Wrote this two years ago when I spent Christmas in Iligan City to cover the aftermath of Sendong. Until now, the memories remain.
I have, as my friends call it, the Macaulay Culkin syndrome.
Every Christmas, I dream of not being home alone.
Since returning to the Philippines eight years ago, my December calendar is usually filled with four words – work, work and more work. It’s a way of coping. For years, I’ve stood by this rationalization that if I keep myself busy, I won’t have a second to feel the loneliness of not having a family to spend Christmas with.
My family lives in the United States. Rarely do they get to visit the country during the holiday season. So our Christmases are usually spent on the phone – greeting each other and trying our hardest to feign merriment just to hide the worry and guilt of being together at a time when families should. That’s the life of an OFW family. Well, in this case, I’d like to think more of myself as the OFW.
But this Christmas was to be different.
Remember that moment when Kevin McCallister, Macaulay Culkin’s character in the movie, wakes up on Christmas day to find his family there waiting for him after being left home alone? Well, I was to have that Macaulay Culkin moment. That one Christmas when you wake up and your dream is right there.
My family made plans to fly out to Manila to spend Christmas here. For the first time in years, I wasn’t going to be home alone. I took a leave from work. I made sure that the few days that they’ll be spending here will more than make up for all the Christmases we weren’t able spend together. With all the vindictiveness I could muster, I was going to put the past Christmases to shame.
But as they say, even the best-laid plans go wrong. They hit a travel snag and couldn’t fly out ‘till Christmas Eve. Which was fine. Delaying gratification gives things more worth, more weight.
But then Tropical Storm Sendong hit. December 18, I found myself being shipped to Iligan City to cover the aftermath of the year’s deadliest storm. Since I wasn’t sure when I’ll be flying back to Manila, my family decided to stay in the US and delay their trip for a few more weeks.
So at a time when I thought I’d be hanging Christmas decorations in our home, I found myself walking through rows of houses destroyed by the storm, visiting empty homes that reek of the smell of mud and death. Instead of attending parties, I was in funeral homes – counting cadavers upon cadavers. At at time when I thought I could have a whiff of Christmas, I was wearing a face mask to protect myself from the stench of decaying bodies. I wasn’t with family or friends. I was with strangers in evacuation centers. I wasn’t listening to Christmas songs. I was hearing stories, painful ones, of victims who lost their loved ones during the massive flood that followed the storm.
A few days ago, I was walking around Barangay Hinaplanon – one of the hardest-hit areas in Iligan. Not really going anywhere but just going somewhere. Out of the corner of my eye, there was a boy covered in mud. He was digging with his father. They were looking for their Christmas tree which they lost during the flood. Behind them was a throng of neighbors, picking up whatever they could find valuable in a mountain of rubble.
The boy’s name is JK. And at a time when smiles were a rarity in Iligan, he greeted me with one. I approached him and asked him what he was doing. He told me that he wanted to dig up their tree so that they could still have Christmas. His family planned on spending it together and he has been looking forward to it all year. He thought that without the tree, his family couldn’t have it anymore.
It’s strange how victims of calamities have so little to give but so much to offer. There I was, thinking of the what-ifs of Christmas and JK showed me what is. I looked at JK and I saw myself – a kid wanting to have that Christmas. That amid the devastation, confusion and the pain, JK underscored what’s important during Christmas – family.
I shared JK’s story that night in living rooms across the country through TV Patrol. Upon hearing his story, a kind-hearted Iliganon messaged me and arranged for money to be wired so that Sagip Kapamilya can buy a Christmas tree for JK. The very next day, JK’s wish was granted. Under their new tree, his family gathered and had their Noche Buena.
It’s far from what they had before. But it was more than enough for them.
In the darkest of times, JK had his moment. He woke up to a Christmas worth celebrating. He was Macaulay Culkin.
Of course, their problems are far from over. But at least for one day, one moment, there was hope. Hope that people will continue to believe even when tragedy strikes. Hope in strangers sharing what they have.
It’s Christmas today. I’ve received countless messages and phone calls from friends, family and colleagues asking how I was here in Iligan. Most of them in disbelief, others sympathetic, that I spent Christmas here.
Strangely, I’m alone but I feel right at home.
It’s not the Christmas I imagined but it’s the Christmas I needed. If anything, JK’s story reminded me that even when things get rough, we can still make that Macaulay Culkin moment.
47 days after and I’m back in Manila. Sipping a warm cup of comforting, overpriced, Christmas-themed coffee in an uppity shop where college students feign interest in stacks of readings, and journalists pretend to write. It’s a far different world from where I was in the last couple of months.
47 days covering a flooding in Zambales, an earthquake in Cebu and Bohol, and a super-sized typhoon of epic proportions in Tacloban. Hyperbolic statements can’t even begin to describe that last one.
But to better understand these 47 days, I’d have to do so using disaster-related units. I left Manila before Typhoon Santi hit. I came back way after Typhoon Zoraida left the country’s area of responsibility. In the alphabetized world of local weather-forecasting, 47 days is a lot of letters.
During those 47 days, my cameraman would often ask me when we’d return to Manila. And I’d nonchalantly answer him with the most noncommittal of replies: In a few days, maybe more.
When I got back to Manila, I wanted to write about stories from Tacloban that never made to air – stories about people that would hopefully inspire and engage others into action. But since I got back, I’m either mildly despising or just get virulently put off by every word I write.
I’d always tell myself that perhaps there’s a need to rest a bit, and take the writing in stride. In a few days, it’ll come. Maybe more.
But what else is there to say really that hasn’t been said by other writers, photographers and videographers trying to make sense of what happened in Tacloban? Much has been said. And I’d like to think that at the end of the day, no amount of justice can be done to the stories there. No verbose articles, no gut-punching documentaries, no heart-wrenching photograph, no bullet-points, no Venn diagrams, not even kindergarten stick figures. Nothing can properly explain or illustrate how much Yolanda has changed the lives of everyone caught in its path.
Weird how it took so long before I mentioned that name here. A name that you can’t say without bringing up the pain and destruction it caused in the same breath.
Over the last few days, I tried writing about that. About houses demolished to pieces by a raging storm surge. About tragedy not having any visible demarcation. About the dead bodies scattered in the streets of the city, waiting in vain to be remembered by those who loved them or even by those who knew them. Bodies waiting to be recovered and be given a proper ceremony for a life that was lived and abrasively cut short. About people who survived but were left to fight for that second life because of hunger, thirst – and the worst of all – sorrow.
But I couldn’t. I’d always end up Ctrl-Z-ing every pathos-filled phrase and punctuation.
I was looking at photos I took from Tacloban during that time to get some inspiration, maybe even a sense of sanity. And then I stumbled upon a series of photos that made much more sense to me than the images of tragedy. Photos that depicted hope.
Meet Cesar Cayanon.
A signboard painter since he was 15, Cesar told me that he lost everything in the storm – save for his life, a few cans of paint and a lot of inspiration. The day after the storm, he found some brushes from the debris. And so he painted.
“Hindi ako naniniwalang walang pag-asa. Nandito ang mga Leytenyo.”
Cesar hopes that with his signs, he can inspire others to stay in Tacloban and fight. He says it doesn’t matter if they win or lose in the end. The point is that they fight.
Meet Locela Domingo.
She lost her home from Yolanda. She sent her children to Manila to seek refuge among relatives while she stayed behind. She now lives in a makeshift tent in a sidewalk near the Capitol building.
She told me that she’s always thinking about her children especially now that Christmas is nearing. She’d describe the holiday as her favorite. Her family would be gather around the dinner table, and what little they had, they still found something to celebrate and be thankful for.
This year, Christmas will be different for Locela. With her children away from her, she decided to pitch a tree she found in front of her new home. Instead of the usual star, she placed the flag on top of it.
With what little she has now, she says there are still reasons to be thankful for.
“’Yung Christmas tree para hindi tayo mawalan ng pag-asa, yung bandera, para ipakitang may tiwala pa rin tayo sa bansa natin.”
And finally, meet Aoki and the rest of the Japanese volunteers.
It’s payback, they say. Filipinos helped them out during the devastating quake and tsunami in 2011. And it’s only fitting, they say, to be in Tacloban. Like tragedy, kindness has no borders.
The Japanese team’s primary job was to set-up a medical tent to offer aide to the victims. But every morning, the volunteers would find themselves some free time. And they would spend it with the children who were living in a nearby tent.
They couldn’t understand what the children were telling them about Yolanda. And the children couldn’t even begin to fathom what the Japanese were saying. But in Tacloban, language wasn’t a barrier. People understood what it meant to be there for each other.
Rumiko Nomura, a Japanese volunteer, said they enjoyed playing with the children every single day.
“I love to see their smile because even if there’s a huge disaster, you can still see them smile.”
Stories like Cesar’s, Locela’s and Aoki’s are in abundance in Yolanda-hit Tacloban. You’d see the best in people in the worst of circumstances.
You’d hear them and meet them, and suddenly, you find yourself believing that like everything else, this too shall pass.
Hope has a contagious quality. It reaches your black-forlorn heart, sticks to you and infiltrates your being in the most unexpected of ways.
Tacloban and the rest of the places that were hit by the typhoon has a long way before it recovers. Donations are still needed – from food and water to clothes and shelter. Vigilance is needed to make sure that the government does its job of rehabilitating these typhoon-struck areas and that they serve the people and not other interests. People who are still looking for the missing need a more systemized way of finding loved ones, to give the dead the proper ceremonies and the living, the proper closure. Creating jobs, fixing schools and hospitals, bringing back power – the list is endless.
It’s going to be a long time before anyone can say that everything will be okay. Certainly not tomorrow.
But with hope slowly creeping in, who knows?
In a few days, months, years. Maybe more.
Not today. But it’ll come.