the petal fell, falling
until the only flower was the falling itself.
from "Water" by Pablo Neruda
My mother Daisy was killed 19 years ago in a powerful 7.7 magnitude earthquake that trampled Baguio, my hometown in the northern Philippines. She was just 50. I was already living in Belgium at the time, and returned home to bury not only the woman who had given life to me, but also large chunks of my former life.
Mama (seated) and me, circa 1983
photo by Wig Tysmans
Much of Baguio was in ruins. The airport runway and all major roads leading to that mountaintop city were heavily damaged, hindering rescue efforts because heavy-lifting equipment and essential supplies could not arrive. The city's 3 hospitals were badly hit and without power. There was no electricity or running water for weeks. All telephone lines were down. This being before the advent of the internet or mobile phones, Baguio was essentially cut off from the rest of the world. The sickly-sweet stench of decomposing flesh was everywhere; that smell still clings tightly to my memory. Crushing as our loss was, we were some of the lucky ones. Mama's was the second body recovered from the rubble of the Hyatt Terraces hotel, where she lived in an 8th floor apartment with Heiner, my German hotelier stepfather who was the hotel's general manager. Many others were not as fortunate. They waited days, weeks, even months before the bodies of their loved ones were recovered. Still others lost their homes. A cousin and a poet friend lost brand new homes into which they had invested all their life savings and unlived dreams.
Grief unhinged me in odd ways. I remember nothing of my hurried trip home or indeed the return journey to Brussels, except that I amassed a collection of 21 Lufthansa coffee spoons which I apparently stole whilst in flight. I had not dabbled in petty theft as a pastime before that. Nor have I taken it up since. Severe insomnia emerged as a more serious side effect of my loss. It dogged me mercilessly for 18 years until Jin Shin Jyutsu released me from its stranglehold last year.
I have only vague memories of Mama's wake in my grandparents' house. Lolo, my grandfather, bore the loss of his firstborn child with great dignity, losing his composure only once to roar at the cups and saucers (which, bizarrely, remained unscathed) in my grandmother's china cupboard, and ask why God couldn't have taken him, an old man, instead. Lola, my grandmother, was the reverse. She crumbled frequently, often surrendering melodramatically to the pain of her bereavement. Lola's blood pressure rocketed off the scales, demented as she was by grief, and yet frantic that all our visitors be welcomed and properly fed. Lola's younger sister, a doctor, occasionally had to sedate her with Valium to stop her from becoming too overwrought when relatives and friends came to call in the afternoons and evenings.
Most heartrending of all was watching my stepfather Heiner soldier on. Although devasted by his wife's death, he was very conscientious of his duties to his hotel, his fallen ship, where over 50 hotel guests and employees had died. None of us could imagine what it must have been like for one person to become homeless, jobless and a widower all at once and, against the most hellish odds, find ways to rescue others who lay trapped alive in the rubble. Although his corporate bosses told him to take time off, he refused to hear of it. Heiner remained on site to supervise the rescue and recovery effort until the last body had been found. He also stayed on to oversee the demolition of the hotel, a process that took months. Natural disasters create heroes; he was mine and always will be.
Noemi, a feisty young woman who worked as our cook for many years before leaving to start a family with our driver Romy, astounded us when she showed up a few days before Mama's funeral. Her wraith-like form appeared at the kitchen door one sodden afternoon, hungry, bedraggled and shoeless. She had walked alone for three days up a mountain entombed in shock, fog and landslides to pay her last respects to my mother. Until then, I thought I knew what loyalty meant. Noemi's unexpected arrival redefined it for me. After a wash, first aid for her wounded feet, and a long nap, she threw herself into cooking and cleaning and organised the rest of the help who were walking around in a daze like the rest of us.
Of the funeral itself I have scant recollection. We were astonished at the number of people who showed up at the cemetery, a considerable distance outside the city. It was difficult for anyone to get around because many roads were impassable, and strict petrol rationing kept people housebound save for vital journeys. In post-earthquake Baguio, the social obligation to attend other people's funerals was no longer considered compulsory. Besides, with so many dead, how did one prioritise whose funeral to attend?
At Mama's funeral, strangers clasped my hands in theirs and spoke of her kindness to them: a seminarian she had sent to theological school, hotel staff whose children's birthdays she never forgot, a struggling painter whose work she sold without taking a commission, a flower seller whose ailing mother she used to visit. Even in death our Daisy continued to bloom. As the hearse containing her coffin drew close to her burial plot, a tremendous aftershock shook the ground. From behind a large rock close to where I stood emerged an enormous cloud of white butterflies. I shivered as their wings brushed against me. In that instant, I remembered that Mama had loved butterflies and bees. She had always filled her garden with plants that attracted them; she'd watch them for hours. She often said the simple white butterflies symbolised her best. Suddenly, there they were. It was a moment of sublime synchronicity that thrilled my heart and my imagination.
After the funeral was over, the heavens opened and torrential rain came down thick as stair rods. My grandmother finally collapsed, wailing that her daughter would be soaked. The fact that my mother was dead and buried in a coffin six feet in the ground meant nothing to Lola. She could not be consoled. I held my grandmother's prostrate body in my arms, neither of us able to fully comprehend the loss of the woman who bound us together with a chain of kinship, history and love.
Only then did I remember it was my birthday. The day the earth claimed my mother a second time, I turned thirty.