Ready, Set, Go
Buckled in and gripping the arm-rest with my left hand while holding on my wife’s hand to my right, we did a running blast off from the tarmac. Even now as I close my eyes, taking all these in, explaining and even analyzing everything that has happened just in the last few days is still a difficult chore to do. But I’ll try to…
Just three days ago I was sitting alone, teary-eyed at the driver seat of my 19-year old car at a Walmart parking lot. Now we are climbing ever higher, thousands of feet above the earth’s surface, flying first-class on a 747 on our way to expectedly our best vacation trip ever.
This was going to be our first holiday escape in close to ten years and the first time we will be flying this far from the U.S. Mainland — over 7,500 miles crossing the International dateline and across a total of eight time zones.
I am literally and figuratively on cloud 9. But I am also a little bit anxious, worried, scared, dazed and feeling a lot of other things all at the same time. But most of all I can’t wait for this 16 to 18 hour long direct flight (depending on the travel conditions) to come to an end and land safely across the Pacific.
As we reach the proper cruising altitude, I glance at my wife and our son as they look out to view the clouds and obviously savoring in their window seats. I am seated across just at arm’s-length on the middle aisle beside a man who seem to look my age, who hasn’t uttered a word since we boarded in LAX.
Cruising 30,000 Feet Above the Earth
After which felt like two hours into the flight, I decided to try out and put on my earphones. But I couldn’t find the connection for it. And so I thought this would be the perfect excuse to talk to my silent seat mate. I turned my face to him and asked if he could help me out. And he did without uttering a word. I thanked him and noticed that he really had very sad eyes — red, damp and puffy. And I could be almost sure he had been crying those eyes out for some time.
Anyway, taking courage and some advice from my long-distance dad who taught me to always share a word of cheer and encouragement to make someone’s day (yours or the person you shared it with), I decided to engage this unhappy person in some “cheer full” conversation.
By the way, I will be visiting “my dad” for the first time. But he isn’t really my father, although he has been a father to me at least for the last year and the half. I haven’t spoken to my biological dad in decades.
I asked the gentleman on my left if he spoke Tagalog. He looked at me for a few seconds and shook his head, so I followed up with, “Is this your first time to the islands?”
Again, he shook his head slowly from right to left.
“Hmmm, so do you have any quick tips to a first time visitor? I was sure that question would do it. There is always something to making people feel needed.
My Friend Speaks Up
He looked up straight into my eyes and softly, slowly but firmly said, “Keep your wallet on your front pocket and most of all trust no one.”
He looked Asian and Filipino enough but his accent is pretty much like mine and this can be described by non So-Cal residents as Californian (better known as the LA Accent).
I told him thanks and asked if he can explain himself further.
He added that although most of the people there are honest and helpful to a fault, there will always be opportunistic people looking for a quick buck and their targets are unsuspecting and gullible foreigners, especially first-time visitors.
I swallowed hard and told him, “It’s a good thing somebody’s picking us up at Puerto Princesa Airport.” He shrugged and looked away. And that was the end of that talk.
We were then served our first meal and I was finishing a cup of coffee when I took the opportunity to ask him another question. “How many times do you suppose we are going to be served food in here?”
He said not to worry and that there will be at least two more meals like that plus a few snacks. So I replied back, “Wow, that far? Maybe you can share with me a few more tips.”
He turned, this time he avoided looking into my eyes. He pursed his lips tightly together and sighed. He then said, “Well, what do you want to know first?”
I told myself, “Finally.” And then said aloud, “Not to be a bother here but that being stuck together here for a long time, what I really wanted to know first is,… is there something bothering you that I might be able to help you with? I’m a good listener if you’d care to tell me.” (That was quite untrue though, for I am much more of a whiner than a listener).
He did the same ritual with the lips and the sigh. But this time he breathed in and out slower and more deeply.
And in a kind of a resigned voice, uttered, “I’ve been living alone… working two straight years in Daly City. A week ago, my second and youngest child passed away… now I’m going home, and have no idea what I will be doing next…”, trailing the last words off.
Now, I know I bit more than I can chew. My mind raced to find an appropriate reply, but none is forthcoming. I whispered, “I’m sorry to hear that, my condolences. I apologize if I’ve been too nosy.”
He shrugged and continued, “Don’t worry about it, you said earlier someone’s going to pick you up, but you’ll still going to land at the International airport in Manila, in Luzon, like the rest of us. Puerto Princesa is in the island of Palawan. You should ask someone at the Information desk to direct you on how to catch your connecting flight, as that would fly out of a separate Domestic airport.”
I thanked him deeply but he cut me off as if he didn’t hear me. He said, “I should have gone home for a vacation last year or even six months back,… but I didn’t want to give up one month’s pay because we needed the money for my daughter’s medical treatment… There’s no sense in going home shorter than a month because just the travel time, plus the time needed by your body to adjust to the jetlag could be anywhere from one-and-a-half to two weeks and coming back, you will be readjusting back that long too. And the tickets are so freaking expensive! It is not practical not to stay long.”
I was tempted to ask, why not travel coach, but I have sensed some pretty strong emotions from him now and besides I know the answer already, they were all fully booked because of the holiday season.
So I told him if there is anything I could do for him. He said he’ll be fine, and softly said that just having someone to finally talk to and listen to him without judging him is great and he thanked me for it.
I remembered that was exactly how my dad was for me all these past months. I then told him, “don’t mention it”, that I was merely “paying it forward” and told him some more generic feel-good phrases such as, “everything happens for a reason”, “we just need to look past all of the bad” and “behind every dark cloud is a silver lining”.
He nodded and slightly shrugged his shoulders. Somebody really needs to teach me how to properly read non-verbal communications so that I can better respond to them.
It’s My Turn To Tell My Story
At that point, I then decided that with still all that flight time ahead of us, I might as well tell him a story that might very well help him out — my own sob story. Plus I was running out of those dumb one-line clichés.
I asked him if it was alright if I told him a story. He closed his eyes, didn’t say a word but nodded ever so slightly.
I started at the beginning and told him that in the last year and a half, about once every month I drop by the local Walmart to purchase necessities that I stock up and keep at one of the storage closets at our two-car garage.
I then told him that was just an excuse.
But it was a real good one because I did get great deals on the stuff that I bought there. Now the real reason why I went was to check to see if my favorite Walmart Greeter was back at his familiar spot, usually a few feet inside the double door entrance. That is if he wasn’t helping anyone out elsewhere in or outside the store.
Three days ago, I was passing close enough by the store so I decided to check in again. I found an open spot close to the farthest end of the parking lot. I told him I always seem to find luck around that area as the parking is almost always filled up and absolutely crazy the closer you get to the double doors. The longer walk would also be physically beneficial and will give me more time to think about Ely.
Meet My Amazing “Dad” Ely
Ely was an unassuming, grey-haired, mild-mannered man. He first shook my hand, grabbed it actually on the afternoon of June the 6th last year as I was rushing inside his store. At first I was surprised, confused but then utterly upset at the intrusion and the gall of this strange elderly gentleman who barely stood five foot five inches tall.
I shoved his hand right out almost taking his entire arm out of its socket. I pointed a finger on his chest and yelled straight to his face words that would make any grown man cringe.
But I slowly noticed his blue vest, the name tag and his calm and welcoming smile. And then I heard him a second time. “Welcome to Walmart!”
I snapped back to planet earth and told myself to chill out. He was merely doing his job as I was trying to do mine, purchase a birthday gift for my son.
“My name is Eleuterio! You can call me Ely. Welcome to Walmart sir! Can I assist you in finding anything sir?”
It took me about three seconds to understand what he said as he spoke with an amusing foreign accent.
Initially, I was unsure if he was even speaking to me in English. I kept on hearing the word “sir” and I realize that when I repeated the words that he said inside my head that he was talking to me in English and that he was really there trying to help me.
And I needed help.
It’s All About Me
My life was a mess. I was depressed. I was stressed out at work. We haven’t had a vacation in years. My mom passed away five years ago but I’m still messed up about that. I haven’t seen my father since the 6th grade. My in-laws hate me and my relationship with my wife hasn’t been going well and we have just recently decided, at least she did to take some time away from each other to cool off.
I haven’t seen my son in two months. I haven’t been really in the pink of health. My career wasn’t panning out. The promotion I was promised years ago was still forthcoming. My paycheck has not seen a bump in over three years. I believe my boss was most probably the inspiration for the guy Kevin Spacey portrayed in the movie “Horrible Bosses”. And in the meantime taxes and prices of everything else have steadily gone up. My mortgage will soon adjust up and we have been trying to sell our house at rock-bottom prices and it is still taking forever. Plus more and more things seem to need some fixing more and more often.
My Son’s Special Day
On top of all that, I totally forgot about my son’s birthday and was really running late for his party. When I saw the huge Walmart logo I instinctively pulled over, ran inside the store while mentally deciding what to buy so that at least I can hand something to my son who’s turning seven.
Now back to planet earth, Ely was there still standing in front of me looking unfazed even after what I just did to him, wiping away what should surely be my spittle off his face. No one with an ounce of pride would have stayed there one second more. But he was there, still waiting to help me. And that just made me more confused at him.
Then I sighed and told myself that there must be a God up there, and Ely was heaven-sent.
I told him what I needed and he happily replied that because he has an eight year old grandson he knew exactly what these little buggers love to get. He quickly showed me three options and I immediately grabbed one that I know would be perfect for my little Joseph. He brought me a gift bag and an amazing birthday card and ushered me to a newly opened cash register. He threw in tissue paper and gave me his own sign pen, whispering “This one’s on me. And don’t forget to take off the price tags and write something on the card.”
I thanked him sincerely, shook his hand and told him my name. He repeated it, shook my hand back, patted it with his other hand and gave me a slight bow as he gave me that smile again without losing eye contact. I was in and out of there in less than ten minutes and I was able to breathe again.
After that, I was back at the store at about the same time about once every 28 to 42 days. Every time, I was looking for him and every time he was there — his smiling face, his accent, his encouraging words, his handshake, an occasional hand on my shoulder and more importantly his love. You can actually feel it. He obviously loved life and what he was doing, he extended this love to others and he has that overall calming and relaxing aura about him. And for a year, I was like a junkie who couldn’t wait to get my monthly fix from that bottomless love-well. But like the hard-headed person that I am, Ely spends his time to give me advice to help move me forward a step only to found out when I come back that I moved two steps back.
A Strange Farewell
And like the story of my life, all good things must come to an end. So the last time I saw him almost a year to the day I first time met him, he told me something that appeared to me was breaking his heart. Well when he finished, it broke mine and crushed my spirit.
He was strangely cheerless and silently told me that he will be gone in two days. I didn’t quite understood what he meant, what he saying or why. He just explained as much as he can that he had to go back to the land of his birth and he will stay there for three months, even more and wouldn’t say the exact reasons why. In short I wouldn’t be seeing him anytime soon, maybe ever again.
I asked him, what about his job or his family. He said that it was just a job and that it wasn’t his life. And besides he said he wasn’t even being paid and can come and go as he pleased. He explained, he was working as an unpaid volunteer. All these took me by surprise but knowing Ely, it wouldn’t be something he wouldn’t do. He added that his only family here is his son, his son’s wife and their two kids. All his other relatives and close friends are back in his homeland.
That was five months ago. And he still wasn’t back. I miss my old friend. So three days ago I found myself walking into his store again. This time, loud mouth Walter was there to greet me and he added “Merry Christmas!”
A Christmas Cheer
So it was the first day of December already and time really does go by faster as you grow older. My body and my mind’s calendar were still somewhere in July.
Walter held up a finger and had something else for me besides his scripted greeting. I knew it instantly because he had that almost cartoon-like look of somebody having an epiphany and suddenly seeing a light bulb turn on inside his head. And Walt does look like he walked right out of a comic book.
He told me to wait one second as he grabbed something from under his side table which he then handed me. He said, “We got that in the mail. It’s from Ely addressed to you.”
If I wasn’t afraid to look stupid in front of all those people, I would have broke down right there and then. Instead, I took the packet, hugged Walt, told him “Merry Christmas” and that I forgot something in the car. And I was out the other door and back in my car.
Inside my car, I sat down quietly holding the letter about 12 inches in front of me. About a full minute I just sat there staring at it. But what I was really trying to do is to figure out if there was a mistake or if that was just a dream.
The envelope was off-white, normal size and it had red and blue bars on the side and the word airmail. It had far too many funny looking stamps and big numbers on them you wouldn’t believe it. But it was there, my name right in the middle, Jacob and my last name. I only told him about that once from way back when we first met but he remembered.
Beneath my name was written “Ely’s friend” and the address of Walmart.
Then my eyes rolled up to read Ely’s name and address on the top left hand side, Eleuterio Makadios and an address in the Philippines. I have googled his home country many times and have learned a lot about Ely’s culture by then, I was almost like an honorary citizen.
I smiled as I remembered his smile. I opened his letter and began to read it.
I took the actual letter out, inhaled and exhaled and then read it again to my fellow passenger.
My Dad’s Love Letter To Me
To my friend Jacob,
I pray that your health is better now and that as you read this you and your wife are back together and that everyone are in good health.
I am sorry that I haven’t been back there yet. But I needed to stay at home a little bit longer and besides, it is Christmas time and nothing could be better than to spend that with close family and friends and people that you love and love you back. And also my son in America, his wife and my grand children are flying in December 3rd and will stay for the holidays as they had promised me. They will be back there in January.
With sadness though, I wrote to you today to tell you that I might not be able to keep my promise to you, because I might not be able to fly back to America in the foreseeable future. I hope you understand. I am an old man. The weather is cool here now but only because it is winter time. Of course you know already that we do not have snow and that winter time here is comparable to spring time weather back there Stateside in California. The weather and the slower pace is just perfect for aging bones and besides, it is way better and cheaper to live over here.
You know I love you Jacob. You are almost like a son to me. I know you have problems, but we all do, and all that will also pass away and so will we.
You work to live Jacob, so don’t live to work. You work hard for your wife and kids, so don’t lose them because of it. You’re young and you should enjoy life more or as much as you can with the more important things in life.
And speaking of living, I have something important to tell you. You know what Jacob? I am dying. I have known about this for years, and that is why I decided against my doctor’s orders to fly and live with my son and my grandkids whom I have not seen in person before that time. I told my doctors, I’ll go live with them, hug them, teach them about life, love them and cherish them for one, maybe two years or at least before I move on from this life.
But please do not be sad for me, for I may not be dying anytime soon. I had to go back home to undergo some medical treatment. And the doctors are saying that they were successful. Who knows right? If I go, I go.
But I will go with a smile, I will go on fighting and I will go surrounded by people who love me. God has loved me so much and he has been so good to me and my family. I have tried to live for him and to love others as he loved me. My pastor visits me every night and we talk about life and God every single day.
God loves you Jacob, he really does, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
And I love you too Jacob, and so I just wanted to tell you all that because I may not be able to do it in person back there in America. In fact, I may not even be flying back there.
Take care of yourself. Take care of your wife and your son. Remember you work for their future but don’t lose sight of the present and the time you spend with them. And please none of your so-called quality time. Real time is what I mean.
So I may not have that time to come see you over there, but who knows we can still see each other, especially if you will be the one to visit me over here. You are always welcome at my home Jacob. You do not have to do anything, you do not have to change a thing, just come as you are.
You can always bring your whole family with you. And when you’re here just call my cell number below and you do not have to worry about anything. I will have my son pick you up. You can stay in one of our temperature controlled tropical huts. I have the best one reserved under your name already.
Did I forget to mention that our family owns a small hotel and a beach resort? Okay, it might not be small to you because we a world apart and we might have a different definition of the word. And most of my American friends tell me that it is everything but small.
And you and your family can fly and stay for a month if you want to, longer even. And you do not have to spend a dime — food, accommodations, everything.
The only thing I can’t be sure of is after coming over if you ever wish to come back to America. Everyone who came here were totally messed up after going back home, they kept calling me to ask if they can come back here again.
You though are always welcome to come, any time Jacob. I left word with our staff and my relatives and they have given me their word that they will honor that, even after when I’m gone. And I will be, soon enough. As far as I can remember, I’m 88 years old. I just look like I’m 55.
And if you do come, I advise that you to book a flight now long before Christmas. I know it will be hard to get tickets there as most flights flying here would be fully booked by now. But just tell me and I can have that arranged over here. Just tell me when, for how many and how long you wish to stay.
And if you do, I can assure you that you will have the most amazing Christmas and the most amazing vacation ever. Your son will have the best time of his life, especially now that I have American-born grandkids his age coming over. Don’t forget, Christmas season is the biggest time of the year here and for a long time our country was the only Christian nation in this part of the world. So Christmas here is very very special and once you experienced it you would want to be back again and again.
But listen Jacob, this might be a one-time invitation only. Next year could be too late. Call me soon okay!
00 63 917 143 4445
Even though Somebody Gave Me A Free Gift, I Still Need to Accept it
I paused for a few seconds and told my new friend that I read that letter three times. And each time I tried to come out with an excuse not to go. But each time I did, I saw Ely’s face, his smile and his hand stretching out to reach mine. How could I not go?
So I told myself, why not.
And so I first called my wife, Mary. We have since been working on our marriage right before Ely left and we are back living with each other now. I found a second job that I do on the side and absolutely enjoy doing it. And I didn’t have to give up much but stop working overtime on my first job.
We have sold but are still staying in our over-priced four-bedroom house at least until all the paperwork are done. And we have arranged to move to a smaller but much nicer and cheaper 3 bed and 2 bath condo at a lovely neighborhood. And when we do, my in-laws are going to give us a small dog, a big cat, a pair of birds and a few fish to live with us and I just feel that our home life is slowly but finally coming back together.
Mary placed me on hold for a minute as she talked to her boss. When she came back on she said she’s ready to go just tell her when. She added that she will talk to Joseph’s teacher and arrange it so that she can give her all of Joseph’s school and homework so he can come without getting behind in school.
The last thing I had to do is to call my boss who is still withholding my promotion. I did that and in character he told me right off, no way that I can go just like that with a few choice words in between. I told him that if that is the case then I quit. I told him I will arrange for someone to pick up my things tomorrow and hanged up.
And all that felt really great.
Then at last, I dialed Ely’s number, I heard a person on the other end who obviously just woke up. I totally forgot that they lived half way around the world. I said sorry and told him who I was.
Those were the three best phone calls I have made in my entire life.
I told Ely when he was put on that I was coming home and I just couldn’t wait. He replied he will be waiting and told me again that he loved me.
I stopped the story there and noticed that my friend and I were probably the only ones still awake in the cabin. It was dark and quiet, well except for the occasional snoring.
And my new found friend, who I don’t even know his name yet, smiled, closed his eyes and told me, “That was lovely Jacob. Leo, call me Leo. Thanks for sharing! I know I couldn’t stop my daughter, Charlene from dying. And even though I am heart-broken, now I realize that there would be no use mourning for her loss for an extended amount of time, as she most probably wouldn’t want me to. Now that I have worked hard to come to the U.S., to secure a steady job and have sacrificed much to get it, I can take my wife and my older son to America and give them a better life and brighter future. And I will give them my quantity, not just my quality time. I’ll love them as much as I can and I will never leave them again. And yes, this too should be our best Christmas ever. Who knows, we might just make a short visit to the island of Palawan ourselves. Merry Christmas to you and yours Jacob. Thank you. Thank you very much.”
I smiled, told him the name of the hotel we will be staying in and I asked for his last name. I repeated his full name back to him, took his right hand and shook it, patted it with my left hand and told him that God loves him, even if it doesn’t feel like he does. He laid back on his seat, deliberately breathed in and out, closed his eyes and smiled.
As I watch him, I was smiling myself, Ely would have been proud of his prodigal son. “I’m coming home dad, I’m coming home. This will definitely be our best Christmas yet. And the best is still yet to come.”
Note: This is a fictional story submitted for and published by the Yahoo! Contributor Network as my Short Story Assignment to write a Christmas Story. But even though all the characters and events are fictional who is to say that these people aren’t real and their accounts do not happen every single day, because they are and they do. Remember if you see yourself or your circumstance in this story, remember we cannot change our life’s circumstances but we can definitely change the way we react and respond to them. Merry Christmas to one and all!
Recommended Reading of Related Articles:
The Philippines: The Happiest Christmas Place On Earth
How Eleuterio Got the Job As A Walmart Greeter (Warning: A humorous but dark story, not for everyone, click at your own risk)
The Top Ten Things That You Need To Go To The Philippines (Or Any Country For That Matter) For A Visit