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To An Unknown Dad: Nestor de Villa
A Makeshift Monument To My Missing Father
There’s an account in the book of Acts where we find the apostle Paul anxiously awaiting his companions in the city of Athens.[i] We are told that he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. As he ventured further into this idolatrous locale, he looked carefully at the objects of their worship and found among them a peculiar altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown God.’
If the apostle Paul were to enter the inner museum of my mind, walk around and look carefully through the “Hall of Father Figures,” he would have found an altar with this inscription: “To an unknown Dad.” Fearful of offending my father by failing to give him due recognition, I raised up this makeshift monument out of loyalty to cover up for his missing role in my life. After all, Dad was the breadwinner of the family who provided the food on the table and a roof over our heads. Although our father-and-son relationship was sacrificed, I was always made to assume that it was for a nobler cause. In our slice of society, financial stability far outweighed paternal intimacy.
An Extra At Home
Virtually unknown to his children, my father was well known to his admiring fans. Nestor de Villa[ii] was the original Philippine Idol. Since Dad happened to be a very popular movie actor and television personality in the Philippines, his life became public property in the 1950s and has remained that way ever since. Due to the demands of the entertainment world, my father’s schedule was booked solid. It afforded him little time for family life. In fact, much of my time spent with Dad was in front of our television set watching his movie reruns and prime time variety shows. Like one of his many admirers, I didn’t know him but knew of him.
I saw my father as a stranger in my mother’s house. While I was up early for breakfast, Dad would drag his feet into the kitchen looking haggard with a stubby chin in dire need of a shave. His eyes were bloodshot. And he couldn’t shake off his moody attitude. Back again from an all-night film shoot, he practically slept the whole day. When we got back from school, I remember Mom cautioning us to remain extra quiet for the rest of the afternoon because Dad was fast asleep. At sunset, my father would head right back to the studio. Other times, location shootings would take him out-of-town for days or even months.
Due to the nature of my father’s work, my mother became his appointed proxy. Mom wore the pants in the family. She was always there for us. How proud she was of her children. She really raised us up single-handedly. Mom kept to the challenging task with no complaints or excuses. She was always available and ever reliable: a true comforter and confidant. There’s an old Jewish saying, “God could not be everywhere, and therefore He made mothers.” Thank God for Mom.
Dad received top billing in his industry. While he played the lead role in his films, he was just another extra at home. He always seemed to be missing on the set when the camera of real life would roll on my significant moments. His just “being there” would have meant so much to me. There were many crucial periods when I needed to see his physical presence giving me moral support and encouragement. Dad would have jumped for joy had he seen his son score that decisive goal in the junior high soccer match or walked on air had he seen his son graduate from college with honors. But Dad was permanently distracted. He always had too much on his plate. The late songwriter and musician, Harry Chapin, penned the lyrics of this popular song entitled Cats in the Cradle that hits home: “When you comin’ home, dad? I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, son. You know we’ll have a good time then.”[iii]
A Gracious Do-Over
I didn’t know it at the time but this little boy had a hole in his heart that only a father could fill—and as the years went by that emptiness deepened. I tried as best as I could to fill up that aching void with my father’s approval. I didn’t realize it then but Dad was also caught in the limelight as he continually sought the approval of his many fans and admirers. I felt left out in the shadow of his success and consoled myself with that all-too-common cliché: “Sorry kid, that’s showbiz!”
The stage light started to fade on my father’s show business career as he entered his mid-seventies. Through it all, he made many acquaintances but very few honest-to-goodness friends—people he could truly confide in. He almost always instinctively distanced himself from those who really cared for him. I personally found it difficult, almost awkward, to get intimate with him. Maybe I’ve become calloused from the pain of not having him around when I needed him most. Learning to live without a “father figure” all these years worked against me. My attempt to recapture a long lost relationship has proven to be somewhat futile. It felt like entering a familiar hurt that was once buried and long forgotten. At this junction, I have deliberately copped out and refused to risk our “comfortable” relationship at the expense of experiencing true intimacy.
Just when I thought I could put closure on the pain of a broken bond, cancer caught my father unexpectedly. God has taught me that He happens to reserve the last word in the life of Nestor de Villa. In the days that followed, it became apparent that the storyline was far from over. The Divine Director didn’t shout, “Cut! That’s a print! End of story.” My father’s life-script was destined by God to be wholly edited and rewritten. The Lord in his mercy was gracious enough to grant Dad a “do-over” in his life—a second chance at righting any wrongs and binding up old wounds from the past. The spotlight struck the stage once again, the cameras were on a roll, and God cried out, “Action!” The long lost role as a father was restored to my dad with the opportunity of a lifetime to finally put his house in order.
It’s Never Too Late
As you can see, the Lord allowed me to fulfill my God-given obligation as a son. For a brief moment I became my father’s keeper. I was given the opportunity to minister to Dad within a four-month period in California. I would visit him at the hospital and pray for his every need, listen to his complaints and hold his hand in his struggles, read him his bible and teach him a truth from the scriptures, wipe his surgical wounds and change his bandages. What a delight it was to just plain spend time and enjoy Dad’s company.
The long goodbye at the Los Angeles International Airport was in order. At the flight gate, I gave Dad one last great big hug and kiss. Although his body felt frail against my own, his grip was still strong and sure. I didn’t want to let go. In that instant, which felt like an eternity, we whispered in each other’s ears affirming our love for one another. I remember asking him to promise me to wait until December. Dad put his hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye saying, “Gicky, you have been a good son to me.” Those life-giving words brought healing to my soul, closure on past hurts and secured the bond between a father and son forever. I stood at the airport terminal and savored that moment washed over with tears of joy. The Author of Life has provided us a happy ending to the perfect screenplay after all.
In retrospect, it’s as though I was enabled to squeeze forty-five years of my life between these four magical months before my father passed away. Dad and I were afforded 123 days together to repair our relationship—to forgive our past hurts, to express our love for each other and undo what was unknown about him. Our long lost father-and-son relationship was finally mended as the Spirit of God stitched our hearts together. There are many things we wish we could have said, but went unsaid, when our loved ones pass away. Don’t wait until it’s too late. It’s never too late. In truth, there will never be enough time. Those who have departed can’t smell the beautiful bouquet of fragrant flowers…give your loved ones the flowers now.
In these pages, I have invited you to walk through the museum of my mind. You witnessed the way in which God allowed me, with great care, to chisel out a forgotten figure that was trapped within the stone. I can finally rest this once unknown figure upon the altar of my life with the proper inscription:
“TO A GREAT DAD.”
[i] Acts 17:16-23.
[ii] Wikipedia, Nestor de Villa (July 6, 1928 – February 21, 2004) was a Filipino actor frequently cast in musical films. He was a gifted dancer often paired with frequent onscreen partner Nida Blanca in both movies and television. His dancing talent led some to call him the "Fred Astaire of the Philippines."
[iii] Harry Chapin, “Cats in the Cradle,” Verities & Balderdash, Elektra/Asylum, 1974.
© 2009, Gicky Soriano. All rights reserved.