Love in the everyday things

Six years after my father passed, I finally gathered the courage to write about him. He was never the loudest person in the room, but his voice remains the clearest in my head.

How uncanny the things one remembers when a loved one dies. It is almost as if you’re rummaging through a trunk of dusty old memories, looking for things you can desperately hold on to, and hoping to relive things in your past, when the person who left was still very much alive.

I have lost people in the past, but nothing could have prepared me for the pain and unsalvageable trauma of losing my father. He was Salvador in his government IDs, but Benny to almost everyone. He was Dad to me and my other two sisters, the three of us symmetrically spaced two years apart from each other.

Dad truly was a man of very few, well-chosen words, and in my trunk of happy dad memories, there are many worth keeping and remembering. Still, most of the things I learned from him I absorbed by simply watching him live.

My mom was 31 and he was 27 when he married her within five months of their first meeting. Looking back, he must have been so sure about her to make such a life- altering decision so quickly. My dad was quite the silent lady killer in those days. I must give credit to my mom, too, who must have been quite the stunner and ballbreaker to have put an end to my dad’s playboy ways.

Growing up, I would only hear stories of his legendary man-about-town persona from his cousins and older nephews, who recounted stories that had us exploding in laughter. Like the time an ex-girlfriend escaped through the window of his bachelor’s pad in Makati when my grandmother arrived unannounced from the ancestral home in Mauban, Quezon—probably having heard of my dad’s naughty exploits in the city. But those escapades, of course, came to an abrupt halt after he married my mom and then having three daughters in mindfully timed intervals.

A quiet presence in our lives

Banner photo: The author Jaclyn Clemente-Koppe at one year old with her dad Benny Clemente; photo above: Mom Ophie Ticzon-Clemente, Jaclyn, sisters Rachelle and Suzanne, and dad
Father and daughter at one of their family vacations in Cebu

I cannot remember a time when our home was neither happy nor comfortable, save for a few bumps, with my father being a constant, albeit quiet, presence in our lives.

His roles evolved constantly throughout the different phases of my life— from unruly playmate that encouraged rambunctious play to the unyielding and intimidating watchdog that stood guard (quite unsuccessfully) over my virtue during my teenage years. While he was strict when it came to boys, he was the good cop to my mom’s bad cop when it came to most other things. Eventually though, my mom grew tired of her role and revealed to us how my dad would always be the one whispering into her ears (“Kausapin mo yan, hindi dapat ganyan…”) and then letting her deal with us girls.

In the long run, that setup worked to their advantage because when my dad did unleash his full rage upon us, it immediately put a stop to our rebellious ways and left us trembling in tears.

Standing: Matthias Koppe, Marc Llamas, Suzanne Clemente, Rianna Llamas, Ophie Clemente, the author; seated: Rachelle Clemente, Benny Clemente, Lucas Llamas, Chiara Koppe

Dad truly was a man of very few, well-chosen words, and in my trunk of happy dad memories, there are many worth keeping and remembering. Still, most of the things I learned from him I absorbed by simply watching him live.

My parenting style of being a keen observer I got from him. Looking back, he was always watching us, mostly amused by our antics especially when we were three little girls with personalities and characteristics that could not be more different from each other.

I remember now how his relationship with each of us was unique, and he made the effort to get to know us, to see the world through our eyes. He bonded with me through our shared love for reading and current events, me having inherited his thirst for knowledge and a natural curiosity about others.

(Counter-clockwise from above) Benny and Ophie Clemente as newlyweds at the Ticzon home in Mandaluyong; at their wedding in Mary the Queen Parish in San Juan; the author dancing with her dad at her debut in the Intercontinental Hotel Manila, October 1996

While he was not shy about his dreams for me to become a lawyer (a profession that he, ironically, was too mild-mannered to pursue himself), he did not push harder when I admitted to him a year short of graduation from my political science course that I did not want to go to law school once I got my bachelor’s degree.

Still, he supported my writing aspirations, and I found out from his friends after he passed how he always talked about my writing and how he said I was quite good at it. “Keep writing, your dad would want you to,” one of his friends said encouragingly.

Life lessons

Jaclyn with her parents during a charity event in the early 2000s

He set the standard for every man that would come into my life, showing me how a woman should be treated by her man. My parents’ relationship was far from perfect, and my dad was not the most verbose and demonstrative, but now I realize that his love language had always been acts of service.

“Find someone who treats you like a queen,” my mom always told us. My dad said, “I love you” by doing small everyday things, such as making sure we never had to worry about our cars and all the technicalities that came with owning one.

He spoiled us with beautiful things and took care of the maintenance of our watches. He was very “banidoso,” as my mom would always say. He took good care of himself, was always dressed appropriately (you would never catch him in flip-flops even in the supermarket), and made sure his Italian loafers were clean and shiny. But nothing made him glow brighter than seeing us, his girls, dressed and groomed impeccably for special events. It made him proud to show that his family was well taken care of and wanting for nothing.

Benny, Ophie, and their daughters at Shang Palace, Makati Shangri-La Hotel, October 29, 2017. This was the last time they all had dinner out— it was Benny Clemente’s 67th birthday and the couple’s 40th wedding anniversary.

Still, the most treasured lesson that I learned from him was one I picked up from one of our conversations about life, and now I am grateful we had many of those. I was graduating from college and he was telling me about the privilege I had for having gone to what was considered a very good school.

He said, “In the future, when you find yourself in a position with some influence, always use it to give others a leg up. There will be many out there who will not have your advantages, but they will be hardworking and they will be deserving. If you have the chance to do so, then open doors for them.”

More than anything, these were the words that most resonated with me and I apply this life lesson every chance I get, whether it’s by simply putting in a good word for someone or writing about an establishment that would not have gotten attention otherwise. That was the kind of person he was—if he could give someone a life-changing break, he would. And that, I believe, is such a beautiful legacy that he left behind.

No one, nothing prepares you for this

Benny and Ophie with their grandchildren Rianna, Lucas, and Chiara

In the elevator going up to their apartment, I would feel that big rock in my stomach and I had to take deep breaths to calm myself. When the elevator door opened on their floor, that antiseptic smell that had taken over their whole corridor would hit me like a wall.

My dad spent his last couple of months on this earth in and out of the hospital, undergoing a flurry of surgeries and treatments that we hoped would save him or at least buy us a little more time with him. He was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), a very rare and aggressive kind of brain cancer, and what Google already told us was confirmed by all his top-notch neurologists and neurosurgeons—as well as those we reached out to in Singapore, Germany, and the US— that this was a battle we would most likely lose.

In the real world where nothing is truly certain and the only thing that is constant is change, he was my one sure thing. What was I going to do without him?

It was a difficult pill to swallow. He and my mom were already looking forward to retirement, making plans for what to do after they worked most of their lives. He had grandchildren who adored him and looked forward to the time they spent with him—not just the kids of his children but also of his nephews and nieces too.

To me, he will always be Dad—he made me feel like I could do anything and be anything. Without really having to say it, he made me feel that I would always be loved and he would always be there for me.

In the real world where nothing is truly certain and the only thing that is constant is change, he was my one sure thing. What was I going to do without him?

He fought cancer like a champ, but to honest we did not think he had it in him; he was such a baby whenever he was down with just a cold or a low-grade fever. Dad passed away on March 24, 2018 at the age of 67, merely eight months after he was diagnosed. The grief was overwhelming, especially when it got to that point where I could no longer trick myself into thinking he was just away on a really long vacation.

Photo above: Benny and Ophie with their daughters at home in Makati; below: Benny and Ophie on their last trip together, on a Baltic cruise in July 2017, and Benny having a beer in Amsterdam

What helped me cope was knowing that when my dad truly needed me during his illness, I showed up for him. I made that gut-wrenching elevator ride to their apartment every day and spent nights in the hospital to be with him, even if seeing him withering away felt like someone was stabbing at my heart, killing me a little bit more each time.

What brings me comfort now is something I learned from him: to show love through the small everyday things. I am comforted by the knowledge that before he breathed his last, I was able to serve him the best way I could as he so lovingly did for me since the day I was born.

And that is something a good father can only truly hope for— that the lessons he tried to subtly (and not so subtly) instill in my heart would enable me to live my best life. I hope and pray that he can see now that he left some good people behind on this earth—and that he left us with the right tools to keep living and thriving even after he was gone.

The new lifestyle.