I find nothing special in celebrating birthdays. To me they are nothing but annual excuses to get drunk, splurge on lavish meals, and have a mighty good time with friends. I skipped on a debutante’s ball on my eighteenth birthday, thinking I might have as well used the money for more practical things like a car or a cool gadget. For the past 21 years, my birthdays have been uneventful, a special feel good day for a year added to my age.
My last celebration, on the other hand, had been entirely different. Scrubbing the muck of our walls after Typhoon Ondoy had left our house submerged in flood, destroyed much of our appliances and left our entire subdivision swimming in silted water, I had my birthday in the humblest circumstances. My 22nd year at life was celebrated with the smallest cake roll, and we had nothing on the table but canned goods remaining from the relief dropped off by the Coast Guard chopper. At that moment, I was only too thankful that my family and I were safe, and such meagerness meant nothing to erode my spirits.
Days ago, our house belonged to the thousands ravaged by typhoon Ondoy. Our entire first floor sank, with the water almost reaching our second floor by the late evening. From the time it started raining, the water rose rapidly from a few inches to several feet high. We were continually trying to find higher areas to place our stuff on, from the chairs in the living room, to the dining table, and finally to the overhead cabinets in the kitchen. It still failed however to save most of our appliances since the torrential downpour left us no choice but to eventually evacuate to our second floor. By mid afternoon, the water level was already beyond human height. We were watching our sofas get overturned, the fridge sliding off its makeshift legs and floating like a metal casket, and our cars disappearing beneath the murky water. Before we even had the chance to collect the food in the cabinets, our first floor has turned into a mini aquarium, with most of our appliances having a leisurely swim in the water.
As the day turned from gray to complete darkness, the sight from our balcony became more and more grim. Flood continued to feast on our entire subdivision, transforming it into our very own version of water world. Two story and three story houses have seemingly been constructed in the midst of the aquatic landscape, with roofs of bungalow houses becoming undistinguishable from the structure it had formerly been part of. Even the air already had that distinct morning sea mist, proving that indeed we were no longer in the same residential suburbia.
If not for such calamitous event, I would have been busy making arrangements for a night out with friends. Only in that time, it didn’t even brush my mind as I witnessed my neighbors traverse the waters aboard an air mattress only to evacuate to our home, which offered a third floor should the water continue to rise during the night. A shindig seemed all too frivolous, when you are watching people hold on to the very core of survival.
If I had had a party at home, I would have probably invited the same amount of guests present in our house in the peak of Ondoy’s wrath. But it was no festivity. People were reeling from the complete devastation of their homes. Although to me, there could be no more fitting celebration of life than people who are continuously fighting to survive such trying times. Shindigs die down in the morning, but the strength I saw among my neighbors is a formidable example of the inextinguishable spirit that stands in the face of adversity and grim circumstances. Birthdays are a celebration our successful passage from the comforts our mother’s womb to the harsh conditions of the world, and each year is a triumph among the many things that challenge our existence. I guess a destructive typhoon could send no clearer message that indeed, I am fortunate to be alive.
Beholding our first floor after the water has subsided the next day was heart-wrenching to say the least. Thick brown sludge covered every area, and all our heavy appliances have either been overturned, broken or knocked out of place. The reek of excreta emanated from every corner. Floodwater was actually a more bearable site to see, than mud paste slathered on every nook and cranny.
My family got together to clean each spot until it almost resembled its pre flood-ravaged state. Although admittedly, no amount of scrubbing could make recovering from such devastation any easier. Our only consolation was none of us were harmed, and even at our most dismal state, we still had something. Beyond our depressing situation, we are strongly encouraged by the strength of others who are in even more difficult circumstances, yet who never faltered and continued to trudge on with might and spirit. I think Typhoon Ondoy reintroduced us to a lot of things. From each person’s inherent sense of brotherhood, to our capacity to remain standing in the face adversity. We are at the mercy of circumstance, but we are never helpless victims unless we consider ourselves as one.
I really do not hold it against my family that they forgot to greet me during the day of my birthday. I completely understand that such overwhelming events tend to fixate our eyes on the more important things. I gladly brought a cake to share with them that night, and I guess nothing could have tasted any sweeter.