The year was 1999, February had just begun, and the tide swelled oddly in Babag after a night of heavy rain.
Frequently, there is a slow, unobtrusive silence in the way the water rises to shroud the unevenness of the marsh. The rocky streets, the takâ and kayagang mounds, and the tangkong patches hide under the stillness. All sorts of brackish water fish and mudcrabs glide along footpaths and the houses’ thresholds as though pedestrians. This is nothing out of the ordinary in Babag.
Yet that day, the murky water rose with unnatural haste. We hadn’t minded it at first. Sure, rain had been relentless, but the marsh and the rivers in the barangay had a temperament that often went against the tide charts. I was five years old then, and only looked at flood as a source of entertainment. Besides, we had other matters to attend to, a different kind of swelling.
Mama was a month overdue. She’d been advised by the doctor to undergo a Caesarean Section operation. The longer the delay, the more dangerous it was for her and the baby. However, the procedure was expensive. There was no way for an unemployed wife and a husband who only worked odd jobs to afford the operation.
My father was still waiting to be deployed by the DepEd then. He spent his time and energy as a mananihay. He would leave the house early in the morning and return by sundown exhausted, often wounded, without much compensation. As a mananihay, he would gather nipa leaves, or sani, for Manang, my mother’s sister, to make pawod, which was a kind of thatch roofing material used by most of the houses in our barangay. I also earned my keep by buying papawdan, the long bamboo sticks that act as spines for the pawod, accompanied by other neighbor kids who were glad to work for a meager P5 suhol. Manang would then sell bundles of pawod at the market in Langihan at P1 apiece. However much we earned for all our troubles, though, was only enough for food and other necessities in the house. So, Mama could only wait.
She was glad to wait, too. A pragmatist in spirit, she found no point in spending money to force the baby to come out. If nothing else, she had the conviction that the baby will come when it comes. There was no need to pry it out of her.
February 6, 1999. Rain was interminable, and we all slept that night with fallen leaves and branches drifting right by our doorstep.
Butuan is a city blessed with water. Cutting through the heart of the city is the Agusan River, the third largest river basin in the country. The northern border terminates with the sea. Not to mention, most of the Agusan del Norte province was built on marshlands and networks of smaller rivers. A huge part of the population’s livelihood depends on water.
In Babag, my childhood days were filled with fishing trips, gathering bugka, tuway, and other shellfish, and hunting crabs. I spent years playing in the river long before I learned how to swim. I’d almost drowned three times before my uncle pushed me over a bridge and I suddenly summoned the skill of swimming in a brush with certain death.
Despite the abundance of water, though, Butuan City rarely had city-wide floods, especially disastrous ones.
The morning of February 7, I woke up to the cold sting of river water on my back. Gritty sunlight poured through the window, turning the water into shards of mirror. Outside, the sky was a pastel blue, a departure from the several days of unrelenting rain that overflowed the creek behind the house. I got up, unstable and groggy. I was barely a meter tall, and the floodwater that coursed through the house like blood in the spaces of a heart came up to my chest. Around me were pieces of paper and plastic junk food wrappers floating, moving only to the ripples I caused. The bamboo walls swayed, too.
I waded to the sala still half-dreaming. A wooden bawto my family apparently borrowed was moored to a half-submerged chair. Algae had already crept up to its bow. Water occasionally entered the boat and had to be thrown overboard with a tabo. The boat itself was narrow and could only carry so little. And with the flood not showing any signs of diminishing, we all moved quickly, assigned value to objects, decided which to bring and which to leave, and packed them into empty sacks of rice and stowed them on the boat. Maneuvering through the flood was especially hard for Mama who was at once carrying the tenth member of the family in her belly and herself, so I did the only thing I could and held down the rocking bawto so she could climb.
We sought shelter in my uncle’s second-floor three-bedroom apartment in a mixed-use building along Salvador Calo St. He was a former Scout Ranger. When he left the service, he’d planned to turn the apartment into a security agency. But some deal fell through and his plan never came into fruition.
The apartment itself wasn’t much. The walls were finished with rough exposed aggregate. Iron grills obscured the windows and the tiled floors grew molds in the grooves. Everything was drab, typical. Back then, though, I’d thought it was the best place we ever stayed in. After the evacuation, my father returned the bawto.
Growing up, I had always felt a slight inferiority complex towards my uncle’s family. They had money, a nice, concrete bungalow with tiled floors, and quite a powerful position in Babag. He owned multiple units of karera and kulalong, which were kinds of slot machines that he spread throughout Babag and the neighboring barangays. It was no wonder that he would go on to become the Barangay Captain a few years later.
The other houses in Babag were much like ours. Walls were built with coco lumber or handwoven bamboo bark. Roofs were pawod with discarded tires at the apex as deadweight against the wind. Floors were either wood boards that creaked under the weight of a small child, or nothing at all. Just the cold wet ground.
I’d looked at Uncle as a savior. For a long time, I regarded him as a selfless provider of luxuries that I only saw on the TV. Whenever he asked me to do something, he would give me suhol that I used to buy whatever I wanted. It took me years, but I eventually realized that perhaps Mama sometimes felt insecure about my uncle’s place in my life.
Still, my parents made do with whatever means we had. They even tried their luck in Manila, dazzled by the promise of prosperity in the country’s capital like many others in our barangay. Mama worked in a fastfood chain for a short while, and my father was a sales agent for an agricultural company. I was born in a dingy, old hospital in Pasay City. We lived in an informal settlement along a large sewer canal with an indelible stench that spread throughout the neighborhood.
My parents sought for stability in that congested metropolitan for years, and when the days looked bleak and it felt to them that we were going nowhere, we moved back to Butuan. I was three and was about to enter preschool.
With a degree in Elementary Education, my father applied for an appointment in DepEd, and, again, my parents waited for luck to finally be on their side as they tirelessly worked temporary jobs that paid just enough to bring food to the table. We lived with Nanay, Mama’s mother, in their house.
For a long time, they dreamed of owning their own house. When a chance seemed to present itself in the form of a vacant lot that was to be Mama’s inheritance, my father, with the help of Tatay, Mama’s father, started to build our own house.
It was around January of 1999 that the construction started. The floor of the house (or the bare coco lumber beams that would be the floor’s support) was intentionally raised to avoid the marsh’s tides. The silong was almost two meters high. But construction was slow, since, even though we sawed our own wood from the coconut trees around the site and made our own pawod roof, we rarely had money to buy enough nails for the entire thing.
My parents, however, were patient, and sometimes even irrationally optimistic. With the house still without floors and walls and definitely no electricity, they bought a TV which they happened upon a clearance sale in an electronics store. Perhaps it was a symbol to them, a flag in the finish line.
And so during the flood and the storm, with the house still unfinished, we were forced to seek shelter somewhere else.
There were more than twenty of us who stayed in my uncle’s apartment. My parents and I, my uncle’s extended family, Nanay and Tatay, some cousins, aunts, uncles, and other relatives all crammed in the place like sardines. It was cramped. But in such a time, it was enough.
When we finally settled in and all we wanted was rest, I stayed with Mama for hours sitting by the window. The rain had diminished into intermittent drizzles. Some kids were playing on the flooded streets. They rode uprooted banana trees and large plastic basins and raced from alleyway to alleyway, played water hide-and-seek, and did underwater endurance tests, smiles plastered on their faces, arms akimbo. I asked Mama if I could go and play with them, but she said no in her usual firm yet considerate manner. “You’ll drown,” she said with a tone of certainty that was enough to scare me.
As night came, though, heavy rain blanketed the city again. The flood, which had started to descend, rose quickly as rain fell. A total blackout rendered the entire city almost immobile. The air smelled like diluted sewer water and gasoline. Through the window, I watched the nimbus-filtered moonlight illuminate the flooded streets. The kids who were playing earlier were gone. Cars and motorcycles were displaced. Every now and then, tree trunks, woodblocks swollen with water, pieces of plywood that were once walls, and tarpaulins of politicians drifted by, carried by the current that had started to pick up its pace. An oil leak from the gasoline station across the street created iridescent ribbons on the flood water’s surface. Sporadic candlelights spread across the neighboring buildings like dozens of santelmo.
Most things were not where they should be.
By our own candlelight, Mama and I talked about things that are now too far back in time and perhaps too insignificant for me to remember. But I recall Mama caressing her swollen belly as though it hurt. I’d pressed my ear against her bump like one would to a conch shell. But there was only grumbling and the echoes of Mama’s heartbeat.
As the firstborn child, I felt only excitement in the prospect of a new sibling and didn’t consider how much pain it brought and would then bring my mother. She didn’t complain, though, and still treated me the way she always did, with a lilt in her voice when she called me nak, and a vocal sense of pride in every little thing I did, however insignificant. She never lacked praise and would brag about her son to just about anyone who listened the way mothers often do. I hadn’t considered what a new sibling would do to my position as the apparent golden child. Though perhaps I was too young to think about siblinghood politics.
Admittedly, Mama wasn’t eternally amiable. She ran a tight ship in our household. As gentle as she was most of the time, she also had her own rules which I often broke as a child. So, when I escaped the house one afternoon to play in the river with my friends, or when I went home too late after spider-hunting, she always made sure I knew what I did wrong and why.
The fourth child in a brood of thirteen, Mama would always tell me about her childhood. She’d say, “I’m fourth in age, but the eldest in character.” Funnily enough, these stories would always come during lectures. She would tell me how Nanay, who now had her own brand of silence, used to be such a disciplinarian.
Having lived her whole life in Babag, Mama, too, had an affinity with water, and also spent a lot of her childhood swimming in the creek behind the house or jumping off the bridge that connected Purok 2 and Purok 5 over the Babag River. When she came home with her brothers after their aquatic excursions, they would be at the tail end of Nanay’s rage that would echo throughout the barangay. Nanay had an arsenal of punishments that Mama was adamant about never resorting to when it came to her own children. And as much as possible, she stuck to that promise.
I forget exactly when the rain had stopped. I was asleep when it did.
What woke me up was the panic that befell the apartment at four in the morning, and Nanay yelling orders like a drill sergeant that reminded me of Mama’s stories.
Mama’s water broke.
The grownups gathered to help Mama. The children were told to stay in the room. I was not keen to follow orders then, so I loitered just outside the room where they made Mama rest.
The problem was that between the citywide blackout and the flood, they had no idea where or how to find a midwife to assist with Mama’s delivery. The City General Hospital was still in Langihan Road then, which was only ten or fifteen minutes away, but would be a treacherous journey considering the situation.
My father and my cousin’s grandfather, Tatay O, had to brave the almost neck deep flood and swam to the hospital to seek help. Nanay, my grandmother, kept Mama company and calmed her down. “Things will be okay,” she said. Kaloy-an ra kita hong Ginoo. Kaloy-an ra.
My father and Tatay O came back after what felt like hours with nothing. No nurse. No midwife. Not even a manghilotay.
So, with only the support of Nanay and my father, Mama was forced to do the delivery on her own. My aunts scrambled to boil water. I helped gather clean sheets and towels to prepare for the delivery.
Mama’s labor started quietly like a tide coming in. When asked, she said it was all fine. Nothing hurt. Not long after, though, Mama’s countenance had changed and panic was even more apparent in everyone’s faces.
“It’s about to start,” Nanay said.
My father held Mama’s hand and braced himself.
I still remember it. Mama’s contorted face as the delivery started, her hands desperately grasping for support, her body almost folding into itself as she pushed. My aunts in the next room praying the rosary, murmuring, Maghimaya ka Maria napuno ka sa grasya. I stood by the door, fingernails almost sinking into the jamb.
Mama grit her teeth, trying to be quiet. Still, labored shrieks escaped her throat. I’d assumed it would be easier for her, as she’d already done it with me, but I then fathomed my ignorance. She gripped Nanay’s veiny hand. It looked like it hurt, but Nanay kept her steely silence. There was not a trace of fear in her face, unlike my father beside them who looked indescribably distressed as he wiped the sweat off Mama’s face and neck with a Good Morning towel. Nanay held her hand out like a cup below Mama.
After almost an hour of Mama’s struggle, finally, the baby was born.
There is no silence greater than the brief moment after a baby comes out of a mother’s womb. We waited, all of us, breaths held, hearts rioting inside our chests, and for a while then, I think we all forgot the flood and the blackout and the news of
I remained by the door, frozen, not saying anything. If felt as though everything was afloat.
Never mind the fact that no one in the house knew how to cut an umbilical cord. And that my father and Tatay Osting will have to swim to the hospital again, baby in tow covered with only a white blanket, to get help.
In that silence, nothing else but my sister mattered.
Then, the heavy lull was broken by her first cry. The shrill and haunting squeal as she beheld the world for the first time. “Welcome home,” Mama muttered under her heavy breathing. “Sa kalooy hong Ginoo.” Nanay held the baby in her arms. There she was, my sister, born out of the storm, baptized by flood.