Just recently, after reading Amy Tan's The Opposite of Fate, I noted that I had many similarities with one of my favorite authors. We are both Asian women--my daughter even calls Tan's picture on the cover "Mommy." Our husbands both have Italian surnames. We both found our childhood unbearably dull and tried to rebel against conservative parents. We both dislike the pervasiveness of cynicism in canonical literature. We both love The Kitchen God's Wife more than any of her other novels--though I haven't read Saving Fish from Drowning. Maybe I should after my recent experience. For now, like Tan, I have been evacuated from a flood, along with my husband Joel and 16-month-old daughter Chesca, during a recent typhoon in the Philippines.
We certainly never expected it to flood in our village. When we were deciding whether to avail of the faculty and staff housing for my husband's school, we walked over to the bank of the Nangka River that bordered it to take a look. We saw a narrow tributary flowing through a gorge, twenty feet down. “It will never flood here,” we agreed.
That rainy day began in a lazy way, with my husband and I taking in a game of computer Jeopardy and finishing the pistachio ice cream in the freezer while our daughter took a late morning nap. Then, as I was starting to prepare lunch, I noticed water seeping under our sliding door. This often happens during a strong rain. We mopped it up, then I brought down my daughter to feed her lunch. I heard a strange gurgling sound in the ground floor bathroom and peeked in.Water was coming through the shower drain. And more water was flowing under the door.
Joel tried to stop up the cracks under the doorways and I helped by throwing down everything I could find to help soak it up. All our floor mats. Our old towels, and the darker colored ones. I gave Joel permission to use the throw pillows downstairs as sponges, after stripping off the covers.
At this point, we heard someone calling outside. I picked up Chesca and we looked outside. One of our neighbors was standing outside in muddy ankle-deep water. He informed us that people were being evacuated to the houses near the gate. Did we want to come?
I’ve never been good at making quick decisions. And in this case I didn’t have enough information to decide. I couldn’t see the flood rising in the first floor. I told him to talk to Joel, who opened the window, getting bitten by evacuating red ants in the process.
“We’re okay,” he said, and I agreed. “But if it gets any higher, I guess we should leave, just as a precaution.” Our neighbor went off to other houses and Joel went back to securing our house. I threw down a new navy blue towel and a rarely used floor pillow, then decided to start packing in case we had to evacuate. Luckily we had a new liter bottle of water. Chesca’s bag is always ready with a change of clothes, a sweater, a blanket, and diapers. I picked up her half-empty bag of Pampers, and started to choose a couple of small toys to bring. Then I decided against packing toys, except for her favorite bear, since Chesca’s easy to entertain anyway. I stuffed a burp cloth, teether, and face towel in the bag instead. I tried one last time to make her eat; when she wouldn’t, I ate up her lunch myself. A couple of tablespoons of minced pork and mashed chickpeas hardly made a dent in my hunger pangs, but I needed the energy boost, small as it was.
As a last straw, I threw down the mattress enhancer on our guest room bed to soak up the flood. Still the water flowed in and Joel gave up the game. He started sending things up to me. Chesca’s formula and Cerelac. My scrapbooks and some books. A can of Planter’s cheese balls. He even brought up Chesca’s playpen, the rice cooker (with half-cooked rice) and the microwave. I gave him some pillowcases, begging him to put in all the books he could, especially our wedding album.
I grabbed my usual mom bag, contemplated moving the contents to a larger bag, decided against it. I stuffed everything I could into Chesca’s bag and the cover of the floor pillow, which was handiest. Then I started looking for a big plastic bag to wrap everything in. I couldn’t find any. We keep them downstairs under the sink to keep them away from Chesca. All we had upstairs was the Pampers bag. I put everything I could into it, mostly small items like cell phones.
I could not see the water rising, so I alternated between panicking that it might reach the second floor and refusing to believe it would be that bad. My only point of reference was the ratiles tree outside, not a very good one since I was not that certain about the height of the tree. A deck chair floated past, making me panic. I started putting our most precious items into the highest closets. I worried about our computer, but decided not to say anything to Joel about it, since he already had a lot to do.
Joel called up to me to pack our wireless phone. “And change your clothes,” he added. “It’s up to my waist now, so it will be up to your chest.”
What does one wear to swim in muddy floodwaters? I was planning to go as I was in my shorts set, but Joel advised long pants and closed shoes, since all sorts of debris would be in the water and we wouldn’t be able to see where we were wading. I looked for jogging pants, realized all of mine were too short or flared, offering little protection for my calves. I decided I was better off wearing tight jeans. All of mine were cropped also, except for a purple pair hanging on a peg. I was reluctant to wear them, as they weren’t that comfortable, tending to ride down. Unable to decide, I first packed my jogging suit and some clothes for Joel. Chesca picked up the Pampers bag, sensing that we were packing up to go somewhere, I suppose. I tend to get flustered even when we are just packing up to go for her monthly doctor’s visit, rushing about checking her bag, looking for her record book, and so forth.
“Go, go!” Chesca shouted. I dumped all her sterilized bottles into the pillowcase, added alcohol and powder to our stash, and put the box with my engagement ring in my mom bag. And that was it. I couldn’t think of anything else we needed. So I went to get dressed. Always a complicating factor is I have to pick something I can breastfeed easily in. So I decided on a yellow shirt that buttoned in the front, but as I tried to take it down, an avalanche of clothes came down. Their hangers had all hooked onto the one of the shirt I was getting. Joel was calling me to go, so I just picked up the first t-shirt I could get, which ironically happened to be my Boracay shirt which had a large smiling sun. I felt slightly regretful that it would get all muddy, but I cheerfully pointed out the tropical fish on the shirt to Chesca and told her we were going swimming like the fish.
Then suddenly Joel came up, saying maybe we were better off staying on the second floor, as the flood was so high now I would have to swim. So then I rushed about filling a pail with water and emptied a plastic drawer to fill that up too. Joel went back down to retrieve more stuff. I took out my cellphone to check my messages.
Then two of our neighbor’s grown sons arrived. We asked if they thought the flood would get higher. They didn’t know, but they urged us to go, just in case. They were hanging onto a kiddie pool and they got Chesca’s too for me to hold onto. I threw my cellphone into the pillowcase. Joel changed into jogging pants, removed his students’ papers from his backpack, and put Chesca’s Cerelac and some of her favorite books inside in their place. We then went down the stairs but found we couldn’t carry the pillowcase. I searched for my phone in a panic, couldn’t find it. Joel said, “Never mind, you have my phone, don’t you?” I couldn’t remember where his phone was but had no more time to look for it. I handed down the two bags, and they were put in Chesca’s pool. Then we proceeded down the stairs, which were half submerged. We felt our way down. I took a look around the house, at our wooden furniture floating and the submerged kitchen cabinets. For one irrational moment, I thought of rushing to rescue my cookbooks, favorite novels, and other items. But I restrained myself and followed Joel down.
I was in cold muddy water up to my shoulders. Joel held Chesca up, so only her little footsies touched the water. I snatched up her little bag of Rice Krispies, which were high and dry on top of a table, on our way out the door. The water from the river was rushing past, and Chesca cried out, “Wow, swimming!” She was calm throughout our escape, her big eyes silently taking everything in. One of the young men held onto one side of the bright yellow kiddie pool while I held onto the other. The other guy pointed out a cockroach on my back, which Joel brushed off. I wondered if that was the roach which had freaked me out by crawling on our windowscreen all night not too long ago.
We made our way slowly down the streets. In front of us, another man was towing a larger plastic pool with three or four little girls inside, the youngest screaming, "Mama, Mama!" I nearly got swept away by the current as we rounded a corner. Water swept into the pool, soaking our two cloth bags. We saw a small dog on the roof of a car and invited it to jump in one of our kiddie pools.
We were evacuated to the empty second floor of the neighborhood grocery, and Chesca was thrilled to have so much space to run around in. She raced around squealing, in her light-up shoes. Joel went back for what we left behind, and to help evacuate other people. Despite his efforts, most of our clothes were soaked. Some neighbors lent Chesca clothes and I made do with Joel’s jacket and shorts. It turned out the shorts I had packed had a hole inside one leg and the lower edge of the jacket was damp so I was pretty uncomfortable throughout our stay. Joel and I were too overwrought to feel like eating, but we munched biscuits given to us and crackers that I always keep in my bag and drank Chesca’s bottled water from one of her baby bottles (minus the nipple, of course). Chesca was happy breastfeeding even when I was in a soaked shirt. Mostly she ate Rice Krispies. She liked to show off to everyone that she could feed herself.
With all our neighbors and people from neighboring communities there it got noisy so Chesca demanded I sing “The Eensy Weensy Spider” over and over to help her fall asleep. But when she woke up in the middle of the night, she looked around, saying, “Water. Out there.” And then she tried to run off to play—at two in the morning!
We went home the next day, squelching through the mud as soon as the sun was up, just to see what became of our home. I was distreesed to see it full of mud and ruined books. Of course we are happy to be safe. But I lament so many lost books. The Beatrix Potter books I was collecting for Chesca are mostly gone—only Peter Rabbit and Jeremy Fisher were spared. And the Winnie the Pooh treasury Joel was so thrilled to find in Booksale. So many of the books were gifts of Joel to me: A treasury of favorite children’s book characters, Bruce Coville’s A Glory of Unicorns, and Neil Gaiman’s Stardust illustrated by Charles Vess among others. And there were several signed copies of books: Arnold Arre’s The Mythology Class, Carla Pacis’ Enrique el Negro, a copy of The Night Monkeys dedicated to Chesca, and most painful loss of all, Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors, with a dedication to Joel and me and a little sketch of a chalice on the first page of his story “Chivalry.” Only a faint shadow of the dedication we lined up for hours to get remains. I lost many of my favorite young adult books: The Changeling, A Wrinkle in Time, Stargirl, a complete set of the Narnia books, some of the Anastasia Krupnik books, The Second Mrs. Giaconda, and so many others were ruined. So were all Joel’s old Dragonlance books, nearly all of my cookbooks and food magazines, and my precious Robert Sabuda’s Twelve Days of Christmas. Most of our books are bargain books, to be sure, but many are out of print like Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. I also feel sad over our wedding scrapbook frame which I made, which I kept downstairs because we had to make room for Chesca’s crib in out bedroom.
Many others suffered worse losses, though, so I won’t dwell on the books. A neighbor living by the river told me she saw the houses of the “informal settlers” on the bank across swept away, even some of their children carried off by the current. And we have already begun replacing some of our lost books and I’m setting down my lost recipes from memory. We even got a lot of relief goods from Ateneo, many of which we passed on as we couldn’t use them. My mom has tried to save some of our books. Joel’s family pitched in to help clean our house. Now there are just a few piles of muddy goods to wash and a huge pile of clean laundry that needs to be sorted and put away, including some of Chesca’s stuffed toys that were left downstairs. We are also preparing emergency goods for the next flood, though we really don’t expect such a bad one anytime soon. They say this is the worst flood in the country in 40 years.
Certainly my story is a lot less dramatic than many others. When I hear of other people's tragedies in the same flood, I feel grateful that my family is safe. Many had to climb to the roofs of their homes and were only rescued days later. One woman's story makes me shiver: She made it to the second floor of their house, but her husband was trapped on the ground floor by a floating cabinet and drowned. We are safe and happy, especially my daughter, who sees everything that happened as an adventure. She has no idea of what possible worse fate we were rescued from, lucky little innocent!
But I do, and I have many things to consider. We will not move, of course, but I am determined to keep all my books upstairs. We also have to learn from others' stories. While we could have stayed safely on the second floor as we hoped to, we could not have been sure of that and should really have evacuated earlier for our daughter's sake. We saw all the warning signs even quite early: Plants dying from overwatering and the river level rising gradually over the rainy season were indications that the saturation point of the land around us had been reached. When our drains overflowed we should have realized there was nowhere else for the water to go but up. We were like Marianne in the movie version of Sense and Sensibility, ever insisting that it would not rain even if the signs were visible. True, the amount of rainfall that day was unusual: They say it was a month's worth! But how many people have befallen tragedy simply because they are convinced it could never happen to them?