At work in California where it was still daylight, Ivy seemed surprised to hear from me. “Honey,” she said tentatively, “is that you? Why are you calling in the middle of the night?”
“Yes, it’s me,” I managed to confirm before my voice quivered and the tears began to flow. “Sweetheart,” I sobbed, “I don’t know if I can do this without you!”
Perhaps a little background is in order. Less than twenty-four hours earlier, I had returned to the Philippines following a three-month sojourn in my native United States. In fact, it was my first night back in the Surigao City home that my wife and I had been constructing for several years, but had lived in for less than one.
I could easily, of course, attribute my hyper-emotionalism to jet lag; the flight, after all, had taken sixteen hours with a three-hour layover in Hong Kong followed by additional flights from Manila and Cebu. As planned, our son, Isaac, and I had returned in time for the start of the new school year with Ivy set to follow in a month.
As I said, I could blame my sorrowful state-of-mind on travel-related stress, but that would be a lie. The truth is that my psyche had been badly torn by the realization that, after living in a relatively stable home environment for most of the summer, I had returned to inhabit what amounted to, well, a glorified construction site.
In short, there were tools and paint cans everywhere, a thick coat of dust covering each wall, the master bedroom still without a floor, nothing in its place and a place for absolutely nothing, sweating laborers our daily companions, an ill-equipped outside “dirty” kitchen as our only source of sustenance and, worst of all, a driveway too torn up to allow for even the most modest of vehicles to pass. All of which was rendered inexorably more critical by the expected imminent arrival (about the same time as Ivy’s) of our first serious guests; long-time friends from Southern California who we hoped to duly impress!
Thus “I don’t know if I can do this without you” was, under the circumstances, about the most benign thing I could have said to my long-suffering wife. All of which has started me thinking about the meaning of life; more specifically about how, in a world of chaos, one strives to carve out one’s own little niche of tranquility and peace.
For some this takes the form of jobs, schedules, relationships, obligations and friends. For simpler-minded folks such as myself, it also helps to live in a beautifully and, more to-the-point, completely constructed house. Never mind that it’s finally a castle built of sand; when time and events wash our castles away, we inexorably try to rebuild them.
Once, in a rather dark mood, I penned an essay describing the encroaching chaos all around us as life’s “primordial ooze” over which we constantly strive to build bridges. “It is this darkness of disorientation, the ooze of nothingness, the black hole of emptiness,” I continued, clearly beyond the pale of all moderation, “in which we fear getting lost.”
It is also, I suspect, a fool’s battle inevitably ending in the ultimate chaos of death. For now, though, I will just keep urging the painters to paint faster and the cementers to cement. And when my eight-year-old son, facing an encroaching chaos of his own, asks me – as he recently did – how he will fare in an unfamiliar classroom with a strange new teacher and scores of unknown classmates, I simply will smile – as I recently did – give him a hug and assure him that everything will turn out fine.
This, after all, is what we do for each other. It is how we build those tiny personalized bridges over that so-called primordial ooze. In the end, I suppose, it’s what we call love. And it is love’s graceful presence – thankfully, for me, in large quantities – that always gets us through.
(David Haldane, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, is an award-winning American journalist, author and radio broadcaster who recently moved to Surigao City with his Filipino wife and their eight-year-old son. This column tells the unfolding story of that adventure.)