Saturday, May 20, 2017

Graduation Day

I love happy endings; maybe because they're so rare. Four years ago, I started helping someone dear to me financially. While to me it was "just money," little did I foresee how it would lead to a beautiful, new beginning- for a family and for me. 

Last April, Mely Arbo graduated from college with a degree in education. She is 32 years old, married, with a 13-year old daughter. She was our first college scholar. 

Mely's college journey began accidentally. Her college dream, however, was a longing she kept since she graduated from high school. She was working for us part time as a yaya (nanny) to augment her husband’s income as a construction worker. During one of our chats (I have these often with my yayas), she told me how sad she was when her parents couldn’t afford to send her to college after high school. “Ano bang pangarap mo? (What was your dream?),” I said. “Gusto ko talagang maging teacher. (I really wanted to be a teacher.),” she smiled with watery eyes. Right then and there I told her to look into it. To look for universities in her province of Camarines Sur that offered degrees in Education. 

In 2010, Mely was Tessa's yaya.

The next few days she was online, researching. “Wag na ‘te, ang mahal! (Never mind, it’s too expensive!)” she said with sadness. I looked at the website. It said, “tuition per semester- around P 8000.” I was not sure if my husband would approve of the added expense in our already-inflated household budget but I said, “basta mag-apply ka. Pag nakapasok ka, pag-usapan natin. (Just apply. If you get accepted, let’s talk again.)” I said reassuringly.

Her tuition did average 7000 pesos but there were some semesters when she got into the Dean’s list which meant a tuition discount. Her monthly allowance was P 1000 with increases often at semester’s end when she would need more for projects or her thesis. At P 8000 per semester for tuition and P1000 per month allowance, the cost to send Mely to college (don’t worry, Mely, di kita sinisingil (I'm not charging you), hahaha!) was around P 120,000. A small price to pay to witness a dream fulfilled. 

School field trip to Albay

After graduation, she thanked me profusely. Even her relatives expressed their thanks to my family for supporting Mely’s dream. And although I was touched by their gratitude, all I really felt was the pride of a mother. 

Our eldest child, Paolo, graduated from SUNY Binghamton two years ago. And even if my husband and I only contributed partly to his college expenses, when he went onstage that day to receive his diploma, I wasn’t computing how much we spent to help him graduate. All we felt was pride and happiness. He made it! 

Proud parents with the graduate

And Mely made it! My pride for Mely doesn’t come from my personal satisfaction that my money helped her finish school. Yes, she might not have even considered going to college if not for the assurance that someone would shoulder a huge portion of the expenses until her graduation. Mely’s achievement is that she fulfilled her childhood dream despite the odds. 

I remember when I was a college student and new mother at the same time. It wasn’t easy. But I was lucky. I had my family to support me in caring for and paying for the needs of my baby. I drove a car to school. I had a yaya. My ex-husband and I were never hungry or needing of anything because we were financially dependent on our parents. 

I used to bring Paolo (green cap) to school with me
(above Paolo, brown headband) in between classes.

But Mely’s life is different. Prior to college, she was a homemaker; her husband the sole source of family income. She cared for her pre-teenage daughter full time. So for her to dare to break the mold, for her to deviate from the story of every married woman in her barrio; THAT took courage. She was steadfast and stubborn. She knew what she wanted. She knew this might be her only chance to get it. So she dove in and never looked back. 

I often wondered about Mely's husband, Choy. What I realized eventually is that Mely’s graduation is her husband’s achievement too. In fact, in a country where most women accept their roles to stay home and abandon their personal aspirations, he may have given the biggest sacrifice. Most Filipino men (especially in rural farming areas) would have thought, “bakit pa? 9 years na tayong kasal. Nagtratrabaho naman ako. Ang lugar ng babae ay sa bahay. (What for? We’ve been married nine years. I work and provide. A woman’s place is in the home.)” But not Choy. 

He put his support behind her. He ignored the macho man inside that said that his wife should be happy just being a wife and mother. He had to adjust to the new person his wife was becoming because she was being exposed to other people and was beginning to care for her appearance. He had to be brave too. It took a lot of security for him to trust that a smarter, more attractive, college graduate Mely would still love him and never leave him. 

The proud husband with the graduate

Mely’s story is not only a success story. It is also a love story. Mely found her passion. She listened to her inner voice. She became empowered. But it took a loving, selfless man like Choy to help her succeed. And without intending it to be, it has also become their labor of love for their daughter, Dimples. She now sees a possibility she may not have seen in her clan before. Her own mother braved many odds to get a college degree. In her head she now knows that she can too. 

Dimples pretends to be the college graduate.

I now have two more yayas who are going to college. I know mine is not a grand scholarship program. I really don’t care. And I write about it not to brag. I just want it known that it does not take much to help someone out; to help them achieve their dreams and change their lives forever. It doesn’t take a lot from us. But it will mean a lot for them, their families, children and community.

My happy ending in all of this? I may be irrelevant in the greater scheme of this country’s politics and development. But I found out how to make a difference- by empowering women in the provinces who might not have opportunities to fulfill their dreams. I want them to know that there is a chance to have a life aside from getting married and having children. If they want it. I want them to have options. I want them to know, that no matter what their age, or background, or marital status- it's never to late to make their dreams a reality.

My (in the middle) college graduation, 1994, eight years in the
making; earning a husband and baby along the way

Sunday, May 8, 2016

My Father's Mother's Day

It was mother’s day but, like most of our family gatherings, he was the star. Papa suddenly sat across my sister and I at our restaurant table and said, “I want to talk to both of you.”

In my teens, those words would have sent me into panic. “What did I do this time?” I’d fear. In my mid-forties I’ve begun to find amusement in my father’s need for his children to listen. “Uh-oh! What funny, insensitive, racist, sexist comment will he say this time?” I thought, smiling, as he sat down across me.

You see, when we were growing up, Papa ruled our worlds. Like the king of the house that he was, he was seen as regal, untouchable and, sadly, distant. He barely spoke to any of us. We rarely heard any of his stories- about his day at work, about people he met, about himself and his feelings. Oh, but when he spoke, we shuddered with fear. We braced ourselves for the harshest words and our own buckets of tears. He never needed to be heard by his children. He would speak. Whether we listened or not was irrelevant, what mattered was that he was able to unleash his anger or disappointment at what we did or did not do.

Now that he is an old man, he is physically smaller, weaker and fragile. He no longer seems daunting or as regal. Maybe that is why I now see the humanity in his words. Why I listen intently and why, though rarely, I speak up.

“Look, guys. One day I will lose my eyesight and no longer be able to stare at the beautiful legs of women passing by but at least I got to see many legs in my lifetime” There they were (I smiled a big smile) his sexist opening sentence. “Or maybe even if you're blind, you’ll keep looking and think all legs are beautiful!” I blurted out, surprised at myself for cracking a joke in front of my father. “Wag naman (hopefully not)!” he laughed.

“Why are you guys so afraid of the elections?” he said, actually expecting a reply from us. “It’s scary,” Ate (big sister) said. “You were there during martial law,” I answered, “you knew how scary it was,” I added. “Yeah, I know. But you see? It made us all tougher. (To me) It will make your kids tougher.” I said, “I understand, but my children are young and I don’t want them to grow up in an atmosphere of fear, silence and lack of freedoms.”  He could have given a rebuttal or smirked at my point but to my surprise, the once mighty, invincible king merely said, “you’re right.” 

“I’m so proud of you, girls, you know. I tell my friends that in our family walang umuutang sa amin (no one borrows money from us parents). I tell them, “they’re all smart and have made great lives for themselves. They don’t need our money and they’re too proud to ask even if they did.”” My jaw dropped. Papa was praising us. In a language that mattered so much to my father when we were growing up, the language of money, he saw us as great and praise-worthy. Then I said to him, “me, I’m proud to tell my friends that I don’t need to support my aging parents. That my parents don’t need to ask money from their kids. Not many of my friends can say that.” He patted my back, I patted his (figuratively speaking, of course). 

Tell me twenty, even ten, years ago that I would have conversations like this with my father and I would have smirked. Papa never talked WITH me. He talked TO me. He talked, I listened and I often cried. We just never had that relationship that you see in "Father of the Bride" movies. We didn’t play basketball together. I never ran to him during heartbreak. I didn’t want him around to comfort me during the delivery of my babies. He was not that kind of father to me. 

What happened? What changed? My guess is old age and the inevitability of death. “I’m getting ready to move on. I can’t bring these all with me when I go,” he said. “In the end, all you have is yourself. You fix things. Fix relationships. You ready yourself to meet your god.” I didn’t feel it yesterday but I’m teary-eyed now. Papa’s change of attitude, the fact that he’s suddenly become human, these are his ways of slowly saying goodbye. 

So, Papa, I promise to listen to all your sexist, racist, everyone’s-a-jerk anecdotes. If I sift hard enough through the words, I’ll hear your words of wisdom. I’ll hear your words of praise. But mostly, I’ll finally hear your words of love.

It was difficult to find photos of me and Papa.
I realized it's only recently that I've been
comfortable standing/sitting near him for photos.

During a discussion on marriage, Ate said marriage is easier when you marry at an older age like she did. “Look at you (to Papa), you married in your twenties (referring to my parents’ challenging and often difficult marriage), or Aya who first married when she was 20. It’s better when you marry older because you already know yourself better.” To Ate, Papa asked, “do you know yourself?” “YES!” my sister said proudly. “I don’t,” I blurted out. And the moment I said it, I saw the words hanging in the air and I wanted to pull them back into my mouth. I knew I was going to get into trouble. I knew Papa was going to preach. 

Instead, Papa looked at me, smiled and said, “good!" "You know why?” he continued, “once you know yourself…” Then I interrupted him, “you’re ready to die.” He gave me the biggest smile. I emotionally shrunk to my thirteen-year old self. Then he said, “correct! You’re learning, kid!” Those words moved across the table and gave me an imaginary "Father of the Bride”-kind of hug. 

When we were young, Papa used to say that he wanted his kids to fight over the family business and whatever would be left for us. That was the kind of father he was. Yesterday, I realized that no matter how late in his life, I am grateful for the father he has become. Here’s to many more years of craziness, wisdom and love, Steve Martin. Maybe next week we can start playing basketball.

Father of the bride indeed!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Delayed gratification

They never said much. They never told me. Until I turned 45. 

Celebrating 45 with my T n' T

Today I celebrate my 45th birthday. And though I said I’d be smarter in my 40s, I realized that I was not necessarily “smarter.” More open, maybe. More accepting. More forgiving. But not smarter. Because there is still so much more to learn. For decades, I blamed everyone. My parents, my ex-husband, all the bad men, myself. Then today, it came. 

I’ve always been a sucker for delayed gratification- peeling all of the “butong pakwan” (melon seeds) and then eating a whole bunch of 40 seeds or so in one sitting, eating all the yucky food before my favorites, doing the toughest workouts before the more fun ones (the list goes on). Maybe it wasn’t a surprise, then, that on my 45th birthday, when I was still feeling a bit uncertain, undesirable, undefined, it came. A message from my mother.

"I can’t believe you’re 45! Wasn’t it only a decade ago when we welcomed a 7.5 lb bundle of joy with a head of thick, wavy hair and more long hair on her tiny arms? Wasn’t it just 5 years ago when she turned into a perky, frisky and flirty little girl who could do ballet, the hula and every new craze on the dance floor? Wasn’t it only two years ago when she became the prettiest, smartest and most popular belle of the Masci campus? Wasn’t it just a year ago when she suddenly transformed into a rebellious, secretive drama queen battling her puberty hormones? And wasn’t it all too soon after when she presented us with her own bundle of joy, who was much loved all around and grew up to be a fine, accomplished and productive young man? And wasn’t it after a long while that she was blessed with a second chance at love and happiness when she rekindled an old flame who, thankfully, was a remarkable guy who adored her and provided the perfect foil to her mercurial temperament? And wasn’t it soon enough that, together, they gave us three more perfect grandchildren, who we can never have enough of.
It’s been a challenging but fulfilling journey for our middle child. Happy Birthday, our dearest Aya! We love u so much - Papa & Mama.”

Sometimes, you wait and wait and wait (and cry a whole lot). Then, one day, it just comes. And though at 45 I’m all wrinkly and old and angst is no longer appropriate, I am thankful. And relieved. 

I read this and I realize how they did care and love all those years. It truly wasn’t easy for them. I really was quite a handful. 

I did get pregnant and married at 20. As a parent I now realize
how tough that may have been for mine.

So I forgave. Today, I forgave. It wasn’t easy for you. I wasn’t easy for you. But the fact that you paid attention to me, saw me grow up, appreciated my talents. That is enough. You may not have shown it, nor did you say much. But you did today.

Middle child. Always feeling "incomplete." Hopefully less,
after today.

So thank you, folks. I was not invisible, after all. I was special in my own way, after all. I was worthy, after all. After 45 years. I know. 

(Now to clear the rest of the cobwebs in my mind…)

Friday, December 25, 2015


“Are you gaining weight again?” my father asked last night, before Christmas eve mass. I was taken aback. I was suddenly 18 again when he said, “tumataba ka na, mukha ka ng balyena (you’re getting fat, you’re starting to look like a whale).” A sudden sadness filled my heart. Once again, I disappointed Papa. Once again, I was not good enough.

My husband asked me in the morning of December 24, as I was stressing out and panicking over the Christmas feast that I was hosting for the family in my home, “why did you say you’d host Noche Buena (Christmas eve dinner)? Maybe you should have said that Ate (older sister) should take care of it so you don’t stress out like this?” I said, "you know Ate’s busy and can’t handle this. Besides, this is the only thing I CAN do. This is the only way I am appreciated by them.” 

All my life, I always felt like I was the least favorite of all siblings. Call it the "middle child syndrome," but I’ve always been very sensitive when it came to my parents’ opinions of me. In my 40s, I started to accept the truth- that I was not and will never be the favorite. That they were proud of my other siblings, but not of me. But that it was okay because I knew they loved me in their own strange way.

I can’t blame them, really. I got pregnant and married while in college, separated with my first husband after five years then had a string of awful relationships. I even lost custody of my eldest child to my ex-in laws because I was involved with a scary man. 

I’ve never been an achiever. It took me eight years to finish college. When I finally did, I had brief stints of employment, never lasting more than two years anywhere. I started my MBA but after two years into it I just quit. And what do I do now? Nothing really. I am a homemaker- I paint, I sew, I do my crafts, I take care of the kids, and I’m not always great at it. 

So i wanted the Noche Buena to be perfect. Everything (and more) that everyone requested I rushed about getting days before. I bought new serving pieces. i started preparations in the morning. I cleaned my patio. I even got my hair fixed. But as I squatted on the floor in my house dress, tinkering with the iPod so that it could play vintage Christmas music for my folks, all THAT was useless when Papa said I was getting fat.

“Just a little,” I said, forcing the sweetness and a smile. "You should have answered back,” my husband said. I wish I did, but no matter how hurt I was, I couldn’t. I didn’t want to hurt Papa or disappoint him. I wanted to get hurt with grace. I wanted to show him that I was no longer the unstable, moody child from long ago. 

I remember two years ago, in Boracay, when the whole family (even my siblings living in the US) got together after many years. For two days, we were all happy and having fun. Then, after dinner prior to next day's departure, as we were lounging about by the shore, Papa said out of the blue, “tumataba ka na naman ha! (you’re getting fat again!)” Despite the pain, I smiled and said, “konti lang (just a bit);” even if I had probably only gained five pounds. But my younger sister wouldn’t have it. She blurted out, “why do you have to be so hard on her?! Don’t you know how hard it was for her to lose 60 pounds and how hard it is for her to keep it off?! Why can’t you be more supportive of her?!” 

My sister knew that I would never be able to fight for myself when it came to Papa, so she did. I was thankful that she came to my side but, at the same time, I felt she embarrassed me. I didn’t want to hurt Papa because my sister’s words were really my own (in someone else’s voice). I felt I disappointed him again. 

But last night, I wished she was there. I wished she told him to shut up. I wished he would just find some other topic to bring up other than my weight. Like that the pieces I painted were great. Or that my decorations were nice. Something. Anything. There must be something else about me to talk about. There must have been something I did right… right?

These thoughts came to me because I was listening to my “Angry” playlist- the songs that I dedicated to all the boys who hurt me. I realized, just now, how I let them all treat me badly, say bad things to me, hurt me. I remember how I would smile when they would come up with an alibi or excuse every time they would fail to fulfill a commitment. All because I wanted to get hurt with grace. All because I didn’t want to disappoint them. 

Just like with Papa. Except Papa does not make excuses. He says hurtful things because he doesn’t realize they hurt me (how can he? I never told him.) Papa does not need excuses. I make them for him. Even now, as I am in tears still feeling years of pain from him, I make excuses for him. I try to understand him. I find reasons for why he says the things he does. Because I love him and I know he loves me. He just doesn’t know how to.

Unlike before, however, I don’t blame myself. I won’t work out or starve myself to death tomorrow because of this. I will stop crying and forget his words. I will find reasons for why I am great. Why I deserve to be happy. Why I am worthy. Because there are many. Because I’m good at many things, things he may not appreciate and value. Because, after 44 years of doubting, I’ve finally realized that despite my seemingly lackluster homemaking career, or (slightly ;) ) above-average weight, or wrinkles and cellulite, I am great. I am worthy, Papa. I was worthy, boys. It was your loss because you didn’t see it, all of you.

"Fathers be good to your daughters," some singer said (of course I know who but won’t say). Spare them this drama. Life is short. Imagine what I would have achieved early on without all of this self-doubting. It’s never too late though. 

I am a work-in-progress. :)

Five pounds over?! I love you, Papa!
I know you mean well!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Growing up

I named him “Angelino” because he was my angel (well, also because he was born on the same day as my grandmother, Angeles). Paolo Angelino saved me. From my youth, my depression, my craziness. After him, life had meaning. I needed to shape up. I was a mother, after all.

Paolo Angelino was born on August 1991. I was 20, a college junior (only because I had already wasted so many years slacking). I was young, unsure of what lay ahead but determined to bring a baby to life and raise him well.

With my week-long old Angelino

He proved to be a savior, Paolo. He straightened me up. The thought that I had to finally be responsible and dependable pushed me to finish college, at last, at 24. He was my inspiration. I remember bringing him to my college once in a while in between classes. My schoolmates knew him. They knew he was my son, and they called me, “mommy.” Maybe because I was never ashamed of it or maybe because it was nice to look up to someone who’s been through so much.

I married Paolo's father with much hesitation a few months before he was born and for five years we were a family. My ex-husband and I were young, immature and unready for the responsibilities of marriage. Parenthood was easier because of our strong support system. Grandparents on both sides and aunts and uncles provided guidance that was sometimes lacking because my ex and I were busy with school or simply because we were young and irresponsible.

Recently, I asked Paolo, now almost 24, about what he remembers from the separation. My memories of those years are vague. It seems that in order for me to survive the aftermath of those tumultuous years, I had to forget events, even feelings. Especially the feelings. Paolo said, “I just remember that you told me that you were separating from Papa and I cried.” 

Why do I look back now, 19 years after the separation? Finally, after all these years, I am in the process of filing for my annulment from my ex-husband. I am divorced in the United States and never found the need to end the marriage in the Philippines because I lived in California. And then I moved back to Manila in 2008. 

Paolo gave me away during my 2001 wedding to Allan

Coming back meant living in the society that recognizes that I am Mrs. C and not Mrs. B. I submit two passports to immigration when I travel- one Philippine and one US. Each with a different surname. My three little children from Mr. B are considered illegitimate under Philippine laws. But more importantly, I carry the legal burden of a short-lived marriage; one that was over even before it started.

Filing for annulment forced me to remember details from long ago. As I looked back, narrated my story to my lawyer and the psychologists, as I answered questionnaires and psychological tests, as I dug deeper and deeper into a stage of my life that I had long forgotten, I realized how immature and unstable I was as a young wife.

Marriage is tough but it must have been tougher for a 20-year old with no sense of identity, low self-esteem and an abundance of hangups and angst.  Even now, I admit, I find marriage difficult. It is not the happy ending we are led to believe when we are young. A lot of hard work goes into keeping a marriage strong. 

Nowadays, when marital challenges come my way, I look at my three little B kids and think of how much I love them and how I will try at all costs to make my marriage work. These children will not be the same if their parents separate. They will lose their innocence and optimism. At such a critical time, they will be forced to stop being children in order to cope with the emotional upheaval that a separation would bring. I was not going to do that to my children. 

Paolo is a wonderful kuya to his younger siblings. Tessa calls
him her "ene-brother" (enemy-brother) because "he is always
supervising" her.

And then I realize how much I’ve changed since I separated from Paolo’s dad and how much I’ve grown and matured. I have become a real parent and a true adult. (I’m 44, it’s about time!) 

Then I stop myself. Guilt floods my heart. Does that mean I did not love Paolo as much as my little children? Was I too selfish back then that I did not try harder to make that marriage work for the sake of Paolo’s happiness? Should I have stayed, should I have sacrificed my happiness and sanity so that Paolo would have a complete family?

Then I stop myself again. I look at Paolo now; how he’s grown to be responsible, good-hearted and disciplined. Could he have turned out this way if I stayed with his father? Or could he have been a better man?

Then he posted this on Facebook after his graduation: 

And then another post came on Father’s day:

My tears fell. When you're a younger parent you often wonder if all the parenting you do is good enough. Paolo's stepdad and I tried to raise him the best way we could and despite all his childhood emotional baggage, Paolo turned out to be a great man.

But, forgive me still, Paolo, for not trying harder to keep your first family intact. Forgive me please for being a crazy, selfish and irresponsible young mother who often left you with your grandparents when I had to go out with my friends. Most of all forgive me, for those years when I had to give you up so that you would grow up in a stable environment while I, myself, tried to grow up and find my way. 

You have surpassed my expectations. Thank you for charting your own course and finding your way despite all the setbacks that came your way early in life. I admire your strength and stability, your sense of identity and your resolve to be a better person than your parents were. 

After the wedding, we walked down the aisle as a family.

Your Ninong (yes, Allan is Paolo’s godfather) and I have tried our best to provide you with a stable, loving environment since you were 11 years old. It may not have been ideal. You may have had to witness a lot of drama and tears but I also hope you remember the happy times we had with your siblings who adore you. Ours was not a glitch-free marriage (it still isn’t :) ) and our family is far from normal (thank God!) but my hope is that we have given you enough good memories to help you build a strong marriage and a happy family in the (hopefully not-so-near) future. 

I love you. Happy birthday!

I'm sorry. And thank you.

Friday, May 8, 2015

With new eyes

I put one foot in front of the other, panted while the path curved uphill. I was running in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York! Five years ago, who would have thought? Me, running? Or more so, me, enjoying New York?

Today, I ran for the first time in New York!

I visited New York back in 2010, after a brief visit to Boston to accompany my then 19-year-old son Paolo who was about to enter Northeastern University. I stayed in the same building that I am now staying in. I toured Manhattan and saw the famous sights for the first time but not with as much excitement as this time.

I was a scared traveler in 2010. My sister, Kia, and son, Paolo,
had to drag me around because I was too fearful to do it on my own.

How amazing a five year difference makes! In 2010, I toured because I had to. I was already here with my then 8-year-old daughter, Gabby. I had to make the most of it. I was a paranoid and scared traveler, decided to stick to Hop On- Hop Off buses in order to see the city. I feared riding the subway because of a scary story my sister said about a man with a samurai sword who brandished it in a train and struggled to hold on to it by grabbing onto its blade as his hands bled. I hated the walk from the subway station because I thought it was long and scary. I didn't like Brooklyn in 2010 but I love it now.

Riding the subway always made me nervous. The samurai sword
man never showed up but one time, passengers started screaming
and I wanted to leave the train. It was just because of a rat.

I barely explored this area where my sister lives. But now I twist my neck often to take a second look at quaint places and buildings. I've learned to love the character of Brooklyn. I never imagined myself living in a busy city but Brooklyn grows on you- the bustle of people walking, the restaurants lined up in Flatbush, and the old town look of most streets. I even tease my husband to buy this rental we're living in now.

Back in Brooklyn after five years!

On my way home from my run, I got lost in Park Slope. Whereas five years ago, I would have panicked, this time I savored the eight-block deviation I had to go through because I made a wrong turn. I've said it before- how nice to get lost! I carried on at a good walking workout pace as I stumbled on loose gravel in front of the St. Augustine church (which was undergoing construction). I smiled in admiration of the colorful wall of the PS/MS 282 (public school) on 6th avenue. And I vowed to go back to take a photo of that brownstone house with the red door near the corner of President street.

What happened in five years? Why do I now see New York with different eyes? Why does this once-scary, dreary, drab city now seem beautiful and alive? 

In 2010, my youngest child was a mere three years old. Prior to this trip, the only places I was familiar with were California and the Philippines. Comfort and safety were always foremost on my mind. And after 9-11, I feared New York. I did not dare go up the Empire State building worried that it would be targeted by terrorists while I was there. 

In 2009, I went to Tuscany for my sister's wedding. I barely
socialized and I didn't have fun. I regret now that I did not let
myself enjoy that trip.

Back then, because my life revolved around family only, I was weighed down by all sorts of fears that held me back from experiencing life. I took a path of predictability and routine because it was comfortable for me. I was willing to sacrifice personal growth through new experiences and travels because I would rather be "safe than sorry." 

As my eyes light up now as I walk in front of the Temple of Restoration (a small but beautifully unique structure on Dean street) I realize now how this mentality was detrimental to my being. I deprived myself of many opportunities to admire the beauty around me because it meant making a wrong turn or going beyond the usual 3 blocks to get back home.

Sometimes you just have to push yourself. Sometimes you have to muster extra courage to walk through an isolated, dark, tree-lined street because soon after you make that right turn, you will have to definitely stop in awe of the Former Lillian Ward house on the corner of 7th and Sterling. Imagine if I didn't get lost or if I just stuck to the main road because it was predictable and easy!

At 44, I am no longer a young woman. But what I realized is that I've allowed myself to stick to the familiar for so long that I lost my sense of daring and adventure. I've deprived myself of these challenges that eventually shape me and make me a better person. I've avoided the unknown, dark streets of life because they were scary. I chose the easy path because I did not want to get hurt.

But I see it now. You have to get scared, get hurt, get lost many times in life before you see a better you. I am grateful I learned this midlife because I've seen many elderly folks, my parents included, who have stuck to the safe route because the other way was just too difficult. I'm grateful I've learned to not let my fears dictate the way I live my life. Most of all, I am thankful I still have the chance to live the rest of my years applying this learning. 

It took a while for me to be brave.
Better late than never!

Tomorrow I will ride the NY subway system again for the first time after five years (hopefully the samurai sword-weilding man isn't taking my train). This time I will not force myself to look down at my feet because I fear eye contact with the strangers around me. I will look around station to station and see the beauty beyond the dusty, graffiti-lined walls. And when I rise from the darkness of the 8th avenue station and walk towards W 16th street, I will raise my head high. I will open my eyes to the experience I deprived myself of five years ago. I am a new person about to start another new adventure. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Starting with me

Days before my sister Shakira and her new wife Roz (yes they are lesbians who married in the US) held their reception dinner in Makati, I took my 12-year-old daughter Gabby aside and said "do you know how lucky you are to be part of this occasion? How many of your friends will ever be part of a same-sex wedding reception?" She looked blankly at me and said, "none." "How do you feel about it? Will you tell your friends?" I continued. "No," she said, "they will think it's weird." Being the straight-forward mother that I am, I blurted out (maybe too quickly), "they may think it's weird now, but I bet some of them will end up gay or lesbian anyway." I smiled and so did Gabby.

I'd like to think that Gabby and I have a good relationship.
I always tell it as it is, even if it shocks her sometimes.

Minutes later, in my solitude, I replayed the conversation. I realized at that point- I've come a long way from 1998, when my then 7-year-old son Paolo asked me what a lesbian was. Uncomfortable and unprepared, I blurted out, "weirdo," then changed the subject abruptly. I was not prepared as a 27-year-old mother to answer questions about sexuality, gender and social norms. So I decided to shove it under the rug and hoped that my son would never question again.

Indeed, Paolo never questioned again. Instead, he grew up to be a greater man than I expected. He accepted. After we moved to the US when he was 11 years old, he was exposed to a society of (well, on the surface at least) equality- of genders, races, people. Sexuality was not a forbidden topic in schools and homes. Gays and lesbians were not seen (at least in our community) differently than anyone else. They were just people- measured by their abilities and not by the way they looked, behaved or thought.

I'm so proud of how this 23-year-old turned

So when Shakira and Roz married in 2012 and asked 21-year-old Paolo (who was visiting them in New York at that time) to serve as a witness to their wedding, I was proud. I realized that I raised my son so well that he did not snicker at the thought or tell me about it jokingly. He was to attend the wedding of his Ninang and his Tita. That was it. No questions. No smile. It was simply the wedding of two people he loved (and it didn't matter if they were both women).

Paolo and Ninang Shakira, 1993 (below) and
2010 (above)

23-year-old Paolo is very close to his ninang and tita and always
visits them in Brooklyn.

I thought, then, how different he would have turned out if he grew up in the Philippines. I would have done my best for him to not grow up macho like most Filipino men, but I'm sure that, had he been influenced by this country and the way it views gays and lesbians, he would have at least smiled amusingly at the thought of his ninang marrying another woman. He would have probably accepted subconsciously, even without my reiterating it, that lesbians were "weirdos."

I realized last week that, as I sat through my sister's wedding/anniversary reception in Makati, I was once guilty of that feeling too. I admit it now- when my sister married in 2012 and she posted a slideshow of their wedding photos on Facebook, I told my husband, "it's nice but it seems 'forced.'" I just didn't feel it- the romance that I often felt during straight weddings. Maybe I believed that because they were of the same gender, Shakira's wedding to Roz was slightly inferior to my wedding or my older sister's. It just wasn't the same. It didn't feel equal.

Roz, left, and Shakira, right, after the
wedding at City Hall.

During the reception, I was shaking and close to tears when I watched the same wedding slideshow that I saw a year ago. I had just spent a week with my baby sister and her new wife. I saw how they were together; how they loved and took care of each other. When Roz got sick the day before the party from food poisoning, I saw how Shakira worried and doted on her. On the way back from a trip to Tagaytay (where they did not sit with each other in the car), Roz looked back to our row where my sister was seated and said, "I miss you" as she reached out to hold my sister's hand. All those sweet, caring moments caught my eye and I knew. It was not forced. It was not inferior. In fact, it felt greater than many relationships I had witnessed, even some of my own. And I felt it- all the romance and all the love.

Roz, Shakira, older sister Myrza and me during the wedding

What a cool bunch of parents and in-laws celebrating a unique
marriage like this!

Roz and I at the wedding reception

When my straight women friends asked me about my sister's reception, I caught myself by surprise. I said, "the reception was so nice. They were so sweet. You know what, after a while you even forget that they are both women. You just feel how much they love each other." I added, "of course it's even better that Roz is a girl. We get to laugh with her about funny girl stuff like "flower arranging" and "vaginal tightening." She enlightens us younger ones about hot flashes and pre-menopause. It's great! My sister is happy and in love and I have a new sister." It is not inferior at all.

As I confess all this now (to my sister and my new sister-in-law, to my new gay and lesbian friends, and the world), I realize that I had not only grown so much as a mother. I had also been so emotionally and mentally awakened by this celebration in our family. I used to pride myself in being the "normal" child of my parents- the one who lived life the right way (marriage and children). My older sister does not want children, my younger brother refuses to marry and my baby sister is a lesbian. But the week I shared with Shakira and Roz has shown me that there was nothing much for me to be proud of- I was prejudiced and used sexuality to make myself feel superior over others. My being "normal" may be the norm but it did not give me the right to put non-typical relationships down.

With my husband, Allan, in Alhambra, 2012

In Porto, Portugal, 2014

Singing and dancing in the streets of Lisbon, 2014

So thank you, sisters,  for not being "normal" and for pushing me to think beyond my shallow limits. Your relationship has inspired me more than any other I've come across. I am free, no longer bound by ancient, outdated Filipino norms (well, almost).

And Gabby- it is not you who is lucky to be part of this marriage. It is me. You and your Kuya Paolo learned to accept the truths of universal, equal love way before your 42-year-old mother did. I realize now that in order to teach you to have no prejudices and biases, I have to start with me. But it's not too late. I now see it, celebrate it and am enriched by it.

P.S. Gabby did tell a friend bravely about the wedding of her aunt to another woman. Her friend thought it was weird but Gabby didn't care.

(This piece was written in 2013 after the wedding reception but was never published. I have since had many more happy and enriching moments with my sisters.)