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My dad, my hero

By STEPHANIE ZUBIRI, The Philippine STAR Published Jun 14, 2023 5:00 am

I can’t think of my dad without remembering the 1994 film with Gerard Depardieu and young Katherine Heigl, My Father the Hero. While the crazy, albeit inappropriate, plot has nothing to do with my own dad, one thing is certain: My father is my hero.

Being the youngest of five children—by a very large age gap, as my sister before me is 13 years older and I am 21 years apart from my eldest brother—I am, without a doubt, a true blue, certified daddy’s girl. Similar to others with the same daddy’s girl status, I was showered with an immense amount of love and affection. However, his status as my hero was immortalized in a singular, archetypal moment, when I was around three or four.

Our garden had an enormous swimming pool. For a young child, apart from the stairs, there was no shallow end. It was the late ’80s and like many children of that era, we moved around freely in the world with no supervision. I waded and splashed by the stairs with a few toys and had probably promised an adult that I would remain safely there. I wouldn’t swim. Just wet my feet. I had just been learning how to swim and, like many toddlers, I was fearless. I was convinced I knew how. I slowly entered the pool. One step further each time until suddenly I had nowhere to stand. I sank. Quietly, with no noise. No splashing or drama. I recall seeing everything from under the blue. The distorted vision of the world above. I was holding my breath and still somewhat calm, sinking slowly to further depths. I heard and saw a commotion. My father, dressed in a barong and his signature boots, on his way to Congress, running towards the pool, leaping in fully dressed to rescue me.

I felt safe in his arms.

It's funny how some memories are so visceral and core to your being. How they shape the relationships around you. Throughout my life, no matter the mistakes I’ve made or the wayward paths I took, my father was always there to save me. My rescue net is built of the unbreakable threads of unconditional love. Sometimes the net felt tight and restrictive, stern with admonishment; other times the knots were looser, more gentle. It was always well-meaning, with good intentions, with only one desire: for me to be my happiest self.

In my recent adult life, I’ve found that often, we disagree on things. That perhaps our views don’t align. I’ve learned to be independent and have broken free from that proverbial net. Learning to save myself. But never have those tender tethers of unconditional love wavered.

Today, I find myself with mixed feelings brought upon by the role reversal that comes with aging parents. On the one hand, I feel privileged to be here for them; on the other, emotional. My father the hero, now leans on me to help manage many of his personal affairs, particularly in a digital world that is so different from the one he used to move so confidently in. His body able, his mind a bit forgetful, but his spirit strong. Although I know in his early 80s he still has lots of time—his mother lived till she was 96—I can’t bear to consider the unthinkable and imagine a world without him.

My father taught me how to love unconditionally. To have a big heart and love generously. To love beyond the self, the family, the friendships… To love a people and a nation. It’s this lesson I wish to impart to my children. Every day, I do my best to expand my heart and lead by example, as my father has done for me.

To celebrate Father’s Day, we asked a few notable men to share the greatest lesson they learned from their own fathers that they, too, wish to pass on.

Migz Zubiri

Father to Adriana, 15, Juanmi 13, and Santi, 8

"There was one time many years ago when I was still a farmer before being a public servant when I complained to my father that the workers at the sugar mill were on strike. Since we couldn’t avail of the mill services, we asked my dad who knew most of those workers to intervene and order them back to work. What I got instead was a scolding from him and an important reminder that we shouldn’t be selfish; that those workers also had their dreams and aspirations for a decent and better life for their families. He taught me a valuable lesson that we should always think of the welfare of those who have less in life. My dad still reminds us of that to this day and that’s what I try share to my children as well."

Derek Ramsay

Father to Austin, 20, Elias, 4

"My father always taught us that family is more important than any material thing, and having a solid family bond makes life easier. Family isn't just because you are of the same blood. It's more of a deep connection you have with people who come into your life."

Erwan Heussaff

Father to Dahlia Amélie, 3

"One lesson that my father taught me is the importance of hard work and perseverance. I vividly remember when I was younger how my dad used to work long hours to reach his goals. He is a self-made man and set us up with a very privileged childhood; however, he taught us not to expect anything and to know that our situation wasn't normal and that we should never take it for granted. He also taught me to never give up, even when faced with failures, always motivating me to take the hard jobs and face the difficult situations head-on. These lessons built the foundation of how I approach life and work and I hope that it is something I can impart to Dahlia as she grows up."

Hayden Kho

Father to Scarlet Snow, 8

"As a father, my greatest hope is to see my little girl grow into a woman of courage and conviction. I want her to know that being true to what's right, even when it's difficult, is the mark of true strength. I pray that she learns to meet both victories and setbacks the same way—to hold her head high, remain humble in success, and be resilient when things don’t go the way she hopes they would. I hope that by our example she will understand that it's kindness and respect that truly define a person's worth, not worldly possessions or popularity. Most of all, my deepest desire is for her to understand that her identity comes from God, and not from the ever-changing tides and trends of this world. This is the legacy I'm striving to pass onto my daughter—a legacy of unwavering faith, courage, and strong moral character."

Kim Atienza

Father to Emman, 17, Eliana, 18, and Jose, 20

"Whatever happens in life, there is never a dead end. In this world, we will encounter trouble and, no matter how big this problem is, there is always Jesus they can run to. Papa will always be there for my kids but papa will not live forever. Jesus is the only one who will be there forever. Run to Him, pray to Him, and seek Him. He loves my kids more than I do!"

James Deakin

Father to Alex, 23, Sarah, 19, and Daniel, 16

"To never give up on your kids. No matter what happens in the marriage. Just keep being there for them—regardless of how difficult it gets or if it ends in separation or divorce. They may reject you at times, but just keep showing up, even if they don’t seem to appreciate it. Because they do —or at the very least, they will in time. Be honest with them, real honest, even if it makes you vulnerable. Just never speak ill of the other parent.

I had to learn this the hard way because my father left when I was 11 and I didn’t see or hear from him for 20 years. So, I learned what not to do. I eventually reached out to him when I was in my 30s and we managed to build up a beautiful relationship, but no matter how much I told him I forgive him and love him, he was never able to get back those years he missed and take any real pride in our achievements as adults because he never felt he contributed to it.

I know this is not what many people were expecting, but life is full of surprises. And as fate would have it, almost 20 years after the day I reached out to my dad, I went through a separation myself. And this lesson has helped me maintain and build an even stronger relationship with my kids."