Till Death Do Us Part

By Christine Lagdameo

Ma. Elena “Marlene” Villanueva is a member of the Legion of Mary and the daily 7 p.m. choir of her parish in the Philippines. She was married to John Vincent Villanueva, a bank director, with whom she had two children. Besides her church affiliations, Marlene is busy being a businesswoman.

Marlene admits that they were not very active in church before, although they did hear mass regularly. Her faith was tested when her husband got sick.


John’s illness began in 2002 when he experienced uncontrollable spasms and tremors and muscle stiffness. According to a neurologist they consulted, there was no available treatment for this so he just underwent a clinical trial with medicines like relaxants, anti-depressants and even drugs for the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease. After two days of taking these medicines, John’s physical and mental condition worsened; he could neither sleep nor eat and started having hallucinations.

They decided to go for further consultation at the UCLA in the United States, where it was discovered that he was positive for Dystonia of Panay, a gene-related disease that originated from Southern Visayas. This genetic disease – rare in the sense that it is transmitted from the mother to only her male offspring, not the female – manifests itself as stiffness of muscles and nerves. The doctor at UCLA gave him Activan tablets with the warning that this was not yet proven to be the right medicine for the disease. True enough, John’s tremors became more frequent until he couldn’t walk anymore.

During this time, Marlene attended one of their action group meetings for Lent; their topic was the Cross of Jesus. She shared that she was willing to carry the Cross of Jesus and prayed and asked the Lord for John’s physical healing. She also went to Baclaran to pray for the recovery of her husband.

Marlene’s greatest fear happened on December 7, 2002 – while eating, John suddenly collapsed. She thought that he had just fallen asleep so they put him in bed, but they noticed that he was not breathing and that his nails had turned blue-violet. They immediately rushed him to the hospital.

While the emergency staff was trying to revive him, Marlene prayed, “Lord, you are kind and forgiving, have great love for those who call to you…” After ten minutes, John’s heartbeat and pulse returned, but he had already gone into a coma due to the lack of oxygen in his brain. He was later transferred to another hospital, at which point his condition developed into a full-blown pneumonia. Infection and fever were high. He underwent gastrostomy so that he can be given food, and tracheostomy so that the fluid in his lungs could be suctioned out. The doctors said that while John would be able to live, he will not be able to see again.

On January 2003, Marlene decided to bring him home, believing that a home and family atmosphere will help a lot in his recovery. On March 2003, John woke up. He was able to see but unable still to talk.

One Sunday afternoon, while Marlene was reading to John a book on Mama Mary’s apparitions, he started calling her “mommy” repeatedly. In disbelief, she called her daughter in the other room and when he saw her, he softly whispered her name. They jumped and cried with joy because of this development.

Eventually, they were able to put him on a wheelchair. By then, John was already able to read but memories of what he went through and thoughts of his condition depressed him. Eventually, Marlene sought professional counseling for John to combat his depression.

On June 7, 2003, Fr. Gerry Mascariña visited John and suggested that it would be nice for him to go to mass on his birthday, June 24, which is also the feast day of St. John the Baptist. They were able to hear mass on this day, and on First Fridays, and to healing masses.


On the Feast of Christ the King, Fr. Pete celebrated a thanksgiving mass at their house. That same night, John was again rushed to the hospital because of a wound on his finger which later showed that his tendons were affected. After several more tests, they were allowed to go home. He was advised to start with physical therapy (though there was still a small amount of liquid left in his lungs) because only physical activities would enable him to move again.

Marlene and their children prayed the rosary and novena to Our Lady of Mediatrix of All Graces every night around John’s bed. Their son also became an altar boy as offering for his father’s recovery.

Marlene and her family thought that John was already on the road to recovery. On December 29, 2003, finding it still too early for sleep, Marlene invited her sister to go out to buy supplies at a nearby drug store. When they arrived home, she checked on John who was already sleeping. She tried to watch television because it was still early but she felt that there was someone telling her to sleep already. A quarter before midnight, before going to bed, she kissed John and whispered “goodbye” instead of “goodnight”. She was bothered by this but somehow she fell asleep.

She thought she was just dreaming when a nurse woke her up at 12:15 in the morning and told her that John was not breathing and that he had no more pulse. She jumped out of bed, put the oxygen mask on him and, when that failed, even gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. But she noticed that his fingers and lips were already pale.

When the doctor arrived, she checked John’s pulse and declared him dead for more than 30 minutes already. Marlene could not believe it because she was till awake before midnight. She insisted on bringing him to the hospital but the doctor told her that doing so would only make John suffer even more because of the tubes that had to be inserted into him. The doctor also told her that at least he had a peaceful death. After this, they prayed the rosary.

During the funeral mass, Marlene complained to Fr. Gerry and asked why the Lord let John die during the Christmas season. In his homily, Fr. Gerry said, “Did you know that John died during the feast of Our Lady of Lucis? Because of that, John will forever be the light of our lives…” After this, there were no ifs, buts or whys for Marlene.

After John died, Marlene did not know what to do especially because she did not have a permanent job. At this point, she had lost interest in looking for clients but, miraculously, it was they who sought her out. Because of this, she was able to save enough for her family’s future.

After one year, another trial came into Marlene’s life: it was discovered that she had an ovarian cyst which had to be removed as it might lead to cancer. She was operated on and, fortunately, everything went back to normal.

According to Marlene, everything that happened to her was a journey of faith. Her caring for her husband was their journey back to Jesus. She believes that their marriage vows were made not only here on earth but also in heaven, and that they lived true to their vow to be together in sickness or in health, till death do them part.

Marlene developed a contemplative way of praying and she spent more time in the Adoration Chapel. Today, Marlene faithfully serves her parish church by singing for the daily 7:00 pm mass. Her faithfulness in the Lord and with help from Mama Mary, Marlene has already recovered from this trial and is now happy living with her two children.


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