July 24, 2004
It was a weird dawn. Bright yellow and orange over the east balcony, but still very dark out the window facing south.
I was awakened by banging and shouting, and I sat up, and doing so I would be facing the balcony and that weird brightness.
Then I understood. It was only 4am. Too early for dawn. I ran to the east end of our one-room house, drew back the curtains over the glass doors of the balcony and saw a sight I couldn’t believe.
My parents’ house was on fire. More accurately, what used to be the maid’s room behind the kitchen was ablaze, while thick black smoke was imprisoned everywhere else, finding exits through the kitchen windows, the wooden grille that topped the living room front wall, and the downstairs bathroom window.
In my usual phlegmatic way, I tried to reason it out. How could a fire have started in that back room? True, everything in there was flammable. My mother had turned it into what I jokingly called her walk-in closet. But there was nothing in there that could start a fire. The only thing plugged in was an extension cord in which nothing was plugged in at night. My mother had followed that habit of unplugging unused appliances. The only things plugged in at night in their house were the ref, the fan and the aircon in their room. Oh, and those little electric candles that served as their nightlights.
I remember how the fire investigator asked me these questions as they tried to trace the cause of the fire. It couldn’t have been electrical, they said, because the house had circuit breakers which would automatically shut off at the first sign of a problem. And besides, there were no electric appliances in the room where the fire started.
Cigarette butts? Nobody smoked, at least not anymore. My father stopped smoking in the early 70s, when he was diagnosed with goiter. Could someone have accidentally flicked a cigarette butt through the windows?
At three in the morning? I said no. It was impossible. First, the back window was probably three meters (about ten feet) away from the back wall (we had a great space for hanging laundry), with a wire screen from the top of the wall to the galvanized iron roof over the back yard. Second, the then unoccupied lot behind the house wasn’t exactly a nice place to hang out at three in the morning, with all the tall weeds and the possibility of snakes. And third, the windows had not been opened for at least five years. To say they were stuck was an understatement. In fact, the frames are still closed. Although of course the window panes are gone. And no, there were no glass fragments in the room which might have meant someone broke the glass in to start a fire.
For the life of me, I couldn’t remember the emergency number for the Philippines. I only knew it wasn’t 911. I ended up calling friends instead. Irl had rushed out to try to get into the burning house while I asked friends for help. When he came back, he said the smoke was just too thick. We got the girls and carried them out.
Out front I heard raised voices. People were holding on to my father, leading him away.
The fire fighters had arrived but couldn’t get in. The gates were locked, and no one had keys. Our friends, who lived in the subdivision across the main road, had also arrived. John and Jan brought the girls to their house, and Cleve stayed with us. In the rush out, Irl and I had both left our cellphones so Cleve was letting me use his to call my brother.
Among the people milling outside, watching the fire, there was no sign of my mother. As Cleve and I walked back to where my father was being cared for my our tenants, I whispered a question: “Lord, where is my mother?” At that moment I was looking at the small window at the easternmost side of the house. It was the upstairs bathroom. And the fire was now devouring the wooden ceiling.
Something flashed in my mind just then, but it was too fast for me to think through. I would remember it later.
By the time John and Jan came back, we had already discovered that my father had burns. Bad burns. Big bad burns. Jan found the ambulance and came with me to bring my father to the nearest hospital. We were turned away from the nearest one because they said that they didn’t have the facilities to deal with the large injuries my father sustained. There was a newly-opened major hospital further up the road, and we went there.
It was during the lull of waiting for the preliminary tests on my father that I got a call. Cleve’s phone was still with me.
They had found my mother. She had hidden in the toilet beside the bathroom – in their house toilet and bath were separate rooms – and had not survived. She was not burned, so she must have suffocated in the thick smoke. Irl had been with the firemen when they found her body.
“She was crouched on the floor,” he told me. “Her hair was all gone, her upper body covered with soot, but I recognized the lower half of what she had on. That green robe she likes to wear over her dresses.”
I was trying to be quiet, but eventually the hospital staff showed us a small room where I could let it out. As Jan held me, I started to cough and gasp for breath. I realized later that I was having a mild asthma attack. It runs in the family, but I never had the bronchial version.
By mid-afternoon my father was finally brought to the ICU. They found that he had had a mild heart attack, and now they needed the opinion of a cardiologist to see if he could handle the treatment. Friends had come and gone, and my brother, after getting his mother-in-law to be with his seven-month pregnant wife in their house in Laguna, was now on his way to Manila. Irl was still at the house. I was finally alone.
It was then I remembered what flashed through my mind. It was three, maybe four figures, bright amidst darkness, disappearing upwards as if they had been sucked by a vacuum cleaner. And I had the overwhelming conviction that I had seen the exact moment my mother was saved from the fire. Not physically, because her body died. But her spirit, her soul, was not allowed to sink into the flames.
At the risk of sounding self-righteous, I asked God a question:
“I know I’ve been praying for my family for almost twenty years, Lord, but I don’t believe You would save my mother because of me. She would have had to trust You herself to save her.”
I was looking out the tinted windows in the waiting room, but I felt everything around me grow dark. It was bright outside, and I could see everything around me, but I felt I was in the dark. There were sounds I couldn’t identify. And I suddenly felt a fear literally grip my heart.
“Diyos ko, Diyos ko, Jesus help me,” I suddenly heard in my head. It was something my mother recited quite regularly, from a religious group she and her sisters would faithfully watch and sometimes even attend live.
Then suddenly there was a brightness in front of me, and I saw the gentlest face with the kindest eyes and smile I had ever seen. He must have been on his knees, bending towards me. Then he held out his hand.
I felt the confused question as the brightness and the voice seemed to overcome the darkness, the noise and the fear.
“Come,” I heard again. I saw the eyes. No fear, no urgency, just an invitation.
Then I saw the hand before my eyes, and I saw a hand put itself in it.
Then the brightness was – vacuumed up. I felt the intense dark, then suddenly the empty waiting room invaded my senses again.
And then I understood.
She did ask God to save her! And she is in heaven now with her Savior Jesus!
I started praying my thanks, and then the past twenty years seemed to flash before me. I had become a born-again Christian in 1984, and the decision has never sat well with my religious catholic parents. Specially with my mother. I remember being pulled out of the dorm, my missing bibles, hiding in small prayer rooms to avoid hearing the mass and the politically-laced sermons of the priests…
“I hope she understands now.”
Then in my mind I saw the heavens opened, and a young woman’s voice going “wow! wow! wow!” I looked up and saw the top of the medical arts building beside the hospital, and yet I could also see bright skies, distant mountains, lush lands. Then as if someone called her attention, the young woman stopped looking around and turned to look at me. Her face was not the one I remember, but I knew who it was.
“I hope you can forgive me now,” I said softly. “And I hope you understand that I never meant to rebel against you. I — “ the sob came out like a hiccup “– I simply surrendered to a higher authority. The Highest Authority.”
The tears had started then, but I felt her smile on me. And for the first time in probably 36 years, I said what I somehow could not say to her when she was physically around me:
“I love you, ‘Nay.”
I don’t remember now if she said “I love you” back. It just seemed our time was finally over. At least for now.
Because I know I’m going to be seeing her again.
The fire took my mother’s life. But thank God! I know it will never touch her soul.