Trees for the mourning

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By Ramon Dacawi

Benchwarmer

Friday, June 20, 2014


FINAL rites are also for the living as well as for those we mourn. The words, the eulogies and the funeral help ease the grief of those in mourning and the unease of those who console. Being there can be of great help, as it was last week when the family of retired police officer Policarpio Cambod lost his son Lennon. As it was 24 years ago next month, when neighbors, relatives and strangers were there to do what had to be done in the wake of the killer earthquake that hit Northern Luzon.

The sense of community triggered or awakened by tragedy brought back that favorite quote of Baguio boy and feature writer Freddie Mayo: “There are places in the heart which do not exist, into which suffering enters to give them existence.”

At the crumpled Nevada Hotel 24 years ago next month, restless rescuers could only curse in silence over the helplessness of it all. A dying victim, pinned by tons of concrete, was pinpointed by a roving flashlight that stopped on a pair of protruding and barely moving pair of shoes. For the rescuers, it was hell to be there, and to have to remember having clawed into the landslide debris with bare hands, shouting to the winds and rains for the after-shocks to stop.

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There were survivors at the Nevada Hotel. Among them was Sonia Roco, the wife of former senator and then Education Secretary Raul Roco. She was attending a conference when the killer quake, at intensity 7.8 – struck. She was entombed between two beams and was pulled out only after two days.

Willy Cacdac, Toots Soberano and I barely had rest covering the rescue operations since the temblor struck. I was dozing off when she was rescued. It must have been the joyous clapping and the wailing of the ambulance siren that woke me up. By then, she was on the way to the hospital, after her rescue by miners and cadets of the Philippine Military Academy.

After bringing his wife to the hospital, Senator Roco returned to continue work with the other rescuers. We didn’t want to sound intrusive but still asked him what his wife told him on the way to the hospital.

“She said ‘God must love me so much I’m still alive’,” he quoted.
Towards the seventh anniversary of the quake, the then city council thought of unveiling a stone marker in remembrance of those who perished in the disaster. The aldermen, however, were unsure of where it should be installed. One argued it should be placed at the Burnham Park. Another struck down the plan, saying it would give a morbid ambience to the city’s main park. Another suggested that it be placed inside the city’s public cemetery. Others objected, saying no one would be there to read the text, thereby defeating the purpose.

We are sometimes in limbo, unsure of how to console or remember. I read about one who coped by going to a wake with a shoeshine box set. He then polished all the grieving family’s boots and shoes and laid them on the rack, ready for them to wear for the funeral rites.

So forget the cold stone marker, advised Baguio journalist Jose "Peppot" Ilagan, then the editor of the Gold Ore, Baguio’s alternative weekly that had since folded up. It would be best, he argued, to remember those who perished by planting pine trees as living memorials.
So on the seventh year after the quake, Baguio media began an annual tradition of planting seedlings inside Busol Watershed, the city’s remaining water source, in honor of the calamity victims.

Later, each time a colleague reports to the great newsroom in the sky, they would mark the transition by helping his or her family plant a memorial sapling in another secluded portion of the forest. That tradition, also suggested by Peppot, has helped them cope with loss.

The memorial trees, including those of Willy, Freddie and Peppot, continue to grow. (e-mail: mondaxbench@yahoo.comfor comments)

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on June 21, 2014.

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