Ana Francisca Castañeda-Lacanilao signs her emails off with “[Y]our white haired, 73 year old [d]irectress.”
Known affectionately by her students, their parents, and alumni (like me) as Teacher Francie, the founder of The Learning Tree Child Growth Center does her best to remain cheery—even when, as she says, getting old is hard. “[I’m] not so strong now.” she admits over Zoom, a knowing smile on her face. “But we have to cope somehow with what’s happening in the world.”
Teacher Francie is married to pastor and former Bible College President and broadcaster Mike Lacanilao, of GMA Balita fame (if this doesn’t ring a bell to you, it might to your parents). Surprisingly, the couple has only been married for 18 years—and Teacher Francie had been single for over five decades before Mr. Right “fell like a comet from the sky.”
A whirlwind romance
The school directress had gone out on dates and been courted by a few men, illustrators and UP professors alike. But none of them had really clicked... until a mutual friend offered to give her number to widower Mike Lacanilao.
“I said, ‘No way.’” Teacher Francie recalls, “‘I’m already 52! Who would want to meet an old lady?’”
Francie, I can be your driver for life.
But love works in mysterious and miraculous ways. Lacanilao was then living in the States, working as a senior pastor. The pair had their first phone call in May 2002—and with Teacher Francie borrowing a few words from Jerry Maguire, “[He] had me at hello.”
Thus began a long-distance courtship of overseas telephone calls and old-fashioned, handwritten love letters. “Pastor Mike would ask simple questions, like “Do you know how to drive?”” Teacher Francie recollects. “I’d say, 'Yes I know how to, but we have a driver.' And he’d retort, 'Francie, I can be your driver for life.'”
Teacher Francie’s friends and family had been enthralled—even more than she was! “Siyempre, pag kinikilig sila, kinikilig din ako.” the directress giggles. “But… there was peace in my heart. If this is who the Lord sent, then He would see it to fruition.”
Four months after their first “meeting,” Lacanilao would fly to the Philippines; he and Teacher Francie then met face to face for the first time. Even his proposal had been indicative of his quiet but straightforward manner.
“I kept wondering if he would ask the question: will you marry me?” she laughs. “Well, Pastor Mike is a man of few words; in a straightforward manner he just said, 'I love you and I will marry you!' Period. The nerve! He didn’t even allow me to give my precious 'Yes!'”
As Lacanilao flew back to the States to say goodbye to his church, Teacher Francie arranged for caterers, florists, and invitations. In January 2003, the pair got married only eight months after their first meeting. Teacher Francie was 53, and Lacanilao, 66.
On loving later in life
Teacher Francie and Pastor Mike remain happily married 19 years later. The school directress owes a large part of that to marrying at an older age.
“A big thing perhaps is you’re not as rash when you’re older; you become more patient, you don’t want out right away in older relationships.” she explains.
Imagine—he loves me for who I am. He’s accepting of me, he is so patient and loving.
The 73-year-old school founder claims that the concept of commitment is far more deeply set in older people with more life experience. “When you’re older, you understand more responsibility and maturity… you think about [how love should be] long lasting, even in times of affliction and disappointment. You go through it, weather it together.”
Being married certainly comes with its joys. For Teacher Francie, that joy came in finally having a travel companion. “As a single person I used to travel alone, but now I get to travel with someone, and it’s so nice.” she expresses with fondness. “[We] visited his children in America […] who accepted me; that was such a nice and good feeling.”
“I wasn’t afraid that they wouldn’t accept me kasi second wife ako; I think maybe because I was matanda na—that’s something that age does to you, I believe.”
Lacanilao would also bring her to many talks he’d been invited to, introducing her as his “second blessing.” In turn, Teacher Francie now found someone she could bring along with her as she brought her Angklung students to performances both within the country and abroad.
“He is so patient with me; he never gets angry with me. Nakakainis nga eh. Sana makipag-away na eh.” she jokes. “But what a thing, noh? Imagine—he loves me for who I am. He’s accepting of me, he is so patient and loving.”
“The way he will hold me and put his arm around me, that’s how he shows he loves me. It’s the pang-matanda na klaseng love, but I think that’s what love is all about.”
For better or for worse
But love isn’t always easy—even when you’re older and seemingly wiser.
Many would say communication is the most important part of a relationship, but Teacher Francie begs to differ—simply because her husband isn’t the verbally communicative type.
“I ask him what he wants, he says, 'Wala.'” She explains, scrunching her nose. “I can’t understand 'wala!'”
Instead, the white-haired directress puts emphasis on empathy and perspective. It’s taken from her experience in early childhood education; “You have to understand why the child is acting that way, where they’re coming from.”
She cites a light-hearted instance: “For example, when [Pastor Mike]’s eating, he likes to give me [some of his food], but in my family you eat your own. Yun pala, he just wants to share with me. Para sa ‘kin—don’t force me because I don’t like that food!” she laughs. “You see, it’s a different thing! Kaya you have to understand the background of that person.”
In sickness and in health
Love, Teacher Francie explains, is “not the flippity floppity feeling all the time, because that dies.”
“The kilig moments are there, obviously—I’m normal.” she jokes. “But I’m old… and later on, you’ll find out [in marriage, there] is truly hardship.”
Health is a more pressing issue for older people like Teacher Francie and Pastor Mike. Years ago, Lacanilao had undergone a quadruple bypass; Teacher Francie had taken care of him then.
And more recently, events have turned especially daunting, with Pastor Mike now afflicted with Alzheimer’s.
“It has definitely not been easy for me.” the directress tears up, though she still manages a smile.
“But even up to now na medyo [may] Alzheimer’s na, pag tinanong ko, 'Sino ang love mo?' He’ll say, 'Ikaw.' So that’s wonderful—ibig sabihin, love na love niya ako. Even if it isn’t the way I would see it in movies, or how people would normally communicate it in words… love na love niya ako.”
Now 73 and 86, Teacher Francie never runs out of things to be grateful for—whether it’s their stay-in caregiver or every day she gets to spend with her husband.
“Whatever time left God gives us together, we will continue to love each other.” she reiterates. “I thank God that I waited for His very best, and for bringing us together.”
Alone, but not lonely
She may be happily married now, but Teacher Francie has zero regrets about having been single for five decades. While single, she had obtained her Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD degrees from the University of the Philippines, where she later taught for over a dozen years.
Before Pastor Mike came around, the directress and founder found comfort in her family, friends, but, most importantly, her faith. “Was I in a happy place when I was single? Yes!” she says. Even when she was the only unmarried child in a family of eight, “I was alone, but I didn’t have to be lonely.”
“It wasn’t like I was walking around half a person just because I was single; I was a whole person doing what made me happy, what brought joy to my heart, and so it was a good thing.”
While you’re waiting, bloom where you’re planted.
But what about children? She had them, of course—through nieces and nephews, grandchildren, and soon enough, her students. After establishing The Learning Tree Child Growth Center in 1984, Teacher Francie was dedicated to “building young lives for God and country.”
“I did not have to look for love in the wrong places. I had a great career going, I was happily fulfilled, and single by choice.”
Blooming where you’re planted
After being single over half her life, Teacher Francie has plenty of advice for women still waiting on their Mr. Right.
“When you make a model in your mind of your Mr. Right that has all these qualities that you want, make sure that it’s not going to be all that you ask for, but it will be what God knows is good for you.” she says.
But being single isn’t the end-all and be-all of your life. “While you’re waiting, bloom where you’re planted.” she insists. “Do not think that there’s only one person who can bring the fullness of life to you, because there will be deeper things in your life and your own heart that no one else can fulfill.”
The school directress advises women on their own “solo flights” to hone their gifts and talents. “In this world, there’s only one unique you, so share what you have and use it.”
“Embrace your singlehood, because that’s where you are—a lot of people may want to exchange places with you! While you’re single, live your life to the hilt; don’t waste it.”