On Veterans Day, remembering dad as soldier, teacher, and father

The author with his dad, Gregorio Melegrito, in 2005. He passed away that year; he was 89.

The author with his dad, Gregorio Melegrito, in 2005. He passed away that year; he was 89.

By Jon Melegrito

A few years before my father died in 2005, a friend called late one evening to say my dad was rushed to the hospital. Of course I’d be there, I assured him. I took the earliest flight the following morning from Baltimore to Gulfport, Mississippi.

He was living by himself then, in the same house that my mother used to fill with fresh flowers from their garden until she died of illness in 1983. His second wife had just left him. My sisters Mimi and Eden, worried about his living alone, wanted him to move in with their families in Ithaca or Buffalo, NY. But he’s stubborn. He didn’t want to leave his house and his piece of land that yielded fresh vegetables all year round. He also had a few chickens, goats and a couple of hogs. Farming had always been his passion.

Marrying a third time, he got his vim and vigor back. With his wife as a constant companion, he went to almost all our family reunions and gatherings, especially the weddings of his grandson, Greggy, and my daughter, Desiree. His last visit to Washington was on Thanksgiving Day 2004.

But an abdominal aneurysm slowed him down considerably. At age 89, surgery would only give him a 50-50 chance of recovery, his doctors warned. “I don’t need any heroic measures to prolong my life,” my dad insisted. “I’m ready to go anytime.”

Maybe that’s what prompted me to fly to Gulfport on June 18, nearly 20 years ago; to surprise him on Father’s day. I wanted to get closer, to get to know him more. I needed to say I love him, to embrace him knowing that blood is still flowing in his veins.

The flight and the drive to Gulfport almost took a whole day, but we both valued the few hours spent that weekend. He didn’t recognize me at first when he got up to greet me. My heart sank. Alzheimer’s came to mind. But soon as he put on his glasses, he called out my name and hugged me back. “You smelled your son,” my step mom teased. He named me Jonathan after the American General who commanded the USAFFE soldiers in Corregidor and later surrendered to the Japanese.

There was a more sedentary rhythm to his life then, mostly watching the Filipino Channel from his favorite chair. He couldn’t hear without his earpiece and he was legally blind. Gardening was out of the question because everything outside looked fuzzy. He didn’t rant and rave as much anymore about the Veterans Administration, the agency that rejected countless times his benefit claims for war-related injuries. He did ask about the status of the veterans equity bill, admitting that he’s past the bitterness and anger over Congress’ failure to act.

That gave me an opening to ask him about the war. “We didn’t want to surrender,” he recalled. “We wanted to keep on fighting.” He wanted to escape from the Death March and the POW camp, sick and starving for almost a year, but he and his comrades were too weak to even try. When I asked how the war changed him, he said it only deepened his faith in God.

“So, papa, what would you consider your greatest achievement?” I asked. “You’ve been a soldier, a teacher, a preacher, a farmer. Without any reflection, he said: “That all my four children got a good education, and are able to support their families.”

The following morning in church, my father and I sang a duet, an old hymn about God’s great faithfulness: “Morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed Thy hand hath provided!” My dad sang along in a monotone, but it didn’t matter. He was singing from his heart. Singing as he always did from the moment I was born, when the doctor told him to suck the mucous out of my nose so I could breathe.

He did his very best as a father and I wanted him to know that. Indeed, being a father was his greatest achievement.

Jon Melegrito is director of communications at the National Federation of Filipino American Associations. This essay is being republished with permission.

Gregorio Melegrito and wife Hermie, 2003

Gregorio Melegrito and wife Hermie, 2003

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