My mother used to accompany me every enrollment time in the elementary school. But in my first year high school in a private sectarian school I insisted that I should enroll on my own. I don’t want my mother to go with me this time. I wanted to prove to her that I was maturing fast to adolescence. And so I believe that I could already manage to do things on my own.
In my third year in the secondary school I felt that I was already a young man at 15. I had learned to feel ‘crush’ every time I see my ‘beautiful girl’ (a Christian). I wanted to court her but I had a problem. I feared the moment that she would turn me down because of my being Muslim. I also feared the day that my mother would know that I was courting a ‘kafir ’ (infidel, as they call a non-Muslim) because it was taboo that time. Until late 1960s, marriage between individuals of different religious affiliations was not tolerated in the conservative Bangsamoro culture.
But I was seriously falling for my ‘beautiful girl’. And so I wanted to test the waters, so-to-speak. I wanted to find out her initial reactions. I gathered all the energy that I could muster but my knees would tremble and no words would come out of my mouth. This must be real love at first sight! After several attempts, it was all the same. There was one thing though that I was progressing through. I was beginning to feel that the confidence-building strategies I had been employing was working as she would no longer turn down my invitations for snacks at the canteen. And so we were talking to each other on topics of mutual interest except about ‘love’ thing.
Finally, not being able to hold any longer, I said the words and expressed how much I love her. She turned around without saying anything. Until we went out of the refreshment parlor she refused to say a word and would not look at me. I must have offended her, so I thought. I don’t want to ask for forgiveness neither would I follow up what I said earlier. Maybe it was just good that I had expressed what I felt for her. Maybe time will decide in my favor. I was just hoping all along and a glimmer of hope would be enough for me for the time being.
In school, she would try everything to avoid me. I wanted to look at her; she’s the apple of my eyes. I would try anything to corner her until I did finally corner her. Without much ado, I asked for forgiveness and went back to my old tricks to regain her confidence. Several months passed and I was steadfast at winning her heart. “There is no rocky hill to a man with an iron will”. These words from an old sage were all I need to keep me going.
True enough, time was on my side. In our fourth year in high school, it was different altogether. Did the summer vacation made us long for each other? I thought so. At last, my diligence finally paid for me. Several weeks before graduation, I heard from her what I had always longed for: a verbal confirmation that the feeling of love was mutual. And so I heard the sweetest words: “yes, I love you too!” And what words could ring better in my ears than those carefully guarded words from a 16-year old girl. Suddenly I felt like I was in a make-believe world. What a beautiful world it was for the two of us.
And then, it was graduation day. More than the apprehension that her parents and mine would know about our relationship and the consequences that would follow, the fear of being separated from each other is haunting me like a bad dream. She knew that I could not continue to college and I knew that she would be studying in Manila (three days away by boat at the time).
The following day, immediately after graduation, I looked for her. I gathered all the guts I could muster to go to their house. That was the only place I would certainly find her. And so I went to their house and she met me at the gate. We agreed not to mention anything about our relationship so her parents would not sense anything. We were cracking jokes so we would feel happy and comfortable but the fear of being separated from each other was enormous. What else can we do? Then, we agreed to give each other small tokens that would keep us reminded of each other. We agreed to exchange white handkerchiefs. I didn’t mind at all if hers was perfumed and mine was not. In school white handkerchief was a must for every student. It was checked every morning during flag ceremony.
We were together the whole day and really enjoyed each other’s company. As the sun was setting, she begged that I would dine with them in the house, which her mother duly seconded. I had already lunched with them and I felt that it was already too much to stay until dinnertime. And so I begged off to just go, saying, that I still had to go home to the village even if I knew that it was no longer possible. The last passenger vehicle must have left at 5:00 p.m. As we bade goodbye (strictly no goodbye kisses in those days), we promised to write each other often – something that I would faithfully check later at the Post Office on market days (Thursdays and Sundays).
In the beginning, we used to exchange letters. She was doing better in her studies in Manila while I was back to my old ways in our village: playing with playmates, pasturing the work animals, gathering firewood and helping in our tobacco and corn farms.
Months and years passed and this time, I would no longer received letters from her. In short, our communication was cut. I deserved this, I sighed to myself. I was not going to school; there are boys in Manila who are certainly more good-looking (and good smelling too); what will she get from me?
Then the armed conflict erupted in Central Mindanao in the early 1970s and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) – a Muslim armed separatist group in southern Philippines, was actively recruiting young and able-bodied boys to join its armed forces. For seven years, I had my stint with the MNLF, not because it was my choice, but because I had no choice. My barrio (village) was a favorite battleground between the government and the MNLF forces.
In 1976 the Tripoli Agreement (with a built-in ceasefire mechanism) was signed between the government and the MNLF. For a time there was a lull in the fighting as the formal ceasefire agreement was implemented on the ground several months after. I felt that this time was a golden opportunity for me to enroll in college but it was not until three years later that I was able to go to college.
I asked for some money from my mother so I could finally enroll. She said that she didn’t have any but there was money being saved for the hospitalization of my younger sister. She was having on-and-off fever for several weeks already. I asked my younger sister if I could take a few hundred pesos from her savings so I could go and enroll. As a younger sister, she acceded to my request.
I enrolled in the nearest state university where I could possibly be taken as a ‘grant-in-aid’ scholar, a special program of the University for poor and deserving students from the cultural minorities.
Three days after, I went back home to see my sick sister. From a distance, as I was approaching the house, I saw an unusual number of people gathered. My God, something must have happened to my sister, so I thought. Oh, I can’t forgive myself. That five hundred pesos I had taken from her savings; maybe that was the reason why she was not brought to the hospital; maybe, that was the reason why she died. I refuse to imagine anything; I felt that I was just slowly melting down from where I was standing. I entered the house and they were looking for a white piece of cloth. It was the practice of the Bangsamoro to cover the dead person’s face with a white piece of cloth; I remembered the white handkerchief. Oh, what small thing I can do but I was willing to do anything for my sister.
After the seventh day of my sister’s wake, I went back to school. In my mind, nothing would ease my feeling of guilt for my sister’s death more than studying hard and earning a college degree. I took up a five-year engineering course. I never imagined anything that would come my way, no matter how hard it was. I only knew that I have to graduate someday. Believe it or not, there were times that I was skipping meals but I don’t want to get affected. “There is no rocky hill to a man with an iron will!” Finally, after five years, I graduated with the degree of Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Engineering.
This time, I was not thinking seriously about my ‘beautiful girl’ anymore. I still had the white handkerchief with me, though, it was no longer the usual white that it was. In the year 2000, the first grand alumni homecoming in the secondary school where we graduated from was held. The first person I was expecting to see was my ‘puppy love’, my secondary school sweetheart.
I really came earlier to check on everyone arriving to make sure that I would not miss her. The thrill of seeing each other after a long, long time delights me still, but this time it was more for curiosity’s sake. I was already 14 years married at this time and I was pretty sure she must have married also.
Many had already arrived but she was not one of them. Not being able to hold anymore, I asked our classmates. One of them said, “you still did not know that Linda died of leukemia a few years back?” “Oh my God, everything in this world will certainly have its ending,” I murmured. “But why should death occur even at the wrong time?” I sighed, even if I knew that God’s will is not influenced by time. My hands slowly drifted inside my pocket to reach for the white handkerchief in anticipation of tears that may fall down from my eyes. The white piece of cloth was already having some stain but to me it was still so white as in the intention that was associated with it was so pure.
For the second time, I felt that I was melting down but I managed to keep my calm. I was unanimously chosen as the Guest Speaker. I was the next speaker and so I had to keep my composure to be able to deliver a speech worth the occasion.
After hearing me, my classmates told me that my speech was so passionate and eloquently personal. Believe it or not, you have just read the rehash of my speech. I would love to tell everyone my real-life experience because, to me, it was so powerfully inspiring to people who are about to lose hope in everything they had wished for. Not in the case of someone with an iron will and enduring faith in God.
I failed to see my ‘puppy love’ at a time when seeing her could just be as thrilling and exciting as when I had her ‘yes’ for the first time. Oh, they called it ‘puppy love’ but what I felt then was so real. Puppy love may really be surreal, I can agree, but not losing her at the prime of her age.
Did you ever have your puppy love too?