this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on March 25, 2014.
It was early in the morning of a school day. My sisters and I were waiting for our parents to stop fighting so our father could take them to school. Silently, we watched, waited, and ate our breakfast of screaming, plate-smashing and door-slamming.
That was the day our sister by another mother was born. That was the day that defined the particular way my family would be dysfunctional. I was four years old then but 22 years down the line, the scent of marital hatred can still be quite potent.
Naturally, we grew up in an atmosphere of distrust and emotional distance between our parents. Thankfully, they always put us first and never failed to show us how much they loved us. We graduated from great universities. We never got caught in the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll bandwagon. We learned to cope separately despite our dad’s failed attempts at discretion, using out-of-town work as an excuse to disappear during times that coincided with New Year’s Day, her birthday, or graduation. Most importantly, my sisters and I had an unspoken agreement that we would not hate our half-sister for being born. She was as much a victim of the poor decision-making of two adulterous people as we were.
I was always convinced that despite our family drama, I had relatively healthy relationships with boyfriends. But when my friends started getting engaged, married, or pregnant, I began to rethink the whole idea of being single at 26. Should I be panicking? Should I be making it a priority to hunt down a husband?
But with the kind of marriage that I grew up in, the thought of being with one person for the rest of my life makes me panic more. How can I teach my children of the validity and beauty of taking on the responsibilities of marriage if I myself have rarely witnessed it, much less experienced it? Unfortunately, I have observed that some things are inevitable in a marriage, like heartbreak, periods of separation, infidelity or mild flirtation, lull years, and all that. Marriage seems bleak. Marriage seems like a lot of hard work. How do people like me, who were raised in a broken marriage, fix our perspective and rebuild our trust in it? Is “true love” ever within reach? How can anyone ever deserve it?
To be so easily and fully consumed by your emotions and at the same time to be confronted with the responsibilities of loving another person can be so frightening and terrible. How can I be expected to watch over something or someone so meaningful?
But despite my default state of jadedness, I have not become a complete cynic. Perhaps seeing too much of the bad side of things makes you circle back to seeing the good side. I have observed that I am a closet romantic. Looking through my bucket list written a few years back, I saw that the first thing I wrote was “fall in love with a boy, love him unconditionally, and love him wisely.” There is hope, after all, even for people raised in unique dysfunctional ways.
No matter how much we decide to take a different path from our parents, in some way there will be predetermination. Somehow we are meant to be like our parents, or to learn from their mistakes and be completely unlike them. Either way, they have an impact on who we become and how we live and love. I learned that it is not our parents’ decisions that we inherit but the values, and that the difference lies in how we challenge or uphold those values.
My father made one mistake that defined my family—the mistake we all had to work around, and still do—but it was a decision in the past. Now that we are all grown, thankfully we have learned to be more forgiving, more aware of our capacity to choose differently—and choose better. At the same time, I am thankful that my parents never lacked in showing love for their children despite the personal turbulence they each had to endure. Family came first. We came first. It is a value that I am glad is part of the legacy left to me.
A professor taught me that “a principle is not a principle until it is tested.” A vow is not a vow unless it is put to the test. Everything else is lip service, a promise yet to be fulfilled.
Should I be panicking? I wish to speak on behalf of others like myself: No. Loving someone is not about fixing my brokenness. It’s about being with someone who holds values parallel to mine, and the mutual willingness to understand any differences in those values.
Now, being aware of all the seemingly predetermined pitfalls, there are only two things left to do. One is to prepare, extensively. Prepare my values, my actions, because the tests will come! The other, I guess, is to buckle up because it is going to be one heck of a bumpy ride.