Featuring LIFE WITH MILA in Reverend Robert E. Smith III's own words ...
LIFE WITH MILA
Reverend Robert Emmett Smith III
On a summer day a few years ago, Mila and I stood beside a freshly dug grave at Woodsdale Cemetery on a hilltop near our home.
We were there with an elderly lady whose husband had died at Grafton City Hospital. Mila had asked me one night to come into the hospital room to pray for him, and so when he died his wife thought to ask me to do the burial service at the graveside. In talking to his wife to get some information about him for the eulogy, I discovered that this gentleman as a young man had been in the U.S. Navy on the battleship California.
The California had been part of an American battle line that destroyed a Japanese fleet in a ferocious night engagement in Surigao Strait in October, 1944 in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
So in my eulogy at
graveside, I mentioned that this gentleman had been one of the millions of young Americans who liberated my wife's country from a brutal Japanese rule. Mila was born in an occupied country but grew up in freedom because of the sacrifice of young Americans like him. I mentioned that Mila's father, Arsenio Jesena was buried less than 200 feet further up the hill and how appropriate it was that the liberator and the liberated should come to lie so close to each other.
I talked about how every blessing and opportunity in Mila's life and the life of her children had been handed to them by what this veteran and those like him had done.
This event symbolizes in several ways the life Mila and I live in Grafton, West Virginia - the connection to Mila's work with patients and their families at the hospital, the connection to Mila's father and her sister Pat which brought her to Grafton originally, my role as a Protestant pastor married to a Catholic woman whose Jesuit priest brother performed our wedding, and Mila's connection to her homeland of the Philippines. It also shows why so many patients and their families who come to Grafton City Hospital hold Mila in such high regard.
Just over a month ago, Mila and I visited a lady in a nearby town who had been Mila's patient for weeks before finally being discharged. Only Mila among the nurses had been able to make this lady smile and have a positive attitude during the time of her care. We had a delightful visit with her and her husband after doing our shopping and before heading home to Grafton.
A week later on Mila's birthday we received a call from the husband which Mila answered, thinking they were going to wish her a happy birthday. Instead, he told her tearfully that his wife had died that morning. Mila and I ended up giving him words of sympathy and comfort and the assurance of our prayers. At the funeral, I watched the daughters of this couple hug Mila one by one and tell her how much they appreciated what she did for their mom. The grieving husband sat with Mila for a long time holding her hands in his.
These stories are typical of the relationships Mila has developed with the patients and families at Grafton City Hospital over the years. She has been privileged to pay her debt of gratitude (utang na loob) to the veterans of World War 11 who liberated her country so long ago by her compassionate nursing care. Any time Mila and I are out and about in Grafton we will meet someone who will tell her, "You took care of my husband, my father, my mother, etc." And they are always grateful.
Of course Mila's special ability with people extends also to the aides, nurses and doctors she works with from 3PM until 11PM every night. Mila attends their weddings, wedding and baby showers, and she keeps a birthday calendar to help her know when to buy little gifts for her co-workers and to plan a celebration for them in the break room at the end of the shift. Mila takes pictures at all these events (with my help) and then makes posters full of such photographs to hang in the break room.
From the lowliest aide or custodial staff member right up to the doctors, Mila treats every one with equal kindness and dignity. I tell her that only she creates a sense of family among the staff on her shift. Of course, one of the things that helps create that sense of family is Mila's Filipino cooking, eagerly devoured by Mila's co-workers on these occasions. Mila will fix chicken-pork adobo or bihon, and the Tupperware dish always comes back empty.
Not long ago, I received from my only sister Betty pictures of our great-great grandparents from Alabama, William and Florence Pierce. These two wrote poetry and letters about each other to express their loving relationship. My great-great grandmother mentioned, for instance, that her husband for all the years of their marriage had eaten the same simple breakfast of cornmeal mush every morning.
She wrote in a poem about his patience and gentleness, this Civil War veteran who had survived the war's worst battles when her brother and a first cousin did not. I feel the irony that Mila and I now have a chance to write about each other the way this couple did so long ago. Instead of cornmeal mush we have toast and coffee every morning for breakfast, with whoever is out of bed first fixing it for the other. Ironically, I'm the one who cooks rice, using a rice cooker the girls gave us years ago. As for frying fish, Mila prepares the batter while I generally do the frying. When I used to come home to Grafton from a church job on Sunday evening from a town 100 miles away the vinegar smell of Mila's adobo let me know I hadn't gone to the wrong house by mistake!It was the smell of homecoming for me, and that smell was in my nostrils as Mila and I always hugged each other in greeting.
In our daily routine, I used to watch the weekday soap operas on TV with Mila in our downstairs living room, but lately I have gone upstairs during that time to listen to conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh. Later, I prepare Mila's lunch bag that she uses for her evening meal at work while she showers and dresses for work in our upstairs bedroom. At 3 PM we go a mile up to the hospital, taking turns driving our new car to give Mila more experience behind the wheel. She realized the need to keep up her driving skills when I got sick so often last year.
From 3PM until 11PM Mila works as the charge nurse on the hospital's medical-surgical floor while I get groceries, cut the grass, do house cleaning, wash dishes, do laundry and watch the evening shows on Fox News. At 11PM I drive up the hill and bring Mila home, where she unwinds by watching TV or getting on the computer while I massage her feet with lotion. We end the day by retiring to our queen-sized bed to sleep.
The daily routine I just described takes place mostly inside our house. Outside in our yard is where Mila finds peace and fulfullment in working with her flowers and in enjoying the beauty of the trees and bushes planted by those who lived here long before we did.
First in Mila's order of delight is what she calls, "the birthday plant", an orange, lily-like flower whose multiple blossoms grow at the end of two long, slender stalks. Its flowers always open during the 4-day period between my birthday on July 14 and Mila's on July 18. This year, there were at least 7 blossoms. Then of course there's the big Northern Magnolia bush, the dogwood trees, including a pink one, the hibiscus, or gumamela, as it's called in the Philippines, and the Rhododendron bush with its clusters of purple blossoms.
Mila and I make an annual pilgrimage every spring to various flower shops in the area and bring home a trunk full of pansies, petunias and other seasonal flowers. One of my enduring images is that of Mila kneeling beside a bag of potting soil with her rubber gloves and trowel. I always buy her a fresh Boston fern to hang from a hook on the back porch, since the one from the previous summer generally doesn't do well in the basement all winter.
We were grieved recently when a windstorm blew down trees in our backyard, damaging some of our bushes and forcing us to hire someone to cut alot of branches off our beautiful shade tree, a Catalpa with big heart-shaped leaves. But generally our yard, both front and back is a haven of rest and a retreat from the world for us.
Because the forest presses so close to our backyard, we are able to see deer and wild turkeys come down from the trees some mornings, especially when the chestnuts are on the ground.
The other times we leave our haven to go out into the world are when we celebrate a birthday or anniversary with Mila's sister Pat and her husband Sam. We often go to nearby Morgantown where we eat our favorite seafood dishes at Red Lobster, and then the ladies shop while Sam and I browse at a nearby bookstore.
Then of course Mila and I pack the car every few months and head for North Carolina or New Jersey to visit the daughters and grandchildren. We're planning a trip all the way to northern Florida this October for the wedding of my only nephew, Luke. He just came back from duty in Iraq, and like Mike, Tina's husband, he is a West Point graduate.
Closer to home, our outings also involve me taking Mila to Mass at St. Augustine on Saturday or Sunday, where the parishoners tell Mila that I sing the hymns louder than the Catholic men.I know the hymns because many of them are borrowed from Protestant songwriters.
Mila accompanies me when I am a guest speaker at different Baptist country churches. When I was a pastor for 7 years of one such church a few miles from Grafton, a lady there told me that if I left they were keeping Mila!That's the kind of hit she makes with people.
This summer in particular our home has been a place where our grandchildren left their normal routine to spend time with Nana and Bob. Tina brought Jacqueline and Kate up from North Carolina to spend more than a month with us at two different times. Emgee and Hugh brought Hannah and Sophie twice from New Jersey for shorter stays. They got to play with two little neighbor girls on their swingset and ride with them around their yard in electric-powered "Barbie" cars. Jacqueline and Kate have spent half the summer with us while Tina's husband Mike is in Afghanistan in the army.
Kate, one year old, dimples and all, has a way of falling asleep on my shoulder, so that I'm often the one to lay her down either on our bed or in her crib in an upstairs room. Generally speaking, she will wake up crying around 3 AM, and Mila will take her to Tina's room, where she will finish the night with Tina and Jacqueline all in the same bed.
At breakfast, Mila always cuts strawberries, grapes and bananas for the granddaughters. Of course the little girls all want to be princesses and dress in those costumes while they watch Mickey Mouse and his gang on the Disney channel. Mila and I get a real sense of satisfaction from being loved and needed by the grandchildren, even though at our age, exhaustion is a problem. When they are gone, we finally relax and are able to sleep through the night after setting the house back in order.
One of the trips we make out from the house has a particularly special meaning - the trip up to Woodsdale Cemetery to visit Mila's Tatay Arsenio. Sometimes we go with Pat and Sam, sometimes by ourselves.
Mila usually asks me to say a prayer at the grave. When I stand there with my arms around Mila, I'm reminded that this is where our life together begin, with her father's advice to come to Grafton if she ever brought her family to America. Her father's wisdom was the instrument by which God brought Mila and me together to give us this life we have in the West Virginia hills. I can't do any better than to let Mila tell it in her own words:
"As I look out from our "almost heaven" home in Grafton, West Virginia, I remember in February, 1982 at Tina's baptism in Bacolod when Tatay came to visit from Canada. He told me at that time that someday, if I should take my family to America to go to Grafton, because it is a small, beautiful, peaceful place - a good place to raise children and connect with my sister Pat and her family.
"I told my Tatay that my life in Bacolod with Baby and the girls was good, and I had no reason to think that I would ever leave the Philippines. Then of course Tatay died, followed by Baby a few years later, and everything changed.
"Now, I've lived in Grafton, West Virginia more than 21 years. My sadness and struggle in the past fades away when I think of the blessings God brought me with Bob in my life and the good lives the children have had and our five beautiful grandchildren.
"When Bob and I go to Woodsdale to visit my Tatay, I tell him of the joy and happiness I and my children have received from following his advice. In my "almost heaven" home I see that Father really does know best."