Back in America, President Nixon answered questions as to why the space shuttle program was the right step for the country. He told the nation that we should proceed at once and develop a new space transportation system. “Practical space utilization” and “valuable spin-offs” were phrases he used. About then, in Zamboanga, a fifteen-year-old Muslim girl came out of Mass with her Christian grandmother.
As they sat on a bench in Plaza Pershing, Susan stood nearby, buying a cup of fruit for herself. As soon as she paid for it and starting eating mango and pineapple with a toothpick, she noticed the girl with her head covered and the older woman with a crucifix around her neck, and said, “Excuse me, but I’m confused. I’d like to believe what I’m seeing. Do you know each other, or are you strangers simply sharing a bench?”
Susan was thrilled, and, as she said, puzzled. That Christians and Muslims could be related seemed impossible to her, but it wasn’t uncommon in Mindanao. Intermarriage between Christians and Muslims was common. It turned out that the girl’s mother married a Muslim, which again surprised Susan.
As soon as she got back to our room, Susan had to tell me about it. And she said it offered a ray of hope. This led to a long conversation about Muslims revering Jesus, without accepting His divinity. “I’m sure there are people who are trying to bring the two groups together,” she said, and one person that came to my mind was Fr. Deon, the Oblate serving Bongao. This led to something else. “We may be running out of time.” I know the phrase “running out of time” sounded ominous. Susan said that she thought it was too bad we had to leave the Philippines. And said she wished that I hadn’t become involved with Nick. She told me she was frightened.
I brought up the India-Pakistan crisis. I don’t know why I brought up the India-Pakistan crisis because we weren’t thinking about going to either country.
“You know, Ted,” she said. “I don’t enjoy your company very much anymore. You’re never satisfied with one crisis. It’s like you’re looking for trouble.” Also she said, if she had it to do over again, she wouldn’t have taken off with me to parts unknown …she wouldn’t let me lead her around, and she wouldn’t be so dependent.
She didn’t seem convincing to me, but I had no way of figuring it out. I had no way of knowing how she really felt. But I thought I knew her.
“I should’ve insisted you get a real job. I should’ve put my foot down.”
It was clear then that she wouldn’t tolerate much more, so I very diplomatically told her that I understood. Telling her I understood seemed like the right thing to do. I also realized she wanted me to protect her. She was scared and wanted me to protect her. I could see she was scared and was starting to act defeated. But then she found something…such as a Muslim girl going to Mass with her Christian grandmother…to hang onto.
“Why don’t you go back to the States and be without me for a while?” I said. “Maybe a sabbatical would do you good.”
“That’s a terrible idea,” she said. And perhaps she recalled how much she missed me the few times we were separated. But we couldn’t stay in Zamboanga, where stress was taking its toll … where we constantly bickered and when just getting through January seemed monumental.
“Ted, I wanted to get pregnant. You knew I wanted to get pregnant, didn’t you? We always said we wanted children. We’ve talked about. You’ve agreed. Maybe being in a different setting would help. Having a baby would add … would add a dimension that we don’t have now.”
“If you say so,” I found myself saying. “But what about the child? Are we mature enough for one?”
“Sure. Look how we’ve survived … survived so far. I’ve heard you say we’re not dead yet.”
“I thought you said that you were glad you weren’t pregnant. I thought we agreed to wait until we were more stable.”
“A baby could be a stabilizer.”
It was true. Having a baby would change everything. But I sensed that this conversation had nothing to do with Susan getting pregnant. “But we better cure the traveling bug before we have children.”
“That’s what I mean. It’s sensible. I thought we were a team. Ted, I don’t know how I could get along without you.”
I almost said “having a baby is not the answer,” but then I realized that it was dumb. If Susan were pregnant we would be delighted. If we had a child we would adapt. But it didn’t necessary mean we would have to give up our dreams. We would have to plan, though I hated planning. We would have to factor a child into the equation.
Susan had her own ideas … ideas about what it would mean (not surprisingly). I had my own ideas too, so there was nothing to be gain from discussing it. It wouldn’t change anything, or make us feel better. So it was better not talk about it. It was better not to bring certain topics. We better not bring up certain topics and maybe argue about it. I didn’t like disagreement, so it was better to avoid certain topics. Why bring up certain topics when we knew we would disagree. We were both changing, and can’t a person change his or her mind? What I didn’t realize was that she wouldn’t confront me until we reached a safe harbor somewhere.
“If we can agree on a place, I would be willing to settle almost anywhere,” she was saying. “As long as we stay put.”
“Whatever,” I said, without really agreeing.
But first things first. First we had to get out Zamboanga and the Philippines without getting killed. Too much was at stake to worry about anything else. And we knew we couldn’t dally. Now this was something we thoroughly discussed; something we hadn’t done before. We decided that we would spend a minimum amount of time with Nick and then make our way through the Sulus, as if we were typical tourists. Then I came up with the idea that Nick might want to leave the Philippines with us. Then he could go to the States, locate Elaine, and … It was an idea I had. I even thought of bringing it up when …
We bought our boat tickets in advance, two tickets, both ways, to and from Sitangkai, so that it would look like we planned to stay on the same boat and return on it to Zamboanga. We would make our escape from Sitangkai, the furthermost port. But where was Nick? It meant we’d have to cross the hazardous Sibutu Passage. But it seemed like it would work. Where was Nick?
“We could get kill,” she said.
“We could get kill walking across a street. Let’s not panic,” I said. “We haven’t left Zamboanga yet, and you’re panicking.” Where was Nick?
“I don’t want to meet death yet. I want to have children.”
“Susan …” Where was Nick?
We picked up our tickets at the port, which left us with enough pesos to get us to Sitangkai. We had enough pesos so that we wouldn’t have to sponge off Nick or anyone else. It was settled. We were leaving the Philippines. We would leave through the backdoor. In Sitangkai, we would hire a small boat. We made sure we had enough pesos to hire small boat in Sitankai to take us across the dangerous Sibutu passage. We wouldn’t worry about crossing the border legally. Now we had a few days left before our boat was scheduled to leave Zamboanga. So we had enough time to say our good-byes. But where was Nick?
On the day we bought our tickets, mail finally caught us via post restante c/o the post office in Zamboanga. Along with mail we hoped for, there was an old cable from my mother. Even before I opened it, I became very nervous.
“Son,” it said. “Since there was a telegraph strike and we couldn’t pinpoint where you were, we went ahead and buried you father. He died very quickly. In less than a week, he was dead, died of pancreatic cancer. He hadn’t been sick before.” I read it several times before I handed it to Susan. There was also a letter. The letter arrived at the same time the telegram did.
January 2, 1972
My dearest son,
I have bad news. To have to write to you about your father’s death is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. I hope you understand that we tried to contact you before your dad died, but he didn’t linger long enough and the telegraph people conspired against us.
In terms of the estate, I would be happy to send you a copy of the will. You are a beneficiary, next in line to me. I don’t understand why I’m writing about this now.
I am holding onto some of your father’s personal belongings for you. He wanted you to have them. On the other hand, it would be perfectly understandable if you didn’t want them, considering your situation and how storage for you is a problem.
We can find comfort in that your father didn’t suffer for long and is now buried in a plot with other veterans and within the shadow of Old Glory. I will be buried next to him.
With all my love and now sadness,
I no longer remember the rest of that day as I stumbled through it. I’m thankful that I had Susan with me. We almost forgot our differences. It was like we reached a crossroads.