By Carrie Tharan

The first time we all met was 53 years ago, when we shared the first experience of living away from home and staying together in the university campus dorm, Ilang-ilang. Eight close friends, coming from various parts of the country and abroad, were reunited for four days in the first week of February 2020. We stayed in the university hotel closest to the dorm where we met in the 1960s. As time was precious, we hurriedly and excitedly walked down the memory lanes and paths in the sprawling campus of the University of the Philippines Diliman. We even attempted to search for that cement slab where we etched our group’s name, in vain.

It was a most joyful homecoming. We traced the roots of our academic and social upbringing as we walked past the Arts and Science building, the main library, the sunken garden, the Oblation, the University Theater, the Carillon. One early morning, we attended a mass at the UP Chapel (now Parish of the Holy Sacrifice) and said our prayers of thanks for our homecoming to our beloved alma mater.

Then we went on  brief but interesting tours. We savored the food. We sighed and softly marveled at the beauty of our country. We set aside a special time to share our life stories. Each one has trod her own path to become a nurse, dentist, doctor, chemist, professor, school administrator, artist and government officer and entrepreneur. We looked back with pride to how UP molded us to become the best of what we could be and instill in us the social responsibility and mission to serve others in our own ways. After a joyful reunion, albeit short, we promised to meet again in 2021. As we bid each other goodbye, little did we knew that the next ten months and more, would bring about unimaginable changes to our lives and the whole wide world due to COVID-19.

Like many others, the first three months were perhaps the most difficult and challenging time for me. I felt suspended, as if hanging in the air, not knowing what exactly was happening and why. I was worried about how I was  going to survive the lockdown, which means separation from loved ones. Senior citizens like me are categorized as highly vulnerable to the virus. Thus fear, isolation and uncertainties overwhelmed me. My nights were sleepless. Food was difficult to swallow. I was losing weight.

However, after three months, I told myself, loud and clear, that life must go on. There was no other way to go but to accept that yes, the virus is real, and yes, you must face it and survive.

Friends from outside my adopted province of Bohol reminded me that I was fortunate to be in this beautiful island province. I live in Baclayon town, in an interior barangay with a little over 100 households, surrounded by lots of green, and with a house overlooking the Bohol Sea and the Loboc mountains beyond. I felt safe in many ways.

There was no other way to go but to accept that the virus is real and you must face it and survive.

Days passed by quickly though with very limited face-to-face interactions. I would remind my part time helper to be cautious always and follow health protocols, eat healthy food and sleep well.

A friend who became my neighbor, after being stranded for several months in our barangay was my daily companion during mealtimes and at night. We kept track of the daily COVID-19 cases and the local and national news. We reminded each other about boosting our immunity by eating lots of vegetables, mainly harvested from our garden or bought from another neighbor who produced and peddled them around our village. This neighbor had lost her job during the pandemic and selling vegetables was her way of earning a small income.

Seniors were allowed to go out twice a week. I would do quick errands like going to the bank, pharmacy and the market. Sometimes I visited two senior friends at their homes and occasionally cooked and shared meals with them. Another senior friend and I occasionally drove around the hills, rice fields and outskirts of our favorite towns, for our “paseos,” she mused.

A daily routine helped me cope with the pandemic. I attended online masses with reassuring and uplifting homilies. My daughters, who live abroad, and I communicated daily. This somehow reduced their worries about their mother living far away from them and by herself. My older sister, who also lives alone, and I kept each other “company: by daily messaging and phone calls. We would talk about all sorts of things, including our cooking. Group rosary prayers were held with friends near and very far while online qi gong on Saturdays kept me physically and mentally healthy.

Gathering virtually with my peace advocate friends, where we affirm each other spiritually, has helped me cope and manage the turmoil and the unpeace that surround us. I also tend my garden, just like many ”plantitas.” The trees, the flowers, the philodendrons, the succulents – all these evoke calmness, pleasure and purpose.

It has been more a year since the pandemic struck. I looked back to what I have missed – friends, traveling, loved ones – but no longer with lingering sadness,  loneliness and fear. I live with gratefulness in my heart for being alive, for having a roof over my head and food on the table. I put my trust and faith in God. I also pray for people who suffered the most during this pandemic – the women, men and children in war-torn and conflict areas, the refugees, the human rights defenders, the activists…the list, indeed, is long.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, as the saying goes. Each one brings a candle and spark a flicker of care and hope for one another. WWW