“Whatta life!” Even now already on our 37th year of marriage, I still sometimes can’t help uttering such a phrase whenever I look back to our first five years of marriage.
Yes, such a “Whatta life” recollection arouses in me and my wife both a tinge of upsetting memory, not bitterness, and a sigh of victory as we have long overcome those wrenching years.
According to psychologists and marriage specialists, the first five years of marriage is undoubtedly the most critical phase, touted as the “danger zone” of marital life. Research data show that, particularly in western countries, nearly 20 percent of couples get a divorce within the first five years of marriage.
Now, let me zero in on our first five years, for me and my wife, Malou.
Malou and I started our love affair like a romantic fairy tale – by elopement. Being an ex-seminarian and about to finish my priestly formation, I met Malou as my student during my first year of college teaching after freshly going out of the seminary.
If we did start with elopement, did our love story continue to be a romantic fairy tale then?
I have to be forthright, or so it is, in telling our story. Admittedly, I was unprepared for marriage – both materially and experientially. Materially, because it was just my first year of teaching job, with no savings whatsoever. Experientially, because after long years of stay in the seminary and somehow shut from the outside world, it was but my fresh year to engage with the secular world, much more entering into marriage.
The only preparation I had which I was confident of, I reckon, were the theological tenets and principles I’ve learned from the seminary about the sacrament of marriage. But could such learnings provide us food or shelter then? Could they sustain our marriage?
Ah, of course, the only thing that really moved me to marry Malou, even if untimely, was my deep feeling of LOVE for her (which triggered our elopement as I was fearful of not seeing her anymore had her Lolo succeeded in sending her back home to Davao).
Hence, needless to say, our first five years of marriage was nothing of a fairy tale! On hindsight, it was wrenchingly topsy-turvy – enmeshed in poverty, intermittent joblessness, and full of struggles and challenges. Yes indeed, it was colorful. Riveting. Enervating. And gruelling.
Let me have a run-through of our first five years of marital life.
Our first year was spent first in Visayas, then in Manila. After our elopement, we rented a small apartment (which did cost P500 a month then), borrowed first a cooking stove from a friend, bought a small dining table, got some utensils from my mom’s, and our bed? Just a simple mat on the floor. I continued teaching, while we both freshly bore the disgrace from others, particularly at the school, with the big news: “Si sir, magpapari na sana, nakipagtanan ng kanyang estudyante!”
After finishing the first semester of teaching, I and Malou decided to transfer to Manila for three reasons: 1) We wanted to be spared away from the disesteem or disfavor of those around us as a result of our elopement; 2) I was yet harboring grudges towards my father who separated from my mom a year earlier for another woman; 3) With limited opportunities in the province, I knew I couldn’t make it good in starting and providing for my family.
Settling down in Manila, we rented a small room (somewhere in Sta. Ana), and for six months I had to make do of small jobs – short writing tasks for some friends, copywriting for a small advertising firm, and occasional substitute teaching for some ex-seminarian friends.
And yes, even without neither a fixed nor sufficient income yet, and Malou already some few months pregnant with our first child, we still managed to get married privately in plain and simple rites – that is, no bridal gown and entourage, no guests, no banquet, etc. but only the sacramental celebration – in the Church (in the seminary where I spent my theological studies and officiated by my former moral theology professor, a Spanish priest).
On our second year of marriage, in Manila, I was able to get a teaching job in a university. As a probationary, I was assured then of a fixed income – at least for a year. So, from a small room, we transferred to a small apartment. The year also saw the birth of our first child, a son, who was born through a caesarean operation. I still recall requesting my ex-seminarian classmate (bless his soul, he already passed on) to keep watch of my wife in the hospital while I was going around looking or borrowing some money from friends to come up with the high cost of caesarean birth, which then cost some P20,000.
For a start, the pay at the university was relatively good, and I really wanted to have lasted in that job. However, towards the end of the school year, I found myself one time supporting or sympathizing with some barricading teachers and professors who staged a sit-down strike against the school administration just outside the front gate of the university, and hindering other professors and students to enter. It did cost me my job, and I was no longer given a teaching load in the ensuing semester.
Thus, on our third year of marriage, again finding myself jobless and quite disillusioned (my first disillusionment) about the teaching profession, I convinced Malou to take our luck in transferring to Davao, her home place. Thinking then that it was an opportunity for us to connect or reconcile with her mother (Malou’s father was likewise estranged, for another woman), I was looking forward to getting a teaching position or any other job in Davao. Since it was yet in the middle of the school year, I have yet to wait for the following school year to be able to get a teaching job.
Meanwhile, to support Malou and our baby son, who were staying with my mom-in-law, I ventured into direct selling of decorative mats, getting them from Leyte and selling them in Manila. But with just a meager capital and paltry sales, after only three months I was forced to stop my business venture.
Thus, I tried looking for any job – well, suited to my qualifications – in Davao. I got nothing. Our life became even harder, as we could hardly make both ends meet. I remember even approaching a priest for help, and he simply retorted, “Why don’t you try a construction job on the road.” Knowing that I can’t fathom any longer being dependent on Malou’s mom, I decided to cut short our stay in Davao and head back for Manila.
Thus, our fourth year. In Manila, ‘twas summertime, good thing that shortly after we arrived, I was readily accepted to teach in another university – again, as a probationary. And, good thing also, as we arrived – Me, Malou and our over a year-old son – a lawyer ex-seminarian friend of mine allowed us to stay in their small “bodega” as our abode, free of rent (only that we have to construct our own comfort room).
So, with my new teaching job and our modest “bodega” living quarters, our new life in Manila seemed quite good – and simple. Our fourth year of marriage also bore witness to the birth of our second child, also a son – and, again, through caesarean birth. But this time, I was spared from borrowing the amount for the hospital bill as I was able to source it from my teaching job’s “incremental proceeds pay.”
Then, our fifth year. After barely a year of teaching in the university, with my Department Dean being impressed of my first year performance, my cousin, who was working in an overseas placement agency, called up and told me to have myself interviewed by a foreign employer who was looking for an Office In-Charge (kind of branch manager) for his car rental company in Saudi Arabia.
Again, with my venturous and wandering spirit, I quipped to myself that there was nothing wrong if I try. So, from the school and even with my books (that I use in teaching) in hand, I proceeded to the interview. I remember one remark from the interviewer, who was a Caucasian, upon seeing my books, “You’re applying in a transportation company. Do you think you can use your teaching skills to your job in our company?”
Alas, after my turn of the interview, I was surprised that the interviewer stood up (even while still other applicants were waiting in line after me), accompanied me to the agency manager and said, “I already found the right guy for the job. Provide him a visa and let him leave after two weeks.” And that was me!
“Oh my, what did I do?” I muttered to myself. ‘Twas just a kind of game for me taking the interview. But then, I have to weigh in my options. My then current teaching job was a promising one for me to become permanent. But, on the other hand, the pay for the overseas job was very alluring -- $1,000.00 a month, and at that time, the exchange rate was only P 18.00-20.00 to a dollar.
To cut the story short, I opted for the overseas job. My fifth year of marriage was then spent away from Malou and our first two toddler sons. It was spent in Saudi Arabia. Certainly, my leaving for abroad provided a breather of life for my family. For how long I stayed there, my experiences there, what prompted me to come home – that would call for another piece on this column.
For now, looking back to the HARD LIFE and HARD LESSONS from our first five years of marital life, let me offer the following insights.
1. I think, and I’m utterly grateful, that I married the “right” wife and I was being the “right” husband for her too. Malou was (and is) my right wife in that throughout our first five years of marriage (and even until now) she remained patient, bearing all my rashness and misgivings, and keeping to her heart all our struggles and difficulties. I was being the right husband (and still is) for her in that I didn’t abuse or take for granted her meekness and simplicity, but instead understood her virtue and tried to lift her up, and thus living up to our marital vows and firmly standing for our family.
2. Though admittedly unprepared for marriage, both materially and experientially, what was more important for us was the certainty of commitment that we swore to each other even from the moment of our elopement. I like to reckon that if I did become a priest, I had to be a priest forever. So also when I married Malou, I had to be dead certain that it has to be “for better or for worse...’till death do we part.”
3. It’s the struggles and sacrifices or “thorn-full experiences,” more than the happy or “rosy moments,” that have made our marriage even stronger.
4. God should always be PRESENT in marriage and family life, because He certainly has a plan – and a good one at that. As I look back on all the struggles and joys, trials and triumphs of our first five years, I am confirmed in this leap of faith and I see God’s fingerprints all over our marriage in ways I could ever imagine – until now, and forever!