The 90s have become the perfect ice breaker lately.

Just mention to a random tito or tita anything related to it and they’re more than happy to regale you with stories about them playing jolen and sipaang bola in the street, watching rented VHS tapes with the whole barangay, taking the compulsory nap after lunch, and exchanging song hits and slum books.

Those who grew up when Dragon Ball Z, Backstreet Boys, and Tamagotchi were all the rage can’t help rhapsodizing about their favorite decade like it’s the golden age of human history, up there with the discovery of fire and the founding of Rome.

It’s hard to blame them really. Life was simpler back then. Malls weren’t as many. A movie ticket cost under a hundred pesos. Even without fancy gadgets and the internet, kids knew how to head outdoors and enjoy themselves.

Destined to fall

Notwithstanding Nostradamus’ prediction that the world was coming to an end in 1999, there was no stopping Jose Paolo Mungcal and Abigail Souza from falling in love.

That same year they met at an event for Catholic teens in Lucena, Quezon when both were fresh out of high school. It was summer vacation and their respective parents thought it a brilliant idea to expose the two to such an activity before they entered college.

It was love at first sight for the 17-year old bloke from Frisco. Until then PJ, as he was most commonly known, never saw a girl as pretty as Abi, as her friends called her. During the course of the conference, he stood by her at all times, fanning her, telling her corny jokes, acting like her one-man secret service – all signs of his growing admiration.

They became fast friends and kept in touch long after the event. And like all true 90s kids, they talked over the phone until late into the night. They were infatuated.

“The topics of our phone conversations would include favorite songs, colors. Very high school-y,” said PJ, laughing.

PJ, the player?

It seemed they were heading in the right direction, but things changed when PJ realized that college was full of, well, girls! This next phase of his life was a whole, new world waiting for him to explore.

All of sudden, he forgot about Abi, who was naturally hurt when the usual calls were no longer coming and she had no idea why.

“It may have been because I was too young then. I was immature. Right then and there, I stopped all communications with her,” PJ said.

To further cement the demise of their budding affection, a friend of Abi, who also knew PJ, revealed to her that he had a reputation as a player who had the habit of leading women on.

That was the only thing Abi needed to hear to convince herself that PJ wasn’t really serious; she moved on with her life, minding her own business as usual. The two went on to date other people.

It turned out they were both going to the same school which meant that their paths would inevitably cross.

To avoid what could be an awkward scenario, PJ admitted to doing an about-face whenever he saw Abi and her then boyfriend on campus. Though he knew he wronged Abi, he lacked the courage to face her and talk to her even after all those years.

“I felt guilty because of what I did. But in a way, I was also thankful that at least she had found someone.

Reunited at last

But an opportunity for reconciliation came after college at yet another Catholic youth gathering they both attended.

At one point, the speaker invited everyone to say “thank you” or “sorry” to someone in the crowd they felt needed to hear those words from them.

Upon seeing her in the audience, PJ approached Abi and apologized to her about the past. She broke down into tears, not least because she had recently broken up with her boyfriend as well.

From then on, the old friends renewed their friendship and made up for lost time. They became active in their youth group’s prison ministry. Around this time also, PJ made courting Abi official by formally asking her parents’ permission. They became steady six months later.

Highest of highs, lowest of lows

And since their parents were friends and were in fact members of the same Catholic community, they were all out in their support for their children’s relationship. During a talk in Baguio in 2006, PJ’s father went so far as introducing Abi to the public as his future daughter-in-law and proudly at that. It was clear to everyone that Engr. Mungcal wanted nothing better than seeing his only son and Abi well-settled.

PJ took it as a sign that he had his father’s blessing, so he lost no time buying Abi a ring with the help of a friend as soon as he got back to Manila. He proposed to her that same weekend.

He decided to wait until the following day to break the news to his father. The elder Mungcal was understandably tired after the hours-long drive from Baguio. Unknown to the young lovers, things would soon take a tragic turn.

On his way to the office, PJ received a call from his mom, telling him that his dad was dying and he had to come home at once. It was an aneurysm. He died the next day.

For PJ, it was the was the most emotion-packed 24-hours of his life. Just a minute earlier, he was walking on cloud nine, but in the blink of an eye, he was helplessly watching his unconscious father breathing his last.

“It’s difficult to explain the intensity of the emotion I felt that morning. I experienced the highest of the high and the lowest of the low within seconds,” reminisced PJ.

But despite what happened, never did PJ and Abi feel his absence as much. The wedding pushed through as planned. It was as if Mr. Mungcal was always with them in spirit, concretely guiding their steps.

Help from heaven

When they were booking their wedding at the church of their choice, the secretary insisted that non-parishioners like them could only marry at a fixed hour in the morning because the evening ceremonies, which they preferred, were reserved for parishioners.

Fortunately, the parish priest, a Franciscan who happened to know PJ’s dad personally, found out about their predicament. Without a second thought, he told the secretary to grant the couple their request and to even waive the fee.

If you think that was all there was to it, you’d be blown away to know that PJ and Abi’s wedding Mass was concelebrated by nine priests! PJ and Abi may have lost a father, but it seems he sent nine substitutes on the big day.

PJ was to learn later on that his dad had done so much for the Franciscans, volunteering his services for free as an engineer.

“I was thankful that I was able to listen to my dad’s talk [in Baguio] just one last time. Looking back, when he seemingly joked about Abi becoming his daughter-in-law, I’ve realized that was my father’s solemn charge for me. Doctors say that weeks or days before a person dies from aneurysm, he will have an indescribably painful headache. So my dad knew he was dying so he had to say it,” added PJ.

PJ and Abi’s trip to forever may have not been as straightforward as others.’ It has quite a few twists and turns, and even carries what seemed to be a tragic note. But love lives on; it always finds a way to be felt – in this world and in the next.

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