To Swim, to Save My Life

The Wave (1902) by Frantisek Kupka

The Wave (1902) by Frantisek Kupka

9 November 2013
11:17 PM
Manila

M.–

Here are some things I don’t know how to do:

To swim, to save my life.
Four years ago I thought the highway would never end. I thought it was my own personal bolgia: walking forward in dirty water, always walking, never knowing if I’ll get there. Even when I was soaked to the skin I was so thankful, because the water only came up to my waist. It surges, and it recedes from time to time, but my determination to get back to my family was greater than my fear. I kept thinking about how I couldn’t swim, how a skill like this would be useful. Not for leisure, but for survival. I berated myself as I followed a long exodus of people under the rain–what a fool I was; me, with all my books.

What would I do if the weather gets worse? What would I do? It fucks with your mind, those questions. It messes up your head so bad that the next time the sky darkens you feel a frisson of fear down your spine. I wasn’t the only one who needed a moment, a few months, perhaps another year, before we can tell ourselves that we’re still here, and that the city hasn’t drowned.

To wait, to ride out doubts and worries.
I’ve been thinking about this typhoon. We give them names, you know. My country, I mean. Typhoons, I mean. I think they hold a contest every year. Get names from A-Z.  And this one–Yolanda. As if she’s only a heartbreaker, and not Death who has come knocking at our door. The name starts with Y because it’s an indication that we’ve previously had twenty-four typhoons, and this is unlucky number twenty-five. I don’t know which is worse: wading through the flood, with the cold seeping into my bones, or staying at home and waiting for news to come in, wondering if people I know are high and dry.

I read the papers, about how the death toll in one area could reach 10,000. I start to wonder if it could be true. Then I remember the videos I’ve seen. I remember yesterday’s howling winds. With a sense of despair I eventually tell myself: how can it not be true? I try to get in touch with my friends down south. Are you safe?, I asked. The only question that matters.

I told you, in a hurried text message sent out to the ether, how the winds made me feel like I lived by the sea. I stepped outside when I told you that, dying for a smoke, dying for an update, any update. It wasn’t an idyllic observation. The sea saves, and takes. What does it mean to live on seven thousand and one islands? What does it mean to be surrounded by the sea? What does it mean to be in a little coastal town, to actually see the sea, to be near it when a typhoon like Yolanda sweeps through?

It means bodies on the streets. It means tree trunks flying. It means buildings falling down. It means upturned cars. It means people looting and rioting because they are hungry, because there’s no help coming, because help couldn’t come, because roads are destroyed. The sea takes and takes and takes.

To let go, to be happy, to be done with grief.
We were laughing, a few hours ago. My family and I had dinner out, then we had coffee at this bakeshop across the Japanese noodle place. We were laughing, and then suddenly I felt my eyes burning, and I had to excuse myself and hide in the bathroom for a few minutes. I stayed there, and I cried. I tried my best to keep quiet, my chest taking the brunt of it, trying to contain all my sobs.

What right have I to laugh at this time? What right have I to eat dainty pastries this evening and be dissatisfied (it’s dry, it sticks to the roof of my mouth, etc), then come home to poetry and bed, when elsewhere, this is happening?

Before dinner I was standing in front of my grandfather’s crypt. Today is the anniversary of his death. It’s been four years since I watched him die in front of me. I traced his name on the stone, wondering at everything that’s happened since then. Wondering what do we live for, if all we have is all this devastation before us. I sat on a bench as I waited for my sisters and my parents to pay their respects. Watched a caterpillar crawl past me. How clueless this little thing is about how the world works. If it even knows about death and grief and mourning. The unbelievable pain of losing. The horror of realising that things will never be the same.

How does one even begin to live, knowing someone out there is dying? I stayed in the bathroom, my shoulders shaking, bent over. I couldn’t help but think how, from behind, you can’t even tell if I was laughing or crying. How, without sound, you can’t tell if my tears are because of fear or pain or love or joy.

Ah, but there are many things I don’t know how to do, M. Like painting my nails. Baking. Saving up money. Following orders. Respecting authority. Talking with people. Whistling. I’m absolutely shit at all of these.

What I would give to be able to learn how to say I love you out loud. How to get home from the middle of the city without consulting someone. How to prioritise my time. How to keep still. How to physically coordinate with my body. How to sleep early. How to switch off my brain. How to save lives.

T.

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