‘Katas ng Saudi’
One of my earliest memories of childhood was snuggling close to my mother in a narrow, windowless corridor. The massive engine of the ship taking us to Manila hummed incessantly. The steel walls and the small improvised cot made from a thick sheet of plastic mounted on a wooden frame seemed to vibrate. My father was sitting nearby, trying to sleep amidst the noise.
Both my father and mother had resigned from their jobs at the Abuyog General Hospital after finding job opportunities in Saudi. I was 6 years old then, and my brother Tyrone was 2. Nanay, our grandmother, was to follow us to Manila since we were being left in her care while our parents worked abroad.
It was a year after the People Power Revolution, and the country was still in turmoil. Coup attempts were being staged left and right, and helicopters were often heard whizzing past our two-room house in crowded Culiat, Quezon City.
When the school year opened, I was enrolled in a public school near our home. While most children were fetched by their parents after school, I walked home by myself.
I couldn’t understand then why my parents were always away. They would just show up one day like an apparition, and shortly thereafter they would be gone again. I never dared to ask why they had to leave. I was afraid that I would not understand the answer.
Throughout our elementary years, only my mother, who stopped working in Saudi Arabia when she bore my youngest brother, took time to attend to our needs.
I had stacks of papers requesting the presence of my parents in school that went unanswered. My father was always away, and my mother was usually too busy attending to my baby brother. Once, I had to forge their signature just so I could attend an event to be held outside school.
It was not until some years later that I finally mustered the courage to ask my father why ours was so unlike regular families. My father’s answer was: “I am working abroad so that you and your brothers can study in a good school.”
“Why can’t you work in hospitals in Tacloban?” I asked.
“The pay here is too small,” he said. And the discussion was over.
My two brothers and I grew up while my father worked in Saudi Arabia for 15 years. In time I completely understood the sacrifice he was making, but the separation still left me with the feeling that somehow the solidarity of our family was being compromised.
Large suitcases and melancholy faces saying goodbyes became a familiar sight for me. But several years later it was my mother who was leaving again. She had completed all international exams while working at the Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center, and Global Nurses had found a job for her in Monroe, Louisiana.
A few days prior to her departure, I had to ask again: “Ma, how come you want to live in America? We are doing fine here. I am already working, and Tyrone is already in college.”
“There are better opportunities for us in the States,” she replied.
What could I do? Plans had already been set. My father and brothers would follow her in a few months’ time. So I watched my mother walk through the glass door to the check-in area. I waited outside, and watched quietly as planes flew into the horizon until they became mere dots in the sky.
To a casual observer, we seemed to have it all. We had two cars and we were living in a beautiful house. One picture showed my brothers grinning from ear to ear in front of a theme park sign, and another had my mother and father smiling broadly at Ted’s graduation from Neville High School.
“The truth is, life is difficult here,” my mother confided during one of our long-distance conversations. “People need cars because in small US cities, there is no public transportation. You need a credit history to get approval for a home loan, a loan which you will be slaving for years on end to pay.”
When my mother lost her job at St. Francis Medical Center, my father had to work as a dishwasher. US law requires a license to practice any profession related to medicine, and my father had only a license to work as a medical technologist in the Philippines. My brother worked as a janitor to help make ends meet. Unlike here in the Philippines, where you can run to your nearest relative in times of dire need, they had to face their problems alone.
My mother later found a job in a small hospital in Columbia, which also had a hospice for the elderly. They packed their bags once again, and moved from their apartment in Monroe.
Because college education was expensive, my youngest brother Ted opted to join the US Navy, hoping to get a tertiary education at government expense after putting several years of military service.
When my mother told me that becoming a nurse would secure my future, I resigned from my job in Makati, where I had worked for four years, to study nursing. I went back to Tacloban, and my parents supported my education.
Then financial matters created a rift between my mother and my father. And one wintry day, Papa moved to another apartment.
But the biggest tragedy had yet to come. One day I received a call saying that my mother had been rushed to a hospital after complaining of chest pains. Because she had no medical insurance, we didn’t know how we were going to pay for the tests to be done, medications and doctor’s professional fees. She was diagnosed with pulmonary embolism, and had to be confined at the ICU.
I could do nothing but pray. My mother was our breadwinner, and the money she was sending paid our bills here in the Philippines, along with our food and other needs and my 82-year-old grandmother’s medications. I felt so frustrated that I could not be at her bedside to care for her and at the same time afraid of what would become of us without her support.
On a Tuesday morning before dawn, my brother called to give me the sad news: My mother had passed away.
I wish I could say that our parents’ struggle to give us a better life by working for many years abroad was worth it. But I think we paid a heavy price for whatever little we got. We had been robbed of our time together as a family. I suppose it is an experience common to families whose members have been driven by joblessness, low wages and the increasing cost of living to seek opportunities abroad, despite the loneliness and the dangers.
The remains of my mother arrived a few weeks after her death. My father, my brothers and I were together again after several years of separation. We stood before her grave, with flowers in our hands. Our relatives wept. As I touched the urn holding her ashes, I suddenly remembered the day she held me in her arms while we were on a boat bound for Manila.
Thaddeus C. Hinunangan, 29, is a nurse and a medical student at the Remedios Trinidad Romualdez Memorial Foundation in Tacloban City.