An ode to my father

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TOOTS OPLE

THIS is a tribute to our dad. His name was Blas Fajardo Ople. He died on December 14, 2003, 10 days before Christmas. The plane that was to take him to Bahrain brought him to Taipei instead, after he suffered a heart attack mid-air. Our entire family was shaken by his untimely death. At the age of 75, the only college dropout who became Secretary of Foreign Affairs had big dreams for our country. Even up to now, total strangers would approach me with anecdotes about my father’s many acts of statesmanship and kindness.

On All Souls’ Day, our family visited him at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. We brought food and drinks, and stories to share. We lit candles with my Mom. Her name is Susana. I am her junior. She brought flowers for my dad. I remember those mornings when my Mom scratched my father’s back. It was part of their morning ritual. Sometimes my father would playfully scold my mother when her nails dug deeper than usual. They shared newspapers strewn across the bed while he had his cup of coffee, black, no sugar. I never really heard them talk about politics or work. Most of their conversations involved our family life. In that, my Mom was the expert.

Ka Blas led a remarkable life. He wrote speeches for President Marcos who later appointed him Secretary and then Minister of Labor. Ka Blas saw the need to codify all labor laws into the Philippine Labor Code that we have today. That Code, though outdated in some parts, remains the bedrock of labor-employment relations with its provisions on the minimum wage, collective bargaining agreement, the right to strike, and the right to organize. The youth of today may not appreciate some of these provisions because of the more flexible terms of a more modern workplace. They ought to know that men and women of courage fought hard for this legal regime of protection for Filipino workers here and overseas, then and now.

My father worked as a stevedore at North Harbor, and became a deskman of the Daily Mirror. He believed fervently in labor rights but he was pragmatic and fair in his relations with the business community. Many grew in the shade of his own learning curve as a public servant, only to claim the sunlight of leadership at the labor department. As a public servant, every story mattered to my father. People in flip-flops got the same intense attention and appreciation, as would businessmen in suits. When abroad, he treated every OFW like a long-lost sibling.


The late Blas F. Ople, who served as senator and labor and foreign secretary.

My sister, lawyer Dalisay Ople-San Jose, recalls Sunday masses with our parents, and hearing my father’s tuneless rendition of “Ama Namin.” After every Sunday mass came lunch with the grandchildren at the Kamayan branch on EDSA. There, the troubadours would play his oft-requested songs: “La Cucaracha” and “Spanish Eyes.” Yes, my father loved that Spanish song about a cockroach. When we rode in his car, we had to push away piles of books in the backseat. He read books with ease, tucking away facts and phrases in his photographic memory.

We knew better than to disturb him during siesta hours spent at his favorite Intramuros barber shop. Fernan, his barber, would manipulate the scissors to cut the air a few centimeters away from my father’s scalp just so the snipping sound would put him to sleep. For truly, what was there left to cut?

My daughter, Estelle, recalls how her Lolo Blas used spray-net and a black, generic-looking comb, to keep his endangered hair strands in place. My dad was generous to his grandchildren. My daughter had her share of a P20 school allowance when she was in grade school at St. Paul’s College, Pasig. Of course, that amount was caught in a time warp. When it came to financial matters, inflation was never part of my father’s computations. Every Christmas, he had his aide put in twenty-peso bills in white envelopes as his

“pamasko” to children lined up outside the gate of the modest house where he grew up in Hagonoy, Bulacan. Only years later did that twenty-peso bill rise to the level of P100, and that slow transition took effect with extreme nostalgic reluctance.

My brother, Dionisio Ople, who has long relocated to Los Angeles, California, has his own fond memories of hotel room breakfasts with my dad, complete with the mandatory corned beef hash. My father once requested that Bulos (Dionisio’s unique nickname), take him on a long, scenic drive to San Francisco. Happy to oblige, my brother quickly rented a vehicle from the most convenient car rental service he could find. The car rental company was ironically named, “Rent-a-Wreck.” And,that it was, because we felt every bump and every creaking turn, as any cargo would. The van combined with my brother’s expert driving did the job, and my father got his wish.

If you are lucky enough to have both parents still alive, do put down your phones and physically reach out to them. Believe me, you’ll never have enough of them when they’re gone. I lost my father 14 years ago. Missing him is a forever thing. He may have an altar of awards, but it is his smile, the twinkle in his eye, and the softness of his hand that I miss the most.

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