The price we pay
After months of interviews, endless paperwork, and interminable wait, my husband finally secured a position to manage a poultry farm in Sana’a, Yemen. This was after he lost his job selling veterinary products for a Manila-based company.
How well I remember those long rides in the Beetle with our infant son in my lap, crisscrossing Batangas, Laguna and Calamba in search of poultry and piggery farms. Map Quest and GPS had not yet been invented but we knew we were close to our target when the air started smelling foul.
His clients called him Dr. Willie. He had a degree in Veterinary Medicine from Araneta University. I was a Manila-raised colegiala with big dreams, yet I had fallen for a tough Batangueño with quaint probinsiyano ways. In fact his old-world gallant manner charmed my city-cynical heart. Certainly, having a cooler full of live crabs and dozens of fresh buko left at my doorstep were a refreshing change from the tiresome flowers and chocolates other suitors plied me with. Above all, I liked playing Henry Higgins to his Eliza Doolittle, advising him on the latest cut of jeans, taking him to museums and plays, introducing him to my artsy, sophisticated friends. Si malakas at si maganda, I’d inscribed on the leaf of the photo album chronicling our days together: swimming in the beaches of Nasugbu, haggling with fruit vendors in Tagaytay, enjoying bowls of steaming bulalo in a little tienda on the road to Tanauan.
I married him on a crisp May morning in a dress so short his mother fell to her knees with a quick sign of the cross. But Willie gave me a look of such total indulgence I couldn’t help flashing a triumphant smile at the woman I would soon be addressing Inay.
Willie left for the job in Yemen when our son Dexter was nine and his sister Sharon was eight. Dexter was a dynamo in motion. He learned to walk when he was barely a year old, and then he was running all over the place—the quick staccato of his feet on the wooden floor of our home a constant rhythm that started in the morning when he jumped out of bed, eager to see what the new day brought in terms of excitement, and up until he slumped back in bed at the end of the day, finally exhausted, his latest toy clutched in his arms. That’s how I would always remember Dex—a boy perpetually in motion, always in a rush to get somewhere. My most distinct memory is his Acura overtaking my Ford effortlessly, the throb of his car like wild horses momentarily held in check, laughter trailing as he zoomed past me with a challenging cry, “Wanna race me, Mom?”
I conceived our youngest Carmela when I ran out of my contraceptive pills the month I visited Willie in Yemen. How could I have imagined I could get my prescription filled in that hauntingly beautiful but backward country? Sana’a is the world’s oldest populated city, stretching back to about 1000 BC. It is home to the Great Mosque, Jami’ al-Kabir, which is considered one of the oldest mosques in the Muslim world. The city is famous for its unique buildings towering several stories high, decorated with colorful geographical shapes, carvings and stained-glass windows. Yet for all that, I couldn’t find a decent drug store that carried my birth control pills.
That month in Sana’a was an almost perfect interlude that I cherished for the memories of dry, arid hills and strange, enigmatic people; and a husband I loved who was yet to grow into himself. I cleaned and cooked and played housewife. Willie came home most evenings exhausted from a full-day’s work culling sickly birds from the healthy and making sure his non-English speaking crew of Somali, Ethiopian and Yemeni workers were on the job and not crouched in hidden corners chewing khat and comparing jambiyas.
After Willie came back from Yemen we immigrated to the United States in search of the proverbial greener pasture. We found employment and built a fairly good life in the Pacific Northwest, and like any fool I thought it would last forever. But fate finally caught up with us and dealt my family a mortal blow.
On his way home from college one October afternoon, Dexter was carjacked and forced to drive to an isolated spot in the city of Tacoma in Washington State. He was shot in the head and left to die on the roadside while his attacker escaped in Dexter’s prized Acura.
I thought I would die, too, but work saved me. When the tragedy struck, I was working full-time and pursuing a graduate degree three evenings a week. But the weekends stretched before me like the sand dunes of Yemen: endless, dry and pitiless. Desperate, I applied for weekend work and soon found myself too busy and too tired to think about anything else but a quick meal and a soft bed at the end of each day, seven days a week. I learned to survive, one day at a time. Willie found something far more destructive.
Later I would ask myself how I could have been so oblivious to the extent of my husband’s unraveling; so blind to the despair that gripped him like a pit bull that had sunk its teeth into his throat and would not let go. Not unless he was in front of the slot machine gambling his pay away before he even earned it. He didn’t stop until he lost our life savings, his retirement fund, his job, his family and his self-respect. All that, and it didn’t even bring our son back.
I sometimes wonder if things would have been different for us if we had never left the Philippines for the promise of a better life in America.
Belma Villa, 64, worked with Philippine Airlines as an in-flight standards analyst. She migrated to the United States in the early 1990s and now works at the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board.
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