Coming Home: A Study in Disaster

Nonfiction by | December 28, 2020

 

 

Every love has its landscape.

~Rebecca Solnit

 

In December 2014, almost eight years since leaving Baguio, I took my children back there for a quick vacation. It wasn’t my idea. As a matter of principle and practice, I do not travel during the Christmas season because all the airports and bus terminals and piers spill over with overseas Filipinos coming home to spend the holidays with their families. In fact, December is officially recognized as the Month of Overseas Filipinos. That year, 487,654 tourist arrivals were recorded. The Dalilings in the US were no exception. The parents of my ex-husband and the whole Filipino- Korean-American family of his sister Joy were coming home from Arizona so a grand reunion was scheduled.

My ex, Jeremy, wasn’t going to be there because he was still out at sea, where he worked as an assistant cook in a cruise ship, as an overseas Filipino worker. I didn’t want the Dalilings to think that I was keeping my children from them, so I agreed to go despite all my reasons not to. Jeremy sent money for the airfare of the kids.

One week before their flight, I was informed that his parents were not going to be there after all because Papa was still waiting for his immigration interview to be scheduled. It would have been a greater loss if he had left and it pushed through during his absence. He would have had to go back to the end of the line. So the reunion was reduced in scale. I almost decided not to go anymore, but I didnt want to waste our tickets, which cost twice as much because of peak-season demand. It hinted at a disaster waiting to happen.

“Disaster [is] a processual phenomenon rather than an event that is isolated and temporally demarcated in exact time frames,” Anthony Oliver-Smith writes. Before reading this I didn’t think “processual” was a word. But there it is.

Taken out of the context of natural disasters, it suggests that our trip back to Baguio wasn’t a disaster per se. Each of the events in that trip was part of a process that actually goes back in time, to my marriage and how it failed.

A few days after we had left Baguio to move to Davao in 2007, my mother-in-law sent me a text message saying, “We are still recuperating from our lost to you.” I still believe that she meant “from losing you,” but maybe that was really at the heart of the problem. Aside from the miscommunication wrought by translation, my marriage to their son was a battle with them from the beginning and now that I was gone, they had lost it. But didn’t they actually win it? I threw in the towel after one dead dog, two hybrid children, four transient houses, and seven years of struggling to make it work. It wasn’t how I wanted it to go. I still remembered all our good intentions when I decided to merge my Manila girl with their handsome Igorot boy.

She also wrote, “How I wish I have done more . . . you must know that your Papa and I suffered most.” Even in the suffering, they had to win. I assured her that they were not to blame for what happened. We really should never have lived with them in their house when we returned to Baguio to try to save our marriage. Or maybe we shouldn’t have married at all. They had disapproved of it in the first place. They were right about the “curse” on the second marriage in the family within the same year. But it wasn’t about their family; I just wanted to stop trying. I lost.

I was not the one who suffered most.

Oliver-Smith says, “The question of time is crucial if vulnerability is to be considered essential to the definition of disaster.” Returning to Baguio with my children for a few days gave me a clearer understanding of the battle. No matter how much I wanted to make light of it, we remained vulnerable to aggravating factors during that trip. If Jeremy had been there, it would have made more sense. I would not have had to come. Have I mentioned I didn’t want to go?

I had actually gone back to Baguio on a side trip two years before, for nine hours. I didn’t tell any of them. Even though the bus trip was longer than my visit (normally six hours each way), I just wanted to spend some time with my dear friends, eat strawberries, and buy coffee beans. I didn’t have time for pleasantries that I had already rejected. But the December trip promised to be all about pleasantries.

Their family, like many Filipino families, had always been about ignoring the elephant in the room. They liked to act as if the elephant can be part of the home décor. That was why I never fit in. I was the one who kept shouting, “Look at that monstrosity! Do something!” Or else I was, in fact, the elephant. I should have been grateful for the tolerance. But I didn’t want to disappear into Gilman’s “yellow wallpaper.” It was only a matter of time.

Eight years after the disaster of our leaving, we were in postrehabilitation. I felt strong enough to go back to the old house and mingle. I had once written a poem, “To Get to Our House,” about the road home, the home in which I felt most alienated. I searched for the old markers:

find the house of

Muling Ligaya,

pass the Calvary

Tabernacle Church,

the Assembly of God,

the Bible Believing Baptist Mission, rising from the ashes

of a long-abandoned structure.

Finally, our Lady of Fatima,

at the jeepney turning point.

 

They were all still there, and standing more impressive, perhaps testament to the tenacious faith of the community. And the winding Mangga Road down was still planted to jackfruit trees, but the narra tree marking the junction between Upper and Lower Mangga was much taller than it used to be. I stopped there to take photos of the view of the mountains, but also to take a breath before I entered the old neighborhood. I had sent the kids ahead so they could spend time with their cousins while I stayed in the transient room I had rented for the week.

The neighborhood had changed quite a bit, with the neighbors building concrete fences. Good fences make good neighbors, I thought. I really couldn’t remember how to get to the house. Hoping they didn’t have ferocious dogs, I entered one of the houses with an open gate to ask where the Daliling house was. When I finally found it, I was surprised by the home renovation: a new porch, a new kitchen, and a new bathroom with a separate toilet. By then, only one family lived there, where there used to be two plus one bachelor brother, and which doubled during the Christmas holidays. Maybe this was the new “house of Muling Ligaya”—happy again after all these years.

As it turned out, the relatives from the US were leaving early on December 31 so the New Year’s Eve celebration had to be done earlier. But I had scheduled our trip back to Manila on January 3 expecting to welcome New Year’s Eve with them and to avoid the rush of travelers going back to work. I was not prepared to serve a media noche feast in a house where I wasn’t even allowed to cook. But no one in the Daliling family invited us to stay. I supposed that was fair enough. Why should any of them have bothered with entertaining us? They didn’t owe us anything. They had already hosted the reunion requested by the American contingent, which had left. They were eager to get some rest.

And frankly, I didn’t want to have to sing “Happy New Year to You” to the tune of the birthday song again. Besides, there was a better view of city fireworks from our transient room in the area called Military Cut-off. So I served a simple scaled-down feast of a fruit salad, bread, wine, and more strawberries than we had eaten in the past eight years. I apologized profusely to my children, who really did not care about the food, as long as I served Coke.

But I admit I felt sore about it. After all the trouble of making the trip, my children and I ended up spending New Year’s Eve in a stranger’s house instead of spending it for the first time in our new house in Davao, with my new partner. It felt like an evil plan, sabotaging our own “house of Muling Ligaya.”

What’s worse was that afternoon, when we had gone to the market to buy strawberries and gifts to bring home, Sachi’s new smartphone was snatched. It was her own fault because she had placed it in her jacket pocket and it took only two seconds for the pickpocket to take it. The guy was probably following her and just waiting for his chance, which she obliged. I dragged the kids to the police station to report the crime, but the police officer on duty only reprimanded Sachi for her stupidity. It was hopeless. Later, my friends said that it was no secret to residents that Baguio police were in on the profits from fencing.

Fencing can refer to several things, the most common of which is the barrier erected between two areas to mark a boundary and to prevent entrance. It also means the Olympic sport escrime that uses special swords in a martial arts dance mimicking combat. In statistics, it is “a value beyond which an observation is considered an outlier,” something that may indicate an error in measurement.

None of these senses connect directly to the crime, which involves the sale of stolen goods through a fence, the intermediary between thief and buyer. While the law has been revised to impose higher penalties on the fence, who is now considered an active player and not simply an accessory to the crime, it requires that the stolen item be retrieved.

For many, retrieval of the item may be enough to solve the crime. In fact only in exceptional cases are the police able to find the stolen item, especially when they do not try. I insisted on filing the report in case anyone in the police station was actually concerned about the number of cases of thievery in the market, where huge signs warn, “BEWARE OF PICKPOCKETS” and “KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR BELONGINGS.”

Signs that put the blame on the victim.

Feeling defeated, we decided to have an early dinner at a Chinese restaurant I used to frequent when we lived there. We all deserved a plate of lechon rice. After we had ordered, I took Raz to the barbershop down the road. I reminded Sachi to watch our bag of gifts from the market because they might be taken.

I really should have just brought the bag with me.

If I had any doubts that lightning could strike the same place twice, that evening I was certain. I just hoped that the thief might feel a little guilt when he opened the bag and saw the hand-carved driftwood crucifix I had bought for my mother. She had asked for that specifically to drive away the evil curses that she believed a neighbor had been casting on her. I knew we had to go back to get her another one.

My mother had never been religious when I was growing up. She never forced me to go to church on Sundays nor pray the rosary every day. I liked that she was not a hypocrite like that. She knew she was living in sin, being a mistress, and it was no use pretending she wasn’t by going to church.

When I was thirteen, I decided I had to try doubly hard if I didn’t want to go to hell. I joined the parish choir and served in the 6 p.m. Mass every day, sometimes as offertory collector and as lector. As if that weren’t enough, I also attended the Friday prayer meetings after Mass, where we sang and lifted up our hands in praise, and cried to show remorse and joy at the same time. I joined a Life in the Spirit seminar where I pretended I had received the gift of tongues by speaking in gibberish. It was there that I got my first menstrual period. That was the true gift of the Spirit but I didn’t recognize it at the time—it was not listed in the Bible. I read the Bible from cover to cover, using a special colored pencil to mark verses like: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future,” and “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

My friends and I played Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” record backward on the player and heard the masked Satanic reversed message, “Dog si natas” (Satan is god), over and over so we burned the record, along with “Hotel California” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” We listened only to Amy Grant from then on.

I hoped my fervent devotion would save me from my mother’s sinfulness.

I learned later that it was my own “sinfulness” I should have worried about. By the time I was sixteen, I had lost Jesus. Or Jesus had lost me. Depending on who was looking.

My children and I ate our New Year’s Eve dinner sullenly. I cursed my decision to come to Baguio. I declared it our worst New Year’s Eve ever, one like Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” which “hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light” and no pasalubong for my mother. I declined an invitation from an old friend to spend New Year’s Eve with his family because I was afraid that our bad luck might come in three. I didn’t want to risk taking a taxi to a far-flung neighborhood near the Philippine Military Academy and getting mugged. I know I would have felt better spending media noche with them and not having to worry about preparing a traditional feast, but I was too afraid to take any chances.

So we made do with a meager table in a dimly lit room on the fourth floor, which had a terrace from which to view the New Year fireworks every household had. A fruit salad with fresh Shoga strawberries available only in Baguio wasn’t so bad. It never made sense to me to have a heavy meal at midnight anyway just because of a tradition. And the cheap wine I got from the old Tiong San supermarket somehow tasted better while watching the fireworks, even though the display was incoherent. Living in Davao, where fireworks are illegal, has made us an audience easy to please.

We went to bed feeling grateful to be together, just the three of us, not having to be nice to anyone just because they’re relatives. So much of the Philippines is propped up by empty family traditions; it’s like the traditional Christmas lantern, the parol, and its hollow bamboo stick base. And yet it does serve to illuminate the dark; it may just be a matter of seeing.

I promised myself I would prepare a proper table on the (real) Lunar New Year in our new house, where instead of fireworks, we would bang our stainless steel washbasins to drive away the bad luck of the past.

Bad luck did come in three that day. At around 4 a.m., I was roused by Sachi’s whimpering. I thought she was crying belatedly over the loss of her phone. When I checked on her, she said her left ear was painful, like it was being poked with a barbecue stick. I gave her a painkiller so we could all get some more sleep before going to the hospital.

We spent New Year’s Day in the emergency room of Baguio General Hospital, along with some victims of firecracker accidents. Sachi’s complaint seemed trivial alongside patients with bleeding hands, but I was grateful the doctor who attended to her didn’t rush through the examination, for which we did not have to pay a peso. It turned out to be a simple ear infection, which I hoped would easily clear with otic drops.

Even when she was a baby, Sachi had been prone to ear infections caused by hardened cerumen or the common cold. I’ve had to bring her to the pediatrician to irrigate her ears a few times. I wondered if it wasn’t because there were some things she didn’t want to hear. I admit I yell a lot at home.

I yell because I do not want to hit my children. But I know yelling also hurts. Every year I make a New Year’s resolution to yell less, but the older my children get, the harder it becomes to keep it. Yelling makes me feel like I have control. What it really does is make my kids afraid of me, like Raz, or defiant, like Sachi. The louder I yell, the higher the fence it erects between us.

The trip wasn’t entirely a waste of time and resources, even though it felt like it at that time. I was able to reconnect with my old friends, who were my true family in Baguio: teacher-friends, former-student-friends, writer-friends, lesbian-and-gay-friends, almost-exes-friends-if-only. Even though I’m not very good at keeping in touch across the distance, I never throw away any friends. I take every opportunity to reconnect and to feel at home somehow because of a shared joy or pain in the past.

Even more, we ate at every favorite restaurant and ordered all our favorite dishes because food is memory. I was sorry we missed Rito’s of the Baguio beef shank bulalo soup because we couldn’t find its new location. I really wanted Sachi to taste it because it was the dish I had craved for during the first trimester when I was pregnant with her. I ate it every day for two weeks and then I moved on to native green mangoes from Pangasinan. ‘Lihi’ is one of those Filipino mysteries no one can explain: why do pregnant women crave the strangest things? Some say the body craves food with the nutrients it needs to have a healthy pregnancy; others say it’s only meant to get the attention of our partners. Whatever it is, I did have the excessive food cravings for both my pregnancies. But I didn’t demand any extra attention from anyone else to satisfy them. Always the DIY kind of woman that I am, hormones notwithstanding.

On our last day in Baguio City, we had to go to the market again to replace some of the stolen goods. Got the second crucifix for cheaper with my sad story, but the carving on the first one was really finer. Part of me wished I had more time to visit the secondhand clothes shops, but I remembered that I was through with buying discarded clothes.

No, it wasn’t quite the disaster it had threatened to be. Every disaster is, after all, a matter of vulnerability. But after eight years, surely I had prepared myself for the onslaught of memories and the actual friction caused by our inherent differences. I was an outlier in that family and nothing was going to change that. All I wanted to focus on at that point was finally moving forward.

Going back there somehow showed me how. What my children and I lost in Baguio City was only the sunk cost someone had to pay.

And like I had learned before in Baguio, when we left the transient house, I called out to our karkarma spirits, “Umay kan, Jhoanna, Sachi, Raz! Agawiden! Awan mabat-bati!” Time to go home; no one gets left behind.


 

Jhoanna Lynn B. Cruz teaches creative writing in UP Mindanao. This essay appears in her memoir, Abi Nako, Or So I Thought, published recently by the UP Press. The book, revolving around the first ten years of rebuilding her life in Davao City after the end of her marriage, is available in Shopee and Lazada.