"Honor Thy Mother and Thy Father."
---- The Forth Commandment.
"The Family is a Haven in a Heartless World."
---- Attributed to Christopher Lasch.
When you reach my age--- I recently turned 49--- there are certain letters and phone calls I dread. My sister Rena emailed me towards the end of May. It was one such letter.
"About the summer, we really think that you should come to Montreal and visit us and mom. The reason I am saying this is because mom's health has been deteriorating. We talked to her doctors and her MS is taking a toll on her, so we recommend that you come into town. Also, Rhonda [my other sister] and I decided that we don't want her to know, so we didn't tell her that we spoke to the doctors or what the doctor had said. So PLEASE don't tell her."
I was planning to spend the summer in the Philippines with my girlfriend Mila, (maybe my ex-girlfriend now.) I had met Mila in February and we had also spent two wonderful weeks together in Subic Bay in May. We were planning to stay in her home province of Eastern Samar, meet her father, and plan our future. I had recently told my family about Mila and the plans we had when reality struck with Rena's letter.
My mother has had multiple sclerosis for the last 22 years. She is confined to a wheelchair in a nursing home. Her MS has gotten progressively worse recently to the point where she can no longer eat solid food and has lost the ability to clear her throat. As Rhonda said to me on the phone, she can choke at any time. Rhonda was in tears as she told me that "mom can go at any time." Not the thing I'd like to hear when I'm half a world away.
I immediately emailed Mila and told her about my mother. We would have to put our summer plans on hold. I asked Mila if she wanted to come to Montreal with me and meet my family. She said she would be interested but expressed concerns that it would take too long to get a passport and secure a tourist visa for Canada--- three to six months, Mila was told. I doubted it would take that long. She had recently quit her job as a waitress to look after her own father who recently lost his wife. However, Mila did ask me for 18,000 pesos for a passport, visa, a cell phone--- she lost her old one on the bus ride to Samar--- transportation to and from Manila for herself and her father, bills, and food. I sent her just over 22,000 pesos to be sure she had enough.
Now I know what you're thinking. Sending money to a Filipina? A Filipina that I had known for only four months? A Filipina that I had spent all of three weeks with? As a friend said to me one evening while telling him this story, I was thinking with my crotch. It is nice to know that at 49 my crotch can still think. We had made plans to spend our lives together. We had discussed getting married and having a child. Mila is not some bar girl with a list of Johns a mile long. She's not some 'Kiri', (a morally loose woman in Tagalog), with three kids from three different men. She's single, childless, and was raised a devout Catholic in the countryside. She's a traditional woman who dreams of a simple and conventional life complete with a house, a loving husband, children, and maybe a dog. But from the moment my money began to streak through the Western Union wires, I began to have doubts. You know the kind; that sick feeling at the pit of your stomach that says, "Oh boy, I hope I haven't been taken." So off my money went with perhaps a bit of my dignity and self-respect.
On Tuesday, June 3rd, I received this email from Mila. It read in part,
Thank you co's you'll understand my situation. You understand how hard to get visa and passport sweetheart. What if you go to Canada spend more time to your family, especially your mom. If you coming by beginning of July we can't see each other because my aunti try to invite me and my father to take vacation on their province.... it's been a long time we haven't seen my other cousin....
.... can I visit first my love ones while I have a little bit time to spend to them? Spend your time first to your family like what I did and then come here to P.I.... I'll be back in Manila on 24th of July from my aunti's province.... can you please change your schedule? Be patience on me. It's just now, after this no more, I most focus on you.... I miss you always sweetheart.... please don't get upset...."
Quite frankly, I didn't understand. I fired back an angry email asking her if this was why she needed the money. A vacation? Not a passport and tourist visa to visit my family? I told her how much I missed her too. I told her how much I needed her, how much I needed her love, touch, and reassurance now that my mother was gravely ill. I told her that she can take that vacation at anytime in the next five, ten, or fifteen years. In fact, we could have taken it together. I told her to stop treating our relationship as a joke, that a relationship is serious at times and needs dedication and commitment. I told her that we both need to sacrifice if we are to have a beautiful future. I also told her that I felt I was taken for a fool, and if she was not going to spend my money for the things she needed, then send my money back. I also sent our last few emails between Mila and myself to my father and two sisters for their opinion.
On June 6th, I received this response from Mila. It read in part,
I been reading your emails, those words make me upset. Why? Coz you judge me already about the money you gave me. Did I tell you I will spend your money while me and my family going to stay at my aunti's province? and this is not totally vacation. My family have a problem also that we need to talk about and fix it.... We both know that it's not easy.... You care too much to your family but you don't care about my family.... If you love your family, I love my family too.
I didn't tell my family I have money from you. I know that money is for my passport and visa like you told me, but it seems you don't trust me. Yet you are old enough. "You should make your own decision." "Grow up, be a man." "You don't have your own decision." "Be independent." (Quotation marks inserted by me for emphasis and future discussion.) If you love me, you should love my love one or my family. And stop saying you mother is dying.... I'll never take advantage of you and your generosity. Your thoughts was wrong. You don't know me very well so don't judge me.
If you want a good relationship be understanding. I want my boyfriend understanding, patience, and loving. Everything has change because our situation...."
Mercifully I'll stop here. Mila's last two emails to me--- especially this one--- led to my family's wholehearted rejection of her as my girlfriend and a potential wife. My family's unanimous verdict: She's bad news. Stay the hell away from her. She's no good for me, and she's no good for anybody. Ouch! That hurt. I can only imagine how Mila must feel.
It was never my intention to air dirty laundry with this column. Nor is it my intention to feel sorry for myself or elicit the sympathy of others. Everyone goes through illness and death in the family. Everyone has gone through the emotional upheaval of a relationship breakup. I am simply trying to understand why this is happening and what important lessons I can glean from it.
Pick my girlfriends more carefully? That would be helpful. Be more trusting of others? How do you think I got into this mess in the first place? Any lesson learned from this experience must go much deeper than that. Any lesson learned from this would have to include a profound understanding of the human condition and encompass a universal truth so far-reaching and steeped in history so as to eliminate any doubt about the legitimacy and veracity of the lesson itself. The lesson to which I refer was taught to the Jewish people thousands of years ago. It was imparted by God to Moses and brought down Mount Sinai on stone tablets in the form of the 10 commandments. It is the forth commandment. It is but six words long, and the lesson is this:
"Honor Thy Mother and Thy Father."
Honor your mother and father. Respect your family. Know your roots. Know where you came from. It seems so simple, yet it is not. Since time began billions of people have sought to do this. Some have succeeded, many more have not. The libraries and bookstores are replete with volumes of literature about bent and broken people; sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, tortured by the reality of having let their parents down.
"Honor Thy Mother and Thy Father." A great lesson to learn. Maybe the greatest.
"Grow up, be a man."
Mila's words, as painful as they are, must not be viewed through the prism of personal pain and sorrow for a love lost. While I understand that these words were essentially written in anger towards me, it would be helpful to see a much bigger picture; a picture that also includes the fragile phenomenon of human psychology combined with the philosophical awareness of how history and theology merge to direct man's thinking.
Say what you want about women, especially Thais and Filipinas, but it can't be easy asking for help. It couldn't have been easy for Mila to ask me for 18,000 pesos. A smart and proud 29 year old woman who had been working hard since the age of 14. As Garret Keizer in his book "HELP: The Original Human
"To solicit help is like coming naked to the door of a stranger after having been assaulted and stripped of one's clothing. To come to that same door again, if only to says thanks for the blanket, is to be naked once more, in memory and imagination if not in fact." (p. 158.)
Except Mila was penniless and asking for money. That could not have been easy. At least, it shouldn't be easy. That I probably made her feel like a beggar by asking that she itemize exactly what she needed the money for may not have helped in the trust department. That I became very suspicious when I suspected that the money I sent was being used for purposes other than originally intended also didn't help matters, regardless of whether my suspicions had any merit. If asking for help is difficult, then giving it comfortably and without question must be just as difficult. Maybe more so. With few exceptions, the human animal has never been comfortable with giving help without question.
Did I expect too much from Mila? Was I too tough on her? After all, it's not every day that a poor fisherman's daughter from the Philippines can get to walk around with $500.00 in her pocket. Cut her some slack? Go easy on her? Let her enjoy herself? Then again, where's the personal responsibility here? The self-respect with which Mila was supposedly raised? Love, at least true love, involves two people who bring out the best in each other. It's a situation in which each partner looks to each others strengths in an effort to cultivate a better and stronger relationship. They never exploit each others weaknesses. So why do I feel that my weakness, my vulnerability in wanting and needing to care for Mila, was exploited?
I am trying, however poorly, to see things from Mila's point of view. Then her words come back to me like a knife as it slices through my skin, my blood pouring out like a spigot.
"Grow up, be a man."
That is something you say to someone who DOESN'T honor thy mother and thy father. That is something you say to someone who DOESN'T respect his parents and siblings. That is something you say to someone who has disowned his family. You don't say that to someone who has sought his family's advice on a troubled relationship.
Show me a man who doesn't honor his mother and father, and I will show you a man who will not honor his wife and children. Show me a man who doesn't respect his parents and siblings, and I'm willing to bet that this same man will not respect his wife and children. A boy who has been properly raised to respect his parents will more than likely become a loving and caring husband and father.
"Grow up, be a man." "You don't have your own decision." "Be independent."
This is coming from a Filipina. This is coming from someone raised to honor and respect the sanctity of family and kinship. This is coming from someone who has been employed as a factory worker, a nanny, and a waitress since the age of 14 to help support her parents and four brothers. This is coming from someone who stayed home for over a year to care for her dying mother. This is coming from someone who, for the 29 years she's been on this earth, has heard little else from her society except the fact that family and religion are the be all and end all of Filipino life.
That is why Mila's letter was so disturbing and frightening. It seemed to contradict her own upbringing. It was also a terrifying look into what she thinks a man should be and how he should behave, especially in relation to his family. I can only hope that Mila is not like the millions and millions of women everywhere who prefer the bad boys in life; men with tattoos and body piercings who swear and ride Harley-Davidsons. Men who wouldn't think twice (or once) about telling their parents to go to hell. Men who wouldn't think twice (or once) about pissing away their children's inheritance on beer and bar girls. The world is screwed up enough because of these people. There is something wonderful to be said about a man who respects his parents and is unafraid to seek the counsel and wisdom of his family, however old-fashioned and antiquated that notion may now be.
"Grow up, be a man."
That is something Mila should be saying to her four brothers, neither of whom are giving their father any money to pay his bills or to help purchase their father's high-blood pressure medication. That responsibility fell solely on Mila. Grow up, be a man is not something she should be saying to someone who recently sent her the equivalent of four months wages so that bills can be paid, a passport and cell phone can be bought, and high-blood pressure medication can be purchased. I wasn't expecting gratitude from Mila, but a thank you for trying to be a good man would have been nice. As Garret Keizer would have said, if it's gratitude you want, then get a dog.
Transferring the anger she's currently feeling for her brothers onto me, anger she is not allowed to express in Philippine society, may be psychologically understandable and culturally expedient, but it should never be tolerated. It's fine to help someone in need. It's nice to give money every now and then to someone who desperately needs it. It makes us feel good. However, there's a line one should never cross. The line is this: The feeling of entitlement. The feeling that somewhere there is someone who owes them. No one is entitled to anything. Yes Mila, I would be more than happy to help you for a few months, but just because we love each other don't you ever think that you are entitled to my money. You are a far better person than that.
I would like to think that Mila seeks in a life partner the very thing that she herself was raised to be: A respectful and responsible daughter to her parents, and a caring and supportive sister to her four brothers. I would not have chosen her as a potential life partner otherwise. After all, isn't that a very large part of what true love is? To look into the heart and soul of the one you love and realize and accept with grace, humility, and open mindedness that he is also an interconnected part of a whole? An interdependent member of a family? A respectful and responsible son to his parents and a caring brother to his two sisters?
I can understand statements written in anger such as "If you love me you will...", "You don't know me so don't judge me", and "My family is important too." These are words that lovers shout and shoot at each other everywhere in hundreds of different languages.
I can handle my inadequacies and shortcomings as a boyfriend, as friend, or a teacher. After all, I gave up on being perfect years ago. I can work on my lack of patience, my lack of trust in others, or my quick temper. To be criticized for these things hurt, but I can get over it. There is, however, one thing I can never get over. One thing no one ever really gets over. Being labelled a bad son, an inadequate daughter, a horrible brother, or a terrible sister is something each and every one of us take to our graves. I have been on dates with women who were reduced to tears when asked to tell me about a time in their past when they were labelled less than desirable by a parent or a sibling. People have been known to spend years on the psychiatrist's couch if they've ever had the misfortune of being branded a bad son or daughter. We never get over that.
That is why words like, "You should make your own decision, grow up be a man" and "You don't have your own decision, be independent" cut right to the bone. These words are an attempt to separate a man from his family, perhaps to gain some sort of financial advantage. It goes right to the heart and soul of what it means to be a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister, and an interdependent part of a whole. It is an unrealistic dream, a Hollywood fantasy, a cruel perception of man. This dangerous perception of rugged individualism is one of the main reasons why so many women worldwide are raising fatherless children. This female fantasy of the rugged and detached man as an individual devoid of purpose and commitment is a mental illness in far too many women. It is robbing the next generation of such important concepts and life lessons like honor, honesty, respect for others, personal responsibility, commitment to others, hope, faith, love, and the historical and social reality that we are all connected. It is another way of saying,
"Don't Honor Thy Mother and Thy Father."
Don't listen to your parents or your brothers and sisters. Don't respect their advice and wisdom. Yes, making your own decisions is very important in life but only after consulting with those we love, honor, and respect--- like our family. In the end it is only our family that we have. Friends come and go. Lovers come and go. Wives leave husbands, husbands leave wives. We make money, we lose money. We get hired for a job, we get fired from a job. Cars lose their value, houses get repossessed. When we cut through all the clutter and bullshit that is our life, family is all we have left. This haven in a heartless world, this bridge over troubled water; whatever metaphor we choose to use, for the lucky few, family is all there is. Once we lose that, we lose everything. Time and family are the only things in this world not replaceable.
I spent the first three months of our relationship making my own decisions about Mila. I spent a few thousand dollars going to the Philippines twice, staying in nice hotels with her, eating delicious food, and was planning a third visit to see her. I spent the first three months of our relationship not telling my family about her because I was waiting for the right time. I was also afraid, terribly afraid, that this would happen. Making your own decisions about matters of the heart, especially regarding a woman from another country, can cost a man his life savings. We have all seen that in places like Thailand and the Philippines.
I hope Mila is not expecting me to say to my parents and sisters, "Piss off mom and dad! Up yours Rena and Rhonda! Mila is my woman now. Who cares what you think. If you don't like her, too bad. We're going to elope and live on the beautiful Island of Samar where we'll raise animals and grow our own vegetables. We don't need anything except our love."
To the potential amazement of many, I am not looking for a woman who will demand or expect me to do that. There is nothing more unromantic than two people who need to elope. Another Hollywood fantasy. Nothing more ugly than a man and a woman who cannot find a way of sharing their love with their respective families. Nothing more disrespectful than that.
Isn't this what God had intended? A God-fearing and church going woman like Mila must know this. Isn't this what God wants us to do? Go to our family for advice and wisdom in such times as sadness and uncertainty? Isn't this how we attempt to take that extra step forward, to take love to the next level, that spiritual level where we invite love ones from both sides to share, celebrate, and rejoice in what is, and can be, a truly special partnership? How can love--- real love, true love, be otherwise?
"Honor Thy Mother and Thy Father."
This is one of the reasons I wanted to marry Mila. This is why I wanted so desperately to have her share her life with me. This is why I wanted so much to dedicate my life to her. This is why I wanted to live and work with her. This is why I wanted to raise children with her. Because she honors her mother and father. Because she respects her family and learns so much from them. Because she is a beautiful, loving, and caring daughter to her father and sister to her brothers. Mila honors her family because they raised her well. If there is a better reason to marry a woman and dedicate your life to her, I wish I knew what it was.
Our relationship was not just about me and Mila. It never was. I was so looking forward to meeting her father this summer. I was so looking forward to shaking his hand and thanking him. I was so looking forward to telling him what I've been meaning to tell him since I met Mila, the very same thing that every father-in-law should hear and every son-in-law should say.
"Thank you for helping to raise such a beautiful daughter, Sir. Thank you for helping to raise such a kind-hearted, honest, caring, and responsible young woman; the kind of woman I am so honored to dedicate my life to. Your daughter is the woman I've been searching for my whole life, and I can only hope that through my actions and hard work I will one day prove worthy of her. Thank you for raising her with values that are both traditional and contemporary; values with which we ourselves will raise our children. It will not be easy, I realize, but let me assure you, Sir, that your daughter and I will work together to make sure that we have everything we need. Again, thank you for raising such a beautiful daughter."
I wish I could have met her mother and said the same thing. I was also looking forward to Mila meeting my parents and saying something similar; something from her heart. Not that I truly deserve it, but I was hoping that Mila too would say to my parents what all daughter-in-laws should say.
"Thank you for raising such a wonderful son. Because of your parenting I know that your son will make a loving and caring husband and father. Your son is the man I have been looking for my whole life. I can only hope to one day become a good wife to him and a good mother to your grandchildren. Thank you for raising him with the values that I too think are important: Honesty, hard work, responsibility, accountability, loyalty and commitment to others, love of family, discipline, and dedication. Yes, at times he can be too emotional, but he truly loves from his heart. He's not perfect, nobody is. But he tries hard to be a good person and I love him for that. So thank you for raising such a good son, and I hope to one day be the daughter-in-law that you have always wanted."
Those are some nice and important sentiments to share with future in-laws. Imagine if Mila would have emailed my family with such touching and heart-felt words. Imagine if everyone did that. When we honor our mother and father, we also honor our in-laws. After all, they too are mothers and fathers. When we honor and respect our mother and father, we honor and respect mothers and fathers everywhere.
This honoring of mothers and fathers is what God wants us to do. This sharing of our love with those who matter most to us, is a priceless gift that we not only give to ourselves and our parents, it is a priceless gift that we pass on to the next generation. It is one of the ways in which we become more responsible.
It is difficult to find something positive in Mila's last letter, but I think I have. On a very warm evening in May in Olongapo Beach, the Philippines, Mila and I lay in each others arms talking the way lovers do--- making plans and looking forward to the future. She thanked me for giving her the greatest gift anyone has ever given her; the opportunity to go back to her home province and take care of her 77 year old father while who had been very lonely since the death of Mila's mother. I was happy to have given her this time with her father and to send her the money she needed to do so. As long as it was only for a few months and didn't go on indefinitely.
I was profoundly moved by Mila's words on that warm May evening. But as I now think back I realize that while time and money to take care of her father may have been a nice gift, I had a much nicer gift for her; a gift of tradition, warmth, hope, and love. A gift that has stood the test of time. A gift that never tires of giving and is both grateful and humble in receiving. It is the gift of a man with a proper upbringing. The gift of a man who honors and respects his family. The gift of a potential husband who will deeply honor and love his wife and children. That is the greatest gift a man can give. But like far too many women, Mila seemed too quick to take the cash and too slow to accept the man with the good upbringing. That's a shame.
As I continue to read the angry words that Mila and I shot back at each other via the Internet, much of my anger has now turned to sadness; a deep and profound sadness at what could have been. I'm constantly searching my mind for what went so wrong with something that, for a while, felt so right. The introspection with which I torture myself includes such heart-wrenching questions as, did I overreact? Am I wrong? Did I blow it? Is Mila really decent, honest, moral, and ethical, and I just don't see it? Was my family's almost complete rejection of her too premature? Did we give her a fair chance? Or enough time? And if I am wrong, if I did overreact, what do I do now?
Although my true gift for Mila fell far short of its intended objective, I have been thinking of her potential gift to me. What in that horrible, offensive belch of a letter can I see as a gift? Certainly not her angry words. Not the vicious judgement of my lack of manhood. Not the seeming lack of compassion for what my family and I are currently going through. Not her selfishness and self-centeredness that screams at the top of its lungs. She must regret that letter deeply. Anyone with a conscience would.
Here's Mila's gift to me; a priceless and very painful gift, but I gift I accept with humility and a heavy heart. It is the gift of redemption. A second chance. A chance to make amends. It is the extremely painful realization that I have not been a very good son and brother. While teaching in Korea these last 27 months, I shamefully admit that I have not called my parents often enough; not emailed my father and sisters often enough; and I certainly have not told each and every one of them that I love them nearly enough. There is no excuse for that. More often than not whenever I call my mother she doesn't know who I am anymore. Sometimes she hangs up on me, saying that I have the wrong number. My mother doesn't recognize my voice anymore. Since Rena and Rhonda told me about my mother's worsening condition, I've been calling her every Monday night, (Tuesday morning in Korea), when my sisters are there to take the call. It's nice talking to all of them.
In her heavy-handed criticism of my reliance on my father and sisters in times of crisis and sorrow, Mila has paradoxically driven me back into the bosom of my family's warmth, love, acceptance, and protection. Another priceless gift.
So as I prepare to go home for a month this July and August, as I prepare to see my family for the first time in 27 months, I will do something I have never done before. Thanks to Mila, I will, for the first time, apologize to my parents for not being the son I could have been. I will apologize to my sisters for not being the brother I could have been. As my mother lay in her nursing home bed, her body ravaged by 22 years of multiple sclerosis, her mind numbed by drugs too numerous to count, I will take her hand in mine and beg her forgiveness for not calling often enough. After I apologize, I will promise to be a better son. I will call regularly, just to say hello. I will be grateful for the loving and caring family that I have.
Not being the boyfriend Mila wanted me to be? As painful as that is, I will deal with that. There is something far more important in life: Being a good son and brother. Being a good daughter and sister. Being the son and brother the world expects me to be.
There remains the question, the age old question, of how to honor your mother and father. How to give your family the respect, reverence, and veneration that is their due. I can only answer with this: By living well. By living the values that they have passed on to you. By taking their stories and giving them life and breath. By listening to them. By learning from them. By loving them. Loving them because of who they are, and accepting them in spite of who they are. And by making great choices. Choices based upon their imparted wisdom and life experience. Because in the end we all are living legacies of our parents. We can't get away from that. No matter how hard we try. We can move to Thailand, we can teach English in Korea. We can volunteer our time in Africa, or we can fall in love with someone from the Philippines. It doesn't matter because in the end we are all living legacies of our parents. We are all responsible for doing our family proud. It is a tall order, a daunting task. But something we must all strive to do.
Honor Thy Mother and Thy Father. Then make the best decision you can based upon years of advice, family wisdom, and life lessons. That is the greatest lesson that this son, brother, teacher, and man can ever learn. That is Mila's priceless gift to me. That is how, thanks to Mila, I will choose to grow up and become a man.