A memory of my father to which I constantly return is of waking up in the early hours of the morning to see him sitting in his favourite armchair in our living room, his crouched figure bathed in the white light of his reading lamp as he scribbles a poem into one of his many battered notebooks.
He glances up, finishes writing a line, and tells me, “I’ll read to you a poem,” bucking any excuse I make (like being sleepy, or wanting a glass of water) to share with me what he has written down so far this morning. I am a child in this memory, or perhaps an adult whom my father continues to dote on, and any awareness I have of my father’s mortality is too faint to bother me as I prepare to listen to his words.
My father wasn’t the kind of artist who shunned the presence of his child in order to seek privacy for his art; rather, he was keen to share his art with me, welcoming me into this sacred space. To him, I was just as much a part of this world to which he belonged as his writer friends or even the authors he admired, whose books were on full display in our living room, within easy reach of my curious hands.
My father was never the kind of parent who pressured his child into following him in his career path. However, his own generosity in sharing his art with me awakened my own artistic instincts that led me towards the same path that gave meaning to his life. I found that writing could be a means of engaging with the world more intensely, of addressing the questions I had. When I started writing poems and stories, I didn’t hesitate to share them with my father, because I knew he would engage with my work just as generously as he shared his own work, and his own way of seeing the world, with me.
Writing was a means by which my father expressed his most intimate self, and it seeped into every aspect of his life: into the way he spoke, into the way he joked, into his everyday endearments. It allowed him to be the kind of father and husband who valued openness, who never withheld his love or his opinions from us, who thought that every disagreement should be hashed out instead of being swept under the rug. It was the reason why we shared an understanding of the world, as well as an innate urge to probe certain corners of experience through our writing. Literature was a common language we shared, a means by which we maintained our bond. I always felt that my father understood me more than any other person.
And so when he died of a heart attack in 2017, I felt as though the ground on which I stood had given way beneath my feet. My father was a stabilising force in my life, and without him, nothing seemed to make sense.
As I reeled from the shock of his sudden passing, I thought I wouldn’t have the strength to write again. The world was spiralling around me, and without anything to steady me, I wasn’t sure how I could go on living. Eventually, I had to make sense of this loss if I wanted to regain my footing. Writing was the only way I knew of understanding the incomprehensible, and though returning to the page made me more acutely aware of my father’s absence, writing ultimately served as the steadying force that saved me from my own despair.
A week after we buried my father, I started writing an essay about his funeral. I wrote about my anger and anguish when I was forced to accept a loss I was completely unprepared for. It was the first essay I wrote without the expectation that my father would read it, and at times I felt like I was skating on thin ice. My father was the one person who made me feel safe, and without him, there was nothing left underneath this sheet of ice to catch me. But then I finished the essay, without the ice breaking.
I felt his presence on the page. I was not writing about him at all, and yet he was there, alive in the words I wrote.
The day he died, I was working towards finishing a draft of my novel. In the days following his death, I thought there was no longer any sense in finishing a book that he was so excited to read. But I also knew that the last thing he wanted from me was for me to stop writing. And so I returned to my novel, and forced myself to write even if it was the last thing I wanted to do.
Strangely, the more I wrote, the less I felt my father’s absence, and the more I felt his presence on the page. I was not writing about him at all, and yet he was there, alive in the words I wrote.
If I allowed myself to be paralysed by my own grief, I would have also stifled a part of myself in which my father continued to live. Writing was what brought me close to him when he was still alive, and it was what allowed me to understand him in ways that others perhaps failed to. By continuing to write through my grief, I was honouring that part of myself that was deeply connected to him.
He is here, in my words, which is why I keep writing.
Monica Macansantos was recently a writer-in-residence at Nebraska's KHN Centre for the Arts, where she finished her first novel. Her father, Francis C. Macansantos, was a Filipino poet who wrote in English; his final poetry collection, Snail Fever, won a Philippine National Book Award in 2017. You can follow Monica on Twitter @missmacansantos.