Fumbling through the nightmare
Sometimes something goes wrong along the way … because it’s destiny’s way of showing us where we are going …
Through my childhood I thought life unfolds everyday as though everything was meant to be. Even before I entered school I used to wake up at dawn to feed the chickens and the pigs and graze the goats and the carabao (water buffalo), while my father cooked breakfast, fetched water from the distant well, and chopped firewood. He would then leave for the shore to fish and with some luck, chance upon his fisher friends returning from their overnight fishing, and lo and behold, he would bring enough fish for the day for free. During weekends, along with other kids in the neighborhood, we would hike our way to the mountains about 4 kilometers away to gather firewood. The next day we would walk over 2 kilometers to the nearest stream to do the laundry for the week. It was not much worry going to the stream even in the wee hours of dawn because we agreed to go in groups to a downhill path and the laundry would still be dry and the water jug empty. But it’s a real burden returning home because we didn’t finish at the same time. Usually, I went home alone beneath the scorching mid-day sun in an uphill struggle, the laundry much heavier because it’s wet, and the glass jug full of water. That was a routine I was used to and I was not alone. We poor kids lived that way – we worked, went to school and played together.
My father took me to my first big academic hurdle when I was 12. I went through school on a grant among the first batch of government high school scholars in our community. I was the 5th of the top 10 of entrance exam passers who got a free schooling. Although at most times my parents could not afford our daily allowance for snacks in school, I soon learned that the library was a good place to stay during recess time or vacant periods when all else were either playing or eating. Yes, I read a lot of relief books (English books, most of which were donations from the West - USA and Europe), and before I finished grade school I had read all Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairy tales, Aesop’s fables, as well as legends and stories in foreign lands. I was tagged the class “storyteller” and the “walking dictionary”. At that time, I could define more English words than most 12-year-olds in our locality.
Although the public high school where I went to was over 2 kilometers away, the long walk was fun because along the way I joined some classmates or schoolmates until there were many of us on the road to and from school. Only few of us had decent schoolbags and umbrellas. Sometimes we were lucky to find “gabi” or banana leaves along the way to protect us from the rain, but most of the time we would embrace our books and notebooks and run all the way home, all drenched. It was nothing unfortunate because we did it together. Poverty was no big deal to me because there were many of us sharing the same plight and I was sure I could make it through school and lead my family to a better life someday.
All I ever dreamed of as a kid was to be a teacher, just like my father, in the public grade school just across the street from where we lived. It was just a simple dream limited to what I saw and where I was … until something went wrong along the way … horribly wrong! I was 12 when Martial Law was declared, and that marked the beginning of an over-extended series of dolorous mysteries of my family’s survival. Armed military troops were all around, camped in our schools and hung around in public places wielding ruthless power. My father then had to gather firewood in the highlands, take the laundry, fetch water from the stream and do the marketing – all on his own. He did everything that had to be done outside our house alone, because my mother and his very precious children (with three teenage daughters in a row) should stay safe in his own home! Rampant cases of murder, rape and molestations perpetrated by the soldiers, the very ones who were supposed to protect us, threatened and endangered our existence. While we used to bathe in the streams or at public wells, my father fetched the water for us to bathe inside our kitchen which had a bamboo floor that allowed the water to drip down easily. Our kitchen, due to frequent wetting, collapsed so many times, but my father tirelessly repaired it! My father was the one who was always ready to go without for love of us.
And then the civil war worsened. My father’s salary was always late because release of paychecks from the national government was hampered by the consequences of the armed conflict. It was then that my parents decided we evacuate to my maternal grandparents’ hometown which was more than 10 hours land travel through very bad roads. We had escaped the war, but we were shoved into a plight much worse – starvation. I was 13 when my grandfather passed away and we were not even able to give him a decent burial. Over a month passed after start of classes and we were not yet enrolled in school. My mother went back home to my father for our subsistence, leaving us in a small hut to fend for ourselves. I have an older sister who grew up with my grandfather and this was the first time we met again after so many years, that she had a hard time adjusting to 6 siblings with ages 13 to a 1-year-old toddler. I used to roast grilled corn for coffee in lieu of the toddler’s milk which we couldn’t provide. My 7-year-old brother joined the scavengers at the seashore who dived for fishes that spilled out of the nets as the fishermen transfer their catch to the baskets of the fish vendors, while my two other siblings explored the beach for trash lumber washed by the waves for our firewood. Once in a while some kind neighbor would give us bread, bananas or root crops. A week after my mother left us I had planned to go home, too, to see what happened to our parents. I thought I could ask the driver to allow me to stand in the aisle of the bus through the 10-hour trip for a free ride home. And then my mother came, and announced we were going home for good.
Unfortunately at home nothing was ever the same again. We learned that my mother sold our belongings just to raise enough money for our return trip. My father, while we were away, evolved into a monster. While we’d known him to be a most loving person, a devoted father and a dutiful husband, when we reunited he was already hooked to all kinds of vices – gambling, smoking and drinking. When he got home drunk or had lost in his gambling spree he would physically hit us even without provocation, so that we would sneak out in the wee hours of the night and huddle in fear in the darkness and the cold. My mother, despite her heavy burden and suffering, explained that when we left home our father whiled his loneliness away with “friends” and ended up this way through bad influence. For me his ruthlessness was a horrible nightmare that had no justification, but I held on to the conviction that we will get by if we never quit school no matter what.
My teenage life was a difficult one. I helped my mother do laundry, baby-sit and sew dresses for our neighbors. Between classes we four girls roamed around peddling banana leaves, ice candies, fruits and vegetables while the three boys climbed passenger ships and explored sidewalks shining shoes and selling newspapers. We pledged never to quit school despite the hardships, even if we had to walk barefoot and miss meals. Some of us excelled in school despite the terrible odds… until our father showed little by little the love and devotion we so much missed in him.
At sixteen, my life was far from sweet as I set forth alone on a tough journey that took me away from everything I held dear and changed my life forever. My father took the vessel instead of an airplane as provided in his official trip to spare me my bus fare to the university where I was to pursue college education through a state scholarship grant. For four long years I fended for myself alone, dependent on the monthly meal allowance the grant provided. Although I enjoyed free lodging in a dormitory, I lived on lunch and dinner daily (with no snacks) because I had to scrape from my monthly stipend all that I needed (school supplies and projects, books, toiletries, etc.) to get through, and save for my trip back home on breaks and Christmases. My father’s meager income matched with the acquired vices he was never able to shake off was not enough to sustain the ever-growing needs of a big family. Through it all, the seven of us siblings never quit school.
During my most memorable march to receive my hard-earned college diploma as a consistent state academic scholar, I had no one in my family to witness my most triumphant moment because we could not afford travel expenses even for one. I knew my family would have wanted to be there, and I had to imagine their happy faces as I looked at the cheering crowd in their absence. In later years two of my sisters and a brother gained the same scholarship grant in the same university and made it through, funded by my people’s taxes.
Back in my hometown finding a job was not easy. Politicking was rampant and my poor parents didn’t have the connections to back my qualifications. My father sold his chickens and sent me to the “big city” where there would be more and better opportunities. I could not afford to fail, because I had money enough only for a one-way trip and I was entrusted to a neighbor who would see me through my boat ride. I had to find paternal relatives I had never met since birth where I would stay while looking for a job. My father’s faith in me was so fierce it reinforced my conviction to get going and to achieve. Of course I survived the loneliness and the culture shock in a strange environment … and found my way out of destitution at last.
When my father died after a two-year lingering ailment matched with complications courtesy of his vices, I had neither the chance nor the right to mourn. He left me enormous and overwhelming burdens that I was convinced no amount of tears can justify the responsibility and the grief of holding on for the rest of our family. Years later I met one of his co-teachers who knew too late that my father was gone. Matter-of-factly she reminisced aloud, “Oh, I remember your father in front of his class, a chalk in one hand and a baby in the other!” The baby was me! I cried a river … and once and for all I allowed my long-overdue and inconsolable grief to conquer me. I lost the greatest man in the world and it was so hard to take.
At this point when I look back to the nightmares and the dolorous mysteries of my life I marvel at the beauty of hindsight. Vividly now I see the value of breaking through and the meaning of holding on and letting go. I should have been a teacher … but I was never meant to be. Destiny brought me here, because I am better a searcher and a learner.