(Published on rappler.com on June 15, 2021)
As I walked about three paces behind the funeral parlor staff, my eyes roamed around the somber display room. The staff was showing me different models of coffins. I never knew there could be so many designs for coffins. Some were gilded while some had shiny black coating. Some were adorned with intricate carvings. All had soft, silky pleated paddings inside, probably to make the “journey” to the other side as comfortable as possible. Then, finally, he asked me, “Alin ang gusto mo?” (Which one would you like?). I took a deep breath: “Yung pinakamura”. (The cheapest.)
That was mid-morning of January 17, 1997—when I spoke those two cruel words. “The cheapest.” My father died before dawn in our small home where he battled prostate cancer for about seven years. He was 67.
When my father died, I and my three siblings were adults with jobs. But we were struggling financially. We already had our own families to support, and lack of money was a perennial issue. I did not want to incur additional debts, so I chose the coffin and funeral service that was within our means. After a few days of vigil, my father was buried in an overcrowded public cemetery where the “sepultoreros” had a hard time putting the coffin inside the tomb because of the narrow, uneven path.
“The cheapest.” Those two words still haunt me sometimes, but I know that my father had long forgiven me.
My father was a tall, dark and handsome Bicolano who eventually settled in Bataan after marrying my mother. He was a long-time security guard at PLDT, a major telephone company in the Philippines. Employees and colleagues called him “Sarge”, the clipped form of “Sergeant”, a rank which he was not really entitled to. It was just a term of respect and endearment. With his meager pay, he raised the four of us. My mother helped too by opening a small carinderia.
With calm and reticent nature, my father seldom raised his voice and never had violent outbursts of emotions. He was a kind, sensible and intelligent man.
He was a voracious reader. Every day, he would buy an issue of the English newspaper Manila Bulletin and read about national issues. And every payday, he would buy an edition of Reader’s Digest and read up on international events. Yes, he was earning a pittance but he religiously set aside money for these two publications. When I was still a child, I often wished he would bring home dolls and toys. But I was always disappointed. Instead, he would always come home with Manila Bulletin and Reader’s Digest tucked under his arm. In fact, I grew up surrounded by stacks and stacks of these reading materials.
We usually brought meals to my father while he was on duty. A few times, I caught PLDT employees asking him about grammar. Yes, degree holders asking a security guard about English grammar. During his days off, my father would read on a bench outside our carinderia. A neighbor would sometimes join him for a chat. As I eavesdropped, I would hear my father talk about global issues that I never heard from teachers at school. He was a profound thinker— and therein lies his flaw. He was a thinker, not a doer.
Meanwhile, the piles of Manila Bulletin and Reader’s Digest were getting higher by the day. Bereft of luxuries, I grudgingly turned to them. They became my toys. We had no TV nor radio. They became my source of information and entertainment. My young, immature self was still unaware of the rich inheritance I was receiving: the gift of language.
As I grew older, I realized and understood my father’s decision not to buy toys, but to buy newspapers and magazines instead. He was indeed a smart man. He knew where to invest the little spare money he had. I will be forever grateful to my father for introducing the English language to me —its beauty, chaos and complexity. It became my stepping stone to a better quality of life.
That cheap coffin was not a fitting resting place for the mortal body of the man to whom we owe so much. But that choice was the best for everyone at that time. Anyway, a few years ago— we were able to purchase a piece of decent memorial lot and his remains have been moved there.
Somewhere up there in heaven, there is a tall, dark and handsome security guard sitting on a bench, reading the latest news.
Leoncio Naval Sasota. That’s his name. You can call him “Sarge”.