These 12 adjectives were the English lesson of my fourth-grade students in Madrid. My job as an English language assistant was to have practice conversations with them. We were to talk about ourselves and our loved ones using the said words. The class teacher left it to me to choose which students I wanted to practice with.
I kind of cheated with my first two picks of students. They were the bright, confident, popular girls who I knew didn’t really need my help. They had their English comprehension and grammar down pat. We breezed through our conversations, sharing what our family and friends were like. These types of students were always a pleasure to work with.
By my third pick, I told myself, fine. Let’s make some dents where it is actually needed. I chose a boy seated at the back of the class. He always looked as if he had just finished doing something strenuous in the playground—cheeks flushed, hair damp and tossed around with sweat, taking visibly bigger breaths than the other children around him.
He had been transferred from another section. I suspected the reason was that he was always getting into fights with the other hot-tempered boys in his class. Even in my smaller role as a language assistant, I hadn’t been excluded from his attitude. He often made excuses or pretended not to hear me whenever I came over and made comments on his written exercises. As expected, he protested when I picked him as the next participant for a one-on-one conversation.
“Nooooo! Noooo!” he rocked back in his chair in defiance. I smiled, maybe even laughed a bit, but was firm. “Come on,” I gestured, standing there until he finally got up and followed me.
The exercise was to ask and answer each other’s questions using the 12 adjectives in the book. I prompted him to start.
“Are you tidy?” he asked me.
Oh no. Why did that word have to be part of the list?
“… Not really,” I admitted sheepishly, shaking my head. His face broke into a genuine laugh. This surprised me. He was actually engaging with me.
“Are you kind?” he asked.
“Y… I try.”
This was basic English. Ideally, the answers should have been limited to either “Yes, I am” or “No, I’m not” for the students to be able to grasp the concepts more easily. For most of the words, it was easy to pick the side of the gradient you were closer to. For others, it was harder.
“Are you shy?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he answered readily.
He nodded his head again. This boy that kept getting into fights thought he was shy. That was interesting.
I moved the exercise along to practice simple past tense.
“I was shy when I was young,” he said.
“I think that’s false,” I answered. We were supposed to guess whether the other person was telling the truth about themselves or not. “Verdadero o falso?” I would explain to students who could barely understand English.
“No, it’s true,” he corrected me.
“Really?” I said again.
Again he nodded his head with full certainty. Switching to Spanish, he told me about how when he was little he would always keep his head down and not talk to anybody.
We moved on to describe other people.
“What’s your father like?” I asked him.
“No tengo padre.” (I don’t have a father)
“Oh. Ok,” I acknowledged.
“What is your mother like?” he asked me.
“My mother is very kind and very friendly.”
“What is your best friend like?” I asked him.
“My best friend is friendly, kind, generous, noisy… and sometimes untidy,” he enumerated, describing someone I could very well imagine would get along with him.
“Who is he?” I asked. This wasn’t part of the exercise, but I was curious. Who was this person who found chemistry with a boy who thought he was shy and was always getting into fights? “Does he go to this school?”
“No,” he shook his head.
He then asked me about my best friend.
“Well, I don’t really have a best friend (I didn’t believe in having one. I had different friends who nourished me in different ways. I was also failing at executing the simplicity aspect of this exercise).
“But fine, I’ll pick one person,” I continued. “My best friend is very kind and very friendly.”
He continued to poke around about other people in my life. And then, he asked me about my dad.
“What’s your father like?”
This jolted me out of my normalcy. One moment I was lightly attending to my tasks. The next, my blood was running hot and fast. Dad had died a month ago of heart attack—a day before I was to celebrate my first month of moving to Madrid.
I was at an evening Spanish class when I found out. The teacher was asking me in front of the whole class what my favorite flavor of ice cream was. “Cual es tu sabor favorito de helado?” I looked down at my phone and saw the message from Mom.
“Dad is gone.”
I looked back up at the people in the classroom. All eyes were on me, waiting. I could feel my brain starting to short-circuit.
“I don’t know how to say it in Spanish,” I began. My answer was simple. I was just about to translate it. But that mental beam had been thwarted and was suddenly dispersed now. I couldn’t summon it back.
“I like a really good vanilla in a rich chocolate coating,” I said, thinking of how I was never unhappy to see a Magnum bar. The teacher translated for me. I repeated what he said and instantly forgot the words.
I still managed to socialize for about 15 minutes after class. I’m not sure why I stayed. Maybe I wanted one last breath of normalcy before I was overtaken by the inevitable; to be in the company of people who were bouncing off each other about lighter matters. Maybe I took pride in having no need for hysterics; in being strong and put together. We talked about languages; about how unless you were a native English speaker, the pronunciation is hard to learn. “In Spanish, the words are spelled exactly as they sound,” the Venezuelan school owner was telling me. “If you tell me a word I don’t know, I can easily type it in Google. But with English, how are you supposed to know that the word ‘knowledge’ starts with a ‘k’?”
Finally, I stepped out into the rain and got a little lost on my way to the metro. I ran into one of my classmates. “Take care,” he said.
I descended the steps into the subway. That’s when everything that had been waiting to sink plunged. Heat rushed to my face, water to my eyes. I cried silently all the way home. An old lady sitting across me on the train noticed and watched me the whole time. Maybe it was out of concern. Maybe it was out of curiosity. Either way I didn’t have the bandwidth to care.
The morning of my departure from Manila was frantic and unceremonial. I had packed all my things into my suitcase and tried carrying it down the stairs when the handle suddenly broke. We almost rushed to the nearby mall to buy a new one. Or rather, my parents almost did. With only a few hours until my flight and the terrible traffic to the airport, we had to distribute the effort and tasks it took for me to leave. Stubborn independence was and still can be my default way of moving through life. In times like these, it surprised me to find a support system launching to solve problems that were supposedly solely mine—a weight I didn’t know I was carrying rolling off my shoulders.
Thankfully, we found a couple of dusty but sturdy spare suitcases in the closet. My mother and I hurriedly repacked and reorganized my things. Towards the end she directed me, her 31-year-old daughter, to shower while she finished up.
Dad was on one of his Zoom calls when we finally rushed out to the driveway to meet the car I had booked to the airport. I was running late and I thought we might miss each other. My next thought was that this wouldn’t be a big deal. We had already said our goodbyes last night. He had already given his speech and wished me well. He said I was the kind of person who could fit in anywhere in the world. We already knew we loved each other. I mostly found mush unnecessary.
Dad was the exact opposite. He was mush personified. “That’s our daughter!” he liked to say in his booming voice whenever he felt the slightest sliver of pride. It didn’t matter whether we were at home or if he was turning curious heads in public to look at the daughter in question.
He came running out to give me one last bear hug.
I celebrated my first month in Madrid with my colleagues the same weekend I lost him. I wondered if it was in bad taste. But when you move to a different country it is of the utmost importance to establish a web of connections with people. I didn’t have the luxury of isolation, nor did I want it.
It wasn’t hard for me to be light and normal company, drinking wine, eating tapas, and participating in whatever conversation topic came up. We even visited La Polleria, a famous kiosk in Madrid that sold dick-shaped waffles. We took risque photos that I never posted on social media out of respect. But it happened and I wasn’t sorry it happened. I needed these moments to be what they were. I didn’t need the living to cry with me. I needed them to live their lives around me. I would cry in my room when I got home, or even on the walk to my apartment—any moment I was alone.
But eventually, even the solitary tears stopped. A few days later, I felt completely fine.
“Don’t feel guilty,” a friend said as I searched for the gaping hole that seemed to have disappeared overnight. “We all grieve differently.”
Losing a parent while on the other side of the world does not look the way I imagined it to be. Most of the time I feel ok. I’m not sitting next to the empty chair at the dining table that used to be Dad’s. I don’t see his things or smell his scent on the clothes he left behind. I don’t inhabit the rooms that used to be filled with his booming voice.
“My… Sweetie!” he would greet Mom whenever either of them came home at night, his enthusiasm never waning.
My new life in Madrid came with its own landscape and content, neither of which ever included Dad. There are no empty spaces here that used to hold him. There is only my mind, which on most days runs normally, preoccupied with the stimuli and never-ending demands of surviving in a new country.
Randomly, and for no apparent reason, my thoughts will fall gently into the Dad hole. My vision will blur while making breakfast or looking out at traffic—only to be interrupted by a housemate walking in, or passengers getting on the bus who might see my face. But there are almost no external triggers.
It’s like my mind placed my grief in a room, and my grief is quiet and well-behaved. Many months can go by without me shedding a tear or feeling the slightest bit of pain. This is also why I can hold a speaking exercise about family and loved ones and not have it occur to me that my students will bring up Dad. True, I did ask them about their dads. But when I did, I was imagining their Spanish fathers with their high-bridged noses, living in the red brick chalets that characterized the suburban neighborhood where I worked. It was a reality so far removed from my own brown, chinky-eyed father in our house in Quezon City, Philippines; his loud voice piercing through my peaceful morning coffee sessions in our garden. He was always shouting into the phone—even if he was in the best of moods—because his hearing was starting to fail him. And even before his hearing problems began, he was the kind of person who owned a room with his gregariousness and enthusiasm. At one point he was the top salesman in his company. Being who he was multiplied his hearing loss volume by 10.
My grief is quiet and well-behaved and she mostly stays in her room. On several occasions, I have mistaken this to mean she has been processed. I have attempted to bring Dad up casually over dinner with friends, thinking it was now cool to walk into the room and show them the walls and the furniture. But it is never cool inside that room. She is quiet and well-behaved, but she remains raw and unchanged. Five or ten sentences into my “I can talk about this now” narrative, my throat constricts, my face flushes, my eyes water.
It will never be safe in that room—if by “safe” I mean I want to be able to walk in and maintain my composure. But otherwise, it is one of the most nourishing places for me to be. The pain reminds me of how I was loved—of how I can be loved.
“What’s your father like?” my student asked me, oblivious to the fresh wound he was summoning.
“Well, I no longer have a father,” I said, suddenly tender.
I thought of everything he was, everything he had been to me, and looked over the 12 adjectives that I had to choose from.
“My father was very kind… and very, very confident.”