(I’d like to share with you a front-page story I wrote for the Philippine Daily Inquirer ten years ago about the inspiring story of Wawel and Mila Mercado.
(Wawel died in his sleep a little over a year ago, leaving behind a wheelchair-bound and mentally incapacitated Mila to journey on her own. Today, the two have finally been reunited, as Mila joined her beloved Wawel in the afterlife. They left behind only daughter Therese, now a young lady.
(I learned this morning from my Facebook friend An, sister of Wawel, this latest development:
(“Today, we celebrate the life of love and total surrender led by Milagros Ferrer Mercado, who joined the Lord this morning. She slipped away quietly in her sleep. She is finally re-united with her husband Wawel Mercado in eternal happiness.
(“Therese Mercado, their only daughter, requests for your prayers for the eternal repose of her mother…and father.
(“The Ferrer family and the Mercado family ask you to support Therese at this time of mourning.”
(May Wawel and Mila’s heart-warming and inspiring story light up our days as we go through dark episodes in our own lives. Rest in peace, Wawel and Mila.)
TO a serious athlete, a 5-km run is probably no more than a warm-up. But not for businessman Emmanuel “Wawel” Mercado who pushed his mentally handicapped wife Mila in an adult-sized stroller throughout a race.
The couple placed second in the recent Independence Day “fun run” organized by homeowners of Corinthian Gardens Village in Quezon City.
The Mercados had reason to celebrate. After years of feeling sorry for himself over what happened to his wife, Wawel has regained his zest for life and returned to the sporting activities of his early youth.
The 36-year-old Mercado, the general manager of Performance Network Inc., was a track and field and cycling enthusiast. His wife, Mila, 39, was, in fact, his No. 1 fan during sporting events.
Their lives changed forever six years ago when an amniotic fluid embolism in the brain after giving birth to their only daughter, Therese, left Mila wheelchair-bound and unable to speak.
One has to be either patient or intuitive to be able to make out the grunting sounds that Mila makes as she attempts to communicate. Strangers mistake such attempts for crying fits.
The damage to her brain also caused Mila to lose much of her motor functions. She has to be fed and cared for by two caregivers.
One can see what the old Mila was like from the pictures displayed in a corner of the couple’s turn of the 20th century-inspired home in Quezon City.
Gone are the bright, upturned eyes. What is left is a blank, almost vacant expression.
Her once perfectly even set of teeth protrudes out of her mouth, the effect of her having bitten into the respirator every time she experienced a seizure during the worst part of her illness. But her complexion is surprisingly smooth, almost wrinkle-free.
Despite her condition, however, Mila understands and is able to react to what is happening around her, according to Mercado.
“She still manages to chuckle when she hears or sees something funny, and is moved to tears every time I read her a touching story. In fact, she’s so easy to please. Feeling the wind on her face or being fed the food that she loves would make her break into a smile,” he says.
Wawel met the soft-spoken and hardworking Mila at an advertising agency where they both worked. The two dated for a little over five years before tying the knot on Jan. 2, 1996.
Alas, their wedded bliss was to be brief, cut short 10 months later when Mila slipped into a coma a few minutes after holding baby Therese in her arms for the first and last time.
“It feels good to have a baby” were the last words she uttered.
Mercado, who remembers his wife as “very cariñosa (affectionate),” regrets that he only began to appreciate the importance of touching as a means of expression when she was already in a coma.
“She was very demonstrative with her feelings while I wasn’t,” he explains.
Mila also enjoyed watching her then future husband during company-organized track and field tourneys. Years later after her near-fatal illness, when Wawel “wanted to regain a part of myself” through sports, he asked his wife to pray for him.
“I know God is always on her side. I told her about my plans, and she was very elated,” he says.
Race to understanding
Mercado is out to prove a point when he joins these sporting events with his wheelchair-bound wife: that families need not confine mentally handicapped loved ones and exclude them from participating in everyday activities such as malling, eating in restaurants and, yes, joining in fun runs.
“I’ve never felt ashamed to take Mila out in public,” he says.
“Yes, it can be quite inconvenient not because of her but because of other people. Curious stares sometimes make us feel unwelcome. And getting on an elevator can take forever. Compared to people in most developed countries, I guess Filipinos still have a long way to go when it comes to dealing with the disabled.”
Most shoppers will not make room for the disabled. Worse, some people even try to beat them to the elevator.
But Mercado remembers being touched by the generosity of a father and his wheelchair-bound, mentally handicapped daughter. Seeing the Mercados’ difficulty, the man, who was already inside the elevator with his daughter, wheeled her to a corner to allow the couple to squeeze in.
Mercado, who was then still emotionally raw, says in hindsight: “I was so moved to even engage him in small talk. If I did, I might have ended up crying. People who have experienced a great deal of pain are the ones with enough space in their hearts to reach out.”
On sunny days, he would take Mila to the Ateneo de Manila University campus to soak up the sun and enjoy the breeze. During one such trip two years ago, Mercado saw singer Jim Paredes jogging on campus.
Seeing how fit Paredes was despite his age inspired him to return to sports. The problem was he could hardly climb a flight of stairs, let alone run a kilometer without losing his breath.
“I couldn’t even jog at first, so I had to go on a diet and play a few rounds of tennis before I was able to muster enough strength to jog,” he says.
Mercado’s Paris-based brother, who is into joining triathlons, pointed Wawel to a website (www.teamhoyt.com) that further inspired him to compete. The website introduced him to a 60-year-old father who regularly joins races with his wheelchair-bound, mentally handicapped son afflicted with cerebral palsy. This gave him the idea to raise people’s awareness by joining fun races with Mila.
It goes without saying that this experience has been a profound personal transformation for Mercado. In the beginning, Christmas and Mila’s birthdays were always difficult for him, which he spent crying and begging God for a miracle. He used Mila as an excuse to sulk and avoid going out with friends.
“I tried my best at first for us to live as husband and wife, but I found it so unhealthy,” he says. “By its very nature, romantic love is conditional. It expects something back in return. We have had no sex life since Mila became mentally handicapped.”
For Mercado, the change came almost four years ago the moment he began loving Mila as a father would love a child — unconditionally, without expecting anything in return.
“The biggest obstacle for caregivers like us is to get over our grief. If not, you’d be forever taking pity of yourself and get nowhere,” he explains.
“My [able-bodied] friends still manage to find reasons to complain about their marriages. I was also of the same frame of mind until I began asking myself what I really wanted in a marriage. I realized that one could still be happy even in the direst situations.”
Loving Mila, he says, is easy because she was and still is a good and patient person.
Besides, her condition leaves Mercado with no choice but to care for her. What she fails to give back in the form of companionship, she more than makes up for by imparting inspiring lessons not only to her husband but also to the people around her.
“How can you not feel uplifted with someone like her around? If she can still manage to laugh and smile at life’s simple pleasures despite her condition, all the more a person like me who can still move around and express myself freely,” he says.
On July 27, the couple will again see action in the Milo Marathon. Mercado, Mila and three of their friends plan to enter the 10-km category wearing orange tees with “Team Mila” written on the front.
At the back of the shirts is Mercado’s advocacy: “Let’s make room for the mentally handicapped in our society by sharing with them what we enjoy.”
“The name Mila summons hope. Mila, after all, is short for Milagros, which means miracles,” he says.
These days he prays for a different kind of miracle — a miracle of acceptance for the mentally handicapped.