A lot of people compare my story to the fate of Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler in 50 First Dates. That’s an exaggerated version of what happened, but unlike that movie, my story is no comedy. It is, however, a love story.
Let me tell you about the first time I met Mae—well, the first first time.
I was the chief organizer of an upcoming hike. We call ourselves the Trailseekers. It was Mae’s first trek, so I did my best to be accommodating, but not more than I was with the other newcomers. This was, in my consideration at least, our very first date. I thought her attractive then, so after that hike I constantly texted her—under the guise of an organizer who wanted her to be more involved—about Trailseekers’ next dates and locations. But she never gave me the time of day: “Di ako sure.” “Bukas na lang.” “Ewan.” I convinced her to take our (so far unthrilling) conversation to Facebook, joking that this time, she couldn’t send me late replies because I could see whether she was online or not. We talked a little more, and it wasn’t long before we made plans for a second date.
This was in 2015, if I recall correctly. Makakalimutin ako. I’m not good with dates. That’s my weakness. Our meeting place was a bookstore in Parañaque. I spotted her with her back turned to me, rifling through the fiction shelf. Kinalabit ko siya. When she turned around, that’s when I knew I was in love with her. Some things you just know.
We shared a love for adventure, so we traveled a lot together. We drove up to Baguio. We went to Enchanted Kingdom. In fact, it was during our second time at EK where I asked Mae to be my girlfriend. In true The Notebook fashion, I waited until we reached the top of the ferris wheel to ask. “‘Pag ‘di mo ako sinagot, tatalon ako dito!” I quipped. “Sige, tumalon ka!” she fired back, giggling. We stepped off the ferris wheel no longer single but virtually unprepared for the storms that were coming our way.
In November, we found out that Mae was with child. We took it as a sign and made pilgrimages to our respective parents to tell them that we wanted to tie the knot. Neither side took the news well—they thought we were being rash, that we hadn’t known each other enough. But I was going to make Mae my wife no matter what they said. I was financially secure, I was sure I loved her, and I was sure I was going to love my child.
I took her to a jewelry store so we could pick out our couple rings. Sigurista ako, eh. I’d rather be sure that the ring fit her finger than make a risky surprise proposal. I don’t know what came over me, but I proposed to her right then and there at the jewelry store, with the couple rings we had just bought. I remember hearing the sales staff clapping and crying. That was it. We were engaged.
Then December rolled around. I was sitting on a wooden chair in my room after having come home from our office Christmas party. The next thing I remembered was my mother screaming for my father to call an ambulance. That was it. I was having my first seizure. The chair had fallen backwards, but there was a pillow on the floor, in just the perfect position to catch my head. Neither I nor my mother knew how in the world it could have gotten there. To this day, I still believe it was God protecting me from death.
At this point, the doctors of Makati Medical Center had diagnosed me with encephalitis. It’s an acute brain inflammation with a myriad of covert symptoms but extremely overt effects. The problem wasn’t that I had it; it was that my doctors couldn’t figure out what kind (viral, bacterial, autoimmune, idiopathic) it was. My spinal fluid was sent to Spain for examination. We prayed that my encephalitis wasn’t autoimmune—if it were, then we would have had to shell out literally millions for immunoglobulin. Mae started a GoFundMe campaign and we managed to raise P150,000, thanks to the help of family, friends, and kind strangers.
While I was confined, Mae visited me regularly at the hospital; staying too long would have been bad for the baby in her tummy. My parents marveled at her dedication, even when she was within her rights to leave and raise our child on her own. She didn’t sign up for this, after all. But she stayed.
I was discharged from the hospital with a small sense of relief. But encephalitis has no understanding of pity or empathy. I don’t remember when my second seizure occurred. Makakalimutin ako. When it did, it was Mae who saw me first. I was rushed back to the hospital, and doctors and nurses rushed to stabilize my condition. My parents were right outside the emergency room, peering through the windows. A nurse was screaming, “Wala na ‘to! Wala na ‘to!” which sent my mother into a crying frenzy. She thought I was dead. As it turns out, the nurse was having difficulty locating a vein in my wrist. So maybe my story could be a comedy, after all.
After my condition had stabilized, my parents, siblings, and Mae rushed to my side. One of the doctors asked me, “Sino ‘to?”
I glanced at Mae. “Sino ka?”
The second question I remember asking her was, “Bakit ang laki ng tiyan mo?”
See, I had my fundamental memories, but because Mae was a relatively new presence in my life, my memory of her had been completely wiped clean. My family was in hysterics when they realized I couldn’t recognize her. But I was calm, collected even. My past was a blur, so there was no way to go but forward.
Every morning when I woke up, I would find myself laying in a hospital bed with no idea how or why I was there. Bawat umaga, nagwawala ako. I would yank out my IV line and start screaming. So they had to restrain me. That didn’t make things any better.
One morning, something changed. I would wake up, realize where I was, begin to feel anger and confusion welling up, then see a beautiful woman sitting by my side, my hand in hers. I had no idea who she was. But seeing her every morning gave me an overwhelming sense of peace. I didn’t know her name—yet I knew I loved her. This happened every morning for a long time. Over and over, I woke up and fell in love with the same person.
At some point during this time, I forgot I had already proposed to her. I asked my dad to help me look for anything that resembled a ring. We found a heart-shaped plastic ring that florists used to attach cards to bouquet arrangements. I took that and asked for Mae’s hand in marriage. She laughed in my face. “Bakit ka tumatawa?!” I demanded. She held up her left hand, her ring finger no longer naked. “Naunahan ako?! Kanino ka nagpakasal?!” “Sa’yo!” she replied, and we shared a laugh. I had to regularly ask my friends who our president was. I told you. Makakalimutin ako.
I was confined in the hospital a third time. We had already known that the type of encephalitis I had was viral. If I remember correctly, I had a total of 14 seizures during this period. At one point, I was in a comatose state, and the doctors said that I would either remain in a vegetative state or die. Again, Mae stayed. She stayed until my condition allowed me to be discharged once more.
Last May, I married the girl of my dreams, just a few days before my son, Pio, was brought into the world. We planned it in a rush so that I could legitimately bequeath him my exact name, Pio Pamintuan. I believe it was predestined by God that my parents named me after Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, healer of the sick. I held onto a relic of Padre Pio during my darkest times. I wanted to pass on the name that gave me strength to my firstborn.
Today, I would never dare to consider myself fully healed. My family and I are praying that I don’t experience another seizure. I take anti-seizure medications daily, and I use memory aids to help myself get back up to speed. We are busy planning our church wedding in Pampanga this December. It’s my way of thanking Mae for everything she sacrificed for me and our son.
This chapter of my life has been difficult and traumatic, but it’s made me believe in the power of destiny. Mae and I were destined to meet, fall in love, and go through these trials. I found joy in falling in love with her every morning, and I would gladly spend the rest of my life waking up to her fingers intertwined with mine. I believe that God separated the head from the heart for a reason, that even though my brain couldn’t remember a thing, my heart knew that I loved her. Even when your own body betrays you, love will always, always prevail.