By Freddie P. Base
I have been working overseas since 1986. For more than 20 years, my children grew from toddlers to kids to adults without me. Now, my eldest got married. When requested for advice to the newly wed, I said: "Please… bring the family with you. There should be no compromise." Why is it that so?
I was excited. I never thought that as a father I would have the chance walking my daughter to the altar resplendent in a Barong Tagalog sewn purposely for the wedding. Forgetting this was a solemn ceremony, I jokingly whispered to my daughter: "Let's walk in a hurry lest the groom might change his mind". But she didn't hear me, she's 29.
As I sat clasping the hands of my wife, I couldn't help remembering the more than 20 years I labored without them – the jewels in my life at my side: my eldest whom I fondly called Honey, Beybs, my second, Iyay, my youngest, and my lovely wife with whom I proudly call 'Agom' which in bicolano dialect literally means 'spouse'.
It was last December the betrothal was arranged. The entire family of the would-be groom came to our house to get the nod from me and my wife – Mama Nil. It was not a nod only from both of us. I did asked all my brothers and sisters in the area to come; my parents too were with me since noontime so with my foster mother who's too excited and kept guessing what the other family would be saying as if this event was a sort of a negotiation between agreeing parties. The nod was more like a family blessing. Moreover, this is the first a girl in the family would be engaged. I wanted to experience a beautiful Filipino tradition in this century of iphones and nokia.
A day before, I told my wife to tell our daughter to ask the would-be groom how many from his family would come so we could prepare for the exact food to eat. (Gone were those days of my grandfather not knowing how many would eat ordered a whole pig roasted and employed a chef to cook several menus because my would-be uncle and his family were coming to propose engagement to my grandfather's daughter (my auntie). We ended giving foods to our neighbors and friends because the other side brought the same quantity or more). The reply was only three – meaning the would-be groom, the mother and the father. I said in jest the three would be talking to my entire family. But I anticipated more would come and I was right. We had the food enough to feed everyone, not more but not less.
Four months before, that was September, I got a call from the would-be groom that his marriage proposal was accepted by my daughter. He would have anticipated this because he asked his mom to present to my daughter the engagement ring. He was calling to inform me of this formal engagement and they (my daughter and him) were getting married on December. I said fine, they were adults; the engagement was ok with me but would prefer that this be formally announced a week before the wedding date. I planned my vacation to coincide with this event.
I gathered Mama Nil was expecting the call. This kind of arrangement would never pass from MamaNil who knew everything about her kids. The would-be groom hangs up. He was a skilled aircraft mechanic. He was calling from the USA.
After a month, Mama Nil said the deal was off, our daughter returned the engagement ring to the mother of the would-be groom. I believed Mama Nil. My daughter would not talk to me directly about it but she knew where my mind would always say: I believe her and I would be happy where and when she'll be happy. This is true to all my children; this is true from me.
Another month passed and the boy (who was not a would-be groom now) called up. He's calling from the Philippines. He said he resigned from his job, went straight to the bank where my daughter was working to plead that the wedding should push thru but to no avail, my daughter wouldn't budge. The boy was asking for advice. I told him to court my daughter again and show his total admiration. He was marrying a career-woman who knows how to listen, I added. I could not advise him more. I could sense what's going on in my daughter's mind. She didn't need any advice either. Will this be another love story to remember?
Love story at its worst chapter
Five years ago, December 24th, I was more amused than surprised having a catholic priest as a visitor. I thought this would be a peculiar Noche Buena for my family. Though I heard it all from everyone about the issue, I kept mum since I arrived from Riyadh. I waited until this moment to come but did not expect it would be the night before Christmas. The priest was proposing marriage to my eldest. He was ready to quit priesthood after a year. He claimed to have the nod from his Bishop superior. He knew what to do and what to expect. He didn't say his priestly duty is to God.
Indeed, the situation was not ordinary. If this was a sort of love story, the twist was so unusual… un-expected, one for the movies as my foster mother kept telling the folks in my old hometown. I had known this kid since he entered in the seminary. Along those years, I came to know about his family. I didn't expect the relationship (if there was) would come this far. I said to myself, if this is a love story the ending could still be changed. Right now, it is at its worst chapter.
Having lived my entire bachelor-hood in association with priests, I had witnessed some stories which I viewed as a curse. A distant cousin became pregnant by one of our high school priest-professors. She died delivering her newborn. Her mother insisted that the priest bring the child with him. That was again a terrible mistake. Upon seeing the child, the father of the priest had a heart attack. He died on the spot. The priest's siblings dis-avowed him since then. More quarrels followed and the family had never been the same again. This priest asked me to address him as mister when we became classmates in one subject of a graduate program. He said he left priesthood since the tragedy.
To my visitor that night, I told him that I couldn't give my blessing as a father for this kind of relationship. (He's aware the blessing only comes from above) If there is indeed a curse, I pray to God that I absorb all His punishment – even death – and spare my family. I admitted I can't prevent my daughter from living with him if it is with him she would be happy as this is always the desire of every parent – happiness for their child. Out of love, I would close my eyes and turn my head in the opposite direction and wish their union would be a happy ending. But never would I give my blessing, it's useless.
Deep within I was praying to God to guide the two to the right path. I was seeking for the Holy Spirit intervention… to fill our house… of His love on Christmas. I kept telling myself, this would never be like this if ever I was with my family.
I did not see the priest again since he left our house before midnight.
In the Noche Buena, I led the prayer with my family welcoming the birth of Jesus.
More than 20 years ago.
I could not remember the last time I cried but I found my tears flowing when the Philippine Airlines lifted at the Manila International Airport (NAIA now) on February 26, 1986, first flight to Saudi Arabia after the Marcos family fled to Hawaii. 'Twas also my birthday.
Four days before, I asked my wife (she and the kids were in Manila for the despidida) to go home earlier to our province because the political situation in Manila was getting worse. Enrile and Ramos had just announced in the radio that they were pulling out their support to the president. Everyone was talking about civil war, revolution. I thought of the safety of my family. Perhaps, if indeed there would be a civil war, I could manage myself alone. Mama Nil was crying, unmindful of the other bus passengers. Her eyes asking: why can't we be with you? My youngest (only 14 months) hands were waving goodbye (as he was taught); my second daughter in tears (as she would had been every time I would leave, the last after her college graduation knowing she'll come to Saudi with me); and my eldest (at 6 years) who's looking for answers from questions she would only know. I waited until the bus they were riding exited from my view.
What a way to leave my family. My country was in a mess.
Dhahran was my port of entry. The Saudi authorities at the immigration and customs greeted us like heroes. The custom officer congratulated me, shaked my hand and simply put a sticker on top of my luggage. No questions asked. This was not what I heard during the orientation seminar and from what those ex-Saudis who told stories of baggage's being searched and custom authorities looking for banned items. I reached Saudi to begin my life's journey without my family. I never thought this would go on for more than 20 years.
I was excited even if I was not able to attend the high school graduation of my eldest daughter. My work as an accountant would not permit me to come on graduation day. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to continue my work in Saudi Arabia, now that I have a daughter pursuing a college degree. I could not wait for my daughter to tell me what course she intends to take in college; into what university she would like to enroll; what she had in mind; what she wanted to be. I was prepared to enroll her to any university of her choice.
"Papa, I want to enter the convent and be a nun. I want to serve Mama Mary", these were the first words from my daughter when we sat down to chat. It was like a bombshell I never imagined to hear. Deafening. The sound pierced my ear more than the sound of the scud missile that Sadam Hussein launched to hit Riyadh during the Middle East war.
My mind groped for the right response. I figured the situation calls for calmness and diplomacy with the right combination of words. I was looking at a very young lady who had grown this far without me.
But how to start with, I really had no idea. How I wish this was a mathematical equation which my brain was trained to do - a mental calculation ahead of what my hands could write.
I had nothing against serving Mama Mary but this is not what I expected from my young lady. I wanted her to finish college and have a family. Is it that much to be desired?
Calculating my move and not sure of what to say, I asked why she thought of this vocation. The next one (1) hour or so was a narration of frustrations and longing. To sum it all, my daughter finished high school alone, without me, without her mother's attention, without the love and care of me and Mama Nil. And because of these, she'd rather enter the convent away from us, from her family. She said she'll be more at peace with Mama Mary.
Mama Nil was in tears from hearing all of these. I asked her to get inside our room which she adamantly complied.
I needed a one-on-one situation with my eldest. I needed to make her feel assured of my presence, of my love, of my vision of her future. I wanted to tell my eldest that Mama Mary on earth is Mama Nil and every mother of a daughter like her. That Mama Mary was simply a symbol of a mother's love to her child. That Mama Mary was used to serve as model to every mother. That if she served Mama Nil, she would be serving Mama Mary too! Moreover, I would not argue with her going inside the convent after she finished her college. Now I was interpreting my catechism days but it's God who knows how true or not my words would be.
I didn't know how long I talked. We found each other hugging and I felt her confidence building. She said she would try the entrance exam at Ateneo the next day.
I was relieved. This would not have happened if I was with my family.
Mama Nil squeezed my arm and whispered that the wedding coordinator announced that I should take the bride for a dance.
It was my first dance with my daughter.
It was our turn to dance, so I took Mama Nil's hands. She's as lovely as we've met 32 years ago.
Mama Nil to everyone, I fondly call her 'Agom' (spouse) and she's the mother of my three kids. Mama Nil never missed her schedule when it comes to our kids. The last glass of milk Mama Nil served to our eldest was the day before her wedding. This is one reason why I never fail to greet Mama Nil on Mother's Day.
Last year, when my youngest was about to graduate from college, I ask the children if I could bring their mother with me in Riyadh. I told everyone that it's about time that Mama Nil and I should re-discover our relationship as husband and wife. I didn't know it was also their plan for their Mama Nil to come with me.
I had a family status in my company – meaning I was entitled to bring my family and I made sure we were together during vacation times – my family coming to Riyadh. Going back to the Philippines, I would often coincide my vacation so that we could be together three (3) months at the most. But this situation had all changed when my eldest on entering high school, decided not to come back to spend holiday with me. Being in the adolescent stage, I could only understand her. The custom in Saudi Arabia would not let her nor any of my family get out of the house without me. The other two siblings agreed and Mama Nil could only afford to follow.
Little did I realize this would be the beginning of what exactly I wanted to avoid – less time with my family, less time with Mama Nil. For the succeeding years, Mama Nil and I could only manage to talk about ourselves for not more than I could stay – 30 or 35 days, the rest of the topic would be all about family, finances and the kids.
I remembered it was Mama Nil's absence as one of the reasons why our eldest would like to enter the convent. In anticipation of our eldest going to college, Mama Nil decided to rent an entire apartment which was a stone's throw from a university located in the next city. The decision was not hers alone. I consented too.
Mama Nil turned the apartment into a bustling boarding house. She had this business to attend to and without us noticing, Mama Nil's presence would only be with the kids on weekends. The day-to-day upbringing and caring for our kids were left to one of my cousins. Our eldest was left alone to mend for herself until her graduation in high school. Sadly, the apartment was never used during the college days of my kids. I asked Mama Nil to re-sell the rights even before our eldest set her foot into college.
Perhaps, this could not have happened if we were together ever since.
Several years ago, I remembered Mama Nil called up and asked me if we were still husband and wife or not separated. I asked why and she responded that that was the news she heard circulating in the town: we were separated and the only thing that bridged us together was the monthly allowance I send. I returned the question to her so she could honestly answer. She hang-off and went straight to the person from whom she got this news. It was war.
This could not have happened if we were together then.
There was a time when a friend could not return the money I lent and Mama Nil was all over me sending text messages almost daily inquiring when she would receive the monthly allowance already overdue because the kids would fail paying for their tuition fees, etc. Lesson learned: I dread to read Mama Nil's text message whenever I had my shortcoming.
But this would never have happened if we were together.
Our first month together was full of enthusiasm. The next was none of the first. We kept finding faults at each other later. We were struggling to work out our relationship. The most obvious was the separate markings on the bed because we slept on the opposite sides. The last straw, I shouted at Mama Nil. This would never have happened had we've been together ever since.
I figured we need to adjust and I had to make the first move. I kneeled down and made a solemn pledge to Mama Nil: I would never leave her again. -fb