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Who’s Leila?

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Leila, The Boss Lady at Bethlehem

This is ME!

I’m in my room, it’s close to midnight but sleep won’t bother to come by. Perhaps, there’s something more to share, some deep seated experiences that should be known to a chosen few.

How do I begin, where shall I start? Let’s rewind….

I’m the middle child in a brood of five, four sisters and a brother. We were an average family. Both my parents worked as Rural Health Officers who barely managed to send the five of us to school. They made both ends meet by getting into a little enterprise along the way. My mother breeds hogs when we were in High School particularly to pay our tuition fees and other basic needs. I remember when we don’t have food on the table, I would be asked by my mother to go to the nearest variety store and be the one to ask the store owner for a can a salmon on credit to be paid later when my Mother has the ready cash. It was always me who go the store, maybe because I have this gentle persuasion stance that does wonders!

But generally speaking, my parents didn’t make us feel we’re poor. My father, when he brings home foodstuffs, it would always be in bulk, I vividly remember he loves to buy crops from the ambulant vendor on wholesale, he would buy the whole crate of fresh local oranges; the fish vendor, he would haggle the heaping tray of fresh fish at half the price and poor me would be the one to clean and wash the fish! One time he went to Naga City, and when he came home, he brought home loads of pineapples. My Mother, she would always consider Sunday a big family day, she would cook a sumptuous lunch and snacks and for dinner still.. I would always cherish those days.

My High school days were equally pleasant and wonderful to reminisce. When not in school, I was either in church for the weekly Legion of Mary or practicing in the Church choir as well as cleaning the church altar together with the gang. I love singing. Even in school, I’ve always been a part of the Choral, I sing solo in school competitions and Christmas programs. I was the lead actor in every play. Come to think of it, I was even a part of my sister’s play long before I started schooling. I was just 5 years old then, donning a rabbit costume!

Still during my teenage days, I’d also be in the river, washing clothes every weekend along with my neighborhood friends, they were also the choir members and Legion of Mary members too. It was more for fun and the bonding, not really to help doing chores. My childhood friends and I were closely-knitted. We loved biking too. One time we hit an ambulant vendor selling shellfish and all her wares toppled when we accidentally bumped her. We had so much fun and high school crushes ate up most of our waking hours!

I finished High School in our hometown and off to Manila for my tertiary, enrolled in the oldest pontifical university in Asia – University of Santo Tomas and took up Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Wow, I had the scare of my life as my school stands on a whole corner block of Manila, I was literally culturally shocked. But I studied well. I shared a boarding house with my Ate and Kuya and two female cousins still in a cramped boarding house along the university belt. It was a one room affair, my brother had the single bed, while the four of us would spread out the sleeping mat on the floor. My study table was our ironing board, and a rickety electric fan was the sole amenity aside from the electric iron to press my uniform. I usually go home on weekends. I miss the High school gang and the food my Mother would usually prepare. Taking the public transpo was already a struggle during those days especially on a Saturday afternoon rush hour. But I managed well. I was tough, Never in my life had I experienced snatcher getting in my way. I had fiery eyes, am not an easy prey.

In my last year in College, I was already a working student, When we had our practicum over RPN 9, the leading local TV station during those days, my mentor picked me out from the bunch of practicumers because of my feisty stance, my voice d wakes up the crew and talents especially during those unholy hours and my was I alert. I was the apple of the eye of Direk Orlando Nadres! I would go to the “Flordeluna” office in Makati (that’s my first TV soap where I started out as Floor Director) mid-morning until about 3 pm and would go to UST for my classes from 4 pm till 8 in the evening. Later in the evening, I would then proceed to RPN 9 studios and start taping from 9 pm until the break of dawn.. oftentimes, taping is stretched until 6 or 7 the following morning. But all my efforts paid off. I was the ever reliable pinch hitter every time a floor director isn’t available. That means additional talent fee! But that wasn’t too long.

Barely after only two years of doing TV work and juggling from one TV project to another, I had a freak accident. October 1984, when I was about to hit the elevator carrying in my arms a bunch of u-matic tapes for editing, I tripped on a soapy flooring and knew right then and there, my left leg cracked. An ambulance brought me to the emergency ward and the x-ray immediately confirmed my left femur was broken. Surgery ensued and life was never been the same. By the way, I had a congenital defect medically termed “Hemangioma” that caused the bone to become brittle. Days and months quickly went by, but nothing has really improved. Depression hit me like a plague. I didn’t want to eat, have lost all the zest in life and just cry each single day, I was utterly devastated, downhearted completely . It wasn’t easy to face the harsh truth that at the prime of my life, I was already prematurely retired. I had big dreams, I wanted to drive my own car, set foot on places I haven’t been to and just explore what is out there. The farthest I’ve been to during those days were Baguio and Bataan.

My left leg kept on deteriorating, atrophy even set in and as we sought a second and third opinion, amputation was inevitable. During those critical days, Fr Boyet, my mentor and spiritual guide was already by my side. He would fetch me at home, and we’d just be together. Together, we would visit the sick, stay for a while in the provincial jail for counseling and then we go home at night happy. Depression somehow is eased by his constant presence. He gave me a book penned by John Powell, “A Reason To Live, A Reason to Die. I was hit by the pages of the book, bulls eye. It opened my heart, my eyes, I practically looked at things and events that transpired and was resuscitated anew. Life had a new meaning. I was ready for the amputation.

October 1985, the surgery took place. After being wheeled to the Operating Room, my next vivid recall was that, I no longer have my leg. I am a one legged-human being. But I was brave, I was determined to stand up again and resume life as it should unfold. My surgeon assured me, I can be fitted a prosthesis. Physical Rehabilitation ensued. The Prosthesist had so much respect and belief in me, she says I was the only patient/client she had who had that aura, an enigma of sort. I was one of a kind. She even asked me to talk to her other clients, to give hope, to shed insights, to ease their burden as we were of the same predicament. I was just being me, I would casually say. Months after rehab, I was fitted with an artificial leg I fondly baptized “Big Foot”! After that, I came back to TV production no longer a Floor Director, this was more physical. I resumed TV work as a Production Manager and eventually Executive Producer. Life was again at its peak. I even got married.

The Asian Financial crises in 1998 made me think twice. I was already exhausted doing long days and nights of TV work and wasn’t happy at all. I’m becoming a slave of endless tapings and production work. I was restless. There was this gnawing emptiness inside despite the hefty talent fees. I talked to Fr Boyet and it just comes out so naturally, he says, why not stay in Bulacan, spend more time with your bedridden mother and help me out in running Bethlehem. That was in May 2000. After much discernment, prayers and leap of faith, I started working in BHB September 12, 2000. I was still unsure, but I have peace of mind! Days turned into weeks, weeks into months and I’ve been serving now for more than 11 years.

Doing mission was never a breeze. I have had dark nights of the soul, feeling unworthy even. Another tragedy struck October 2004, exactly 20 years after the bad fall. This time, it’s a car collision. One Sunday evening of October 3, almost midnight, just a couple of meters away from our house, we were hit by a pick up driven by a drunken driver. The front of our AUV was smashed, the windshield totally shattered, my face was covered with blood. When my husband took me out of the vehicle, I can no longer lift my right arm. A good Samaritan came out from nowhere, a van just popped out in front of us and we were brought to the nearest hospital, some two minutes away from the scene. I was bleeding profusely, I was crying — this is too much!!! I’ve been serving the Lord full time, my life, my heart, my soul has been offered wholeheartedly, Lord, why me, again????

Confusion was all over me again, but it was not too long. The phrase that reverberated in my mind, was this…I am the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word”. That was the homily of Fr Boyet that morning before the accident. I tried to be strong, surgery was again the solution. Twice I had to undergo the knife, to replace the shattered right arm bone. It wasn’t easy, but I pulled thru. I was thinking of Bethlehem, of Fr. Boyet, of the kids, of my family. I had no savings, but friends helped me out. A good kindred soul paid the whole second operation. God is just so good. He made all the arrangements. What can I ask for more! And who am I to ask for more. He has given me so much, in heaping amounts, blessings and tragedies commensurate to each other.

On my 12th year of being here in Bethlehem, each day is still a struggle, Before I enter the gates of BHB, I always utter this prayer, that I His humble servant would be able to serve Him without selfish motives, with sheer honesty and purity of loving the brethren He is constantly sending. This is tough. As if physical adversities aren’t enough, last November after finally having a long month break, I had another fall, I tripped while climbing a few steps, the result, the same arm broken after seven years was again fractured. No one knows the reason, I have no ready answer. It’s faith, plain and simple FAITH!

-Contributed by Leila Fernando-Tolosa