I have this image of myself as a five-year-old, a white handkerchief tied around my tiny wrist, the other end tied to my mother’s.
It was summertime and we were onboard a Sweet Lines boat coming from Cebu, on our way back home to Manila. We had to go home earlier than scheduled, so mom wasn’t able to get us our usual cabin. And since my mother never flies, it was the slow boat home or bust.
The only accommodation left were the yellow nylon military-style cots in a communal area indoors, and outdoors on the deck, with sea air and not air-conditioning to keep you cool. All night long, my right hand was bound to mommy’s left hand. When I asked her why this was so, she replied, “You might wake up in the middle of the night and walk off the ship.”
At that time I thought it was insane. I stayed up most of that night watching the stars and listening to the waves gently crash against our boat. When I became a mother myself, I perfectly understood how one would do everything to protect one’s own.
Cebuano is my third language, thanks to my mother who religiously brought me to fiestas in Mandaue from ages four to 12. Sitting in my aunt’s sari-sari store and gobbling up all the Chocnut and Big Boy bubble gum while listening to her tinderas shoot the breeze with everyone helped form my fluency in the dialect.
Thanks, too, to all the yayas and househelp from Bohol, Leyte and Cebu who helped raise me through the years. Because of them, everyone from those provinces I have met thinks I’m a native daughter.
Over these last two months, since “Yolanda” struck, all these childhood influences came into play as I found myself in Cebu, Bohol and Leyte practically every other week for one or another mission for my company, or on a personal basis. I wasn’t prepared for how taken I would be by these provinces and their people.
I liked Ormoc, especially, and our company’s adopted community in Albuera, Leyte. In a little coastal village called Sitio Lawis, I came face to face with and understood the true meaning of gratitude and Christmas.
Lawis is a fishing village that was 90-percent washed away by Yolanda. People live in makeshift homes covered by tarpaulin or what remains of the little pawid they can find. Children have no toys, but make do with what nature provides. Modified kites are made by stringing together torn-up plastic shopping bags, and dark-skinned boys chase each other by the shoreline, their kites flying defiantly against brilliant blue skies.
In Lawis, the young and the elderly line up patiently for shelter packs under the heat of the afternoon sun, waiting with great anticipation for GI sheets, nails and some other materials that will help put a decent roof above their heads.
Senior citizens wrap us in their warm hugs and thank-you’s for the blankets and towels we give them, effusive and so genuine with their gratefulness, as if they had won the lotto.
On the sidelines, children stare, bright-eyed with wonder at the colorful toys, and hug them with all their might. For majority of these children, it is their very first time to own such toys, and they squeal with glee, as if their hearts are about to burst with joy.
Our hearts, meanwhile, are humbled at all the gratitude that surrounds us. A little over 40 days ago, this was a community devastated by the world’s worst storm. Remnants of that fury are seen in the area which they call home, where debris and broken boats are still strewn about.
But the residents’ spirits soar like the defiant white kites that fly high against the bluest of skies.
“Thank you to your company for helping us. We’ve always known that God is good, and that He will provide for us,” an elderly man tells me as we watch the children line up for coloring books one evening.
He says his one and only fishing boat was gutted and rendered useless by Yolanda—and yet it’s amazing how much joy and peace there was in his face while telling me the story.
“Butang ra na. Kalu-oy sa Ginoo, mailisan na gihapon. Mag ampo lang ’at ma’am. Ang importante, kumpleto gihapon mi (Those are just things. By God’s grace they can be replaced. We just keep praying. What’s important is that our family is complete),” he tells me in a voice so thick with hope that I can almost touch it.
Good thing it is almost dark, and he doesn’t see me blink away my tears.
The most amazing story that came to me on this trip is that of baby Yumi.
Yumi is the two-month-old baby of a Tacloban-based medical representative in the company I work for. At the height of Yolanda, her Tacloban home was waist-deep in floodwaters. Yumi, then less than a month old, had to be raised above her grandmother’s head to keep her safe from the rising waters.
Yumi’s mother, who had delivered her by C-section only 28 days earlier, swam in floodwaters from one end of the room to the other to help keep her mother steady, lest she drop the baby. It was love, over and over again, from one generation to the next.
Today, all three women and the other members of their family are starting anew in their transition home in Cebu City.
Yumi’s story, and that of many others, told to me on the shores of Albuera, remind us all that with an unshakeable faith, unsinking hope and the love of a world that has embraced our collective pain, we can all rise again.
Wishing you all a very meaningful and blessed Christmas wrapped in the love of everyone you hold dear.