Sunday, October 11, 2009

Long story...


I received a letter last week (September 18) from Sage's teacher, challenging me to spend the coming weekend with my daughter without watching TV. My first reaction was, "You have gotta be kidding me." How am I supposed to bond with my kids over the weekend without TV? The answer to that question came really fast... about 150 km/hr fast.

I woke up that Saturday morning without seeing the sun. Thick sheets of rain roared down from the heavens. Typhoon Ondoy came knocking at our doors with gale force winds. We suspected there will be serious flooding. Problem is we still had no groceries because during the past few days, Ayheen was sick, she even had to miss several ER duties at St. Luke's last week, and Sadie, our youngest daughter, started having febrile episodes the night before.

Ayheen and I went out to buy much needed supplies. But the water level outside the village was already knee-high. We decided to go back and prepare the house before the flood breaches our front door.

The rain kept pouring in buckets (in the vernacular "Balde, balde"), the first trickle of flood water stealthily crept into our house through the front door around 12:30PM. Seeing it goaded us to move faster. We were playing beat the clock against Ondoy. The bastard was winning. But I told myself that was just round one.

The water almost reached an exposed portion of an extension electric cord lying on the floor which I had not noticed before. Fortunately Ayheen alerted me of the danger. and so I was able to get the cord out of the way. She's the reason why I didn't get fried last week (just imagine the kind of obituary I would have gotten. I mean, burning to death... in the middle of a flood?).

We only moved the essentials to the second floor and we asked the kid's yaya to cook anything and everything edible as fast as she could then send it upstairs. I can tell you now, in times of crisis, those omelets and hard-boiled eggs taste like million dollar Faberge’s.

We joined the kids and my mother-in-law upstairs just before the level reached the electric socket in the kitchen. While doing an inventory of the food we rescued from the ground floor, the kids asked about the whereabouts of Parrot fish-- their only pet I allow them to keep. Without second thoughts I ran back downstairs to get the fish and its aquarium. While my kids were in awe thinking how heroic their dad was in saving their pet, their dad was trying to remember how many calories does a very, very raw sushi have.


At one point, the flood water rose at a rate of 3 ft./hr. At that rate, I figured if we were to be rescued, we’d be on our toes… standing on the roof.

That’s when our brains clicked into survival mode. Our furniture and vehicle below were starting to swim in the flood but they were farthest from our minds. I started to pull out the curtains and strung them together as makeshift ropes just in case we need to tie ourselves together to prevent being washed away from our house by the rampaging floodwater. I looked for a large tarpaulin that I kept in the attic that would serve as a shelter above our heads should we find ourselves fighting for our lives against the wind and rain should we need to make our last stand against these elements on our rooftop.

We have an attic but the windows have grills. Should the flood reach that level we’d be trapped. I tried to pull out the air conditioner but it wouldn’t budge because it was awkwardly positioned. The part outside the house is slightly tilted towards the ground, hence pulling it out of its casing would have required superhuman strength. So I did what all other self respecting husbands would have done under such extreme circumstance—I called Superwoman, my wife, for help.

Together, and with the use of a barbell handle bar as a lever, I was able to yank the air conditioner out of its casing. As it slid out, the kid’s yaya Ning helped me carry it down to the attic floor. The air conditioner’s casing was extremely difficult to pull out since it was nailed to the window. The roaring sound of wind and rain was joined by the periodic, metallic clang of my barbell handle bar as I tried to use it as a pike to pry the metal casing loose. It took me a while to get the job done. Later, the neighbors told me they thought I was going desperately crazy by making all that bone chilling noise.

My mother-in-law was rock solid all throughout this ordeal. She kept on telling Sage not to panic, to have presence of mind because we might need to swim that night. She sounded like she was talking to Sage just before we go to her school’s family day. The only time I heard her voice falter was right after she lead the praying of the Rosary, she muttered, “Dyos ko, tama na po.”

The wind and rain were merciless. If I were to die that night and should the kids be lucky enough to live, they would remember everything I’d say, so I chose my words very carefully. To all my three daughters, I repeatedly told each one of them that:

“You are very beautiful. You are beautiful because real beauty lies within.”

“Dad loves you so much. But God loves you even more. Whatever happens, God loves you more than I love you.”

But the truth is, should we find ourselves that night outside the comfort of our bedroom, their chances of survival is practically nil. Sadie had fever and Tristan is just a babe; their bodies are the least prepared to fight the biting cold outside. In the cold calculus of survival, I will lose some of my family if we find ourselves trapped in the roof. And I will lose all of them if we get washed away by the flood.


Earlier that day I was thinking of the battle against this typhoon as a game or a boxing match. He was ahead on points and I had to hustle. I was wallowing in the illusion that I was living Sebastian Junger’s Perfect Storm. That illusion turned into a nightmare with the sudden realization that I can lose my wife, my kids, my life that very night. It humbled me. It depressed me. I felt so helpless.

We did everything we could. I already prepared my family and asked our neighbors and everyone within hearing range to prepare for the worst. The only chance we have is for the heavens to answer our prayers and stop the rain from falling. I found myself echoing the plea of Ayheen’s Mom: “Dyos ko, tama na po.”

I turned my attention to my kids. I may not be able to stop the rain, but I can try to make this experience less traumatic for them. I let them sing songs. I think their favorite was Taylor Swift’s You Belong With Me. My most important duty is to help them go through a rough experience without letting them get emotionally scarred.

Of the three girls, it was Sabine who showed signs of being distressed. She becomes reticent when she feels something is terribly wrong. Her eyes become alert… and terrified. Looking into those large brown eyes is like seeing her beautiful soul. That night I saw fear when I looked at her.

I tried to talk to her but for the longest time she stubbornly held on to her fear. She finally smiled only when I said that on her 6th birthday (October 30), we will go to CAMSUR so that we can go wakeboarding. That perked her up. She finally smiled and said she only wants to swim in the pool there. Sabine started wearing the inflatable rings around her chest and arms. She started walking around as if she were a beach bum.

(In retrospect, I feel so sorry now since I can’t make that promise happen. We have to wisely allocate our surviving meager resources and prioritize meeting our budget.)

The rains finally stopped furiously beating on us sometime that night (I couldn’t tell when since I measured the passage of time not by the ticking of the clock but by the number of steps in our stairs that the water level has reached.) But even though the rain has stopped, the wind was still howling. I knew that rescue will come not earlier than the coming dawn.


After a sleepless night, a cloudy dawn greeted us. The water level has yet to recede. And the rain occasionally poured down the water that has yet to be drained from the heavens, further slowing the flood level’s descent. As we talked among ourselves (our small neighborhood became tightly knit overnight) we started hearing the sound of helicopters mechanically chopping the air around us with their blades. They were flying so low, I could see the serial number near their tails. Sabine came out of our small balcony, smiled at the pilots, waved at them and playfully shouted “FOOD PLEASE!”

I guess the pilot scratched his head, decided that Sabine didn’t look the part of an emaciated flood victim, then tossed out his kitty of relief goods to the other side of the row of houses away from us. It actually made me smile-- Atleast my kids look healthy even if they are candidly caught by those big broadcast network’s cameras for their prime time audience.

But at that moment I did an inventory of our supplies and despite of my absence of actuarial skills, I can tell that we wouldn’t last a day without more supplies of water and food.

Fortunately, Ayheen spotted the tightly sealed, 2-gallon bottled water we left behind as we dashed to the second floor the previous day to prevent getting electrocuted in the flood water. It was floating in filthy, mud filled water that was still about 7ft. deep. I tied the makeshift ropes (curtains) I made to our balcony window and carefully climbed down to a waiting liquid pool of brown filth below. I swam towards the 2-gallon bottled water and tied the handle to the end of the rope so that Ayheen could pull it up the balcony. It was so heavy, I was waiting for it to drop so that I can just climb up the rope and pull it myself. To their credit, Ayheen and Yaya Ning didn’t let it drop down. With sheer force of will they were able to pull it up. I said to myself I was one luck SOB being in the company of Superwomen. I climbed back using the rope and promised myself that I will never, ever drink CafĂ© Mocha again for as long as I live.

Though that water has been secured, our food has yet to be replenished. And Sadie was still febrile.

I learned later that my whole family were working the phones through the night, asking help from friends, trying to pull whatever strings they can pull, collecting on whatever debt owed them by somebody or anybody just to get us out of there by any means necessary.

My sister, Ate Joy, and her whole family came all the way from Cabanatuan in the middle of the storm to try to help us. My brother emailed the coordinates of our apartment to a friend who is also a fellow KBP Standard’s Authority Director, and Air Force Officer, Col. Somodio, using Google Earth. My sister-in-law, Jen, braved the receding flood waters at the foot of Rosario Bridge, Ortigas Extension to talk to our Dad’s old friend who has become a top notch technocrat in this administration’s Press department. She was endorsed to his people and was ultimately referred to very tall, melanin-impaired guys with big boats.

Later that day, inside our flooded apartment, I heard my name being called out by a familiar voice. When I peeked outside our window, I saw my diminutive sister-in-law, Jen, looking every inch like Bonaparte in yellow raincoat and New York Yankees’ cap, in command of a small fleet-- Two rubber boats manned by the US Navy.


The kids and my mother-in-law and Yaya Ning had already been rescued about 30 or 40 minutes earlier before Jen came with her boats. We decided to let them leave with the police because:

Sadie may need to be hydrated with Intravenous Fluid which we didn’t have,
Tristan’s can of milk powder is starting to hit Tin bottom.
Ayheen’s Mom was complaining of non-specific symptoms including epigastric pain,
Food supply is really low I’ve been eating only small quantities of high caloric peanut butter and Ayheen, despite of my prodding, was developing her own version of a killer south beach diet which involves eating only liberal quantities of air.

When Sadie was asking for real food instead of crackers, Sage replied that she will call 911-11-11 for a Pizza. Marie Antoinette would have been proud.

My instructions to Sage before she left was that she was to take really good care of her sisters. She was not to let them out of her sight-- even when they had to use the Restroom they should all stick together. She was to maintain her presence of mind.

When they boarded the police's boat, I heard our neighbors cheering them on. They were all smiling and my kids smiled back at them. "Para lang silang nagpi-picnic" commented one. When they left Ayheen smiled at me and said "o ngayon pwede na tayo magutom."


30 minutes after they left, Jen arrived with her fleet. When we boarded one rubber boat I wanted to tell our caucasian friends "Welcome to New Orleans!" but I decided it was not the time for wisecracks. They kept on telling us that they only have 5 minutes to spare. And that they can only accommodate the two of us.


We told them that there are others needing rescue near the back of the Village where the flooding was worse. After hesitating for a moment, the guy who looked like Dennis Leary radioed his CO then asked me for directions. Jen, on the other hand, was rescuing a whole family trapped inside a house near our apartment. She asked, or was it "ordered," those burly guys she was with to breakdown the submerged frontdoor so that those people can get out.

From 2nd avenue we went all the way to the 10th. There we aided a young mother named Annie and her 6month old daughter, Sofie. We assessed that Sofie was not yet dehydrated, thank God. She looked so fragile and terrified of her new acquaintance. We didn't pry her away from her Mom for the rest of the trip to Rosario.

The Americans were amazed at what they saw around the village. Despite of the rubbish and devastation, people were waving at them, sometimes playfully chanting "VFA! VFA!" There was evenone guy in his balcony waving at them with soap suds all over his body, apparently bathing in flood water. Rich and Poor residents are asking for food and water. The Navy grunts promised us that after dropping us off, they are coming back to supply our neighbors with those basic needs.


Meanwhile, The Kids, their Yaya and Ayheen's Mom were all safe inside the Ambulance of The Medical City. I was told that when an MD commented that Sadie didn't have fever, it was Sabine who correctly volunteered the information that it was because Sadie was just given medicine at 11 AM and that it hasn't been four hours since her last dose of paracetamol. The doctors asked why she knew those things. She replied it's because her parents are Doctors too.

They were all supposed to be taken to an evacuation center, but Sage's eagle eyes spotted the Car of her Ninong Noel, my kid brother, that was parked near a gasoline station. iT turned out that my all members of my family were all there at the Rosario gasoline station.

All their cousins were there to greet them. It was like a reunion for them. After spending an afternoon picinic.

But since we were still inside the Village in the rubber boat, we didn't know they were OK. Ayheen cried when she called My Dad's house and was told that the Kids were not there yet. We were so worried we thought we made the wrong decision in letting them Go before us.

It was then Annie’s turn to comfort Ayheen as Baby Sofie quietly looked on, more relaxed as if sensing that she had been delivered out of danger.

We started calling out Sage’s name while walking along the length of Rosario Bridge. I looked for them at Grocery just beside the Rosario Church. When I couldn’t find them there I went inside the church. I tried to look at all the faces inside and outside the church. It was the middle of the homily. The priest was giving a sermon about why we shouldn’t blame God for disasters like floods because Men are to blame for these disasters—Not GOD. I heard that sermon before or a variation of it. It’s a clichĂ© but it has taken on a new meaning for me. Almost tearfully I told myself that God is also not to blame for my stupid decision of letting my kids leave the house without us.

Fortunately, when I left the church I saw Jen talking to her CP that finally got a working mobile phone network signal again. She then shouted out to me that the kids were safe. They were all in the van with the rest of their cousins.



bing said...

hi, TK! oh, my, i felt afraid reading you and your family's ordeal! but glad that you are all ok. you and ayheen are super dad and mom to your kids. i admire sage and her presence of mind.

i almost felt the panic you felt upon learning that they were not still at the place you expected them to be. thank God the kids are safe.

my prayers for you and Ayheen and for the kids.

atticus said...

i am so sad you had to go through all those things.

but i sit here in awe of your little girls. they are amazing.

you and yin are raising them so well. kudos.

TK said...

Bing, Thanks!

Atticus, Yes, Ayheen and the kids, they made me look good during our ordeal.

Anonymous said...

glad to know your family is okay.

Anonymous said...

si scout pala ito. :)

TK said...

Scout Finch, you have facebook? Add me if ok with you:

Letters to my kids about their childhood adventures

To Sage, Sabe, Sade & 3Stan

To Sage, Sabe, Sade & 3Stan