You could smell the bodies from miles away… – my Dad, 1991
In 1991, Mount Pinatubo located in the northern region of Luzon in the Philippines erupted. It killed more than 800+ people and destroyed thousands of homes. My dad was still flying at the time. I’m not sure how he was involved with the relief efforts, but he was asked to air lift relief goods in a helicopter from the city into affected areas since many roads were impassable due to heavy loads of volcanic ash blocking the route. As he approached the disaster areas, the stench of decaying bodies was so strong that it made it difficult for him to focus on flying. He pushed through despite all this and succeeded in his mission – helping hundreds of families receive food and medical supplies.
I only learned of this story from my mom after my dad passed away years ago. It’s an incredible gift when stories like this find their way to my brothers and I. It adds to the well of strength that I feed my soul with. It adds to my belief that a life well-lived is made better by serving others, helping others, lifting others. Even in death, my dad still teaches me to focus on the things that matter. Losing him was like losing one of my greatest teachers. His death taught me to about my own resilience. Finding it. Owning it. Facing fear right in the face and inviting it to sit with me. With every step forward, I am learning to fight the difficulties of life better. Being less afraid after surviving my own nightmares.
In a strange and warped way, I pride myself in holding steady during a crisis. I have seen my family’s struggles with losing loved ones, major illnesses, financial hardships, natural disasters and so on and so forth — I’ve developed my own system of self-care when the unexpected strikes. I build my [emotional] safety nest and I stay there for as long as I need to. Often this involves hopping on a plane and I find the comfort in being up in the air. Moving through unfamiliar cities, exploring on foot until my feet are swollen and hurting, absorbing and taking in so much life that it makes the pain feel so much smaller. Sometimes it works. Actually, it always works, but the magic ingredient in baking all this into a successful medium of emotional healing is time. All these experiences I collect in my daily life and in my travels somehow grow inside me. They build and morph into this invisible armor. And over time I get better with holding steady. But sometimes that’s not enough. Life will always level up the unexpected and you’re thrown back to square one. And you learn all over again… you have to.
Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda slammed through the Philippines Friday morning this past week. My mom had been aware of the storm since Tuesday, but I had no idea. While checking the news on Thursday morning (the Philippines is 16 hours ahead), satellite photos of the storm were coming in and Haiyan was only hours away from landfall. The world was watching as the typhoon is soon identified as the ‘strongest storm to hit land’. My big brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew as well as my aunts, uncles, cousins all live in Manila. And although the typhoon’s trajectory was through the central region of the country (Manila is north) — the level of anxiety and concern I had for my family’s safety grew by the hour. The more photos I saw of the typhoon’s size and magnitude – the more scared I was. My brother and his family lost all their belongings in 2009 when Typhoon Ondoy hit Manila. It rained for a solid week and their dams broke similar to Katrina.
I couldn’t work. I tried to. I barreled through my meetings and my workday but I was in a daze. I was devouring every article I could find and every possible news outlet covering the typhoon at length, I followed. I watched the world clock on my phone and grew increasingly worried each minute I didn’t hear from my brother. Typhoon season hits the Philippines and most countries near the Pacific rim annually . In fact, at least 20+ typhoons passes through the Philippines each year. Most only bring heavy rain (similar to South Asia’s monsoons) and after a few months, the season passes and the cycle continues. Life goes on, but not this time. How can you truly prepare for something like this?
As a Filipino growing up in Los Angeles, I was never far away from finding my community here. My own family is large enough to be its own community and I am grateful for it. But when something of this scale happens and you know your countrymen face devastation of this magnitude — you’re arrested and disabled when you’re 13,000 miles away. When everyone else watched in horror, something else in me broke apart. They are my people. And I found it hard to separate my emotions from everything else I was doing. So, I am facing it. As power slowly returns to areas hardest hit by Haiyan, the horrifying reports and videos of the devastation being brought back is beyond scary. I watched a video this morning of a reporter who found shelter in a church after her video feed and communication was cut off with the TV station during the strongest part of the storm. She thought she was safe in that church. But she watched the roof being torn apart and the structure caving in as the storm barreled through her city like a beast. She just remembered telling herself, this is it. I am probably going to die in this church. What goes through your head when you’re basically staring down a barrel of a gun and you know your life is about to end?
The last time I checked the death toll was at 1,200.
To quote my friend Jason after he wrote about his own internal debate on seeing 12 Years as a Slave, “My soul would rather sing than scream”. I keep going back to this over and over again. I rather sing. I always rather sing . I always want look on the brighter side because the alternate hurts like hell. My strength well is dry at the moment. I’ll be honest, I’ve used up every last drop so far. But I’m working on filling it up again. What changes in your soul when you face fear head on is your ability to hyper-focus on the things that really matter. Instead of breaking down, I have to find ways to make things better for my own sphere. I dig deep, really deep inside and just like my dad did as he flew that helicopter over the ash covered bodies in Pampanga City 22 years ago — I need to tap into something else that I didn’t know was there. More strength, more bravery, more resilience to move forward.
My brother and his family are safe. And so are most of my family in Manila.
Many families in the central region of the Philippines are not. Power has not returned yet to many areas hardest hit and the death toll will continue to rise. If you’re in a position to help, these are ways you can (the information below is lifted from 89.33 KPCC blog):
HOW CAN I DONATE MONEY TO RELIEF EFFORTS?
Philippine Red Cross provides disaster management, safety and volunteer services when typhoons hit the region; its staff and volunteers have disseminated early warning messages and safety tips while supporting pre-emptive evacuations during the current conditions. Donate to the Philippine Red Cross here.