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A careless boy learns a different type of love that changes into something deeper over distance and time.
By Carlo Holmberg
When I was 4 years old, I ran away from my house. I made it just a few blocks before I was found. It took no less than 12 hours. When I was 4 years old I stole vegetables from the neighbors’ garden because my older siblings pressured me. When I was 4 years old I roamed the streets with my older brother while he skipped school.
None of this came without punishment. I hated the discipline my father gave us. After I ran away he tied me to the a pole in the middle of the house like a puppy on a leash. I knelt on salt after the stealing incident but it wasn’t just your regular old table salt. This stuff was worse. Much worse. They were big pieces with jagged edges that embedded themselves in my flesh. “Go pray to Mary,” he would say. At four years old I didn’t understand what that meant so I would stare at a painted portrait Mary’s face for five minutes and call it good.
One time my older siblings had a project for school that involved drawing a coin on a piece of paper then taping that coin onto the paper. Their whole class did this. My older siblings had the great idea of breaking into the school and stealing all the coins. That’s exactly what we did. It was perfect. We got rid of the stolen product at the convenience store across the street. Dad never found out about this one.
When I was 4 years old, I watched my older brother get whipped with a belt. The worst punishment was the belt. My father wound up, buckle side out, and brought it down on my brother’s back. I cringed every time he got hit. But I don’t ever remember feeling bad for him. I swore I would never do something so bad that I would deserve that.
When I was 4 years old, I never thought it was unfair. You get what you deserve.
My father worked long hours. He worked nights at a hospital. On his days off, he would take us to the beach. But most days it was just my siblings and I. We spent nights sharing a bed in a little tin house on a dirt alley littered with trash. We called this place home. It may have been a house, but definitely wasn’t home. My sister ran away because she didn’t want to be there, but my father would always send my older brother to find her and bring her back.
I didn’t remember my father giving me anything
When I was four years old, ovarian cancer took my mother. I don’t have much memory of her. It was just my dad after that. There were nights when he came home drunk. Too drunk to take care of us. But that became my sister’s job. My older sister, then six years old, would cook, do our laundry, and get my little brothers and I dressed.
It wasn’t long before that job was no longer hers.
When I was 4 years old I didn’t remember my father giving me anything. I didn’t receive birthday or Christmas presents or any gifts at all. But I do remember the night after my mother died, my father brought home a big bag of candy for us. Someone must have given it to him. When we buried my mother, my father came back the next morning with dirt and grass on his clothes. He had slept next to her at the cemetery.
When I was 4 years old, my father put the five of us in an orphanage.
We arrived in an ambulance from the hospital where my father worked. His hand, crippled with leprosy, held my hand tight. Too tight. It hurt. But at the same time I didn’t want to him let go. I remember tilting my face up to his. I tried to read it and wondered why he was holding me so tight. His sun-tanned face had no expression. Stone. He knew it wasn’t a good future for us with him.
“I knew I had to you to give you up because I couldn’t give you tomorrow.”
These are words my father said during our visit with him 14 years later, two summers ago.
I don’t know what it is like to give up children of my own, but I could just about imagine how hard of a decision it was for him. The humility that it must have taken to realize he couldn’t take care of his kids. My father threw aside his pride.
In Sunday school, we were taught God had sent his very own son, Jesus, to die for us.
The orphanage we stayed at is known as the Children Shelter of Cebu (CSC). Here, we experienced a tangible kind of love. Living here meant life would be different for us. It meant we didn’t have to share the same bed. Some nights I slept with my older brother anyway. My sister, at 6, didn’t have the responsibilities of a mother. Life here meant that we would go to school during the week and go to church on Sundays.
In Sunday school, we were taught God had sent his very own son, Jesus, to die for us. They also taught us about prayer and that we could talk to God about anything and ask him for things.
Honestly, I was selfish as a kid. Before CSC, I never really had any belongings, so when I had toys that were mine, and mine only, I didn’t want to share. When I heard that we could ask God for things, I was also very selfish. Every night before I fell asleep, I would ask God for toys, for new clothes, and for the next meal to contain less vegetables. After I was done asking Him for those things, I would always end with the same request: “God I pray that you would give us a family.”
And every night, for four years, I ended my prayers the same way. But then came the night when I ended it a different way: “Thank you God for giving us a family.”
It is easy to say I didn’t have a loving father or that he didn’t love us.
I am here at Bethel University writing about love because of my father’s decision and, because of love. I didn’t think too much of it when I was younger because what kid thinks about what love is at four years old. But as I look back, I realized how heartbreaking it must have been. It is a cliché to say, “If you truly love someone you have to let go.” I think there is some truth is that. The love he has is different.
When I was 4 years old, I disregarded the lesson taught in Sunday school, that God sent his son away from his side to die for us. However, it is more than just that. It was a sacrifice. He sacrificed his son to give us a future. This sacrificial love is weirdly similar to that of my father. He recognized that he had to make a sacrifice for his own children to have a future.
It is easy to say I didn’t have a loving father or that he didn’t love us. I believe he did. It had to take love strong enough to give up his own children. Despite the abuse and neglect, I have to believe he loved us. He loved us enough to give us a chance at a better future. Better than running away, stealing, and skipping school. My father gave up five of his children. I think it is because he did love us he chose to do that.
I could see the hurt is his eyes.
I don’t know what love is but I have an idea.
My older siblings went back to the Philippines a few years ago. While there we had the opportunity to visit our birth father. He lived in more of a shack rather than a house. We sat on crude wooden furniture on the dirt floor under a tin roof. I looked around and thought, I would be here living this life if he hadn’t given us up.
My father exited the room and returned with a shoe box. In it were school awards, drawings, and a small album with pictures of us. Together we reminisced the old days. I studied his face as he flipped through the pages of the photo album. I could see the hurt is his eyes. I had the strange feeling that there wasn’t a day that he didn’t think about us and the choices he made years ago. His heart was still broken.
I don’t know all of what it takes to give something like that away, but I know love is in there somewhere. Love is sacrifice. Love does not boast.
This is powerful, Carlo. Thank you for sharing it. Your CSC family is very proud of you!
Thanks for sharing your heart and insights, Carlo. Love from Cebu. Uncle Paul