Learning from those who have truly suffered shows me how to be thankful
Maria Perla Sagdullas watched her brother and niece get washed away in the storm surge of Super Typhoon Haiyan on November 8, 2013. When she tells about it, she looks out the window as if she was seeing it all again, happening before her eyes. She cries.
The scene is as vivid to her now as it was when the typhoon’s surge sent a 20-foot wall of water sweeping across the Philippine island of Leyte, killing more than 6,300 people, damaging 1.1 million houses and displacing 4.1 million people.
The hardest part, Maria Perla says, was that there was nothing she could do. She was already struggling to save herself and her six-year-old grandson.
“I saw them there in the water,” she says with quivering lips. “I tried to reach them but couldn’t. That stays with me. I couldn’t save them.”
When the waters receded, Maria Perla and her grandchild were left with nothing—no shelter, no food, nothing but the clothes that still clung to their bodies—for two days. They managed to make their way, through mud and dead bodies, to a hotel some miles away to which another brother and her cousin had evacuated. In the process, she was able to locate her husband. Several days later, Maria Perla’s siblings came from the neighboring island of Samar to rescue them.
Two weeks later, they returned to Tacloban, where their house once stood. Using what they could find laying around in the typhoon’s wake, they did their best to build a makeshift shelter. It was meager at best, but at least they were together.
In February 2014 Maria Perla and her family applied for shelter assistance from Catholic Relief Services. The CRS “Build Back Better” program has provided cash grants or pre-built shelter to upwards of 20,000 families in the Tacloban/Palo areas, hardest hit by Typhoon Haiyan. Maria Perla’s family was approved for the program in May and in July they moved into their brand new shelter, located in a safer area. It was built to withstand typhoon winds and rains, and is elevated to protect from flooding because the Filipinos know that a Super Typhoon Haiyan could happen again.
Even in the stronger, safer home, Maria Perla still gets nervous every time a storm approaches.
Catholic Relief Services also helped Maria Perla to reestablish her sari-sari store through their “Livelihoods” program, which provides start-up funds and education for small businesses and cottage industries. Sari-saris are small variety stores akin to our quick marts in the US. They’re usually operated out of, or immediately adjacent to, the home and are often the family’s main source of income.
Before Haiyan, Maria Perla’s store did quite well, bringing in an average of 3000 Philippine pesos a day, or $64 in US currency. Now she makes about 700 pesos a day—a mere $15 US a day.
That’s not much by our US standards, but it’s a chance at a fresh start for the Sagdullas Family.
In late October of this year, Maria Perla already had decorated her house and home altar for Christmas. Home altars are a Filipino custom and often, as in Maria Perla’s case, they’re dedicated to Mary and in particular to Santo Nino, or the Holy Child. She told me that she prays daily to Santo Nino and that he’s been helping her with her business, which is slowly growing.
Asked what Christmas will be like this year for her family, she lit up and smiled.
“I just want that we’re all together,” she said. “I want to be together as a family. I want us to eat together, to sit down and have a meal together, as family. Of course we won’t forget November 8, 2013, but we will be together.”
I asked, as I had repeatedly with every Filipino I had interviewed while on assignment, “Are you angry at God?”
And as happened with all the others, she looked at me in complete surprise.
“Angry at God?” she repeated. “Why should I be? Ultimately, he is the one who saved me.”
Why should I be?
The idea of being angry at God was totally foreign to Maria Perla, as it was to the rest of the Haiyan survivors I met.
I wish it were that foreign to me.
Thanksgiving is just around the corner and like most Americans I am making plans for what we’ll eat and who will be around our table this year. I’ve been sulking because some of my children can’t make it.
I’ve more than sulked. I’ve been angry at God.
Recalling the Sagdullas Family has made me feel ashamed about it. True, members of my family won’t be around the table this year, but they are still alive and well; they didn’t float away from us in flood waters. Our house may not be as full as I’d like it to be, but it’s a comfortable, solid house and not an emergency shelter. We’ll have plenty of wonderful food to eat and won’t be depending on disaster relief donations.
Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated in the Philippines. If it were, I have no doubt that Maria Perla would not be sulking or angry at God about absences, as I’ve been.
She’d smile and give thanks for all of the blessings that she does have. And for her lesson and vivid witness, may we give thanks.
Marge Fenelon is a Catholic author, columnist and speaker and a regular guest on Catholic radio. She’s written several books about Marian devotion and Catholic family life, including Strengthening Your Family: a Catholic Approach to Holiness at Home and Imitating Mary: Ten Marian Virtues for the Modern Mom. Find out more about Marge at www.margefenelon.com.