Of Paper Planes and Freeways


As a second-year resident in Pathology takes a quick trip to the United States for a reunion with his two other brothers, his life flashes back every now and then, and he ponders about the various challenges they had gone through in life, to reach where they are right now

By Thaddeus C. Hinunangan, MD

It is 2:00 a.m. here but I am wide awake. I have been reading the Viber messages at work thinking how surprisingly active it was at this time of the night, until I realized it was two in the afternoon in the Philippines and they were all at a conference.

I was in the United States for my brother’s baccalaureate graduation; it was also a reunion for us three siblings. The last time we were together was almost seven years ago when our parents passed away. The trip itself was planned a year prior, with the tickets bought even before I started in my training as a resident physician. Now barely four months into the job, I had to submit a lengthy letter of explanation including supporting documents before the trip was approved by the Director and I was given endorsement by the Chancellor of the University of the Philippines, Manila.

Ted graduates Cum Laude from Jacksonville University
Ted graduates Cum Laude from Jacksonville University

While sitting at the airport waiting for my fourteen-hour flight from Incheon airport in Seoul, South Korea to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, I was surprised to see a blue floral suitcase that looked very similar to my late mother’s suitcase. The frame was metal but with a canvas body, and the entire suitcase was embroidered with flowers and swirling foliage. It was eerily familiar, and I blinked twice upon seeing it.

Filipino diaspora

It brought me back to the conversation I had with my Mom right after she passed the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) for nurses, and she was waiting for deployment to the States in 2005.

“Why would you want to leave for the States, when we are already stable here?”

I was in my early twenties and already working at that time, my brother Tyrone was in college and our youngest Ted was in sophomore high school. We had a pretty comfortable middle-class life in Leyte.

“There are better opportunities for us in the States,” she said.

Those words have been emblazoned in my mind ever since. My family was swept in the tide of migration of Filipino Nurses to the US, but since I was beyond eighteen years old, I was no longer allowed to go with my family. I put on a brave face and pushed on with my life in Manila. Of course, anyone who knew our story would know that things would take the turn for the worse. Our parents separated, our Mom unexpectedly passed away at age fifty, and two years later our Dad succumbed to a heart attack.

The three of us brothers struggled to cope with our loss—in three different countries. Ted, who was part of the United States Navy served in Afghanistan. Tyrone coped with dealing with the loss of our parents and working to finish his studies in Louisiana, and I struggled with the biggest gamble of my life: starting medical school in Tacloban, in central Philippines.

Blood, tears and sweat

The next four years following our tragedy was still not easy. While Ted returned to the US to formally start Nursing school, he and Tyrone took turns supporting my pursuit of getting a medical degree and maintaining our family home in Tacloban. In my second year of medical school our beloved grandmother died from breast cancer and the following year, the strongest typhoon ever recorded would raze our home to the ground.

Yet every single day of those years, despite the distance, the three of us communicated, and we were able to surmount each obstacle. Tyrone graduated from a tertiary institution in Louisiana, moved to California for work and eventually became a US citizen. I graduated from medical school and passed the physician licensure exam just last year, and finally Ted is set to graduate this year with a Bachelor’s degree in Nursing with Latin honors from Jacksonville University in Florida.

The changing landscape

I am reminded of a certain incident after the storm had passed during typhoon Yolanda’s devastating rampage in Leyte. I was wading in the knee-deep muddy interior of our house to salvage whatever things we could use for survival. For the next five days, we cooked from a makeshift stove made of hollow blocks with canned goods from the evacuation center. The roof of the entire second floor was blown away so we had no shelter, and the storm surge had all but destroyed our childhood photographs, furniture, appliances and documents. Outside it was the same pattern of destruction, with all the traffic lights and signposts strewn about like matchsticks and cadavers lining the pavement. That might have been our lowest point.

Theodore, Thaddeus, and Tyrone Hinunangan
Theodore, Thaddeus, and Tyrone Hinunangan

I was in the passenger side of my brother’s car as we sped through the freeway to Jacksonville from the international airport. The landscape was stunning. The signages on the freeway were clear and non-obtrusive, the seemingly endless road was flanked by trees on both sides, and the setting Florida sun warmed a gentle breeze that caressed my cheek. I thought, there were definitely no deep puddles in the concrete, no mud to splash the side of the car, and no punishing tropical sun that beat our backs. It was a far cry from the community where I grew up in, with our long walks on a dirt road that was dusty in the summer and muddy during rainy season.

As we entered my brother’s gated community I was enthralled with the manicured lawns and country club, swimming pool and tennis courts, and lovely walk-up apartments with balconies. This, I thought, this was what my mother had wanted for us when we had that conversation after her NCLEX. A comfortable life for their children in carpeted houses with central air-conditioning, upscale department stores and warehouse shopping with supersize products, wine and expensive crystal, flat screen TVs, easy chairs and fast cars…

I finally understood what she wanted for us, but in the same heartbeat, I do not regret staying in the Philippines. I loved the salty air of Tacloban and its punishing tropical sun, I miss our wooden sala set that our parents got as a wedding present as a young couple, and I would always love that two storey duplex our Dad had built for us to call home. And one day I do want to grow old back in Leyte, and when my time comes let my bones lie beside my parents’ in the sleepy coastal town I grew up in.

Quo vadis, hinunangan?

As children we used to play with paper airplanes in our home without a care in the world. Now, all grown up, we gathered to celebrate a milestone in our family. As my brother Ted went up the podium during the symbolic pinning, and during graduation itself, I could not help but become teary-eyed. To say that we had come a long way was an understatement. It was a challenge for all overseas and migrant workers to guide their children who grew up barely seeing them, and some would just squander away their parent’s hard-earned money. But we recognized our parent’s ultimate sacrifice and made sure none of it went to waste.

Theodore Hinunangan gets commissioned as a US Navy Officer
Theodore Hinunangan gets commissioned as a US Navy Officer

During the picture-taking, we were all smiles, Ted, looking awesome in his all white uniform of a US Naval Officer, with all his medals on his chest glinting in the sunlight. He was flanked by Tyrone and me, looking sharp in our suits. We had officially made it. We took control of our lives and slowly turned tragedy to triumph with God’s guidance.

What next? I asked myself. Ted, as a Naval Officer will be commissioned in San Diego, California. Tye has his hands full with his travel agency and boutique businesses in the Philippines, and I’ll be back to my residency training at Philippine General Hospital. Ten days was such a brief period for us to catch up and cram years’ worth of getting up to speed. Also with us was Auntie Wyllie from Texas, who also happened to be present during our Mom’s Nursing graduation in the Philippines in the late seventies.

Life in America versus life in the Philippines. Well, I believe it is entirely up to a person on which place strikes his fancy because each place has its own unique beauty. I used to close the door on me training further abroad because I was afraid of loneliness and being away, but then again I realized my fears were unfounded.

We alone set limits to how far we can go, and we alone define our own happiness and success. I suddenly remembered how anxious I was at the boarding gates at the airport, during my very first international trip, my very first trip abroad by myself, and my very first trip to the US. So many emotions—being afraid something might go wrong at immigration or I might miss the connecting flight or the fear of responsibilities I had at work which were mounting… Then the gates suddenly opened and as I walked to the waiting plane, I felt an overwhelming happiness that lit a smile on my face, like I knew somehow that something wonderful was about to happen.

“We alone set limits to how far we can go, and we alone define our own happiness and success”

June 2017 Health and Lifestyle

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