A Personal Mission - Lily's Last Trip
My wife had always wanted to visit, but in the final years of her life her failing health had prevented her from taking one last trip home. So it was up to me to make that trip for her.
By any account Lily was a special person. She was cheerful, amusing, and honestly loved everybody she came in contact with. A nature and disposition that was quite unusual considering where she came from. Lily had been born into abject poverty, had spent most of her formative years as a street urchin in the slums of Manila, and just generally been given the short end of the stick at every turn. She had every right to be angry and bitter, but that was never part of her character.
Using an overabundance of charm, a heroic work ethic, and a good measure of divine intervention Lily climbed out of the ghetto and became quite successful on her own. And yet despite her success, she never forgot where she had come from. She was never one to try to impress you with her material success, she was only interested in hearing about your success.
Therefore, it was no surprise when Lily heard Sr. Elvie describe her vison of ThinkActPeace Lily became an avid supporter. As she described to me, “This is about helping people who come from the places I came from. And this is doing it right! It is not the standard reaching down to help them up (or should I say to help them be like us). No, this is all about reaching out to help them be themselves.” Lily converted me into a supporter as well, and we did a lot of work, at least until Lily’s health began to fail.
One day during a dialysis session Lily told me that she really wished she could visit the facility in Masbate. But then she also realized her health made such a visit quite unlikely. We didn’t talk about it much, but then we never had to talk anything in detail – we were in sync.
So, a short while after Lily passed it was time for me to take that last trip for her. Her last trip also involved bringing some of her back to her family so I started by spending a week in Ubay, Bohol where Lily was born. Then it was time to visit Masbate. My nephew accompanied me on this trip, and it was good that he did – in that way at least one member had some personal charisma. It was a bit of an adventure traveling from Bohol to Masbate, but I have traveled extensively in the Philippines so we actually had fun. And it was a good experience for my nephew since he had never been to that part of the Philippines before. We arrived in Masbate City, a bustling urban center, and were met by friends who provided us transportation the rest of the way. We traveled across the island over what looked like back country roads. The road was paved but I couldn’t help but notice that the frequency of pot holes increased in a linear fashion as we went. Still the road was in reasonable condition when we reached Milagros, a smaller urban center. But upon leaving Milagros the quality of the road disintegrated exponentially. We turned off a road that was not in very good shape onto a gravel road that was more pothole than road as we crossed through some rice fields, then onto a narrow dirt path through a small village, then a narrow trail that wound through a coconut grove, and finally to our destination. We arrived fully shaken, not stirred. But the scene that greeted us was enough to stir any heart.
The children had constructed a huge banner welcoming me to the facility, and the entire village was there cheering our arrival, even though we were three hours latter than expected. I was guided to a seat of honor. I never have been comfortable being the center of attention in gathering of this scale, but there was no escape. They were going to properly welcome me to their home. A young woman appeared with a microphone and kicked off the festivities by introducing me to the village. She had done her homework because her introduction included much more detail than I usually allow. Then it was time for me to get up and speak to the gathering. I ineptly stumbled through a short speech, focusing on telling them about Lily, about her passion for reaching out to this village, and that she was the reason for my visit. I closed by asking them to refer to me as “Asawa ni Lily” (Literally - spouse of Lily).
The young woman serving as master of ceremonies took back the microphone and got things moving again, but I have to note that she was nimble enough make the switch and start referring to me as asawa ni Lily. The entire village participated, adults and children of all ages. There was much singing and dancing – many of the presentations consisted of traditional Philippine folk music and dance, but there were also many well-choreographed presentations based on contemporary music.
The highlight of the show for me though was when several of the elementary grade children were brought to me so they could demonstrate what they had learned. They were asked questions in turn, and given a small gift for correct answers. The questions covered geography, mathematics, spelling, even some civics. The older children got the more difficult questions, but everyone got to field a question in each of the subjects. And all of this was conducted in English. Since the children were very close to me, I took the opportunity to tease them in the Philippine language. I did this to make them more comfortable, maybe it worked, the children would giggle and respond to me in kind. But then it was right back to English. It was then that I began to realize - all of this had little to do with me, it was all about them, about their pride, and showing how much they had achieved.
The most entertaining part came when one of the younger participants was presented with a spelling task. The young boy became frustrated trying to differentiate saying the letter “a” and the letter “e”. Due to the phonic structure of the Philippine language, when they try to use English to name these two letters of the alphabet it comes out as “a” being a sharp “ah”, and “e” being a soft “eh”. The young boy was insistent on getting proper credit even if he was unable to clearly articulate the difference between the letters so after each “eh” he would add “curly coot”, since the letter “e” is written as a counter clockwise spiral. This was incredibly entertaining for everyone in attendance. And the young boy received his award for a correct answer.
The following day I was given a long tour of the facilities. We saw the Library, the meeting facilities, the classrooms. We got to observe a sewing class for a while, then look at some of the gardens being worked on the grounds. In the afternoon we toured the village. Most of the homes were hardly more than tattered lean-tos. But one of the projects that Sr. Elvie had started was a community gardening contest. They spent a great effort in growing fruits and vegetables for food, but now they were being encouraged to plant flowers, to beautify their home. The gardens were judged on the beauty of the floral arrangements, and on their creativity. A clever way to build self-esteem among the participants.
The lady who had served as MC the previous day was now our tricycle (motorcycle with side car for passengers) driver. We went throughout the village. At each home we were greeted by the gardener, normally (but not always) the lady of the house, we would be shown around the garden with the proud gardener naming each of the flowers and describing some of the thought behind the presentation. They spoke in English while showing us their creations, even if I asked questions in the Philippine language they would respond in English. My nephew observed during our tour that he could not understand the language the local villagers were speaking, and that they didn’t understand him if he spoke his regional language. It is not at all surprising in the Philippines. There are 83 languages in the country, and each language has several regional dialects. Lily understood and spoke most of them, and maybe it is a family trait because my nephew is comfortable with six or seven languages. It didn’t represent any difficulty since they spent a good deal of the time speaking in English, but I found it very interesting.
Our tour of the gardens continued for several hours so that we could see every one of them. And I have to say I found it very fascinating. Mostly the creativity in containers. Of course, they used the ground, but then to establish layers they had to use some form of container. The containers in use included a few clay pots, and coconut husks, and as one would imagine empty soft drink bottles. But that was just the beginning. We had a few hollowed-out logs, but then there were old shoes, and old clothing. At one garden we even saw old clothing and old shoes used in such a manner that it looked like the flowers were actually a gardener tending to the rest of the flowers. Amazing!
As we were wrapping up out little tour I came to a realization. I have visited many such village in my time, heck most of Lily’s family lives in places like that. Most of the places I visited, unless Lily was there to mediate, the people were not willing to talk to me. Even when I let them know they could speak their language. As sad as it is to say, it was almost as if they didn’t feel they were good enough to stand with me. But, in this village, for the first time, I could see they were proud to show me their home – humble and ragged as it may be. This speaks volumes to the work that has been accomplished, the impact being that these villagers were building real self esteem. I was so overjoyed and honored to be a small part of it.
And another honor was bestowed upon me that day. The lady who had been the MC on the previous evening, and was now our transportation, started speaking to me only in her language. The language that even my nephew couldn’t understand. She just made sure she included plenty of hand gestures and kept the context very simple. She was teaching me her language. I bet Lily was enjoying that one.
Over the next few days, we got the opportunity to view some of the outlying communities and to see much of the province. Then it was time to get ready to move on to the next phase of my trip. On the last day the entire village turned out to say goodbye to me. It was so much fun to shake hands and say goodbye to the new friends.
After the goodbyes were done, I took one last walk around the compound. At the front gate I found that the “e” from my first name on the banner had been blown down by a wind storm the previous evening. So, I posed for one last picture holding my “curly coot”.
The programs continue, they have done so much with such limited resources. But there is so much more to do. And they face so many challenges. It is a struggle to make ends meet each and every day. The seasonal typhoons, the effect of fungus and insects on their infrastructure – so many things working to pull down what they have begun. The people are exposed to so many distracting influences trying to pull them apart or away. And still they struggle forward.
And it moves me to say that a great man once wrote “… that all men are created equal…” It is now quite clear to me that he should have wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all People are created equal, and they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It belongs to everybody – not just Americans.