Frank: A Personal Retrospection (Last of two parts)

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By Herman Lagon

(This article was written a few days after the ‘death-defying’ experience of the author and his mentor during the Typhoon Frank tragedy in Iloilo in June 2008)

As I entered the house, I realized the gravity of the damage only then. Everything floated—TVs, refs, computers, tables, cabinets, vases, books, and whatnot. The bungalow house was half-filled with water, including the two-step higher mezzanine floor where Ma’am Au’s room is.

I gaped when I saw my principal on top of the bed with Jake still woofing. Only this time, the bed was also floating. Ma’am Au and Jake did a balancing act on a bed half-soaked with mud water. The bed was then the third-highest place where she could be; the second was the top of the frail cabinet, and the third was nothing else but the rooftop.

It was about 3:30 p.m. when I came to “rescue” Ma’am Au. She seemed happy to see another member of the homo sapiens species with her, but like me, she was equally clueless about how to get out of the area amid the awful condition.

And so, while Ma’am Au was doing her balancing act, I looked for a place to “sit” near her to dry myself off. Lo and behold, a three-inch horizontally wide baluster still submerged in water was there for me. I placed a thick book on one side of the plank and a soaked square upholstered chair seat on the other just for my butt and feet to rest, lest I sit in the same fetal position for hours.

I told my “floating, bed-balancing” principal, who was also texting her family and friends for rescue, that there were three options. First, I would go back and tell the rescuers how to get to Ma’am Au’s place for help. Second, we would swim through my route using an improvised floating device made of blue mineral water containers. Third, we would just buy our time and wait for the rescuers to come or stay and wait for the water to settle.

Hours came, and the water settled very slowly. I tried to use my science to provide an answer to our condition, but the most that I could do was measure the rate of falling of the water level by approximation.

Dusk came, and I could not bear that my principal was wet from the hip down while I was trying to dry myself in a balancing act with the filmy baluster just outside her room. By this time, both of us were cold, our teeth chattered, our bodies freezing in the dark. So, I devised a plan to look for the aluminum ladder I saw at the house’s back door. I told myself this could be a good contraption that she could sit on to dry herself for a while as we waited for the water to settle.

And so I swam anew in the eddy of black coffee. I tried to look for the stepladder using merely my sense of touch. And found I did. Happily, I swam to my principal’s room and showed the ladder to her. She climbed over it and sat on top of it as I continued my own balancing act in the baluster. By now I was just a hand stretch away from her.

When I thought everything was all right, Jake went mad and barked up his lungs, seemingly showing his disagreement with the ladder idea. After almost 30 minutes of listening to the cacophony of Jake’s barks, Ma’am Au and I both surrendered and looked for another way to stay dry. My principal and I looked instead for a taller table. It’s a good thing the dawdle lowering of the tide has allowed us to use the TESDA-made steel desk now turned 2-square-foot “bed” for my ever-inventive principal. I never thought that she would be staying in the same “flat” space in a fetal position for the rest of the night.

At one point, while blanketed by darkness, I thought I saw from the windows that the water level had fallen through the floor already. When I tried to get down from my baluster-small resting place to check, I plunged down face and chest first into the water as if I was diving for the Olympics. Only then did I realize that the water was still high and everything was just a figment of my imagination. I was soaked, and I thought hypothermia crept on me, trying to embrace me.

Motherly as she is, my principal, with her fading flashlight, looked for some dry towels in the upper portion of the half-submerged cabinet and gave them to me to at least ease the nippiness I was experiencing. She needed to distance herself from me since the possessive Jake was around “protecting” her, so she had to throw the towels at me like we were playing catch.

Our situation was so ironic yet full of meaning. As I thought I was salvaging her one way or the other, Ma’am Au was also saving my life. We were making ourselves afloat, hopeful, and sane symbiotically, like a mother hen and her foolish chick!

Communication was difficult, and my principal’s phone was already on low battery. So, at one time, we tried to look for the phone of Ma’am Au’s daughter-physician in the adjacent room, hoping that it could still be used for SOS. Since the place was relatively elevated, we tried to look for the gadget as if we were catching a sly shrimp in a navel-deep fish pond. We failed (I only “caught” some pairs of stilettos) and returned to our original position.

Another moment, we received a swift call from Fr. Manny Uy, SJ, of Ateneo de Iloilo, who was in the Jaro Cathedral helplessly waiting for the water to subside to rescue us. He quickly talked to Ma’am Au, seemingly giving her all the comforting words to revitalize her spirit. When the phone was already given to me, I heard an intermittent voice that said, “…thank you for being there, Sir H…you must be ready for the possibility of getting up the roof for refuge if everything gets worse…” It was then clear to me that I must have a ceiling-breaking Option 4 to think about—and I must do it clandestinely for Ma’am Au’s sake. This plan was not fleshed out, though, for the place is so dark that I had difficulty looking for a hammer and the ceiling opening. It’s a good thing the water was no longer rising, letting me think to stick with Option 3, that is, to kill time and just wait for the rescuers to save us.

After dusk, I tried to swim inside the house to rummage for food. In the first “voyage,” I found a tray full of food zings: tomatoes, peppers, ginger, potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, etc. This earned me a smile from Ma’am Au. Hours later, my second voyage yielded a Brojas bread floating just a few steps from my cozy baluster spot. Jake and I ate this one.

My third “food expedition” happened at 3 a.m. when Ma’am Au and I expressed our instinctive hunger orally. This time, I intended to look for whatever I could in the kitchen, even if it took turning every piece of appliance upside down.

After 15 minutes of clueless searching, I set my eyes on the floating refrigerator, thinking there might still be something plastic-covered inside that we could munch on for an early morning delight, filling our stomachs with much-needed carbohydrates and sugar.

So, like a hungry but adrenalin-rushed Ethiopian, I turned the ref to its upright position and placed a heavy narra-chair on top of it so it would not float and move. I then slowly opened the ref, and as if hearing the heavenly voices of the angels, I saw in front of me a bar of giant Toblerone, which was still cold and dirt-free! Only then did I learn the refrigerator was sealed from its magnetized door and remained unspoiled. Everything inside was still intact; it was still cold and frosty. The lower part, upon opening, was immediately swamped by the inflowing water, but the dry upper portion of the tall ref was still filled with meat and milk products, plus some pastries.

I said to myself, “This is heaven-sent, miraculous even.” Sharing an alp of Toblerone with Ma’am Au and eating the remaining part while drinking cold fresh milk, I said to myself, this is a quirk of fate. In the middle of the storm, at the vortex of fretfulness, in the core of the flash flood, we were munching butterscotch and my ever-craved-for Toblerone. We were drinking like royalties.

This morsel of exuberance, plus the hours-long, irreplaceable chitchats, sustained us (and perhaps kept our sanity) until we were rescued by Jesuit brother Errol and two other school co-employees, Sirs Rod Rod and Boy, at 6 a.m. on Sunday, when the tide had already gone down knee-deep.

It was so interesting to note that despite the gloomy backdrop of the muddy flood, amid the heroic rescue attempts that our Jesuit friends and relatives have tried from 4 p.m. of Saturday up to the early morning of Sunday, we felt so light and in high spirits as we greeted the morning sun, walking in the still rushing waters of Brgy. Cuartero, Jaro went towards SM Jaro, and many of our friends and co-workers waited for us in tears.

We said to ourselves that we have been working together (she as my mentor and me as the often stubborn apprentice) in school for seven years now, but our 16-hour Typhoon Frank experience seemed to bind us more. It was a thought-provoking, awe-inspiring, but slackening marathon conversation. It was a substitute-less bonding of sorts, so calming, so transcendental. Like my other wishes, it was a wish come true for me to chat with my idols, philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, physicist Albert Einstein, socialist Che Guevara, and revolutionary musician Bob Marley.

In all its cruelty, Frank served as an umbilical cord linking us (Ma’am Au and I) like mother and son. It made me feel a part of her and her of me. That is perhaps the closest that I can describe the peculiar attachment that I have now with her after our death-defying experience.

It all turned my perspective on life 180 degrees. Right before my eyes, I saw how material possessions can easily vanish in the blink of an eye. I saw how long-kept books, highly invested in computers, newly constructed shanties, and even precious lives peter out. But, amid these, I also saw the triumph of the will of the human heart.

After the Typhoon, our school conducted a series of sharing-processing activities for students and teachers and eventually spearheaded a Panay-wide relief operation (Task Force Frank). Here, I realized that we all have our taste in heroics, rants, and comics. Stories of great courage and a sense of sacrifice abound like spring water. Indeed, Frank was frank. He taught us about life the hard way. He taught us to let go and to let God.

Frank, the 6th Typhoon that hit the Philippines in 2008, hit us hard last June, the 6th month of the year, at 6 p.m. on Saturday, the 6th day of the week. It was so demonic of him to just frantically turn away from the regular low-pressure route, fool the weather experts, and surprise Region 6 with its devastating blow, killing almost a thousand Filipinos, capsizing 120 vessels of different sizes, and damaging P50 billion worth of property and business opportunities.

But then again, callous as it may seem, I thank Frank for waking us all up. Yes, the damage has been done, and it was so faith-challenging. But the message has been sent forth more clearly. Let go. Let God.

Looking back, I have realized that, despite the wild heroics, I never meant to put my life at risk. It just happened. It was plain instinct. A distress call was made, and I had to respond. But I have to admit, I responded more crazily because it concerned the person that I call my second mom.

They say I was a hero. I always impulsively tell them, of course, I was not. I offered nothing to Ma’am Au except my annoying presence. Only that I was then at the right time and place; it was not me who did the good and the right things. It was Him, no more, no less.

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