We won’t see each other anymore. I’m lonely… I miss you… I love you.
For many years my grandmother often spoke these words after she moved back from the U.S. to the Philippines and especially after my grandfather died. Whenever I heard it, my heart would long to return to the Philippines just to see her and bring a smile to her face. And I did – once in 2007 (just in time for her 91st birthday) and again in 2008 (with my siblings).
After my conversion to Jesus Christ in 2009, I wanted to see her again with the hope of praying for Jesus’ spirit of peace and comfort to descend upon her and carry her through her final years. I had wanted to visit her many times for this reason but life, work and finances prevented me. I never imagined that it would take God’s radical intervention for this longing to be realized – so radical that I had to become a missionary to the Philippines!
Anticipating the busyness and demands of mission life, I didn’t think I would actually see my lola (grandmother in Tagalog)… at least not until November/December when my first year in missions ends. God, however, had others plans. Through Fr. Joe, our priest, GOD LITERALLY CONCEIVED, PLANNED AND EXECUTED a trip for me to see my grandmother in Tacloban City. I didn’t even have to do anything except come along for the ride.
It was in April of this year when my missionary sister and I found ourselves accompanying Fr. Joe and two others on a quest to find water for some communities in Samar province. Along the way to Samar is Leyte of which the capital is Tacloban City where my uncle and his family currently live. Father Joe had a jam-packed itinerary and so, not wanting to be an inconvenience, I was reluctant to ask if we could stop by Tacloban. With my teammate’s persistent yet loving encouragement, I finally told Fr. Joe of Tacloban City’s significance to me. Without hesitation, he agreed to make sure we had time to stop there!
From Camiguin Island, where I presently serve, to Samar is a very very long journey. At first, I thought we were only going to stop by my uncle’s house for a few short hours before we were on our way to Samar again. God surprised me, however: Not only did we drop by, but we also ate a bountiful dinner feast prepared by my uncle and his wonderful family. Afterwards, my companions and I were provided with a very comfortable place to spend the night since it was already evening when we arrived and it was still hours away to Samar. How incredible! Despite a very short notice, my uncle and his family gifted us with hospitality fit for the Trinity! God certainly takes care of his missionaries!
Me with my uncle, his wife and my teammate, Rebecca
Shortly after feeding us hungry travelers, my uncle brought me to my grandmother. Though excited to see her, I didn’t quite know what to expect because in recent years she had been suffering from memory loss due to her old age (98 years at the time of my visit) and could barely remember me. I had hoped that it would be different this time yet it was the same. Though painful, I was so happy to see her again after seven years.
As I had intended to do for many years, I “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears” for my grandmother (Heb 5:7). Together with my missionary sister, Rebecca, I begged the Lord to set her free from whatever ailed her in mind, body, and spirit, and to fill her with His peace. Even Fr. Joe joined in and gave my lola a special blessing.
Afterwards, my grandmother still showed no sign of improvement, even resisting our help. It seemed that our prayers had no effect on her condition whatsoever. I felt discouraged.
Early in the morning, right before we left, I decided to try once more. My uncle led me into the room where my grandmother still lay in bed. I sat beside her. With only a few minutes left with her, God quickly worked a miracle: As I spoke to my lola, she was able to remember me.
“Joan?” she asked.”Yes, lola,” I responded. Holding my face, not wanting to let me go, she added, “Is that you? I miss you… I love you.” For a brief moment, she remembered me and that was enough for me. “I will never see you again… I’m sad… I miss you,” she said a number of times.
“Don’t worry, la. You’ll see me again,” I said to her as tears rolled down my face, not quite knowing when we would be the next time we would see each other again, yet believing that somehow God’s will is mysteriously perfect.
Before saying goodbye, I hugged her once more as she lovingly kissed me as she had always done since my childhood.
I was so grateful to God for that moment because it told me that He had heard my prayer. Although brief, I knew that what I had experienced was just a small glimpse of what God was/is doing with my prayers for my lola and my sacrifices as a missionary.
As I had expected, that would be the last time that I would see my lola. On October 24th, I received word that she had been admitted to the hospital and was in critical condition. With faith in God’s will, I prayed. When her condition did not improve days later, I asked the Lord what I should do as I was unsure whether I should hurry to see her or wait. On October 29th, I was at evening Mass which was preceded by a devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. As I joined the people in prayer, God inspired me to think of how Mama Mary is with my lola in the hospital and how the angels are also in the room gathered around her at that very same moment. And as those thoughts came to mind, I believed them right away without question! After all, is that not what we ask Mama Mary each time we pray the Hail Mary – to pray for and be with us at the hour of our death?! Why then would our Mother fail us? Later after I received Holy Communion, I felt Jesus drawing close to me and embracing me as if to remind me that He cares about everyone who is precious to me including my grandmother. In His arms, I remembered that He loves me and that I need not worry for my lola.
Two hours after Mass, I received the call from my cousin – my lola had passed away. Heartbroken, I started feeling guilty that I had not returned to Tacloban in time. Thankfully, God quickly protected me from these harmful thoughts and reminded of where I was during the critical hours of my lola’s life – I was in Holy Mass, the highest form of prayer and worship, interceding for my lola’s soul with Jesus, His Body and Blood, Mama Mary, all the angels and the saints before our heavenly Father. “A single Mass offered for oneself during life may be worth more than a thousand celebrated for the same intention after death” (St. Anself). I was exactly where I needed to be.
With my team’s loving support, I went Tacloban to say goodbye to my lola and be with my family including my dad and my aunt who traveled home to say goodbye to their mother. Providentially, the funeral services for my grandmother fell during the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. God is good! My brother and cousins also were present for these events. In the midst of tears, we found many opportunities to laugh as we recalled stories about our lola and about our childhood in the Philippines. It had been years since we were all together but in our love for our lola, we found ourselves reunited again.
In sending me to the Philippines, I think God was not only asking me to be his missionary to the poor but also to my very own family. Even at my lola’s funeral services, several times my family asked me, the missionary, to lead the prayers. How good of God to have called me to this place and during this time as His missionary. How providential that I am here in the Philippines and not in America during my lola’s final year on earth. How truly awesome is our God who loves me enough to give me this gift!
When I said yes to foreign missions, I didn’t know where I would be sent. I knew, however, that the life I was choosing entailed sacrifices. With God’s grace, I surrendered to the idea of not being able to see my family and friends for an indefinite period of time. I trusted, believing somehow that God’s will is mysteriously perfect. And to my surprise, in saying yes to missions, I received more than what I gave up: God gave me the Philippines and, in effect, my family! This story is just one of the many stories of God’s faithfulness to me and the people I love while in missions. With His help, I want to share these stories and more with you in future posts.
I love you, Lola. Thank you for inspiring me with my first post.