Paul: “What’s in the box?”
Rev. Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam: “Pain.”
The summer after my tatay died, I went into his study and pulled every single science fiction novel from the shelves to send to Reading, Pennsylvania, where I was moving to start high school and live with my mother’s oldest brother and his family. Both of my parents had been avid readers, but Tatay was the one with a personal book collection, which spilled out of haphazard stacks on bookshelves amidst an obstacle course of unfiled paper piles and model battleship boxes littering the floor. Unlike my mother’s sunlit sewing room, with its bins of neatly folded fabric and shelves of supplies and everything grouped by size and color, none of Tatay’s books were organized by title or author or even genre, so I grabbed anything and everything with familiar names on spines and covers with spaceships, galaxies, and silhouettes of humans in spacesuits. These were the books he talked about at dinner parties, whose plots he told me as bedtime stories. While our relationship had become strained in the two and a half years between my mother’s death and his, SF/F remained one of the few ways we could communicate without stumbling into another cycle of resentment, disappointment, and recriminations. I never felt closer to him than when we watched and talked about Star Trek, Robotech, or Doctor Who, so if he’d loved these books, I thought I could, too.
At the very least I wasn’t about to let them end up in the garage sale my stepmother was unaware I’d overheard her talking about.
I found several of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels, which I would bounce off multiple times before finally giving up in my 30s. There were hardcover copies of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 and 2061, but oddly 2001 was nowhere to be found. I’m sure there were a few Year’s Best collections from the 1980s and dozens of other books that would be considered part of the SF/F canon. I packed them all. But the ones that mattered most were all six (at the time) of Frank Herbert’s Dune series.
While I didn’t actually read Dune until after Tatay died, we still had a shared love of the story since I’d watched David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation of Dune with him for the first time when I was seven. Unlike Star Wars, the world of Dune was dark, morally ambiguous, violent, and utterly, unapologetically bizarre. I was fascinated. I dug up earthworms to bring to the playground sandbox to play “Arrakis” and pretended I had a weirding module. I still think of Patrick Stewart more as Gurney Halleck than Captain Picard. And because Tatay recorded Dune on VHS when it was broadcast as a two-night movie “event” on network TV, we would watch it together repeatedly. He taught me to recite the Litany Against Fear from memory by the time I was in second grade. I still have some of my old notebooks from junior high and high school where I’d jotted down the Litany on the blank untreated backs, nestled among lyrics by Metallica and Megadeth and Joy Division and snippets of poems by Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg.
I remember reciting the Litany under my breath when the plane carrying me away from Chicago took off while I cried silently.
Bene Gesserit proverb: “Survival is the ability to swim in strange water.”
Tatay didn’t talk much about his childhood in the Zamboanga Peninsula of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. I know that my lolo was a prominent local doctor and that my lola was deeply involved with the Catholic church, and they had adopted my tatay from a Catholic-run orphanage when he was a toddler. I have vague memories of meeting two Filipinas visiting from Canada who were his sisters, but that singular visit is the only time Tatay ever mentioned his birth family. The only paternal aunt I really knew was the daughter Lola and Lolo had a few years after adopting my Tatay.
Despite growing up close to the coast, Tatay hated the ocean only slightly more than he hated the jungle. Every story he ever told about being out in nature ended with him stepping on pissed off eels or getting blisters from fire coral or falling off the back of a runaway horse into a patch of what he swore was “razorblade grass.” The last time I visited the Philippines, we went on a beach resort vacation with his family, and he refused to go any farther out than knee deep in the water. After treating my arm when I accidentally swam into a swarm of jellyfish and got stung from fingertips to shoulder, he admonished that the best way to avoid jellyfish stings was to stay out of the ocean, and that’s why he’d never been stung. I got back in the water the next day, bandages and jellyfish swarms notwithstanding, while he sipped martinis at the beach house.
Tatay preferred to keep his adventures mostly imaginary, reading anything he could get his hands on. He often lamented the loss of his collection of Prince Valiant and Superman strips, which were left behind when his family had to pack up in the middle of the night and escape into the mountain jungles. Tatay was 14 when the Japanese armed forces invaded the islands at the end of 1941 and declared Manila an occupied city in January 1942. The Japanese military initially overlooked Tatay’s family since Lolo was a well-respected doctor whose skills they thought they could make use of. Lolo, however, was apparently treating Filipino resistance fighters on the sly, and eventually someone let that knowledge slip. Tatay and the whole family fled their home to avoid retaliation. By the time the family returned from the jungle after Japan’s surrender to the US in 1945, Tatay was no longer a child. His comics collection had burned to ashes, along with everything else in the house.
At some point, Lolo moved the family to Manila, and Tatay immigrated to the US to attend medical school after graduating from the University of the Philippines. He eventually became a naturalized citizen, got married, divorced, married, widowed, and married again. From the time I was born until Tatay’s death, we only visited the Philippines three times. The last time was when I was 13, shortly before Lola died, so that Tatay could introduce her to my future stepmom. He died a year later, and I haven’t been back since.
Maud’dib: “There is probably no more terrible instant of enlightenment than the one in which you discover your father is a man–with human flesh.”
I started reading Dune as soon as it arrived with the rest of my things at my relatives’ house. Here’s the thing about reading Dune if you’ve already seen the 1984 movie: familiarity with the movie doesn’t actually mean you’re prepared for the full depth of the book. It’s like thinking once you’ve waded in a pond, you know what it’s like to swim in the ocean, and finding yourself utterly unprepared. Everything that I’d loved about the movie was magnified and deepened in the book: the complex relationship between economics, religion, politics, and propaganda, the scheming between Houses and the Bene Gesserit, the fascinating weirdness of Herbert’s vision, and in particular, Paul’s uncertainty and his struggle to carry the weight of his father’s legacy and mistakes.
I didn’t realize until reading the book that Paul was in fact nearly the same age as me when my Tatay died, nearly the same age as Tatay when he fled his familiar home to find refuge in an environment he’d learned to see as dangerous and unpredictable. Like Paul, the end of Tatay’s boyhood was marked by war and exile, and an accelerated path to adulthood. I wondered how much of himself my tatay had seen in Paul, what he thought about losing his childhood to another country’s dreams of empire, if he had allowed his fear to pass over and through him to see a path forward with a clear eye.
I wondered what kind of legacy he’d wanted to leave for me, or if he’d even thought about it at all.
While Tatay occasionally talked about being a teenager during the Japanese occupation, I didn’t actually learn that his family had spent that time in hiding, and why, until years after he’d died. It was his first wife who shared that story when I was visiting with my oldest brother and his family on a holiday break in college. When I asked her why he never told us, she shrugged and said that Tatay was just the kind of person who preferred to avoid talking about “unpleasant things” at all costs. I couldn’t argue with her assessment. She’d had to be the one to initiate the divorce after Tatay had started dating my mother (while he was also still seeing another woman with whom he’d had one of my older brothers).
Knowing that Tatay had actually spent his young adult years not just living through war, but actively hiding his identity from hostile occupiers, put a different lens on the ways he expected my younger brother and me to behave after our mother died. He would abruptly leave the dinner table and retreat to his study if we talked about her “too much.” I wasn’t allowed to look unhappy when I was around him and my stepmother because it was “rude and disrespectful.” Apparently after my mother had died, Tatay got into arguments with some of our closest family friends when they pushed for him to send my younger brother and myself to therapy. Therapy, in his view, was unnecessary, and his children “needed to learn how to weather the slings and arrows of life.” He might as well have said he wanted us to endure our own gom jabbar.
I’d like to think that this was my tatay’s way of protecting his kids, teaching them how to survive shock and loss. Maybe for him, trauma and pain were just something you learned to live with, processed or not. I wonder if he was afraid of the path we might find if we had guidance through our own fear and pain, rather than being left to fend for ourselves.
I eventually finished the series with Chapterhouse: Dune somewhere around sophomore year. I didn’t exactly end up loving it, and I couldn’t feel satisfied at having completed a series that was itself unfinished. All Herbert had left were notes and sketches, a vague outline of his intentions. Piecing it all together might complete the story, but it was still just an approximation.
I kept reading Tatay’s books, and when I finished them all, I bought more books by the same authors, and books I thought he would have liked, more than enough books to fill the space and time I was left to myself, but never enough to forget where I was, or that he was gone. I rewatched the same shows and movies we’d seen together, staying up late at night to use the one VCR in the house after my relatives had gone to sleep, volume low, seated close to the TV screen in the dark. Returning to familiar stories is its own kind of time travel, although that’s no guarantee you’ll find what it is you went back for.
© 2020 Michi Trota