‘You can lose whom you love and what you have in the blink of an eye. And when a fire is near enough for you to see its tongues, you realize that you can walk out with your loved ones and leave everything behind and still feel like the luckiest person alive.’
Earth, wind & fire
PEOPLE - Joanne Rae M. Ramirez (The Philippine Star) - October 15, 2019 - 12:00am

One day last week, I was awakened in the middle of the night by loud voices from somewhere outside our house, piercing the soft, steady hum of the air-conditioner. I checked our darkened bedroom, my husband Ed still snoring beside me, blissfully. I peered out the window at the street where we live and saw that all was quiet, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. I peeped at the hallway to check my son’s room — all was quiet there as well. Oh, maybe I was just dreaming, I told myself.

Or maybe the neighbors outside our compound were having a fight, a huge one. I went back to sleep.

Then I heard what I thought was a volley of gunshots, like a 21-gun salute. Then sirens. Oh no, a gunfight, I thought to myself. I was worrying about stray bullets and entertained the thought of the family seeking refuge in the tiled bathroom, lying flat on the floor, one of the survival tips I learned from the movies.

Then, the landline rang. Shrill. Loud. Clear.

It was the night guard of our compound.

Very calmly, but very clearly, he told me, “Ma’am may sunog po. Malapit sa atin.”

The phone call roused my husband from sleep. Down the hallway, our son had also emerged from his room. I could also hear our househelp downstairs opening the pedestrian gate to check.

More sirens were slicing through the thick silence of the night. It was 2 a.m. What I thought was a volley of gunshots was in fact a Meralco transformer exploding like a banned firecracker.

My husband checked the source of the fire — it was beyond the back firewall, which is almost the height of our two-story townhouse. On tiptoes, I beheld something akin to sunset at midnight — a huge dancing orange ball against the velvet sky. The fire was a street away behind our firewall. Not close enough for us to feel the heat emanating from the blaze, but close enough if there were a rogue gust of wind that can make the fire leap. It couldn’t be dismissed.

I asked our son Chino if I should change from my sleep clothes to street clothes. Chino, like his dad, is cool, calm and collected. His answer to my query? “Yes.”

***

After a change of clothes, I put on my contact lenses.  They are my first armor. My husband and son had not left their perch, still on a fire watch. Knowing my loved ones were safe and able bodied, I asked myself what on earth mattered most to me, just in case. In the past, I would have secured photo albums first but most pictures now have soft copies in one’s computer.

I put my passport in my purse, which of course already had my wallet in it. Then the few pieces of jewelry I have. A Ziploc bag with the handkerchief I rubbed on the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem, which I keep in a drawer in my bedside table.

The leather bags that were on a shelf, ready to be scooped up, went into a tote. Some clothes went into a carry-on.

I specified to my husband which items from the living room should be saved, just in case. Cory Aquino’s artwork, a cherished gift, for one.

My life didn’t pass before my eyes like a movie reel. But I was ready to leave everything but my valuables behind, just in case. And if push came to shove, even my valuables.

Moments like this make you realize that what you hear the priest saying from the pulpit is spot on. You can lose whom you love and what you have in the blink of an eye. And when a fire is near enough for you to see its tongues, you realize that you can walk out with your loved ones and leave everything behind and still feel like the luckiest person alive.

True, invest in memories, not just in material things. Know your priorities. Bring your soul, not just your body, to a “spa.” In the end, that’s what you’ll be left with. Your soul.

***

When the sirens had quieted down and my boys had left their watchman “posts,” I changed back to my sleepwear and took my contact lenses off. Chino went back to his room to catch another hour or so’s sleep before heading for work.

I turned on the air-conditioner again, and as I lay my head down on a soft pillow and pulled the velvety covers up to my neck, I reached out for Ed’s hand and said, “Thank God for sparing us and our home.”

He squeezed my hand right back. It was 4 a.m.

“Kawawa naman sila, the victims who have no place to sleep tonight,” he said before falling asleep.

And then I realized that as I said a prayer of thanks to God for sparing us, I had forgotten to pray for those who were not spared. And that was what I prayed for next as the new dawn and sleep arrived — that I may think of others in the dark of despair even while giving praise for my own new dawn. *

(You may e-mail me at joanneraeramirez@yahoo.com. Follow me on Instagram @joanneraeramirez.)

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