How do you teach a child about disaster? How do you explain that people have lost their toys and their clothes, that their cars and their houses are damaged, possibly beyond repair? How do you make a child understand that these things are scary and dangerous, but they’re also part of how the world works?
This year has been exhausting, with one disaster happening after another. Inevitably, classes get canceled, work gets canceled, emergency supply runs and relief efforts have to be implemented. We always do our best to turn them into learning opportunities for Lucas.
In April of last year, there was an earthquake that shook Metro Manila and the nearby provinces. I was just wrapping up a shoot at Conrad Hotel, and getting ready to go to City of Dreams for another shoot. Suddenly I felt dizzy, and I saw the wooden art installation hanging from the ceiling was shaking.
For me the most terrifying thing about this earthquake was that our family members were so far apart from each other. I was in Pasay. Oneal was in his office in Paranaque. Lucas was at daycare in Makati. My mother was in Quezon City. My brother was in Pasig. For a week afterwards, I felt such anxiety, and to help me calm down, Oneal and I discussed plans for such emergencies. Lucas seemed okay, but we made sure to explain to him how earthquakes happen, and what to do in case it happens again.
In January of this year, Taal Volcano started spewing ash. I had to monitor the news, check the numbers of evacuations and damage, assess what kind of response the nearby municipalities would need. As we watched the news and saw the people, animals, cars and homes covered in ash, we explained to Lucas how volcanoes work, how the ash was carried by the wind into the sky and across the city, and why he needed to wear a mask. We had to explain why the sky was so dark, why we had to keep the windows and doors closed, and why he couldn’t play outside.
In March, just as he was supposed to start classes at a new daycare, the lockdown happened, and suddenly we all had to stay home. We had to tell him that he couldn’t go to school, but that he would still see his teacher and his new classmates through video calls on the laptop. We had to explain to him that everyone had to stay home, because outside, many people were sick, and if we went out, we could get sick too. We told him that he had to wear a mask, and always wash his hands, so that he wouldn’t get sick. He got used to masks and face shields, and the fact that we had to sanitize everything as soon as we got home, and that we had to shower right away if we came from outside.
Just this month, as the storms ripped roofs off houses and floods submerged the city, Lucas lay in his crib, asking me about the howling winds and the various things rattling and flying outside the house. “There’s a really big storm, Lucas,” I told him, even as I tried to keep the anxiety from creeping into my voice. “It’s raining really really hard, and the wind is very very strong.”
“Can I play outside even if it’s raining?” he asked hopefully.
“No, darling, it’s not safe. It’s very wet and slippery, and you might fall and get hurt.”
Over the next few days, as news came in of rain and floods, of evacuations and missing persons, of impassable roads, of the loss of electricity and communication lines, we were in distress over our own family, over their safety, over the damage to their homes and belongings. One Friday night we decided to bring emergency supplies ourselves. My brother and I pulled on boots and strapped headlamps to our heads, supplies packed on our backs, and we trudged through the mud of Marikina to bring supplies to our relatives. We had to explain to Lucas that he and Daddy and Loola (his grandmother) had to stay in the car, that Nunu (my brother) and I were going to walk in the mud, and we had to check if it was safe.
A week later, we decided to visit our relatives again, this time with Lucas. We brought food and drinks, and they seemed happy for a meal that didn’t come from a can. As our car drove past brown houses and cars, we saw piles of damaged belongings crowding the pavement, families washing what they could save, men and women wearing boots as they trudged through the mud-covered streets.
Lucas was playing a game on his phone. “Lucas, look outside,” I told him. “Do you see how all the houses are brown?” He nodded. “Do you know why they’re brown?” He shook his head.
I told him that when it rained very very hard, the water became a flood, and went inside the village, and there was so much water that it went inside the houses and the cars, and people’s things got wet and dirty. I told him that people had to check if they could still use their things, and they had to wash the things that were damaged, and they had to throw away their other things.
When we got to the street where our relatives lived, we parked the car at the corner and then pulled on our boots. We attached the baby carrier to my back, and strapped Lucas in. He was so thrilled, as I hummed the Pacific Rim theme and pretended to be a Jaeger, trudging through the mud. I lifted my legs high and planted them carefully, as though I were marching through rain and water to meet a kaiju.
In reality I was walking slowly so that I wouldn’t fall, what with the added weight on my back and the uncertainty of whatever lay under the mud.
When we got to the house and said hello to our relatives, we let Lucas walk around in the mud, his hands held tightly in ours. We showed him where to walk, and we explained to him which parts were safe to step on. We showed him the muddy things piled high outside houses and gates, and explained to him that people had to throw away the stuff they couldn’t use anymore. We explained that he had to be careful if there were floods or thick mud, because there might be something sharp that could hurt him.
I haven’t even gotten around to explaining leptospirosis yet!
We want him to realize that there are dangers around the world. We want him to know that nature can be beautiful and terrifying at the same time. We want him to understand that these things happen, that people get hurt, that houses get destroyed, that we can lose things that mean a lot to us. We need him to know that there are some things we can do to prepare for these disasters, and there are things we can do afterwards to help people who are affected by these disasters.
I know there’s much about volcanic eruptions and pandemics and typhoons that Lucas doesn’t understand yet. He likes fire trucks and rescue vehicles, but I know real emergencies would be traumatizing. How do we explain governance and disaster risk reduction, evacuation and rescue operations, climate change and land reclamation? How do we explain government budgets for emergencies, fundraising, volunteer operations?
I suppose I feel strongly about these things because of my own involvement in various relief efforts over the years. I feel intense frustration over inept government officials who are more concerned with stamping their names on packed relief goods, and fury that the efficient, hardworking government officials are criticized and disparaged over social media. And I mourn the losses suffered by friends and family who bear the brunt of these disasters.
This is a lot for a toddler to comprehend, I know. So we start with careful treks through the mud, and work forward from there.