kind who would just break down and weep. She searched for my father herself not trusting the so-called proper authorities. My mother visited sites of exhumed bodies in the hope of finding even the slightest trace of my father. I don’t know which organizations she asked help from, but I remember she contacted the different rebel groups that my father joined. She did this for years until she had to stop. She realized she still had me to raise and that it was time to move on. She stopped searching for my father, but she didn’t stop believing that one day we’ll find him.

During the days that followed, I would usually walk in on my mother to find her alone, staring into emptiness. She never told me what she was thinking of during those pensive moments. Obviously, she was thinking of my father. But she was not totally secretive of her thoughts either. She was always the first to open up about him.

My mother never ran out of little stories about my father. She told me that before my father, she never dated anyone other than him. My father was, indeed, her first love. That is why one of her greatest regrets ever is not being able to patch things up with him before his untimely disappearance. My mother was planning to do so. She was waiting for the right time and the right place, as the cliché goes. But she just never got that chance.

She never failed to tell me each night how much I looked like my father. She told me stories about my father when he was still in the New People’s Army (NPA). She would also tell me everything from the way he cooked, to his mannerisms, to his voice. She would tell me all these and, of course, I would try to be attentive. I always tried to act more interested than I actually was. Before going to sleep, I would wonder why I could not remember even a single thing about my father. He was never clearer than a passing recollection, even cloudier than the shadows in my mother’s vivid memory. Maybe he left a bit too early. Maybe we didn’t have time to get to know each other. Maybe I was repressing my feelings.

I was struggling through these little problems of my own while my mother was doing her search. When filling out forms, I couldn’t decide what to write on the space for my father’s occupation. I would usually wonder if, like my classmates with dead parents, I could print the word “deceased” and lay my father’s memory to rest. I would lie on almost everything about my lost father. Whenever I see other children with their fathers, I would just rationalize. I’d think that if he hadn’t disappeared, I wouldn’t be appreciating those saccharine family scenes. I was, as my mother said, going through the stage of denial. It was then that my mother brought me to the Children’s Rehabilitation Center (CRC). The fact that there were other children going through my dilemma relieved and surprised me at the same time.

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Still, everything I learned about desaparecidos came from my very own mother. She didn’t tell me everything in one sitting. I learned them all through the years. I didn’t know whom to blame at first. I couldn’t actually blame a specific person nor a group of people. I could even partly blame my father for being irresponsible.

In the end, I guess it’s still the rotten system I blame and the government’s efforts to eradicate all traces of the leftist movement. In its attempt to project a noble image, the government has forgotten that these people had families. If the government thinks that making people disappear is the same thing as erasing their existence, they are obviously wrong. As long as there are families out there who are willing to fight for the rights of their disappeared, I’m sure that the government is far from washing the traces of blood upon its guilty hands.

I’m sure, too, that my mother will never completely accept the fact that my father is gone. Neither of us will. I cannot remember discussing with her if he was still alive, if we did, I do not think we would ever reach a final decision. To us, he will remain just that, a desaparecido, neither dead nor alive. He has disappeared, in every sense of the word.

Now, imagining how many families are weeping for their dead, I can’t help but think how lucky they are. At least they know where the remains of their loved ones are and that they were able to grieve their loved ones’ deaths. They are even so fortunate that they are sure whom they’re mourning for are dead.

Just for tonight, I stop my search for my father. As I light this candle, I think of all the other disappeared and the families they left. My candle is just one of the many candles in the neighborhood lit for lonely wandering souls. But this one is special. This one’s for my father.

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