Notes & Essays

Accidental Father: How This Bachelor Doctor is Raising His Late Sister’s Son

Raising a young man, his sister's son, Rico Quimbo figured out when best to let go.
IMAGE COURTESY
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An accidental parent. That’s probably the best phrase to describe how I was thrust into a role I had not seriously considered for myself. 

I was the only doctor in a large family and I just returned to Manila after spending a good six years abroad. This, after my father was diagnosed with kidney failure and prostate cancer. I chose to move back home to take care of our dad and spend quality time with him. 

But as Life is often wont to do, it threw a monkey wrench in the mix when my sister (older by three years) was diagnosed with lymphoma. She had a particularly aggressive type of lymphoma that smoldered rapidly and took her away as quickly as it came. She left behind two boys who now came under the legal purview of my parents. The older son, Aedan, moved to San Francisco to be with his dad and the younger son, Josh, stayed with us. While there was no lack of siblings wanting to care for then-10-year old Josh, my departed sister was closest to me and I decided to step up for her. For Bubbles. 

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Photo by COURTESY.

A large brood of 10 siblings can be akin to an empire physically overextending itself beyond efficient control, so a delegation of responsibilities from central command becomes imperative in order to keep the family functioning as a unit. Growing up in Samar in the ’70s, our older sisters helped take care of the infants, and our 10-member brood naturally evolved into loose packs of two to three siblings of contiguous age. My ragtag pack was made up of Bubbles, myself, and my younger brother, Miro. She was the fierce one, who did not allow the neighborhood bullies to intimidate us, and Miro was the precocious wise man, who warned us of what was right or wrong at any given moment. I was busy finding out where this long line of ants was headed. 

When I decided to step up for Bubbles and be Josh’s guardian, I was still busy watching the ants as a newly arrived pathologist struggling to make a career in Manila. I did not have this lightbulb moment saying to myself, “All right, I am going to be this child’s guardian and protector.” In my mind, Bubbles, my fierce and loyal sister just passed and now needed someone to care for her son whom she had also loved fiercely. Now, ready or not, I was going to step up to the plate and do it for Bubbles. As she once did. For me and Miro. 

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The last 11 years raising Josh has to have been the most complex experience of my lifetime. The cliché adjectives are all there in the mix, one coming after the other, each one dominating a particular phase of his life and mine. Josh was a beautiful infant who was always having fits of giggles. As he grew older, I saw less of him as I moved to New York for pathology training. Every time I came home for the holidays, he was literally that familiar affectionate cat who sidled up to me every time we met. And I love cats. 

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Photo by COURTESY.

I had to move him to a school closer to where I was. Thank goodness, Claret listened to our pleas, so even if it was already later on in the schoolyear, it opened its doors to a new student. I expected Josh to have difficulties adjusting, as I would probably have in a similar situation, but to our surprise, he hit the ground running and quickly made new friends both at school and in his new neighborhood. He ended the year with flying colors without a lot of effort so I proposed to move him to Ateneo. Miro and all the siblings agreed so off Josh went to Ateneo after passing the entrance exams. At Ateneo, he flourished even more both in academics and in sports.  

It’s a blessing most of my siblings and I live within 10 minutes of each other, and so we formed an ad hoc consultative parenting body for the trickier issues Josh was bound to face. For some reason, my teenage years, to my recollection, weren’t as problematic with parental figures. Back then, creativity was key in achieving harmony between parent and child. Creativity was how I got to do things that I wanted, while at the same time kept my parents happy.

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But suddenly, I found myself in the position of a parent, enlightened by my own past experiences. That became a tug-of-war of sorts between a parent wishing that a child become the best version of himself and the child wanting to establish his own identity. For a brief period, there were heated arguments between me and my ward. And that unhinged me at times because I never had such arguments with my own parents. The more we argued the more words spiraled into no man’s land, each party unwilling to meet on neutral ground.  

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Photo by COURTESY.

During one of those consultative summits with my siblings, Miro the Wise uttered, “He’s doing incredibly well in school, doing well in sports, adjusted amazingly into new friendships and schools, what more can we ask for? Especially at this interesting age he’s in, maybe it’s time to let go.”    

And on that note, I let go. 

It wasn’t hard letting go. I simply went back to why I had accepted this role for Bubbles and thought about what his mother would have wanted for him. I realized perhaps I was molding him to be the best person I wanted him to be, rather than allowing him to become what he can truly be on his own. After that epiphany of sorts, I felt my gray hair finally emerging from my head and beard. Since then I have allowed Josh, now all of 21, and a full-fledged adult, to find his own corner of the earth, only briefly reminding him of his filial responsibilities. And he and I have both been all the better for it.

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