Surviving Christmas

Gemma Luz Corotan
GRACE NOTE 6. Whatever it may be, we can survive it and come December, we can celebrate not just Christmas, but everything we went through in the year, our triumphs big and small, and everything we survived
Gemma Luz Corotan
Gemma Luz Corotan

GRACE NOTE 6. Whatever it may be, we can survive it and come December, we can celebrate not just Christmas, but everything we went through in the year, our triumphs big and small, and everything we survived.

Dear Jack and Johnny,

I don’t know what else to call it but Christmas fatigue, when the Christmas carols heralding the start of the season start playing and I feel dread, instead of anticipation at the mind-numbing traffic that, by itself, is enough to kill the joy of the season. The frenetic shopping that never really gets completely done, the Christmas reunions that could be either loving and joyful or strained and awkward (depending on what happened in the year about to close, a mother’s big tantrum, a sister’s unresolved grudge, the end of a marriage) and the holiday feasts, always laboriously done but which could either be a hit or a miss — like that time when I served a European dish of chicken with peaches to my ex-in laws that they could not understand and why, they asked, did I not settle instead for good old dinuguan which everyone, everyone loves, God knows, including me?

Christmas, despite all its surface trimmings of boughs of holly, lights and tinsel, was always a touch-and-go affair that, on several occasions, had me crying secretly inside the pantry out of stress before bravely coming out with a huge, manufactured smile because I almost killed myself making the stuffed chicken, and all that work would have gone to waste if I served it with a meltdown.

This year, I prefer our Christmas simple, no elaborate dishes that will take the whole day to make, no undue obsession over Christmas decor and spending obscene amounts on a new motif every year, no expensive, mind-blowing presents.

We are doing it differently not because Christmas has become a drudge and has become less important. We are doing it differently because I don’t want the gloss and glitter and ritual and all that intense RUSH to become more important than what we should be truly celebrating aside from the birth and life of Christ: FAMILY, LOVE, BEING ALIVE and TOGETHER to celebrate at least one more Christmas, our triumphs big and small, everything that we went through this year and everything we survived.

As I write this, just several days shy of Christmas, hundreds of lives ended in northern Mindanao, most of whom are children who will never again walk to church wearing their brightest Sunday best on Christmas morning, their dreams of Santa and presents underneath the tree dashed for all time by a rampaging, killer flood.

In 1987, the ship, MV Dona Paz  sank, killing during the Christmas season rush more than 4,000 people, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers and grandparents hurrying to celebrate the merriest of the seasons with their families and failing to make it home.

Both tragedies are explicit reminders of a universe in precarious balance between mercy and wrath, of how so much can be lost and how much can change in a split second, and how much we take for granted.

For  more than one day when we waited seemingly for eternity for news that your Tito Mike and his family survived the flood in Cagayan de Oro, I  could not help but contemplate briefly a Christmas without a brother, his wife and your cousins, and if our Christmas this year would be radically and painfully different. I wondered about Christmases and families permanently defaced and changed forever by the untimely loss of a loved one.

Thankfully, he and his family survived and in that moment when his voice crackled through the telephone line, I thought that we could never ever have a better Christmas gift than this. None.

My children, life itself is a reason to celebrate Christmas. Please remind yourself of this when December comes around and overwhelmed by the seeming drudgery of it, you’re tempted to take it for granted.

For everything that we went through as a family and everything we survived this year and the years past, there is much to celebrate.

I celebrate that you are here Jack, alternately loving and aloof, wise and stubborn, gentle and angry, sometimes kissing and hugging me, sometimes screaming at me, but here.

We could easily have lost you during Ondoy, and I celebrate the inner voice that urged me on that day to go home, when staying where we were seemed the smarter course, to find another route going home. And when that was blocked, another route again and again, and I got home to you in time to save and get you out of the house — just minutes before the angry floods broke the doors, rushed in and engulfed the first floor of our house.

Johnny, you tearfully asked me if we lost everything when we first stepped into the house after the floods receded and ravaged our home beyond recognition, and I told you that as long as we have each other and our courage, we have not lost anything.

Within a month, you saw me work feverishly and unrelentingly to have our house fixed and ready for Christmas, while many of our neighbors remained for a long time mired in their loss, unable to recover and move on, knowing, as I stripped and painted walls into the dead of nights and into the early mornings and washed and painstakingly dried books and documents and hundreds, no thousands of soiled photographs — memories of our history that I fiercely refused to let go — that I could probably never erase the memory of this tragedy under paint and scaffold. I will never be there always to protect you but I could teach you, my children, by example that whatever it may be, no matter how bad it is, it is possible to survive it.

And we have survived, haven’t we? We have survived the pains and aches, the highs and lows, the twists and turns, the good breaks and bad, enough for you to learn one important lesson: that circumstances, events, good fortunes and bad can shape us, but we can shape events too and become masters of our fate.

From where I write this, I can hear you Jack playing a blues song with your electric guitar, loud and relentless but never, no never annoying to me because I have seen how you stoked that guitar and how you taught yourself sweetly and patiently in fits and starts until finally something resembling music, plaintive and beautiful and all yours started coming out of your instrument.

I celebrate your tenacity and that through your frustrations, you never ever once thought of giving up.

This year, you ranked second in your honors class, almost making it to first by the slightest percentage point; I celebrate your accomplishment and that once, too broken from the break-up of our family to focus or even care, you nursed yourself through your grief to overcome them.

Johnny, you make me proud, surviving both typhoid fever and appendicitis this year one after the other, and going under the knife with strength and grace (Hey Ma, no tears) like the fierce warrior that you are.

This morning I watched you compete and qualify in your Aikido class for your next belt just a few months after your operation, and watching you all straight and sharp, serious and all grown-up, I celebrate your passion and I celebrate your courage.

I celebrate that both of you are happy, that the dark cloud that seems to have settled on our home after our family broke apart seems to have lifted. I hear giggling behind doors, pillow fights, dancing, singing in the shower and see easier smiles.

I celebrate your happiness as I celebrate mine. This year marks the first Christmas that I am a wife again and we are a family again, made complete by a great man who met a fractured family, and like he would a broken vase, put it lovingly back together piece by piece. It is not perfect but it is whole.

I celebrate that we have made it this far, our strong wills moving across time to get to this point of clarity and peace, after hard work and years of struggling with each of our secret sorrows, doubts and confusion. I celebrate that we carried each other to this point without disintegrating and with our best selves intact.

We remain imperfect beings and as imperfect beings, suffused with doubt in a mysterious world, we will alternately make mistakes and redeem ourselves, suffer and celebrate.

But that is the great thing about Christmas and the New Year, isn’t it? We can reset ourselves to default, renew our lives and start again.

Merry Christmas.

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