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Querido Papi, Daddy, ‘Apa,

It’s hard to imagine that five weeks ago today you left this earth. It’s hard to capture in words the void your playful, loving, and ever-hopeful spirit has left in my life and in the lives of so many—even people you didn’t know. I suspect you would find that hard to believe. You were a simple man, a humble man. You didn’t think yourself very significant. You were so wrong about that.

It didn’t matter that your start in life was precarious and you nearly died many times in your childhood, malnourished and left too much to fend for yourself. It didn’t matter that as a child you begged for change to give to your widowed mother to help feed her eleven surviving children. It didn’t matter that you had one pair of shoes to share with your three brothers closest in age, alternating who took turns going to school by whose day it was to wear the shoes. It didn’t matter that you didn’t finish elementary school or that you spoke English as a second language with an accent that many still felt obliged to comment on. It didn’t matter that you immigrated at 17 and made a new life with your beloved wife, my mother, knowing you had closed the door on the chance to return to live on your beautiful island again. It didn’t matter that you became permanently disabled when I was six years old and you never worked outside the home again. It didn’t matter that you were the stay-at-home father, raising me and my sisters long before it was politically correct to do so. Your life was truly significant.

You taught me that every human being matters. It wasn’t a political philosophy or an ideological belief—it was in your very being. You stopped to talk with and listen to every person you encountered as if they were the most important person and their story was the most precious to be heard. Do you know how radical that is? These are not values I saw reflected so purely, so consistently, so authentically anywhere else in my world. Sometimes people would misunderstand you as simple, not too smart, because of your deep capacity for open caring and your commitment to believe the best about human beings. Oh, how they missed out on your brilliance, ‘Apa.

You taught me the most important lessons of life. You instilled in me a love of song and music, especially when shared in community. You modeled caretaking of the earth through your incredible garden and your persistent, daily care of every living thing in it. You helped me stop and listen to birdsong, watch the changing of the shadows on the mountains, admire a new bud or flower on a tree, celebrate the brightness of the moonlight in a night sky, notice subtle changes in weather patterns, smell when the rain would be coming.

Not every girl grows up knowing they are the center of their father’s universe. I know three of us who did. Not every girl grows up knowing her dreams are worth believing in and that her father would give the last shirt on his back to make them come true. I know three of us who did. Not every girl grows up being told that the only thing her father wanted to do in his life was to be a father. I know three of us who did. Not every girl opens bag lunches that her father has packed and finds love notes written on napkins inside. I know three of us who did. Not every girl grows up with a father who collected and recycled cans to make his own money, and then slips her a $20 bill from that meager stash, encouraging her to get something nice for herself. I know three of us who did.

This year you expressly wanted to know more about my work. I could tell you were a bit hesitant at first when you asked. As I reflect on it now, I suspect you thought my work might be too educated and perhaps you were afraid it would be beyond your understanding. You never thought of yourself as very smart and I sometimes missed how intimidating my educational training was on you. I wonder how long it took you to ask? I wonder what you had to battle in yourself to take that risk? I remember you telling me you wanted to know me better, to have more closeness with me. I’m so glad this desire won out. I was delighted and touched by your interest. Although I didn’t realize or admit it at the time, I was probably a little scared myself—both wanting more intimacy with you and fearing that I would be revealed in an important way through this sharing.

I arranged for you to attend a workshop I was doing in Hood River, Oregon. My client was so thoughtful of you, bringing in a recliner from someone’s home for you to sit in so you’d be comfortable for the two days. They were so welcoming of you—you were an honored guest. And you were so thankful. You were deeply touched by my work and I let myself notice how much I had wanted to share this part of myself with you. I’m so grateful that you took the risk to ask. It brought us even closer together. I will be forever grateful for this experience. None of us knew the cancer was growing in your body at that very moment and that less than four months later we would get the prognosis you would have 2-8 weeks to live.

I miss walking the land you grew up on in Puerto Rico and the way you visit with and know every plant that grows there. I miss your morning knock on the bedroom door asking if you can come in and hang out with me. I miss your invitations to visit the garden and see what has happened overnight. I miss your silly punning and ability to tell the same joke, over and over, and genuinely hear it as just as funny as the first time you told it. I miss your phone calls while you sat under the mulberry tree where you would tell me about your moon and ask me to describe the moon in my night sky. I miss your offer to make me a torta for breakfast or take me out to Chinese for lunch. I miss playing dominoes with you on the board you made from scrap materials (everything can be reused!) with the same domino set you’ve had my entire life. I miss your company on my evening walks, you on the phone, making sure I got home safe. I miss the fresh-cut flowers you would have waiting in my bedroom when I’d come home to visit. I miss the playful way you’d hide behind the pillar at the airport, wanting me to “find” you when I came off the plane, and the you did that every time I came home for the last 28 years. I miss watching you play with children so thoughtfully and the obvious joy it brought you. I miss hearing Trio Los Panchos playing from the patio where you would be relaxing in your hammock. I miss how you’d openly and easily cry when touched by a moving lyric from one of the love songs that touched your heart. I miss your wise counsel, guiding me toward forgiveness and acceptance. I miss your warm, strong hugs and the way you tucked me in at night. I miss seeing you stand at security, waiving me a final good-bye, until I am completely out of sight, both of us knowing you will hang around the airport to see my plane take off—not wanting to miss any moment to be together.

On Christmas Day at 9:50 p.m. you took your last breath. Mom was holding your hand and we were all gathered—daughters, brother-in-law, grandsons. You gave me such a solid foundation of love. I keep remembering the refrain you would so often repeat: “Love people for who they are, not for who they are not.” I realize now it wasn’t only meant for others but also for me to remember for myself. With your guidance I hope to find that compassion and unconditional love for myself that you so clearly had for me. Thank you for the gift of your beautiful, significant life. May it continue to touch others through me.

 

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