Every parent who’s ever raised a child knows that it’s no walk in the park. Lack of sleep, late night feedings, and soothing your baby’s incessant crying are just the tip of the iceberg. As your child grows, you’ll have more pressing worries. Is he happy? Am I raising him right? Will he grow up to be a good person?
Now imagine doing all these single-handedly. While the ideal setup is for mom and dad to work together as a team in caring for the kids, some have no choice but to do it alone.
It was the challenge Gem Zapanta, 31, faced with her son, Aedan Pio. She shared on Facebook how lost she felt during this trying period of her life. “Nag-sink in sa akin ‘yung realization na mag-isa ko gagawin habang buhay ito. Nalungkot ako. Siyempre mas magaan kapag may katuwang ka sa pagpapalaki ng anak. Natakot ako. Kaya ko ba ‘to? Pano ‘to?”
One of the hardest things Gem had to do was to see her son go from one house to another to spend weekends with his biological dad. But that was nothing compared to what followed next. “What broke me was the time na nakabihis na siya with his weekend bag but walang dumating. He was waiting until evening para masundo but wala talaga. [It] happened a couple of times then I had to put a stop to it.”
“He just had a confused look as to why he wasn’t being picked up, but I felt and knew that I had to prevent further heartbreak for my son.”
Everything changed when she reconnected with Robe Zapanta, an old friend who worked in the United States, in 2013. In an interview via Facebook messenger with SmartParenting.com.ph, Gem shared Robe got in touch with her online, and they started talking about their failed marriages. He became a dad in 2007 but parted ways and divorced his wife years later.
“He had been a parent longer than me, so he was my confidant. He helped me accept the fact why my child’s dad and I couldn’t work out. He told me that while Pio’s dad and I stopped being husband and wife, that does not mean that we should stop being parents of our son,” Gem shares.
The reunited friends fell in love despite the long distance. Pio and Robe met for the first time through a video call, and they would continue to talk each time Robe called Gem. “[Robe] would always ask about Pio’s day, and the latest update on the planets (Pio loves the solar system),” Gem says.
In 2014, when Robe came home for a vacation, he took Pio out for a date on his own. “Robe was so patient with him,” Gem notes in her Facebook post.
The year 2015 brought good and bad news. Gem's marriage was formally annulled — it meant Gem was free to marry Robe. But in February 2015, her son, who was 4 years old at the time, was diagnosed with Chordoma, a rare type of cancer that occurs in the bones of the skull base and spine. According to the Chordoma Foundation, only one in one million people are diagnosed with the disease, and Pio was one of them—his bone tumor surrounded his brain stem.
Pio had to undergo surgery, and for a single mom, the emotional and financial costs were overwhelming. Throughout the ordeal, Robe was Gem’s rock. “He helped me raise funds for Pio’s first surgery and also helped me think of ways to earn more so I can pay all the bills,” Gem shares. “Eventually, he convinced me that I have to open up to people as we needed all the help we could get.”
“Knowing he was there for Pio and me made things a little more bearable,” Gem explains. “I had someone whom I can cry my eyes out to and bare my soul. It was a big deal for me because I rarely open up to people.”
Almost a year after Pio's diagnosis, on January 9, 2016, Robe asked Gem to marry him. “I still remember the day Pio called Robe daddy for the first time,” Gem writes in her FB post. “They just woke up. Robe said, ‘Good morning, baby,” and Pio [instinctively] responded with ‘Good morning, daddy.’”
Gem tells us, “I think when Pio found out he proposed he immediately considered Robe as his dad. But after calling him daddy he felt shy after — matagal before he called him daddy again. He always calls him ‘Babe’ because that’s how I call Robe.”
Gem and Robe planned to get married in 2017, but in June 2016, the couple was told that Pio only had around half a year left. “We moved our wedding to August 2016 because Pio wanted to be the ring bearer,” Gem shares. “He walked me down the aisle while in a wheelchair.”
It has been two years since doctors told Gem about her son's limited time on earth and Pio continues to fight his prognosis. “Right now, the tumor is stable, and he is enjoying the extra time he’s given,” Gem explains.
Though Robe is out of the country most of the time, his relationship with Pio continues to grow. “Pio actually listens to Robe more. Ang mommy daw kasi paulit-ulit lang,” Gem shares. “He calls him ‘Daddy Babe’ now. They got closer lalo na when he was getting chemo. Robe would connect with us via Skype while we were in the hospital and Pio would say na nakabantay ang daddy niya through the tablet.”
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In her Facebook post, Gem says that whenever Pio is asked who his dad is, he would go into a lengthy explanation of having two dads. “One was his biodad. He’d say his biodad is one of the reasons why he was born. And the other one is Robe, his real dad. He’d say it’s because Robe listens to his kwentos always and takes care of him.”
As a single mom, Gem had fears, but she felt she could handle anything. She and her two siblings were raised by a single mom after all. “Kung ang mama ko nga tatlo pa kami, dapat mas kayanin ko,” she wrote.
But having Robe as her life partner and as a father to her son is a blessing that fills Gem with gratitude. “Robe is my best friend, my shock absorber. He is honest with me especially if I’m irrational.”