[Father’s Day] Two lessons from my politician-dad

Buena Bernal
What's it like to have a dad who's also "dad" to the rest of the world?

A RARE MOMENT: The author with her dad. Photo from Buena Bernal

MANILA, Philippines – The 2004 Philippine elections changed my life, not in the way you might expect.

On the night of ballot counting, my dad received what was then the most devastating news of his life. He had his men situated in the precincts of each baranggay, and they all reported to him from time to time. When almost all precincts had their final tally, it was pretty clear who the winner is. There, in the hustle and bustle of that cold election night, the verdict reached him. The time finally came for him to bid goodbye — at least for the time being — to local politics.

My dad was running for a second term as municipal vice-mayor of a coastal town in Northern Luzon, and he had his hopes high. 

For all the years I had growing up, local politics was the only life he knew how to live. He was a baranggay captain, a councilor for 3 consecutive terms and a vice mayor thereafter. He has served in elective positions in government for more than 20 years, and I am now 20 years old. It is hard to picture my dad doing any other thing than serving the public.

That night was the first time I saw my dad in tears — the first time I heard this man who I looked up to as a child sob harder than a brokenhearted, loveless teenager.

Prior to that event, I never even thought of him as a man capable of sobbing. He was Daddy the monster-slayer, Daddy the serious, opinionated, news junkie and Daddy the knight who saves me from all the troubled bullies in school. A sobbing version of my dad was simply alien to me.

Even before the final tally, a reliable source — a close relative of a suspected vote-buying candidate and a friend of my dad’s — went up to him to disclose the alleged rigging. Maybe it was guilt that drove this person to tell my dad about the political maneuver. My dad ignored it anyway, believing that he’d win despite that.

But he didn’t.

I was only 12 years old then. There were whispers in the vernacular. I did not understand the matter being discussed. Partly because I did not speak fluent Ilocano. Partly because what they spoke of was a confusing subject to a 12-year old. And mostly because I was trying to hear all these while pretending to be asleep.

I tucked in my blanket and tried hard to understand the whispers.

One man says we should do it. The other speaks of the need for expediency — that if we would do it, we should do it now. My dad is silent, perhaps thinking or just about to break down. 

I remember someone asking where the ballots were at that moment. Are they being transported? 

The island baranggay might be a better choice. But the teachers — who today I have known to be the Board of Election Inspectors — would probably opt not to transport the ballots at that hour of the night and just wait until the next morning. 

Let’s choose another baranggay, says another. 

And then, an uncle of mine, brave and comforting the way they were brought up by my granddad, tapped my dad’s back and said, “Haanen. Talo na. (Let’s not. Let’s accept defeat.)

My dad sent the men away, and he just broke down. There. In our room. While I pretended to be asleep.

Even as a kid, I knew that whispers were for secrets and secrets meant you were hiding something and were gonna do something evil or bad.  

True to form, those men were talking to my dad about stealing the ballots.

Beneath the blanket while my dad sobbed in the room was my 12-year old self learning what could be the greatest lesson I have learned from my dad:

to never compromise my principles even if it meant defeat.

The next day, supporters rushed to our home. Baranggay captains, friends, relatives. They were equally if not more devastated. They cried as my father cried. There were kind words of consolation. There were taps in the back and warm embraces. There were speeches of gratitude. They would say that dad did this, dad did that and they will never forget. There was discussion. What happened, who did it and why?

It was a day after the 2004 elections. It was when I learned the second most important lesson from my dad:

that if you stick by the right principles, you will never be alone.

You will always have the backing of fiercely loyal people — people who will stand with you when those principles get threatened or violated.

There are many things untold in this story. People wanted him out of the game for a reason. There were giants he went up against for the benefit of the fisherfolk. His sobs weren’t baseless. There was traitorship within the family and within the party.

My dad and I rarely talk. We have no moments of bonding together. That’s how it is with a politician-dad. The whole father-child dynamics change.

With the exception of the game of chess, he never directly taught me anything. To me, there was no fishing with dad or swimming with dad. There was only dad. The kind of person that he is — not what he did with me or taught to me through direct mentorship — is what changed and influenced my life greatly. 

Today, daddy serves as a municipal councilor. It is hard when you share your father with the rest of the town. Then again, I have come to be more and more comfortable with the concept of sharing. 

Who wouldn’t be? A husband frantically knocking on my father’s door to ask him to drive them to the hospital because his wife’s going on labor, a couple bringing their raped daughter in need of legal counsel, a young man asking for help with regards to his father’s health insurance because the hospital bill is too much to carry. These are the town residents I share my awesome dad with.

People often look at politics with a scornful judgment, but thanks to my dad I see the public service in it that is rarely seen in the lives of many politicians who exercise their power of position.

To the man that you are, Happy Father’s Day! – Rappler.com

(Join RAPPLER on Father’s Day, June 17, 3PM, for a live tweet convo @rapplerdotcom #loveyoudad. Keep the blogs coming! Email your story and photos with subject heading WORLD’S BEST DAD to desk@rappler.com.)

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