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There’s the Rub

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/ 10:10 PM December 02, 2013

One, it was the morning after Supertyphoon “Yolanda” when she noticed she had only a couple of pills left for her hypertension. And the night before, when the wind howled and she and several people huddled in the dark weeping and gnashing their teeth, had sent her blood pressure shooting up.

She went out not knowing what to expect, the radio was dead, the TV was dead, her cell phone was dead. She was shocked by what she saw, wreckage lay everywhere, the trees were bare, even the houses were bare, just skeletons of what they were, their insides ripped away. When she finally got to Robinson’s, the place was in disarray. Looters had already gotten there.

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The drugstore lay open, empty cartons strewn all over the place. There was nobody inside. She went to the corner where the high blood medicine was stacked—she had seen the store clerks take it from there countless times—and took several packets. Stung by conscience, she thought of leaving money for the owner but thought better of it. She suddenly realized there was no more law, no more order, no more direction. They had been swept to the sea. This was the end of the world. She had become one of the living dead.

Two, nothing had prepared him and his wife for the onslaught of  Yolanda. Of course the warnings had been there, but until it struck nobody really knew how bad it would be. He began to have an inkling of it only later in the day, when the wind that had been huffing in the distance, sending clothes and tarpaulin billowing with its gusts, began to swell in volume. Before long it had become a roar.

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Yolanda in fact brought little rain, just an occasional patter that stung from the force of the wind. It was really all wind, in ways that gave new, and nightmarish, dimensions to all wind. Nightfall plunged them into utter darkness, and as the wind rose from a loud roar to a shrieking racket they hung on for dear life to each other and to a post and prayed and prayed and prayed. Time disappeared, all they could hear was glass exploding, furniture slamming, the whole house rattling like it was being shaken by a malevolent hand. After a while, they realized they were in open air, exposed to the elements.

An eternity later, a pale daylight revealed what the storm had done. There was nothing left of their house, a two-story thing they had lived in all their lives except its posts and walls. The roof had been torn off and sent flying to God knows where. Doors and windows and furniture were gone, part of the debris that had collected outside, or just gone forever.

Getting back on their feet was the last thing they thought of, getting food was first. Miraculously, his bike was still tied to a post and remained intact. He biked around, and was horrified to see human bodies among the shambles, men, women and children caked in mud like a macabre waxworks exhibit, their bodies frozen in the various poses of agonized death. There was no downtown. There were no shops, no eating places, no ATM, no drugstores, no groceries, no law, no order. People just walked around aimlessly, or raided lairs of food, medicine, and money. This was the end of the world. He and his wife had become among the living dead.

These are but two of the stories I heard last weekend from Leyteños who are living with relatives in Metro Manila right now, for how long they do not know. They are by no means the ones to have suffered the worst fates. At least they did not lose their immediate families. But their plight pierces the heart anyway.

The thought of Christmas brings tears to their eyes, they say. Christmas is the birthday of the patron saint of their town, the Sto. Niño, and they cannot understand how something like this could have happened on the threshold of it. Every time he hears Elvis Presley’s or Rico Puno’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” says the person in the second story, he breaks down. Christmas is about going home, Christmas is about home, whatever you think home is.

It’s easy to say the only thing that really matters is that one’s loved ones have survived with lives, if nothing else, intact, farms can always be replanted, properties can always be regained, homes can always be rebuilt. It’s true of course. Nothing comes close to the life of family, you’d give all those things up in a heartbeat for any one of your children. But it hurts deeply to lose a home too, particularly one you’ve known all your life. And to lose it in this way, wiped out from the face of the earth. That structure isn’t just made of wood and concrete, iron and stone, it’s also made up of hopes and dreams, laughter and memories. You see it in that state, and a part of you dies.

But for all this, there is some comfort to be found in family. Or as is the case in this country, the extended family, the relatives in Manila and Cebu and Davao, the relatives in America, the relatives in the Arab lands and elsewhere. The kin from the mother side and the father side, the cousins and second cousins and uncles and second uncles, some of whom have flown from across the globe to bail them out in their time of helplessness and grief, all of whom have flung their doors open to them in their hour of homelessness and desolation.

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The joke that when you marry a Filipino you don’t marry an individual, you marry a tribe, is funny, and true; but it is also, in times like this, comforting and true. Home, said Robert Frost, is where, when you want to go there, they have to take you in. Well, here, home is where, when you need to go there, they’re glad to take you in. Particularly in unkind times like this, particularly in trying times like this. Thank God for family, the big kind or the small kind, say the survivors. Somehow it feels a bit like Christmas too.

Somehow it feels a bit like home too.

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