We love him, because he first loved us. – 1 John 4:19
Ever since I was a child, I’d always believed that one had to work hard to be loved. I know I certainly did, although I didn’t always get the kind of love I thought I deserved.
My parents separated when I was 3 years old. Since then, my mother had left to work abroad. My baby sister and I were passed around among relatives. Once, we had to be separated because they could only take in one little girl. My sister was lucky because she got to have a yaya (nanny) and went to a private nursery school, while I landed with a relative who made me sleep on a mattress on the floor while she slept on the bed. I ate with the maids and swept the dried leaves in the driveway. Back then, they all thought I was slow and dumb, because I rarely spoke or read books and I never danced or sang, while my sister was quite the adorable entertainer.
When I turned 7, our Lola (grandmother) got us back and sent us to Catholic school. There, I met Jesus and Mama Mary for the first time and talked with them as if they were just beside me. I would pray for me and my sister, but a lot of times I would pray for my mom whom we hadn’t seen in a long time. I promised myself that I would do my very best in school to make my mom proud because she had to work very hard overseas for us. I didn’t mind that my clothes, shoes and school bag were hand-me-downs from relatives, or that I never owned a Barbie or a Hello Kitty. My most treasured possessions were my complete set of basic school materials, nothing more and nothing less.
I was eight years old when a relative started showing me what I thought then was fatherly affection. Growing up without a father, I didn’t know that he was already molesting me. This went on for years, even until things took a turn for the worse when I was around 11 years old. All those times, I prayed to God to make him stop. I couldn’t tell anyone about what was happening because he told me that I would disgrace the whole family if I told on him, and that he would do the same thing to my mom and my sister.
No one suspected anything. Despite this dark secret, I was the student council president. I studied so hard that I became class Valedictorian. A family friend tried to get in touch with my Dad so that he could pin my 9 medals. I remember waiting outside the Auditorium, so excited to meet him for the first time and hoping that he would be proud of me. But the graduation ceremonies started and ended with no sign of him.
When I turned 14, my mom suddenly had to come home. I thought, finally, everything would be okay again, God had answered my prayers! But my mom was a bitter and broken woman when she got back. Whenever we did something she wasn’t pleased with, she’d always shout at us that we were just as bad as our Dad. Instead of being proud of my full high school scholarship, she angrily said to me once, “Buti na lang matalino ka, kasi ang pangit-pangit mo, walang lalaking papatol at seseryoso sa iyo.” (It’s a good thing you’re intelligent, because you’re not pretty; none of the boys will find you attractive.)
My whole world crashed. I was ugly and dirty and no one wanted me. I ran away, but eventually had to come home because I got hungry and scared. I resolved to show my mom that she was wrong about me.
I transformed myself from the fat nerd to the charming girl who sang her way into young boys’ hearts. I got them all–the star basketball players in the village, fellow youth choir members, even my crush next door, until I was caught going out with one of them in my school uniform. The school authorities wanted to expel me but reconsidered when my aunt made me beg them on my knees to let me transfer instead. Already on my senior year, they quickly and quietly transferred me to a school where I was allowed to graduate.
Without a scholarship, I had to work to send myself to College. At 19, while working as a researcher in military school, I met an officer who was almost as old as my Dad. I thought, here’s someone mature enough to love me as I am and financially stable enough to take care of me. Within about a year, we got married. Three years and a child later, my husband was unfaithful. After months of fighting, he left us to live with the other woman. (Somehow, I got a glimpse of what my mom had gone through.) He came home after a few months. And then, just when I thought everything was finally okay, my husband died from a stroke, leaving me a widow at 30.
His sudden demise left such a big hole in my very core that I sometimes wished I had died with him. I questioned God for taking him away. I hated my husband for leaving me all alone to raise our children who were then only 10 and 5 years old. In the years the followed, I had to face more tribulations–losing our pension to my husband’s eldest son from a previous marriage, becoming homeless after getting evicted from our home in Fort Bonifacio, being humiliated at work, each one leaving me weaker and more empty than before. But blessings came, too–an unexpected trip to Australia with my kids for a postgraduate scholarship, and then a job that paid three times my previous salary. I tried my best to stay afloat, to be the tower of strength for my kids, at the same time serving God through my singing in church and serving the poor through Rotary.
But the hardest blows were yet to come.
In 2009, within my first year in my new company, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I had to go under the knife to remove my thyroid. They caught it at stage 3, meaning the cancer had already spread to my lymph nodes and I had to undergo radiation therapy. While my new company’s HMO took care of the hospital bills and treatments, I still questioned God. As a Rotarian, I led and organized medical and dental missions and helped hundreds of poor people get free consultation and medicine. Why was this happening to me? Hadn’t I suffered enough?
But what really devastated me was losing my ability to sing. Why did He take away my one instrument to serve and reach out to Him? Did I not develop my talent and use it for His greater glory?
Doctors told me my wound would heal; that I could sing again because no nerves were damaged. But the following year, they told me that I had to undergo another operation to take out my lymph nodes from the neck to the left shoulder, to be followed by another series of radiotherapy. In despair, I cried out to God that I could not take all of this alone anymore. I prayed for a partner of the same faith, stable enough to help me through this.
Just before my operation, I did meet someone. He was nice to me and my kids. He took care of me in the hospital and brought me for my checkups and rushed me to the ER whenever I got numb, stiff and weak due to severe electrolyte imbalance. He soon confessed that although he had been separated for years, he was still married, but I still agreed to live with him. I became so emotionally dependent on him that I gave in to all his demands: not to go to Church, not to attend Rotary or see my friends, even to turn my back on my mom when he and my mom had a fight. I was so afraid he would leave me for I felt I could no longer live without him. But, then he lost his job and he started to reveal his bad side.
A year of constant fight-and-makeups later, the doctors said I had to undergo another radiation session and an operation to remove a kidney stone that was causing bleeding in my urinary track. Three weeks later, I discovered I was almost 2 months pregnant. I was so devastated. Our relationship was a mess and I was pregnant when I had the radiation! But I still kept my baby despite his and other people’s fears about the effects of the radiation on baby. Miraculously, my baby came out fine.
Thinking that our miracle baby would make things better between us, I clung to him even more. But our baby was only 4 months old when I discovered he was already seeing someone else. That very day, I confronted him, we had a big fight, and he left. A few months later, I made a last ditch effort to make him come back but he rejected me and said he was already with someone else much better than me. He left and didn’t even show up for his daughter’s first birthday and christening.
That was the last straw. I became moody–crying and moping one moment and screaming at my kids the next. I became the bitter woman my mom was to me; I know my kids found it hard to respect and love me. My eldest daughter either ignored me or yelled back at me when she could no longer stand me. She would find all kinds of excuses not to go to Mass while I was trying to be the model mom doing everything, including bribing them, just to come with me. I went to mass mechanically but never took communion because I felt so unhappy and so unclean.
I was so full of hatred, regret, and self pity that I felt so hopeless, that my whole being was sinking into darkness and I could do nothing. I felt so empty–thirsty for love, for inspiration, for peace, for God. But I didn’t think I could go to God, not when I questioned Him and blamed Him for the many bad things that had happened to me, not when I had casually ignored Him in moments of temptation. Even my own mother and children could not love me despite my sacrifices for them. I felt so tired, and there were times when I just wished I were dead.
Then my friend invited me to attend the Road to Damascus (RTD) Retreat. At first I was apprehensive; my last meaningful retreat was way back in high school. But, already decaying inside out, I eventually gave in.
I listened as the speaker talked about God’s constant love, that no matter how good or bad I become, God loves me just the same. He loves me so unconditionally that He sacrificed His precious Son just for me. I was filled with such awe that I cried and cried. I realized then how God tried to show me His love all those years–through my Lola, my school, my aunts, my friends, the communities I served, my talents and the career opportunities I got. They all came when I needed help the most, when I cried out in pain. God had always been there to make me feel how much He loved me, but all I could see then was the pain and suffering.
It was also through the RTD that I felt God’s love as my Father, loving me despite all my sins, welcoming me with arms of forgiveness. I realized that just as He had forgiven me, I also must forgive those who have wronged me, and to forgive myself most of all. It was a heart-wrenching experience, but only after I made the decision to forgive did I really feel such love, peace and joy that I had never experienced in my entire life.
When I got home after the retreat, my daughter witnessed a new me unfolding, and she wondered, “Who is this woman?” She saw that I no longer reacted with curses or threw things when I got angry, that I now take time to listen to her and her siblings, that I now say sorry when I’m wrong, and that we now all pray together. Since then, going to Mass every Sunday is a joyous and holy occasion we all look forward to, as we all receive the Lord during communion.
Knowing God’s unconditional love made me slowly transform from the bitter woman that I had become to a more loving and caring mother to my children and daughter to my mother, and to a happier more inspired colleague at work and in my community.
I know I have quite a journey ahead of me–there is so much to know about God, there is still so much in my character to work on. But I find rest in the knowledge that I work not to add to God’s love for me, and that nothing I do can ever take away from that love. I love simply because He loved me first, loves me first, and will love me forever.