Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Last year, my daughter Ynez gifted her mom the keys to a condo unit near the outskirts of Metro Manila that she’s been paying off for the past 5 years.

My wife went home last September to fix up our new home and witness the birth of our 2nd grandson. They became compelling reasons for me to take my first vacation back home in 6 years, and our first Christmas together as a family in nearly a decade.

It would be a special homecoming for sure. My father, who turned 84 on Christmas Day, is hearty for his age despite the stroke he suffered about a decade ago. His memory is beginning to fade.

The last time I held my elder grandson Prince, he was barely a year old. He would sometimes call me at work in Alexandria just to say goodnight and we would greet each other on Skype on weekends. I promised him a tight, humongous hug when we finally meet again.

We arrived in time to attend the baptism of Prince’s younger brother Rafael Paulo whom he nicknamed Race. My parents and siblings didn’t know we’d be there – a surprise hatched by Ynez.

Our vacation, abbreviated though it may be, was a voyage of rediscovery.

I resumed my affair with sweet Philippine coffee, taking it with cream when I usually took it black and bland back in Virginia.

Struggling to shake off the jet lag, I was up at the crack of dawn, awakened by the crowing of fighting cocks and hymns from a still uncompleted church just outside the condo's walls.

When it wasn’t raining, I would watch the sun rise from the outline of the Sierra Madre mountain range and despite the smog, the view was breath-taking. There was no mistaking – I was home.

We celebrated my sister Bingle’s 45th birthday on Dec. 21 with lunch at a restaurant that I picked only because it carried “kare-kare” and “crispy pata” and “ginataang kuhol” in its menu; I had a chance to catch up with my brother Bing who remarried earlier this year. We visited my younger brother Bimbot’s grave at Loyola Marikina, offering candles and flowers and a stick of Marlboro I’d been saving for him.

We visited our “lola madre” – Sor Asuncion Jamerlan – my mother’s aunt who at over 90 years old retained her sharp wit and unshakeable faith. She lives at the Daughters of Charity retirement home in Paranaque. She asked if I prayed the Rosary, to which I could only respond with a sheepish smile.

When it was time to say our farewells, she seemed hesitant to let me go. She waved my parents off but motioned for me to hug her, again and again. Although I saw her only intermittently even before we moved to the US, I sensed that she was always well-versed about goings-on in my life.

There was no sadness in her eyes. Trust in God, she told me finally and as I kissed her a last time, she smiled and assured that she was praying for me. I was sure she knew.

As I watched TV news reports of the tragedy in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan cities, I couldn’t help marveling at the resilience of people who survived a truly harrowing ordeal.

Many suffered indescribable loss, spending Christmas Day burying loved ones. But the images that stuck in my mind were of survivors picking up pieces of debris wood and corrugated steel or plastic sheets to build makeshift shelters. They were trying to rush them so their family – whatever’s left of them – can have a place to gather and spend Christmas together.

To me that was reaffirmation that the best gift we can ever receive is the gift of home and family; that both in good times and through life’s frequent trials, they are a source of strength and the well that drives us forward.

This was the richest Christmas I’ve ever had.

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