Season by season
I watch Him, amazed
In awe of the mystery
of His perfect ways!
All I have need of
His hand will provide;
He’s always been faithful to me

When Adi, almost three, has a hard time falling asleep in bed at night, he asks me to carry him. “Daddy, carry please?” Some nights I am too tired to oblige willingly. That’s when I remind myself that this season — when my son needs me to carry him to sleep — is but a blink of an eye. Before I know it, he won’t need me in this way. And I know I will miss it. So I get up from the bed and pick him up from his small bed.

I let little Adi’s head rest on my shoulder. “Close your eyes, Adi-boy-boy. I love you.” As I wait for his little arms wrapped around me to grow limp, I sing — slowly, as lullaby, and imperfectly, as prayer. It usually takes just two songs before he’s ready to be put down.

Tonight, I sang one of my and Daphne’s favorite songs: Sara Groves’s “He’s Always Been Faithful”. As I sang the lyrics from memory, it came to me afresh that my Abba Father carries me too! His arms are strong and never grow weary. And yet, how often do I abandon myself to those faithful arms? I felt the Spirit’s tender invitation to repent — for the times when I foolishly thought that, somehow, I had outgrown my need for His everlasting arms. Thank you again, Adi, for teaching Daddy, without even realizing it.

Abba, carry please?

“The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.”
(Zephaniah 3:17)

meet kaiyel

The icing on the cake of my recent Davao vacation was a little girl named Kaiyel, my brother Bong’s firstborn. When Kaiyel is not injecting or feeding her doll, Momay, she takes pleasure in sneaking up on people and jolting them with a hearty “Bulaga!”—complete with hand gestures and a mischievous grin that turns her eyes into two jovial slants. Most times we play along and feign surprise, but sometimes the little prankster really makes us jump. (We have had to gently warn her against surprising her Lola Lils in her sleep.) It’s quite apt considering that this little blessing graced our family quite surprisingly. A new granddaughter and niece? Bulaga!

Kaiyel is a few months short of three years, but if you listen to her, you would think she’s five, sometimes even twenty-five. She is gregarious and does not understand the meaning of “shy”. Like a boss, she walks around with her hands on her hips, and will dance Gangnam-style at the drop of a hat. Her favorite greeting is not “Hi” or “Hello” but “Ano’ng gawa mo?” (“What are you doing?”). She is quick to remember names and never forgets to say, “Ingat ka ha!” (“You take care, okay?”) whenever someone leaves the house. She hardly stutters and is quite a sponge with words. It’s apparent that my niece has the gift of gab, and I can’t wait for when she starts reading.

Now, little Kaiyel has a yellow piggy bank that she requires people to feed. Her Angkong (Chinese for paternal grandfather) enjoys giving her coins to feed her piggy. Sometimes she thinks that all coins belong to her piggy; if you leave coins unattended and later find they’re no longer where you had left them, you should know they’ve been fed to Piggy.

A few days before New Year’s Day, my brother traveled to GenSan with wife Mikay and little Kaiyel. I had hatched a plan that only a heartless uncle could think of – I would kidnap Piggy and see how his little mistress reacts. My brother laughed when I told him about it, which I took as an endorsement. (It’s important that he was in on the plan because the last thing I wanted was to be on the receiving end of a karate instructor’s mean kick!)

A day after New Year’s Day we heard the red gate rattle followed by a knock on the door and a squeaky voice declaring, “Andito na ako!” (“I’m back!”). Kaiyel, cute in pink leggings, kissed everyone with the flair of a movie star in the company of adoring fans. She went to her Angkong to announce her return and promptly received coins to feed Piggy. I hadn’t expected Kuya and family to be back so early, so I rushed to nab Piggy from his usual place under the computer table and hid him under the coffee table in the living room.

New Piggy fodder in her small hands, Kaiyel headed straight to where she thought Piggy was, and it didn’t take long for her to discover that her yellow treasure was missing. “Asan ang baboy ko?”  (“Where’s my pig?”) she inquired with a a small pout and a hint of sadness. Her tone wasn’t accusatory; it was pleading.

My heart was soon crushed by guilt. So I “helped” her launch a search-and-rescue operation for Piggy. “Check under the throw pillow,” I instructed. Kaiyel brushed the throw pillow aside, looked up to me, and said, “Wala ‘man” (“Nothing there.”). She checked one or two other places I had led her to, without success, of course. Then I finally told her to check under the coffee table.

Kaiyel squatted on the floor, lifted the red table cloth, and finally found the object of her search. What followed had us all in stitches. In a voice not unlike a mother reprimanding her child, she quipped—to Piggy: “Ano ka ba? Anong gawa mo d’yan?” (“What’s wrong with you, why are you there?”). The inflection of her voice reflected both the relief of finding and the exasperation of searching. “How innocent,” my sister Liza reflected. “She never thought ill of anyone, and instead ended up blaming Piggy for wandering off.”

After feeding Piggy with new coins from Angkong, grinning Kaiyel tried lifting Piggy so she could bring him to his home under the computer table. She grimaced with the attempt, unable to lift Piggy more than an inch above the floor. So being the good and repentant uncle that I was, I carried Piggy for my little niece.

Piggy was heavy, Kaiyel’s heart light.

Kaiyel discovers a new ride, and his Kuya Paul and Tito Aleks discover back pain.

On Christmas Eve, Kaiyel discovers a new ride, and his drivers, Kuya Paul and Tito Aleks, discover back pain.

this house

I don’t know exactly when I started calling this place of my childhood my parents’ house instead of my house. I just know that after living away from it and staying in several other places — college dorms, boarding houses, “shoeboxes”, apartments, condos — in a span of over fifteen years, it seems inaccurate to still call this bungalow in Davao my house. My parents, Tagalog-speaking migrants from Luzon, tell me that we moved to this house with the red gate when I was one year old. While my elder siblings remember living in various other places around the city, this house on  is the only one I remember.

We didn’t always own this property. We rented for many years, and Mama and Papa had had to save enough to purchase house and then lot, eventually repair the roof, retile the floors, and do a hundred other improvements to ensure we lived as comfortably and securely as their modest income would allow. This house has undergone several make-overs and repairs, including a 25% extension at the back (Papa’s dream project), but none too drastic to efface my memories of this place.

My father had always been proud of the location of this house. On many occasions he would brag about how accessible we are to “everything”. The market is one brief tricycle ride away. The hospital is less than five minutes away on a jeepney (but within running distance given adrenaline and a life-threatening situation). There’s a church down the block, where we worshiped for a few years before moving to the church pastored by my eldest brother (even that was just four blocks away). Our school was five blocks away, and walking that stretch was easy and cathartic for a teen just discovering life’s perplexities.

I left my parents’ house at 17 when I packed three huge suitcases and a pocketful of youthful ambition to study in Manila. I may have transplanted myself to study and eventually work in the Big City, but not a year passed when I didn’t come back, especially during the yearend holidays, to live once again under the familiar roof of this house, if only for a few days at a time.

Yesterday I sat in my mother’s rocking chair. (This one is new, the latest in a long line of rocking chairs that, through the years, had imposed siesta on restless little humans –– my toddler self included, followed by my nephews and nieces years later.) The creaking sound and the rocking motion are therapeutic and have a curious way of soothing heart and mind. I sat there enjoying the moment and taking in the cool breeze that brought with it the nice smell of laundry drying just outside the window. I looked around and realized that I really liked how sunlight would stream through the house’s many windows, as though it was a constant, welcomed guest. The intense orange of after-lunch rays flattered the narra walls and intensified the deep red of the sofa furniture. After a few minutes, this view was muted considerably when the sky darkened and rain started to pound on the rooftop; I liked this too. How aptly and beautifully this showed the changing seasons of life, I thought to myself. I closed my eyes and felt an inexplicable warmth and security, enough to prompt a silent prayer of thanksgiving.

I don’t call it my house anymore, but it is still my home. The years have taken me to many places and allowed me to experience many things, which, I think, have bestowed me with enough wisdom to realize that home isn’t just one place; it’s not even just a place. Home is that deeply emotional collection of things, places, people, memories, rituals that ground you and make you feel rooted, accepted, loved. You get an overpowering sense of it every now and then, like when out of the blue you sit in a rocking chair and then feel a compulsion to write minutiae about a house by a dusty Davao road.

Tonight I pack my little suitcase, and tomorrow I kiss my parents goodbye yet again before catching a cab to the airport. I will leave this house but will carry with me, in my heart, this piece of home. Always.

first 2010 post

I am forcing myself to blog today.

I sense a full heart that is dying to write its contents down, but is held back by a sluggish mind and rusty writing skills. It is frustrating to not be able to match heart stuff with the right words. The trip from heart to typing fingers is bumpy today.

But still I force myself to let it out. Even if in incoherent trickles.

* * *

I’m thinking about the first few days of 2010 and how the 2009 year-end holidays already feel like an eternity ago. I spent my holidays in Davao with my family. And what a roller-coaster ride it was — with its ups and downs and all the extreme emotions in between that just made me realize all the more how much I love my family. Speaking of home,  this morning I was going through my journal entries from last year (they’re scattered all over my computer, tucked away in all sorts of folders and applications) and came across the following entry written sometime in July when I was in Davao for a few days.

While I was getting dressed one morning in the big room that is now Kuya Bong’s room, I asked myself, “When did this house stop being home?” Not that I no longer have fond memories of this place; or that I have stopped longing to come to it every now and then; but, for some reason, this familiar place of my childhood has ceased being home. Should I feel ashamed? If this isn’t home anymore, then where is home now?

Where, indeed, is my home now? Maybe for now it is not a physical place. Or maybe, in its truest sense, home is never really just a physical place. “Home is where the heart is,” says the cliche. So I guess the deepr question is, Where is my heart now?

* * *

During the holidays, God dealt with me in a tender and yet powerful way. As I think about it now, there is a lump in my throat and my eyes mist. I am overwhelmed by the Heavenly Father’s relentless love in stark contrast with my unfaithfulness. There are no words to explain it — the feeling is a mixture of both the familiar (“God loves me.”) and the mysterious (“How could God love me?!”).

“This year I die,” I wrote on FaceBook. Death to self is  life in Christ. Quoting a line from the song Seasons of Love, I posted on FaceBook on New Year’s Eve: “Five hundred twenty-five thousand six-hundred minutes. How do you measure a year?” A missionary friend answered in one word: Obedience. Wow. I looked back at 2009 and found to my shame that I have lived more for self than for Christ. “My only hope is full surrender, so with each borrowed breath, I inhale the Spirit’s will for me to die a deeper death.” I thank God for whoever penned the words to that Steve Green song. God has used this song to convict me many times.

But even death to self is not the ultimate pursuit. Yesterday I met with two men whom I love dearly and trust deeply, and I shared with them in halting sentences what God is doing in my heart; that His invitation to me is not to strive harder, or be more disciplined, or do more for Him and His kingdom. The invitation, extended ever so lovingly and tenderly, is to know Him. Now I sense an inexplicable desire to know this Person whom I call Lord and Savior. And I pray that this desire will burn and consume me so that every day I wake up like a child on Christmas morning wondering what gifts of knowing my gracious Father await me.

The year is long, and—the Lord willing—this life longer still. I am aware that this fiery desire can and will be tested. I write this on my blog so that when those days come, I can return to these words and remind myself of that tender invitation and the blazing fire it has set in my heart.

Oh to know the pow’r of Your risen life;
And to know You in your suffering;
To become like You in Your death, my Lord,
So with You to live and never die.

Knowing You (All I Once Held Dear)

for her

It felt like The Amazing Race. Only there were no cameras, and the two men in a hurry did not have six-pack abs like Mark and Rovilson. My brother Bong and I slammed the car doors and brisk-walked (we’re both too out of shape for running) across Davao’s Ilustre Street toward Gaisano South Mall. We needed to complete our mission before 6:30PM, and according to my watch we had less than half-an-hour.

“I think it’s not there anymore,” Kuya Bong said, catching his breath. He’s asthmatic, and he was right: the shop we had hoped would be at the mall had been replaced by a bank! “Wait, I think there’s one at Davao Doctors’ Hospital!” I offered. We scurried a block to the hospital and found the shop there all right—unlit and closed! It was a Sunday after all.

Time was running out.

“Why don’t we get something else?” came the bro’s suggestion. I wasn’t ready for Plan B just yet, so I grabbed my phone to call Irene, high school friend and a walking Google for all things Davao.

“Hey, Irene! Where else can we find a flower shop in Davao at this hour?” Without a moment’s pause, she gave us the next best spot to try. We hurried back to the car with renewed hope.

I held my breath as we descended the escalator to the place where the flower shop was supposed to be. And there it was! They had on display and ready to be picked up two bouquets, both beautifully arranged. We chose the bigger and more expensive arrangement–an assortment of red roses, mums, some orchid-looking pink flower. Only the best for the best lady.

We got to church in time for the last few songs before the sermon. Before delivering the message, the pastor, who is my brother Arnel, asked all the mothers to line up in front to be honored and receive a token from the church. Moms of all ages, shapes, and sizes went forward. Taking our cue from the associate pastors who saw us with the bouquet of flowers, Kuya Bong and I marched to the front with the bouquet. My sister Liza looked relieved to see us (her assignment was to make sure Mama didn’t suspect we were out to surprise her.)

Seeing her children approaching with a bouquet, Mama started crying and stomping her feet, her hands over her mouth. In jest I whispered to my brother, “Assuming naman si Mama… malay n’ya sa iba natin ‘to ibigay! Hehe.” But she was right to assume. She sobbed as we gave her the bouquet and hugged her tight. My sister followed suit with the token from the church. “Happy Mothers’ Day, Inay.”

Mama looked radiant in her pink blouse and her bouquet of flowers. After the service we drove to Jack’s Ridge to have dinner overlooking the city lights. Holding her bouquet like a beauty queen, Mama quipped, “Feeling ko naman si Ruffa Gutierrez ako sa The Buzz!” To which Kuya Arnel retorted, “Hindi ah. Ikaw si Annabelle Rama!”

bro bonding

We’re ten years apart, my eldest brother and I. You’d think a full decade’s gap is more than enough for people to tell easily who’s the younger bro and who’s the older. Not quite. On several occasions, people have mistaken me for the more senior sibling. And when this happens Kuya Arnel just smiles and does nothing to rectify the unjust assumption, while I fumble for words to correct the rude stranger (hah!). Maybe it’s the height – I’m a few inches taller…

kuyai.jpgGrowing up, Kuya and I were not close. He started preaching at age 17 and so he was away or busy most of the time. Because of his calling, I saw more of him from the church pew than from the living room sofa. When I went off to college and he and family relocated back to Davao from Iloilo , things took a turn for the better. Kuya and I began relating with each other more, mostly during my vacations in Davao. It was a delightful discovery that there was a friend in this preacher-brother; that it’s not just blood that is binding us – our hearts have been knitted together in fellowship.

Last month, the kuya and the bunso were on the phone catching up. Kuya‘s stories are always interesting and many times a source of inspiration. We are the family’s clowns and so we naturally find ways to enjoy laughs with each other. But for months he has been under tremendous stress, growing weary from the pressures of life and ministry, and I could sense this over the phone. He told me he would be speaking at a conference in Dagupan and Baguio end of April. I urged him to spare a day or two after his engagement to spend some down time with me in Manila before he flew back to Davao. I would take time off from work to host him. Nothing grand, just two brothers relaxing and catching up.

I knew he would object to the “inconveniences” that having fun in Manila entailed, but I was patient and firm. He complained when we took sardine-packed MRT rides. He complained when I checked him in a budget hotel, sarcastically muttering under his breath, “Third world!” (Haha!) He complained when we took a long walk on University Ave before dinner. He complained when… oh, for a minister, he was complaining a lot!

And yet all the while I knew he really wasn’t complaining. He was having fun 🙂 As much as he says he dislikes adventure and travel, I suspect deep down he longs for new things. And I think I’m right. “Complaints” and all, he did seem to have enjoyed our time together – enough to blog about it right away.

Grace does come to us in unlikely packages. For that short time last week, I didn’t mind playing the kuya, cajoling a complaining minister to take a break and loosen up a bit. If it was fun for Kuya, it was doubly fun for me. After all, it’s not every day that I get to spend time with family.

Sa uulitin, bro?