November 09, 2007

Heroic acts

Something Like Life
Nov. 9, 2007

I STUMBLED upon this old story written by my friend Rosalie Lopez in the now-defunct newspaper Today, published on July 27, 1999, and I believe it remains relevant to the lives of many long-time married women. In our parents’ and grandparents’ generation, married couples, no matter the troubles they had to face living with each other, basically had no choice but grin and bear it.

* * * *

Only Wives’ Club
(Or how three women managed to live with their husbands for 50 years)

IT was New Year’s Day when they first saw each other again after so many years.

It was a fitting day because what transpired, in the two hours of endless, soft, conspirational chatting might as well have meant a new beginning for each one of them.

It changed the way they viewed their lives over the past half-century—and, more important, the way they viewed the men they shared that time with.

All in their 70s, they shared, along with that generation of wives and mothers, a submissiveness to husbands that had only now begun to unravel, as they were suddenly, as if by osmosis, infected with the sense of independence of the women of the ’90s.

Or maybe, on second thought, they didn’t need to be influenced by any external stimuli—they were just plain “fed up.”

What started out as a casual visit by two of the women on the third one became a long sharing session on long-held, deep-seated frustrations; of a resentment welling in their hearts for years, when they let their lives revolve solely around the man of the house.

But now, one of them whispered as she poked an index finger at the shoulder of her friend, “I don’t follow him blindly anymore. My children say, each time I get fed up with his antics, I can just call them and they will send me a ticket to the US.”

Then she harrumphed: “The last time I left, I was gone five months, and that scared him.”

The two others cheered her on, but their eyes could not hide the envy. They also wished they could resort to such sophisticated forms of escape as a trip to California. But they tended to feel guilty every time they thought of their husband’s old age and poor health.

One said she had a similar form of “escape”—to the ground floor, every time the husband had a tantrum on the second floor.

“I let him throw things, shout his lungs out, or turn on the TV full-blast. When he gets tired, he just goes to sleep.”

The third one had a more “lateral,” rather than “vertical,” form of escape—she runs to her children’s house near her apartment.

Time was, when their children were still young, when none of the three could think of doing any of that. They didn’t want to risk anything happening to the little ones while they were away. So they quietly bore their pains, big or small, swallowing their pride when it looked like the husband had no wish to argue, or when they feared that arguing in front of the children might traumatize them.

But now, they said, things are different. They must find a way to show that they disagree with some things; that they have their own hobbies and activities, and don’t always have to tailor their schedule to their husbands’; that they also have mood swings, especially since they often take mood-altering medication. Friends and doctors have similarly advised them that, for their own sake and to prolong their lives—or at least make their last few years a little happier—they should learn to say no to unnecessary impositions and say yes to what they feel like doing.

Yet, as this spur-of-the-moment New Year’s Day independence resolution wore on, the three newly liberated women started to hem and haw. One of them fretted that if she argued with her husband now—after allowing him to monopolize conversations for 49 years—he might be so stressed out that it would harm his heart.

The second felt similarly. Her “emperor’s” (how she calls him behind his back) blood pressure shoots up, she says, every time she asks him to switch the TV to another channel. She had tried to remedy this by buying her own TV.

The third one’s dilemma was a little different. Her husband, she said, was so possessive, he wouldn’t ever let her out of his sight, or let her go out without him. “The problem is, he never likes to go to the places I want to go to.”

So how did you manage all these five decades? the two friends asked her. “I just went along with him. But now I’m so sick of doing that.” Her resentment, she said, had so boiled over just before the holidays that she had a stroke.

‘Husband hazardous to your health’

THE cases of these three heroic women—who have lived with, kept house and coraised children for from four to five decades with the same man—show one problem bugging many traditional Filipino families. The problem, though, is usually glossed over because the families get so fixated with praising the values of loyalty and fidelity that the “negatives” of long-term relationships that have not adapted to change are largely ignored.

“In the old days, our mothers were very submissive. That was the culture. But for their own health and peace of mind, they should be allowed some measure of freedom in old age,” counsels one of the country’s top neurologists, who has taken care of thousands of stroke victims.

The problem, she concedes, is that the men are usually subjected to similar stress when they are asked to give their wives more freedom, “because they have been used to having their own way all these years.”

So whose health becomes paramount then? That of the woman who has suffered quietly all these years, or the man who could suffer some shock—and corresponding health problems—if he is forced to mend his ways after so long, or to live with the reality that his once-submissive wife will not always agree with him now?

“Well, that is a sensitive balancing game, and most children get caught in that,” the doctor concedes. She says one way of easing the stress on both father and mother, without sending them the wrong signal that you want them to separate, is to “make sure each one has his or her own network of friends and relatives, a support system of sorts.”

For instance, the father would be encouraged to go out with a long-lost cousin or classmate, or go to reunions with former coemployees, or even travel with friends or relatives.

The mother may want to be active in religious or hobby groups, do some civic work, or go visit her children in another part of town.

But the problem of adjustment comes back every time they see each other again. Yes, the doctor concedes, but at least “you give them some time to miss each other. In the end, they realize they are still devoted to each other that they would want to be together still despite everything.”

“Despite everything”—such a loaded phrase, the meaning of which can really drown anyone trying to fathom what that can mean to a man and a woman who have been a couple for half a century. Beneath the glossy pictures of golden wedding anniversaries, one can only guess, besides the “shared joys and sorrows” of old couples, what sort of “unshared” sorrows each one had to carry alone all these years. And perhaps only then, says a spiritual counselor who has heard many an old man’s or woman’s confessions, “can we ever really appreciate what parents go through to stay together for their children.”

* * * *

I ASKED Rosalie recently whatever happened to these three women.

According to her, within two years after the piece was published, all three septuagenarian husbands had passed away due to varying illnesses brought on by their old age.

Interesting thing is, since the men had died, all three widows now can’t stop talking about their husbands, constantly expressing to each other how they missed the men terribly.

The women’s own remaining days are kept alive with memories of their husbands’ love for them—and how their children’s own affection and thoughtfulness can’t ever replace the love their men had given them.

It’s funny that my own mom, through the 52 years she was married to my pops, had similar gripes as well—and to be fair, he with her. Now that he is gone, I can see in her eyes flashes of the heavy grief she feels over his passing. No matter how terrible a marriage may have been, women will always remember how their lives intertwined with their husbands in the happiest of occasions. I suppose it’s their own way of either assuaging their guilt for complaining so much about their husbands, or trying to alleviate the loneliness they feel with their men now gone.

But then love is really a complicated thing. It sometimes sucks when you’re in it...but miss it when it is gone.

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. Illustration from BusinessMirror.)

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