When you live a life that involves striving for achievement, there is a danger that you neglect family and end up being so obsessed with your “quest” that you miss out on what are truly the most important things in life. I am a prime candidate for that outcome. But in 1995 I met the woman who has become my soulmate, and to whom I am eternally grateful and indebted. It was not immediately apparent to either of us that “this is it”. For me — wondrous as Rena seemed, we had an age gap to consider, and more than that an experience gap. Her experience had been rich and extraordinary (see Daughter of Lawaan), but had not brought her much in contact with the world I’d inhabited. She felt the gap, so did I — but almost immediately I sensed that she had an exttraordinary spirit, and I was right.
So … here we are, 15 years since we met, 11 years since we got married. I am blessed with having a soulmate and sidekick with whom I’m so happy that we could literally spend the rest of our lives hanging out with each other and never feel like we need anyone else. I know that sounds a bit extreme, but it’s a conversation we have quite often. It’s extraordinary to never get tired of someone, never get bored, never feel anything other than sweet, delicious companionship.
As I write this it’s Saturday morning, I’m up early, and Rena is sleeping. It’s a good time to remind myself of thigns that I love about her. I’m going to list them in no particular order:
Things I Love About Rena
- Her laugh. She’s getting into her mid-thirties now, but that laugh sounds like it comes from the carefree spirit of a 12 year old. I noticed it when I first met her, and mistook it to mean that she really was still a child. Not at all. But the laugh is light, musical, innocent, and I hope it never changes. It hasn’t so far.
- Her strength. We have been through a lot on certain levels (not every level — health has been good, and we count our blessings for that), and there are times when getting out of bed in the morning is for me a challenge. Most of it has to do with the financial uncertainty that comes with being an independent film-maker who’s been successful enough to keep making films, but not successful enough to be able to make them without having to throw every personal penny into the completion. She has borne this burden with incredible grace. I feel I owed it to her to somehow get this part of our lives into a more secure place — but she never complains.
- Her willingness to try new things. Rena comes form a small fishing village in the Philippines and if she were like others I have known from similar backgrounds, she would be very cautious about trying new things. But she isn’t, especially when it comes to food, and her ability to recognize the “good stuff” is remarkable and makes it a joy to share the “good stuff” when we can afford it, which isn’t often.
- Her ability to get along with ANYONE. One of the first things I noticed about Rena when we first started dating is that she seemed to have a knack for reading me, and my moods, and knew just when to be assertive, and when to lay back and not push. I have seen this instinct at work now for 15 years and it never ceases to amaze me. She can turn a potential enemy or rival into a friend effortlessly; she supervises the tightest and most compatible team of office workers I’ve ever known; she gets along (more than gets along, actually) with three teenage daughters and a twenty-something son from my previous marriage.
- The way she picks up things and adapts: For example, the way she learned to watch football, and golf, and basketball, even baseball — all so that we could be together for everything.
- Her steadiness: The way she worked for five years on a cross-stitch for her family, a Last Supper that is six feet long and incredibly intricate.
- Her “babies”: The way she has names and personalities for her golf wood covers — Pong Pagong, a sleepy turtle is her three wood, Betsy, a very cute monkey, is her driver. She probably wouldn’t want me to admit this, but she talks to them on the course like puppets. And then there is Buboy, a cute little stuffed dog that isn’t a woodcover but looks like one, and whom she brings along as a good luck charm. Her ability to imbue these little creatures with life and personality makes me wonder what she could have accomplished creatively had her circumstances of childhood been different.
- Her love for her family in the Philippines: She puts them first in her thougths even though they are 12,000 miles away. She is the youngest of 12 kids, yet the one with the most education (jr. college degree) and the most responsibilities. She is on the phone with “the clan” four nights a week, always using cheap phone cards or skype, laughing and sharing and solving problems from half a world away. She sent most of her modest paycheck home for two years, designing a new two story block and mortar home to go up over the spot where the family’s native home stood — even designing the new home. She paid for materials and food; her brothers supplied the labor, and gradually over a period of years the transformation was achieved so that now in her village–where she was among the poorest families growing up–the Llevado family now lives in what’s called the “Llevado Compound” — nothing pretentious, but big enough to house multiple generations of Llevado’s, and provide a comfortable and safe haven for her parents who are now in the their mid seventies.
- Her ties to her home village: The way she loves her hometown It’s not just her family. Her dream is to be able to build a new church for Guinob-an, her home village, and to provide a playground for kids, something she never had.
- Her stories of her childhood. Her stories are amazing. We’ve all heard the stories from our parents and grandparents about how primitive their life was compared to ours, but Rena grew up in a situation that was so remote as to be almost other worldly. A quiet fishing village on the Leyte Gulf; 12 kids under one roof; no road in, no road out — access only by sea; no electricity, no running water, literally no money for months at a time; a father who paddled a one man boat out to sea and came home with sailfish and blue marlin strapped to the side, always saving some of his “baon” (rice and veggies in a pot) for the little girl who would come running out to greet him; a village under military rule (Marcos’ Martial Law) but under communist influence, with communist soldiers and community workers slipping into the village under the nose of the military, only to have the military attack, creating unrest so severe that the family had to evacuate to an even more remote island. Rena saw her first movie theater when she was 20 — a few months before I met her. And yet her poise and grace were such that I never would have suspected that so much of what was normal to all of us was new to her. Now she’s traveled the world and lives in Los Angeles, but she’s never lost that inner sense of where she is from, where her roots are, and where she will return when the time comes.
- The way she can still sleep late like a teenager. There is something about her spirit that lets her get up dutifully at 7am on weekdays, but sleep until 11 on weekends when I’m not waking her up and dragging her off. I can’t sleep past 8 even if I am up until 3; Rena shows no signs of “growing up” that way, and she’ll probably live longer for it.
There’s more, but she’s waking up now. Time to put this aside. Happy Anniversary!!