20 years ago, I was a ten-year-old studying at a little-known school in Quezon City. 20 years ago, Corazon “Cory” Aquino, mother of current President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, was the President of the Republic of the Philippines. 20 years ago, then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein started the Gulf War by invading the oil-rich country of Kuwait before being booted out by coalition forces led by the United States of America. 20 years ago, the Soviet Union was dissolved bringing the Cold War to an end. 20 years ago, NBA superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced his retirement after admitting he was HIV-positive.

The massive June 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo triggered massive hot waves of pyroclastic flows, such as this one narrowly escaped by local cameramen.

Most of all, 20 years ago was the day the world stood still with the Philippines devastated by the second largest terrestrial volcanic eruption of the 20th century. Mount Pinatubo, on the island of Luzon straddling the boundaries of Zambales, Tarlac and Pampanga, would spew a record amount of ash and volcanic debris in its climactic June 15, 1991 eruption, eventually causing more than 800 deaths in the region and affecting the global climate elsewhere. In areas near the volcano, mid-day turned black as night as hot ash rained down and covered everything. With the almost simultaneous arrival of a small typhoon, the volcanic material would soon spawn fear in the form of pyroclastic flows known as “lahars”, which would wash away lives and property for years to come.

I was only ten years old and studying in Quezon City at the time of the eruption, but I recall clearly the ash cloud was thick enough to make high noon seem like dusk. Volcanic ash managed to drift into the windows and settle inside the rooms; peering outside, one could see that the streets were almost deserted as the city resembled a gray and eerie landscape. Due to the health risks with inhaling the ash, classes were canceled and we stayed indoor for the next several days. Our only contact with our relatives in the badly affected province of Pampanga was a recently acquired cellphone, and we found ourselves calling them almost daily while staying tuned to the TV and radio on the unfolding disaster.

If anything came close to the end of the world for me, the days and weeks immediately following mid-June 1991 would be it.

When we were finally able to visit our relatives after a few weeks, utter devastation greeted us. The once quiet and clear rivers we passed through were now raging rivers of mud. Ash covered nearly everything, including the hectares of ancestral farmland, in a powdery gray blanket. Some buildings such as an old warehouse in our ancestral home had collapsed due to the weight of the ash, and an eerie somber mood fell over the place with people still in shock about what had happened. And for years to come, mudflows would wreak havoc on the lives of many in Central Luzon, famously erasing many towns and landmark areas from the map.

The events of 20 years ago have shaped my psyche so much that I have begun to describe life in two phases: pre-Pinatubo and post-Pinatubo. My pre-Pinatubo life made up my early childhood, a time when I was blissfully unaware of much of the world around me and I worried only about books, toys, TV and the occasional trip to McDonald’s. On the other hand, my post-Pinatubo life became an awakening to the reality that the world was much more than that. Life before the Pinatubo eruption was understandably self-centered in general; my life after the cataclysmic eruption and its related disasters led to the birth of the more outgoing and sociable (albeit loner) me.

To this day, while areas around the active volcano have mostly recovered from the its wrath, the effects have remained etched in the landscape and its people. The disaster brought into focus the Filipino strength of nature to find comfort in the face of disaster and crack a smile in the face of Mother Nature’s fury. So much so in fact, that the deadly volcano itself has now become a tourist attraction for both foreign and local tourists. And with the Americans ending their presence in the country via two massive bases during and after the disaster, these have now become important economic zones in rekindling the growth of the devastated Central Luzon region.

20 years have gone by since Mount Pinatubo made its presence felt. With any luck, its impact will not be forgotten.

*****

Everyone talks about mothers and Mother’s Day. So much so that Mother’s Day remains one of the most commercialized holidays in the world, trailing Christmas in the rankings. Tributes have poured out from people about the great sacrifice and crowning achievement of motherhood, from stories to songs to sonnets and all the stuff in between.

Now take a look at Father’s Day and the general fanfare for this holiday is much more muted.

Then again, the stereotypical view of fathers (and men, in general) in our strongly patriarchal society and culture is such that it has become a double-edged sword. On the one hand, men are largely expected to be breadwinners and the leading voice as well as source of strength in the household. On the other hand, the men also get the bad rap for being the “heartbreakers”, the players and the parents who are all on discipline and the “tough love” approach.

But contrary to what a lot of people from the opposite side of the gender fence may say, many men I know personally are in fact hard-working, faithful, loving and caring people who have proven themselves as capable fathers.

The holiday suddenly got me to thinking about the relationship I had with my biological father and the uncle I once lived with who became my unofficial “foster-father”.

When our dad acquired custody of me and my sisters in court after an acrimonious split with my mother, it was to have a tremendous impact in our lives. There would be bitter confrontations between both sides of our parents’ families over custody of us, and it would eventually cause significant gaps in our relationship with our mother. We would eventually become part of a blended family with our dad marrying the widow of his late cousin. Coming from different backgrounds and upbringings, tensions would soon arise in this environment.

The fact that our dad was constantly away or busy with other matters, plus his old-school upbringing, would soon lead to further rifts with him. For one thing, he had always considered that his financial contributions to the family were enough on his part and he did not need to do much more beyond that. Also, he was known to carry a highly pessimistic attitude in life, something which had rubbed off on me and my siblings as he doted largely on our failures while keeping mum on our successes. Finally, he did have a history of being highly physical when punishing us for misbehavior, often using spanking or whipping with a belt.

We found some solace when we were able to study in Manila and stay under the care of his younger brother. While not accustomed to parenting and having his own host of issues that did end up in occasional conflicts, he managed to fill in many of the key emotional and psychological roles that our father could not. Among many things he taught us independence, assertiveness and  compassion for others.

But with continuing financial difficulties in the years after Mount Pinatubo’s outburst, we would eventually end up back in Pampanga and return to the full-time blended family setup. Tensions worsened within the family and it was only a matter of time before something would happen.

Eventually, my sisters would move to Manila after our mother had established herself in the big city. On the other hand, I remained in Pampanga where I completed my primary education while staying with my dad, and graduating from high school while sharing a roof with my uncle from Manila who had also been forced to move back to the province (ending up in Angeles City) due to continued financial difficulties. I soon studied college in Angeles City as well, alternating between my dad’s place in the city on weekdays and staying with my uncle on weekends.

The relationship with my dad reached an all-time low when I started to struggle with my grades in my latter years of college. He had initially imposed a rule stating that whether I graduated in four years or not, he expected me to be fully independent after my fourth year. When it was clear that I was not going to graduate on time as hoped, he actually threw me out of the house just days before Christmas in 2004 and dropped me off at my maternal grandfather’s place. I then cut off all communication with my dad and leaned on my uncle for all the paternal support I could get. I made plans to take an extra year to try to complete my course while staying with my uncle, and I enlisted the help of my mother who was working abroad for financial support.

However, with financial resources being unable to keep up with rising expenses, I finally made the difficult decision to quit studying and move in with my sisters in Manila, which my uncle supported. To help out, I decided to get a job working at a call center and I have continued working in that company as of this writing.

Our dad (wearing hat, obviously) flanks my sisters in this picture from our beach outing last April.

Despite our misgivings with our dad and the distance, we maintained our presence during family events and this eventually led to improved relations with him. Family occasions have seen increased appearances from us (such as the birthday beach outing in Zambales last April) and him (such as my younger sister’s graduation, which ended with a hearty lunch at a restaurant in Makati). My elder sister and I have even made it a point that we teach her young kids about loving their grandfather despite his shortcomings, which has yielded very positive results.

One key to improving our relationship was that I finally reconciled myself with my dad’s shortcomings and started expecting less of him. While this may sound condescending and downright hateful, this actually allows us to have a healthier relationship and focus on the good things we share.

Admittedly, I have always admired my dad for keeping up with me when it comes to sports. He once played basketball and tennis in his younger years, and remains skilled at playing billiards and pool. He has a keen mind for sports, and often gives valuable insights to the breaks of any game.

The relationship has remained civil as of this writing, and while circumstances have prevented me from getting in touch with my “foster-father” in a while, I still happily carry many of the lessons he shared to this day.

Before I forget, there is one more father who I can’t help but be thankful for. He is my paternal grandfather, the father of my dearest mum. He would tell us so often of his stories during his younger years, from graduating with honors in a prestigious university in Manila to surviving World War II to raising 13 children to being one of the wealthier men in town back in the day. I’ll admit, I do get annoyed on occasion such as when he inquires about when he will introduce me to my future girlfriend. Even more strangely, he even went so far as to try to set me up with some pretty salesladies he met at the local mall. And while he has a host of eccentricities that can pique my attention, he remains a loving man who has always kept his humble provincial home open to us regardless of the time or day.

Looking back at all that has transpired since then, one cannot deny the huge role the father plays in the lives of the family. He is a stabilizing factor and one who plays an important leadership role in the lives of its members. And although he lacks the same connection to the children as the mother would, he helps form a more balanced perspective in life in a complementary role especially with male children. And although not as commonly reported as single mothers, single fathers have been able to hold their own when circumstances call for it.

So to all the fathers out there, living and departed, biological or substitute, young and old, we salute you and we love you from the bottom of our hearts. For despite and probably even because of what had happened between me and my “three” fathers, my sisters and I have made it this far and we have turned out well considering the circumstances. Happy Father’s Day to all paternal units, cheers!

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