Testimonies

Looking Back... (Nova Estabaya)

When I was younger, I never thought that there was something wrong with our life. I thought that everything was perfectly normal.

We used to live in a remote town in North Caloocan where everyone was living in Nipa huts. The usual occupation of the males is carpentry and for females it’s housewifery, sometimes “labandera”, maids or factory worker.

But for me, that was perfect. My father works in a factory owned by my uncle in Valenzuela, my mother takes care of us. We used to have a vegetable garden where we get most of our food. We get to raise chickens to sell. I never knew another life, so for me, that was the best life ever.

My ultimate dream at that time was to graduate high school and get married. Well, that was what every girl in our little town does and I am normal enough to desire the same thing.

But when I started schooling, my mother had to work too because the little income that my father earns was no longer enough for us. We were four children. My two older brothers were already in high school. My sister was four years ahead of me.

Since we had to cut costs due to the increasing expenses, our parents had to stay in Valenzuela during weekdays while we, the children had to stay in Caloocan. They had to save even the daily fare to add to the family income. So we only get to see them during week ends.

That was the time that I realized that something was wrong.

I was barely 7 years old but I had to take care of myself. I budget my own allowance, I had to learn what to buy and not to buy. I wake up at 5am, take a bath, arrange my things, prepare myself and take myself to school. I had to walk more than one kilometer going to school, rain or shine. While my classmates have their parents waiting for them the whole time, I have to do things on my own. I cannot afford to cry when I don’t know what to do and how to do things. I have to find a way to do it because no one’s going to rescue me.

There were times when I’d go home sick and find no one in the house. My other siblings were still in school. Sometimes they will just ask the neighbors to check on me from time to time. I remember one time, waking up, I was shivering from cold because I got high fever, but no one’s there to assist me, I started crying because my head hurts so much that I couldn’t stand up to get another blanket.

My teacher would often use us as an example when she talks about discipline and perseverance. She would often tell the whole class how we live alone and yet we still could manage to excel in class, how my parents should be proud of us since we were good children. I should be proud. But at that time, when I was at the age where “belonging” was so important, I felt ashamed. I don’t want to be different. I don’t want to be an example. I just want to be just like everyone else…normal.

My sister and I graduated valedictorian at the same time, she in high school, I in elementary. There’s another dilemma. She had to go to college and they wanted to give her the best education that they could. I had to go to high school but the public school where my other siblings all went to was transferred in a farther place. I had to commute in order to get there.

Our church solved that dilemma for us. They told my mother that there was this one school that offers scholarship to high school students and they were sure that I will pass the tests. I did.

I cried so hard when they told me that I had to leave home in order to study. I don’t want to leave home. At that time, I was already aware that we were poor. Nobody has to spell that for me coz it’s too obvious. But I was so attached to my family, especially my sister and brother who were my parents during my elementary days. I was so attached to my “simple” life that I was open to the idea of stopping my studies and wait for my sister to graduate.

But they persisted, so on June 12, 1991, I arrived at the doors of the Sisters of Mary School, with a heavy heart and a very confused mind.

I don’t know yet what the school was all about. When our helping sister asked me to change my clothes and give back my “outside” things to my family I just followed blindly. I was still wishing that the next day I shall wake up at home and realized that everything was just a dream.

But no, it was not a dream. It was for real. Because when I woke up, I had to go to school and was lost in the activity…waking up at 6 am, morning prayer, take a bath, breakfast, duty time, school, lunch, end of class, dinner, rosary, study time, night prayer and sleep. The activities left me with no time to think of my family but at night, I still cry…because I miss them and I want desperately to get home.

But eventually, I was able to adjust…then things changed for me. I learned to appreciate the works of the sisters and I was able to absorb their teachings.

I was wondering how these people could just give up their lives in order to make the lives of the children entrusted to them better when they don’t even know us. In my world, everything has to have a motive. You have to have a reason in order to do things. But when I met Fr. Al and listened to his teachings, that’s when I understood.

I remember those morning Masses when we had to listen to his sermons. It was really hard to understand. He was already sick with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) at that time. He was immobilized from neck down. All he could ever move was his eyes and his lips and even that was an effort. But at that time, he talks about LOVE…his love of God and his children. He talks about the beauty of what he believes in and how he wanted to create little candles that will light the world. And those little candles were us, his children. He wants us to love God passionately, deeply and unto death. He clearly wants to be a saint and he’s working hard everyday just to be that.

I used to believe that saints were just written in books or immortalized inside the church and they were long dead. They are those who were curved in stone or depicted in pictures that we venerated from a long time ago martyrdom. When I think of a saint, I usually think of a hard, cold and old stone in some distant church. I never thought that “wanting to be a saint” could be the dream of a 20th century man. And never in my whole life had I thought that I shall meet a saint who is far from being cold and hard. He was warm…he smiles when he visits our dormitories and he even cracks jokes. He was a human being…with a heart of a saint.

I remember my mother sister too. She was very young. She just graduated from high school and decided to follow God in a special way. She was my first definition of what real beauty is all about. Nope, it’s not about the physical beauty, it’s about something else.

She exudes beauty which is far beyond this world. She was strong willed, disciplined and obedient. But I think her beauty comes from a deep love of God and a great desire to be loved by Him. She was like a girl who is so in love with her “boyfriend” that she seemed to be radiating…blooming.

Seeing all of these, how can I still resist? I was swept away…

I also fell in love with the God that they talk so lovingly about. I was filled with His warmth…I was touched by His beauty.

I spent my days listening to the sisters as they talk about God. I took Catechism seriously and I did everything for God’s glory.

Fr. Al died in the summer of our first year. It was just a short time, but I was grateful that I was able to see him, to hear him and to learn from him.

Our lives continued and before I knew it, I was about to graduate.

My family told me before I left during our 3rd year vacation to come back home because they wanted me to go to college. They were afraid that after graduation I won’t go home anymore and join the sisters for good.

But at that time, I got other plans. I wanted to go home and study, work for a while then join another convent. Cloistered life was what I really wanted.

So when I graduated from high school I applied at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila. I passed the entrance exam and was accepted at the College of Physical Therapy.

That was another challenge. Because when I went home, nothing much has changed. We still need to make both ends meet in order to sustain my studies and my sister’s.

I remember riding an ordinary bus from Valenzuela to Sta. Cruz, then riding a jeepney to Intramuros instead of getting on LRT because that route was cheaper. But most of the time I had to stay standing during the whole trip which may take more than an hour depending on the traffic. Sometimes I’d walk from Intramuros to UN Avenue to save the fare so that I still could have enough money to pay for the photocopies of my classmate’s books.

I usually choose classes that won’t last the whole day so that I could go home in the afternoon so I won’t have to buy my lunch in school. Sometimes I’d arrive home at 3pm and that’s the time that I will be able to take my first meal for the day.

While my classmates attend school parties and go on movies and gimmicks, I would usually go straight home or walk around the walls of Intramuros to de-stress. Sometimes, after major exams, my friends and I would walk going to National Museum or watch the animals in Manila Zoo and we’d consider that a major gimmick.

Maybe it was my prayers during my 4th year in high school, but I was grateful because when I went out, I found friends who were responsible, religious and true. Friends are very important because they could “break” or “make” you and I was lucky because I found friends who “made” me into a better person.

I graduated from college on April 2000. I was getting ready for the board exam when something happened in the family.

My father died.

I no longer have the money to pay for the review center. I can’t get out of the house because I don’t have the money to pay for my fare. I was devastated because I was having issues with my father before he died. I was so sad, I wanted to give up.

My friends told me to continue studying, which I did on my own. They helped me and gave me tips on what to review. But when the application for the exam came, I wanted to back out. I was not prepared.

They told me that if I take the exam, I got nothing to lose. If I fail, it’s to be expected, I wasn’t prepared intellectually and emotionally. But if I pass, that’s one less worry to think about.

So I prayed, just as before. I know I did my best…and all the rest depends on God. I had to trust Him. I had to depend on His love.

The result of the exam came after a few weeks. I passed the exam. My friends were teasing me. They said I was God’s favorite because we have a lot of schoolmates who studied well and did not make it. Well, maybe, I am.

After that I applied for “real” work. I wanted a job that pays. While most of my classmates volunteered and practiced our profession I was applying in multi-national companies. I wanted a job that would support me and my family and I needed it right away.

I was hired by Pharmacia and Upjohn, a pharmaceutical company based in Europe, as a Territory Manager. The company was later bought by Pfizer Inc., the then number one pharmaceutical company in the world. We were responsible for promotions of ethical drugs to the doctors. It was like selling, but we don’t sell directly, we “sell” the studies and researches on drugs. We convince doctors of the drug’s efficacy by presentation of clinical trials. It was hard work but it pays well, so I took it.

Corporate life was an entirely different world. It could shake the very foundation of a person. Materialism, dishonesty, lack of integrity, infidelity and all the other “adult stuff” were an everyday experience. I needed to grow up and change…again and again.

Most of the time I still go back to my roots, where everything was so simple and life’s purpose was crystal clear…to my home, the Sisters of Mary. Many times I also have my own share of mistakes and failure but I’ve known what God’s love is all about…it’s unconditional. So I go back, I speak to Fr. Al and thank him because I have a home to go back to, where I was reminded to put my senses right and to remember the most essential thing…the invisible…the SOUL.

I may never have liked to be in the Sisters of Mary School the first time I was asked to stay there but I was glad because they made me stay. I could never imagine what had became of me if not…maybe my dream came true…I maybe married now with kids, washing clothes to earn money to help feed my children. I may never have known that a bigger world lies just outside my little town…a world full of wonders and surprises…a world where God sees me and smiles at me…a world where angels and saints exist in flesh and blood. A world where everything is possible…even becoming a saint.

***

NOVA RAMIREZ ESTABAYA
Batch '95 - Sta. Mesa, Manila
6/21/09

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