“I am still determined to be cheerful and happy in whatever situation I may be, for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions and not upon our circumstances.” –Martha Washington
This is my favourite quote of all time. It inspires me to be more unyielding, and I am constantly overwhelmed by how it broadened my passion in search for a deeper meaning of life.
We all know how unpredictable life is. It is through building good relationships with family and friends that we see beyond life’s imperfections. But what happens when things seem too much to handle and you no longer have your support system? It gets daunting.
It was a Friday morning, sitting on the steel frames beside a water tank with my head down, arms clasped around my knees, shivering, wet, and cold, I asked myself: am I dreaming? My mind was full of nothing but questions. This wasn’t a normal Friday morning wherein I’d get up, watch TV while eating brunch, go to the mall with my family, and meet with my friends for a night out. No, this day was different. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I realized I was in what seemed to be a set from the film the Apocalypse.
I was in a living nightmare. It was November 8, 2013. The day Super Typhoon Haiyan wreaked havoc in the Visayas region with its eye focused on Tacloban- my beloved city. It was the day more than thousands of people lost their homes, livelihood, properties, family, friends, and loved ones. It was the day life changed for everyone, for me.
In old Filipino films or dramas, there’s a scenario where a child cries out while embracing her mom’s lifeless body, the child screams: “Inay! Wag mo akong iwan! Gumising ka inay!” as if summoning her mother’s soul back to life. Honestly, I always laughed at how ridiculous that scene is. I always wondered why the director didn’t feel the need to change that part since it’s very unoriginal and common in almost every drama with a dying parent. Aside from that, I never deemed it realistic; nobody does and says that in real life!
But oh my dear, was I proven wrong.
Striving to surface the water as debris were blocking my head, I felt like I was being spun inside a washing machine. I could no longer breathe and I seriously thought I was going to die. Not knowing what to do, I told myself if that was the day I was going to my watery grave, then so be it. Never in my life have I talked to God with deep remorse and in complete surrender. However, death decided to “postpone”, I was given another chance to live. Using my head I pushed the debris away until I was able to surface. As soon as I saw my mother, I immediately drifted towards her, grabbed her arms and tried to lift half of her body so she could hold onto the wood I was using to stay afloat. But when my hands slipped from her arms to her fingers, her body splashed into the water and there was no sign of her struggling to survive.
My mom was gone.
I found myself being swept away by the 15 ft. high storm surge to the steel frames of a water tank, as my mother died in my arms. All of a sudden, I was that girl from that clichéd dramatic scene, crying, and begging for my mom to come back to life. The difference is that there are no cuts and breaks, the horrifying scene continues. I was torn between saving what’s left of my family and holding on for my dear life. It was then when hypothetical questions turned to reality.
I had to make a decision.
Am I going to hold on to my mom’s lifeless body and die with her? Or should I let her go and save myself?
I truly considered letting myself drown in the deluge. Seeing my family in complete desperation was agonizing for me, and what’s worse is that I couldn’t do anything to save them. I had no reason to live anymore. Maybe that’s what happens when you see your loved ones being taken away from you one by one, and all you can do is watch. However, something was telling me that there must be a reason why I survived. And I’m sure my parents would want me to live and find out what that reason is.
When a person dies the last sense to vanish is the sense of hearing. Thus, with all the love that I had, I asked for my mom’s forgiveness, for everything I did that hurt her, I thanked her for being the strong woman that she is, and for everything she has done for me, for our family. I told her I loved her again and again, I embraced and kissed her for the last time.
And that was it, I let her go, and I never looked back…
It was already 9:00 am when I was able to seek refuge on the nearby building. Few hours after the devastation, the whole world regardless of time zones and distance had its eyes on the Philippines. All of a sudden people knew about Tacloban. Over thousands of people were reported dead, injured, and missing. Five of those are my parents, my eldest brother, his wife, and their child, leaving only me and my elder brother as survivors. To this day, the remains of my father haven’t been found and the whereabouts of my nephew is still unconfirmed.
It’s been more than a year since the tragedy, yet I remember every detail so vividly. I don’t think I’ll ever forget about it, but I have come to accept it. Indeed life is a series of ups and downs. Just because it was always easy to you, doesn’t mean it’ll stay that way forever. Before Haiyan changed my life, our family was living a life full of contentment. Like any other family, we had our share of conflicts, but despite it all, I considered myself very blessed. Why? I was raised by two of the most amazing parents, I had two of the coolest brothers a sister could ever have, I gained a wonderful sister when my eldest brother got married, and I had my nephew- the most adorable playmate in the world, and the family’s lucky charm. I had the truest of friends; I had a job and got along well with my co-workers. I was able to continue the business I started back in college, and my family decided to venture in the food industry as well. We had so many travel plans after my mother’s retirement because she always wanted to go on trips with the family. What more could I ask for right? My family wasn’t very wealthy, I didn’t always get what I want, but my parents made sure I was provided with everything that I need and it was good enough for me. We didn’t need to go to fancy places to enjoy. Camping, flying kites, going to the beach, road trips, and even just staying at home doing the simplest of things together made us glad. Thank God they didn’t have a choice to pick a daughter because being raised by parents like them made me realize the value of having a heart that is happy and full.
It took me several months until I’ve started to fully accept what happened. When reality sank I didn’t know what to do with my life anymore. I felt lost. How can you start over without the people you draw strength from? Yes, my elder brother, relatives, and friends were still there for me, but undeniably it was also painful to be with them because I couldn’t help but ask: “Why are they complete and we aren’t?” There was a time I just wanted to sleep, but I end up feeling more exhausted upon waking up. A time when I didn’t go to church because it was too depressing for me, I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts because all I do was cry. I wanted to stop hurting because I didn’t want to appear weak, I didn’t want anyone’s pity. I was alive and breathing but it felt like a huge part of me died with them.
I wanted to keep myself preoccupied, but I didn’t have the drive to look for a job. I felt like I needed to come to terms with my emotions first for me to start over. Since I’m not comfortable talking about my feelings to people, I began writing. It was then when I rediscovered my love for the craft. It was and still, is my way of healing. In writing, there are no judgments, no right or wrong, just me pouring out my raw thoughts and emotions on a blank space.
There’s always a turning point in one’s life. A time when you need to decide whether a situation will make or break you. Haiyan was my turning point. It made me understand numerous things about life. It was in my darkest that I’ve come to know what I’m capable of, what I’m made of. I’ve realized that surviving the strongest typhoon ever recorded makes me one of the strongest people on earth; well, at least I’d like to look at it that way! It’s all about perspective. I thought I lost everything, but I was wrong. I still have my elder brother, our relatives and friends who remained loving and supportive, and we are eternally grateful for them. Saying “thank you” won’t suffice for love they’ve shown us. When I lost a big part of myself, it was when I was reminded of resilience and optimism. It has strengthened my faith in God, the belief that no matter how blurry the future is for me, I know everything will be alright because He is with me.
When I talk about what transpired on that day, I can’t help but feel very thankful. Some people would think I’m crazy for being grateful for what Haiyan caused me, but if not for the typhoon, I wouldn’t have this zest for life. If not for Haiyan, I would’ve never witnessed one of the most beautiful things on earth- it’s when the whole world regardless of race, culture, belief, and religion came together and showed their love for the Philippines by helping us rise again. I am thankful that there is no inkling of bitterness in my heart despite the great loss. I may have lost my parents, my eldest brother, sister-in-law, and nephew, but in the end, I have actually gained so much more. I’m happy to say that it changed me, for the better. I’ve gained maturity, wisdom, strength beyond my years and love for myself. Right now, I can’t say that I am fully healed, and that I know exactly what to do with my life. I’m taking it one day at a time and I know I’ll get there.
Life is full of doubts- these things are part of life. There’ll be moments when you would feel down because of problems with work, relationships, etc. Sometimes you’d feel stuck in a series of unfortunate events, like the whole universe is against you. You give in to self-pity, blame yourself for every failure, and think that you’re not good enough. Now, I’m not going to tell you to stop feeling what you’re feeling. Whether it’s a failed test, a job you got fired for, a dead pet or loved one, go ahead, feel your pain. Your emotions are valid and it’s a part of you. You need it, that’s when healing begins. We all have different ways of coping with loss. I’m not going to tell you it’ll get better tomorrow, but eventually it will. Just take all the time you need. And when you’re ready, remember to stand up, take control, and show the world who is boss. Happiness is temporary they say, but so is sadness! It is up to you whether to hold on to what makes you miserable or choose to be grateful despite all the trials that come your way.
My mantra: I vow to always be thankful, despite the struggles and troubles, for without these I will never know bliss and fulfillment. I vow to constantly have the attitude of gratitude because I believe all things happen for the good. I vow to remain appreciative despite the negative things that may occur, for I trust that it will lead me to achieve life’s purpose. I vow to always be grateful for the gift of faith, family, friends, and good relationships, for without them I will never hold the courage to see past my brokenness. Lastly, I vow to remain grateful even during in times of heartache and despair, for without these I will never have the ability to build a stronger version of myself.
Now, I refuse to remember November 8, 2013 as the day my family was taken away from me. I will recall it as the last day my parents showed their unconditional love and undying willpower to protect us. I will look back in celebration of the lives they lived, and I choose to remember it as the day that fueled my rebirth. Lastly, I will remember it as the day I proved to myself that I AM STRONGER THAN TYPHOON HAIYAN.
About the Author
Joanna Sustento is a twenty-three year old aspiring writer, born and raised in Tacloban City, Philippines. As early as seven years old, she enjoyed writing skits and short stories . However she never had the courage to show them to anyone. She thought her ideas weren’t worth reading. Her love for writing developed as she grew older, yet this was set aside because of school and work. She has recently rediscovered her passion for the craft after she experienced an event that changed her life forever. She is a sucker for sunsets, sunflowers, art, virgin islands, history, photography, and popcorn! With incurable wanderlust flowing through her veins, Joanna makes it a point to travel every year since 2009 and she aims to live the bucket list life. As a child, Joanna believed in her own definition of success- to find her passion, nurture it, and do it for the rest of her life.
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