>> Monday, August 1, 2011
I heard about the typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana) heading over to the Metro while in a cab, on my way to meeting a friend in Malate, a popular melting pot for creatures wanting to celebrate the end of the workweek. Naturally enough, the driver incessantly talked about the impending storm as he listened to news broadcasts over the radio - like how scattered rainshowers all throughout the day had already slowed down traffic everywhere, and that he had been picky with passengers - while I thought of cancelling the nightout as outside was hardly the perfect condition for wining and dining and wining. Though we didn't have a hard time getting to our destination, I still gave the driver extra knowing full well that all his whining and griping were meant to make me grateful for his saying "yes" to me in the first place.
I was craving for grease on my lips and so my friend and I found ourselves in TGIF. Besides, it was a Friday. What's a little pun? The smoking area opens to the streets and so the talk between my friend and I, after all the grub was consumed, gravitated towards people scampering in the rain amidst the absence of public transport. The rains were not torrential, not even heavy but enough to drench your killer attire and douse any hardened party animal's spirit. We then decided to head on over to Starbucks which was teeming with what appeared to be stranded commuters waiting for some letup in the dismaying weather. But the weather was in no mood to be unpredictable that night as rains continuously and consistently poured in varying degrees of patter. After a satisfying grande of soy latte and lots of pleasant tête-à-tête, we made our way to the heart of the district hopeful that, finally, we'd have ourselves some action which was still the object of our quest despite the soggy state of affairs everywhere we look and turn.
Minutes after settling down on the porch of a speakeasy, the rains began to pour. Seriously this time. While my friend had mojitos, I decided it was not the ideal ambiance for alcohol and would call it a night as soon as the rains slightly abated. We parted ways, uh, four hours later.
I trudged into my room at around 6am. It was already Saturday, the 26th of September, and everything's humdrum in our household. Yes, it was supposedly a stormy day but we have witnessed more swashbuckling winds and menacing rains before. I turned on my PC, checked my mails and logged on to HubPages. I was nearing 100,000 views and realized my first birthday on the site was also just a couple of breaths away. I was putting together a memoir-ish kind of hub in my head to celebrate my would-be milestones. A killer hub (blog) was on the way. Thinking about it now, I am sure I slept with a smile plastered on my face. How could I not when it was a wonderful weather for sleep and dreaming? But the weather went back to its business of being fickle while I dozed off, and apparently it had other things in mind.
my darkest hour
I initially thought I was only on my 36th wink when my sister pulled me back from lalaland. I looked at my watch. I had slept for four hours and thought it's probably lunch time and everybody was waiting for me downstairs (weekends are when everybody's home). It was indeed lunch time but my sister was on another mission. Apparently, water from the river had breached our street and she told me to start moving things from downstairs to the second floor. I looked out my window and saw several people, probably neighbors, in panic mode, wading in knee-deep flood water. Now we are no neophytes as far as floods are concerned. Over the years, we've plowed through various depths and were in fact not traumatized by the six-footer monster that came our way more than a decade ago. You can say we went all through dem storms and floods swimmingly. So, unlike the panic button-hitting people around us, we were calm but still calculating. Alert but not panicky. Everything we did was deliberate. Unfortunately, we so busied ourselves determining which things were amphibious enough to survive being submerged in water that we somehow forgot to throw a sneaky eye on the dark waters outside.
Faster that we can say "one, two, three LIFT" or "one, two, three PULL", flood water touched base. It was suddenly calf-deep in our house and waist-deep outside. The first few neighbors arrived to take refuge in the second floor of our house. As was customary (like I said, it was not going to be our first flood), we let them in and up with everything they managed to bring with them from their houses. We were nearly done putting nonsubmersibles atop tables, cabinets and beds when the second wave of neighbors turned up with accounts of the watery hell that's still gathering might by the minute just outside our door. That's when my family unknowingly lost grasp of our collective scout mentality. We panicked.
Hours that seemed like seconds passed and I was in the company of a woman who had just given birth to the baby she was nursing and three other families. We were on the second floor of our house, on the terrace, helpless spectators all of the hissing, gurgling, swirling and rising murky brown water. The children were crying and the adults were either praying or reassuring the children and themselves that, surely, the water will rise not higher than a full grown man. .My niece, who is in her early teens and therefore was not even a speck of thought when we battled with the six-footer monster previously, broke down when she saw the wall in our backyard topple over. She became hysterical and carried on convincing my sister, her mother, to brave the already chest-deep water and seek higher ground elsewhere. My sister relented like all mothers would in front of their weeping child no matter how irrational the child's request was. With only their safety on her mind, she, along with my brother-in-law, took off with her brood despite our pleas for them to stay put. I saw them being slapped by the current-driven water as they made their way through it. I was on the terrace witnessing the whole thing with a blank mind until thoughts of death crossed my mind. And it stayed there for a long visit.
My sister and her family had no choice but to return to our house. They were assisted by a stranger who submitted himself into a random act of kindness and daring. The flood continued escalating as the water unremittingly engaged in finishing off the last vestiges of hope we had remaining. When the water started devouring the space below the roof of our neighbor's bungalow house from across the street, we thought of fleeing. First, we tried to destroy the windows at the back of the house so we could climb to the roof. But the windows remained unresponsive. Then, deliverance came in the form of our next door neighbor's pink house which has three floors.
Blankets were gathered and tied together to form lifelines from our terrace to theirs. With the ends of the blankets secured on the railings of both terraces, and with the assistance of our neighbor's helper, we made the precarious tightrope act one by one. And the first to go was my 79-year old mother who said later that she had to go first to show my hesitant and by then less hysterical niece that if her grandmother can do it, she certainly can.
While I was waiting for my turn to get to the other side, I went back to my room and decided to let go. To let go of every possession that my room held and not anymore push, pull, lift, cover things to save them from drowning. My dog Coco had to be left behind too, on the terrace, as I gathered no dogs were brought by the other evacuees to our neighbor's place and I am nobody special. If there's one thing about tragedies on a massive scale is that everybody's equal in its eyes. It's like God in a way. And like any defeated man, I can only be fatalistic.
Our neighbor's roof deck has only two rooms and the rest is open space. Naturally, the rooms were reserved for the children and older women. The rest had to either take shelter under a makeshift roof or stay out in the rain. I stayed out in the rain with my mind going back and forth to some spam email I read heralding the end of the world. That, or eyeing the tree fronting our house. It was to be my Plan C.
In the gloaming, only a quarter of our our house is remaining. Our terrace is gone.. Where is Coco? People are on their roofs. Houses are carried away by the river behind me, with some bearing people on the roofs heading to God knows where. I see the tree in front of our house standing its ground. Gone are the birds. But still, it's the objective of what is going to be my last ditch effort at salvation. My sister gives me half of her biscuit.
People come up to me, in my place above a chicken coop, and start conversations. I do not know them personally but some I recognize the face. I assume they live in the shanties in the periphery, on the edge of the street, behind the walls of well-built houses, by the riverbank. I think of a social equality advocate and blogger friend . I must tell her that my empathy for those who have less materially, I realize, is built on romance. Their open faces, optimism in the face of tragedy, and sense of community are humbling. I will admit to her that most of the time, when it comes to issues close to her, my heart is not where my mouth is.
I become nostalgic whenever children are allowed by their parents to play with flashlights for I remember the time, thousands of years ago it seems, that it fascinated me, too. Pointing in every dark place and hoping to behold a thing of wonder or fright. I wish I was a child...no worries, no nostalgia for things gone, going and will be gone.
Darkness falls at last. I can no longer make out things from the silhouettes they form. But in my mind, I can see the familiar objects that the water and darkness conceal. I close my eyes. I am pretending to be asleep and hoping that my tears are mistaken for droplets of rain.
Knee-deep mud confronted us outside when most of the water subsided. Dawn was breaking and flood-swept objects abounded. The air was heavy with stench that's almost palpable you can part it with your hands. We made it back to our house after I scrambled up our terrace, down the stairs and pushed the bar and high chairs that rammed into each other and somehow settled behind the door that made it impossible to open it from the outside. With my back against the wall, I felt something snap in my back as I pushed against the furniture using my feet. Once we were all inside, an eerie silence fell and muffled the sound of children's voices outside who were poking at things wishing they were somebody's toys. I slipped into my room and surveyed what was left. Nothing was spared. I just sat there for a long time, only coming to when a little girl shrieked upon realizing that what she thought was a stuffed toy was actually a dead dog. So we all survived the flood. Even our dog Coco did. Apparently, she managed to get inside our house, into my sister's room and found Noah's ark in the form of a bed. The cushion might have floated in the water I suppose.
We had no electricity. The phone line was (still is) dead. Water from the tap was brown. Everything was wet or muddied or both. There was no place to lie down. No food to eat. No nothing. Only time and more time to wallow in misery.
The days that followed the fateful night were spent cleaning, discarding things, eating instant noodles and sardines from reliefs, and going to stores looking for batteries, candles, and rainboots. Unfortunately, most stores remained closed for a long time. Nighttime was a depressing affair as smell of decay was stronger and no activity was possible. I spent those moments building a new house in my mind. Or realizing the true value of things that I no longer have - photographs, letters, books, underwear.
because things could still get worse...
...they did. A week after the flood, I lost my dog. Since Coco's cage in the backyard was no more, I put her on a leash and made her a makeshift shelter beside our house. I cannot let her inside the house as endless cleaning was underway and my mother could not stand her labrador "stink". The day before we discovered her gone, I was even happy to notice an improvement in her appetite as she was mostly glum in the days immediately after the flood. All that were left were her leash and trails of paw prints. The first trail led to where her shattered cage and the other disappeared into the open space that came to be when the backyard wall collapsed. She was almost 2 years old.
Last Sunday, the 11th of October, my sister was rushed to a hospital. In another city. All the hospitals in our city were full and patients had to wait in line. She had been complaining of body aches and recurrent fever and was suddenly looking pasty. I was told later that she had contracted leptospirosis. And as if fate and time conspired to guide me to a nervous breakdown, I heard the bad news as I was witnessing a group of men killing a dog in the vacant lot across the street while a number of nuns were distributing food and clothes to shirtless children and their barefoot mothers nearby. At that point, death crossed my mind again. Coco's, probably by that same group of men, my sister's, by the disease, and mine, in the shape of my own hands. I have no idea what could have happened to me had I not called a close friend and broke down and let it all out.
the view from our terraceand still from the terrace
our ceiling had to be taken down to rid of the mud it housed
the street where I live, our house is on the right
Three weeks had passed but not much have changed. Yes, I have clean clothes, I can go online (thanks to my sister who lends me her laptop once in a while), there's electricity and my other sister had been discharged from the hospital. The house is still a skeleton of what it was before and the mounds of garbage and filth right outside our door still remind me of what we had lost. Looking back, I'm certain I was contented with my life then and not in want of greater things. But how do you begin again when you don't even have the simple things?
thank you for being a friend
You know who you are, my "virtual" and "real-life" friends. Your support, concern and bits of counseling made it possible for me to soldier on and find the will to write this. I have no desire to go back to that night and relive everything but I realized that ghosts would not be as they are if they had a place to go.
Again, my eternal gratitude to you all. Your names shall remain imprinted in my heart.
and by the way...
As I was writing this, I heard on the news that a new storm has entered the Philippine area of responsibility and that it could become a "super typhoon". Moreover, the typhoon's (Ramil) international name is Lupit which, in Filipino, literally translates to "ruthlessness". All I can say about it is that I just did high water, I could probably take on hell itself.