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Messages from above

By ISABELLA ORTEZA, THE PHILIPPINE STAR Published Nov 12, 2020 4:00 pm

I never completely understood the feeling of losing someone until exactly seven months ago. Although loss may be moving and emotional in literature, films and music, I now know that losing someone you absolutely love is completely foreign in real life. It especially stings when you lose that person due to something you’d least expect. In other words, it hits you as quickly as hitting the brakes on a car jolts your entire body forward, disrupting your balance and displacing your thoughts. At the same time, it feels like being stuck in limbo, without ever knowing whether the nightmare will stop.

Reality hit me hard when I lost my father last April due to this ongoing pandemic. Since then, I have been searching for the proper words to write about the person that the world is now much less fortunate without. As my mother perfectly puts it, “How can you write about someone who was larger than life itself?” In my fragile attempt to do so, let me start by sharing the messages he has engrained in me, my three older sisters, his thousands of pediatric patients/children, and hopefully anyone reading this right now.

First, my father taught me to never leave anything left unsaid. My dad was as honest as he can possibly get. There was never a single point in time when he didn’t grab an opportunity to tell everyone how he was so proud of his four little women — as he’d lovingly call me and my sisters. In fact, he would dedicate a Facebook post almost every day (not exaggerating) about at least one of his girls. That’s why, every now and then, I wonder whether his Facebook friends know me better than I know myself. Joking aside, every time I meet any of his friends, I am always told the same thing over and over again, without fail: “Your dad is so proud of you.” Despite his early departure, I always feel like he’s just around the corner whenever his friends come and repeat this sweet little reminder.

Dr. Neal Orteza, a pediatrician and medical director, is one of the frontliners we lost due to the coronavirus

You see, my dad took on a lot of roles. He was a doctor, administrator, medical director, public health advocate and more — but most importantly, he was the epitome of a #GirlDad. Having four daughters, he always disregarded comments like, “Oh, you must have wanted a boy,” by reassuring us that he wouldn’t have it any other way. I fondly recall him telling us that he didn’t need a barkada, because he already had us and Mom to share his chismis, judgments and jokes with at the end of a tiring day. Unlike a stereotypical dad, he enjoyed spoiling us and taking us shopping, even if it meant we had to sneak behind our mom’s back to do so. Dad enjoyed keeping this a secret, because he loved splurging for his girls and surprising our mom with pretty gifts he carefully handpicked himself. And this is why every time we go with him to the mall, all of his personal salesladies already know us by name (and size).

Second, my father has always emphasized to us girls to become your own bosses someday. He would constantly stress the importance of being independent young women, and he’d say this repeatedly over dinner or basically whenever he had the chance to. Up to my last few remaining months with him, I still felt as if he were trying to tell me something important as he hurried me to finish one of his favorite novels, Little Women, which he always associated with his four daughters. Earlier this year, he hurried me to finish this book so that we could watch the new movie adaptation together when it was going to be released, and so I did. As expected, I loved and devoured every single page. But because it was the last book my dad had strongly recommended before his passing, it is more than just another novel to me now. Since then, I’ve always felt as though this book held an important message that he wanted to leave behind.

He was a doctor, administrator, medical director, public health advocate and more — but most importantly, he was the epitome of a #GirlDad

Just as the novel’s author does, my dad not only appreciated the beauty of arts and culture, but he also deeply valued women empowerment. He urged us to pursue our individual goals and careers, before even entertaining any wild ideas about marriage. As far as I can remember, he consistently supported our goals throughout all the stages of our lives, from our junior tennis days to those college years abroad and all the way to today, in my first semester of medical school. He was our harshest critic, yet our greatest fan.

Third, my father taught me to trust the process. Even during his last three weeks being confined in the hospital, he would either call me or my mom to ask if I was able to get an interview for my (and my dad’s) dream medical school. He strongly wished for me to get into the University of the Philippines College of Medicine (UPCM). It was a dream we both had always shared, and so we excitedly, but also nervously, waited for the results together up until his condition worsened. Fortunately, a day before he passed away, my family and I were allowed to send him video recordings of our personal farewell messages. Since we weren’t allowed to visit him due to the COVID restrictions, this was really the only way for us to say goodbye.

Dr. Neal Orteza with his beloved "little women"

Whether it was due to fate or the overwhelming surge of emotions that washed over me as I recorded that final video, my tongue slipped. I told him way in advance that I already got accepted into our dream school, perhaps because I so badly wanted it to be true. Or maybe, I thought that a bit of good news could heal him and bring him home. After giving it some thought, I decided I’d send the recording as it was, in hopes that my dad had made the right prediction about my acceptance after all. A few months later, he was right; and I have never been more grateful for that slip-up ever since. Now, here I am in the middle of my first semester of our dream-turned-reality medical school, writing about the very person who believed in me the most. We made it, Dad!

After 23 years of getting to know my amazing father, it’s safe to say that I now have a treasure trove of irreplaceable memories and messages from Dad that I’ll always hold on to wherever I am in life. He’ll always be that voice in the back of my head saying exactly what he handwrote to me on his last present: “Life is but a dream — continue dreaming, Bela.”