Storms are a funny thing.
They form as a result of naturally occurring energy - warmth, cold, wind, water, gas, atoms, and other things we cannot see. Snow storms. Thunderstorms. Tropical storms. We anticipate how forceful they will be, but most times we just do not know how they will materialize. And many of us love to track storms’ projected paths, especially when neighbors or the media start sensationalizing them. Put another way, a storm is a ball of energy that nearly everyone (except the storm) tries to understand and pick apart before it even arrives. I think a storm is fully aware of its power, and it actually laughs at all of us on Earth who have absolutely no insight into its secrets. And on this warmer than usual January day in Chicago, I can hear the laughter of one storm in particular. Her name is Irma and she rolled through my life on September 6, 2017 on St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. She came and went. She was the swiftly dangerous type. Like a thief in the night. Ironically, she came during the day.
Before I dive into Irma, I need to share a bit of my post-college life to provide a little more context and background of who I am. After college, I traveled to Europe with a girlfriend for a good portion of the summer. We planned out the locations and lodging but not really the details. It was the first time in my life I truly felt free. Greece of all places stole me away. Being of Philippine roots, I have always had an islander’s soul, but I was born and raised in a landlocked sub(urban) concrete jungle. What comes to mind when I think of my upbringing is an elephant in chains being ridden by a human. This is usually seen in Asia. The elephant, to some degree, is where they are supposed to be, but I believe their soul wants nothing but to break the chains around them. Most times they remain in the chains, because they are gentle and loving creatures, who just want others to feel the same way. They have a self-inflicted sadness. They tread carefully but with wisdom, dragging their feet, entertaining the crowd, entertaining the photographers, entertaining everyone except themselves, knowing full well that all it would take to end someone’s life would be to take the wrong step in the wrong direction. To me, elephants are one of the universe’s most sacred, beautiful, misunderstood, and therefore mistreated creatures. It is quite possible that nearly everyone on this planet has an elephant in them, just in some, the elephant is stronger than in others.
When I returned to the states from Europe, I knew deep down I could not stay in the mainland. I reflected on the past four years of my college experience (inside and outside of the classroom), my trip to Europe, the decisions I had made throughout these times, and I told myself, “Jackie - you gotta go to an island. And I hope you drive a yellow jeep.” When I had this realization, I was working a part time waitressing job and a part time tutoring job for an Upward Bound program, while actively applying to “big girl” jobs. I had one interview with the General Services Administration (GSA) office in Chicago. I do not remember how it went but I remember feeling relieved when they told me I did not get it. Then it happened. I got a bite from the US Attorney’s Office in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands. AN ISLAND!!!! Long story short, the interview went great, I thought I had it in the bag, and then I received notification that I did not get the job. Crushed. Heartbroken. Full of doubt and sadness. Subsequently, whatever storm was bearing down on me at the time had the last laugh, and I got an email from the office saying, “JUST KIDDING! Do you still want the job?” They said it nicer than that but you get it. I was going to move to an island in the Caribbean I had never been to.
My experience in the islands deserves its own memoir or autobiography one day. There is far too much to write about and a lot of it I still have not fully processed. What I will say is that I think I learned more about life and people by living in the islands for 7 years than I think most individuals have the opportunity to learn in a lifetime. I feel fortunate. It was not easy at all. But the things in life worth more than money are never easy. Advocacy. Justice. Litigation. Development. Finance. Racism. Oppression. Discrimination. Love. Violence. Heartbreak. Celebration. Joy. Family. Isolation. Health. Secrets. Community. Diversity. Humiliation. Sadness. Anger. Uplift. Sisterhood. Pregnancy. Motherhood. Dominica. Puerto Rico. Europe. Africa. Numerous trips between the islands and the states. Drifting between places constantly but never planting roots. Storm after storm with long stretches of sunshine in between. Then finally a real storm. Human faces and hearts associated with all of these things. To experience all of that, in a place called paradise that is not always paradise, on a daily basis, walking back and forth on a 12 x 4 mile densely populated island that is the US, but not really the US, as a transplant, and as a woman of color. Phew. See why it needs its own account beyond what I am writing here?
Then on September 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma beared down on the US Virgin Islands with the wrath of a million scorned women. Category 5, some even say if such a thing existed, a Category 6. She was angry. Fast forward, on September 20th, Hurricane Maria beared down and went through the US Virgin Islands too. She took a different path than Irma, had less strength, stuck around longer, and had more tears. My daughter's Dad and I have a joke that Irma’s lover cheated on her with that side chick Maria. And I laugh from experience. I have been an Irma in a previous life. Luckily, I recovered and did not take down Maria in the process. Also, no offense to anyone named Irma or Maria. On their own, Irma and Maria are beautiful and timeless names. All right, back to Irma. Like thousands of other people who were preparing in the days leading up to Irma, we were stocked with non-perishable foods and gallons of drinking water. (Most) of the windows in our home were boarded up. During the storm, we decided to move from our upstairs to downstairs apartment because we were not sure our roof would hold. Our two year old daughter was strapped to my chest most of this time in a baby carrier. She looked like a baby kangaroo.
Like many US Virgin Islands dwellings, our downstairs apartment was moldy and unfinished, which is why we did not want to be down there in the first place. But that is where we decided to ride it out and I thank God for that. I have a few memories that stick out to me from the day of the storm. The first is our rushed and last minute move from the upstairs to the downstairs apartment. Before I ran out there with my baby kangaroo in the pack, my daughter's father decided he would go first to make sure the path was clear for us. As he was going out the door, he said, “I will be right back.” It was the longest 2-3 minutes of my life. Irma’s eyewall was not quite over St. Thomas at that point but it was fast approaching. It was around 10:00-10:30 AM when he came back up, and said, “Clear, let’s go.”
The second memory was when we got downstairs and our two dogs who we had already put down there were staring at me like, “OH, you want to join the downstairs party now, huh? You a-holes.” Then they came up to me and licked me with so much love and gratitude. They are both rambunctious, brave, and loyal dogs, yet they looked terrified at what was going on outside. Sixth sense.
The third memory probably sticks out to me the most. It was the time Irma’s eyewall went over St. Thomas. As I mentioned earlier, the downstairs apartment of our home is unfinished. There is one door, probably from the 1970s, that barely closes well on a good, non-category 5 hurricane day. My daughter's father had run out of plywood so there was no protection on this door. It had glass shingles and a wiggly doorknob that would make any robber crack up. Irma had been pretty silent until her eyewall rolled through. When that happened, it sounded like worlds colliding. It sounded like ancient ancestors screeching, laughing, and drinking champagne of the gods. It sounded like when you hear a train in the distance then all of a sudden it is right in front of you, with its high pitched loudness that is strangely deafening. The 1970s door started to shake and pop open. “Whoops” I thought. “WTF now.”
“HOLD THE DOOR SHUT, JACKIE”, he yelled. I unstrapped my kangaroo from her pouch, put her in a far corner with some toys, ran over to stare at the white monster abyss spinning in front of me through the glass shingles, and held the door shut with everything I had. Every part of me was shaking. Head to toe. Mind to heart to soul. He was running around behind me breaking pieces of an old queen size wooden bed over his knees, searching for rope, and yelling for his screwdriver like it was going to grow feet and run over to him. I remember thinking to myself, “Well, I will be the first one to go if this door blows off. COOL.” He finally came to my side with all of the materials he grabbed and somehow boarded, screwed, and bolted the door shut. It was like he had six arms. The resulting door looked like something from that movie where the evil man tortures people in his home and they cannot escape. Our daughter was singing to herself in the same corner I had put her in.
At the time, I remember breathing a sigh of relief because I thought she had no idea what was going on. Mistake. Young children may not understand complex concepts but they feel...everything. They feel more than adults feel because their perception has not been skewed by life experiences and consciously stored memories. To this day, if I am shutting a door and our daughter is feeling emotional, she starts to cry and tells me through tears, “Don’t be right back, Mom.”
After the storm was even more of a memorable experience. I will preface the following by saying that I have read a lot of different accounts of post-storm life at this point in time - both from people I know and people I do not know. It has been very telling to observe who immediately felt like the storm unfairly took everything they knew and loved, and who felt like the storm gave them a gift of new life and clarity. I will paraphrase something powerful a friend wrote to me when she and I were reflecting on post-hurricane life. I hope it helps capture what I am trying to say. She said something to the tune of, “I guess when you have been running from storms your whole life, the real one is not that different than the ones before it.”
After Irma, there was not a leaf left on a tree. One of my daughter's Dad's metal chutes for pouring concrete was thousands of feet down a cliff. We did not even see it until weeks after the storm when we pulled up government satellite imagery of post-Irma US Virgin Islands. He was all, “Hey, there’s my red concrete chute in that rasta man’s backyard.” Power poles were down on the roads everywhere. I saw shanty homes on hillsides that I did not even know existed prior to the storm. Dozens of them. St. Thomas’ census (population) data, in the words of my island best friend (and excuse my French), is “a crock of shit.” So many living off the grid. And I am not talking about the people who can afford solar powered homes and/or organic grain free food. The physical aftermath of Irma was not hard to understand at all. Beneath the surface, however, was much more important, and much harder to critically understand, in my opinion. Beneath the surface effects defined, amplified, zoomed in on, and zoomed out of the good, bad, and the ugly that is the US Virgin Islands and the people who comprise it. Said another way, Irma did not just strip away the leaves and uproot trees. She rendered almost everyone down to their bare bones and exposed their truths like a concerned toddler who grabs their Mom’s face and asks her, “What’s wrong, Mom? What happened?” Irma’s effects beneath the surface are what gave birth to Mama2MamaGifts.
I left the island a week after Irma arrived on a little plane with my daughter and some colleagues. The company I was working for at the time chartered the plane. I will always be grateful. I was one of the lucky ones who had an option to leave and still be able to lead and sustain a life that was optimal for myself and for my family. I almost stayed because I wanted to be a hero but he quickly checked me on that one. He would stay, we would go. No negotiating. Looking back now, it was a sacrifice neither of us fully understood or thought through. There was no time to. I flew through Puerto Rico to Chicago just a week before Hurricane Maria came through the islands. My storm narrative kept building. I ended up in my childhood home, my parents’ home, with my daughter. I had not lived in this home for more than a decade. It felt like I escaped one storm only to meet another series of them. I will be as diplomatic as possible and say that I have learned (the hard way) since Irma that any time of major transition is not smooth seas. Add a young child and long distance marriage to the mix and you may just sink the ship. All this to say, the grass is always greener on the other side.
For years while I was living in St. Thomas, I fantasized about moving back to the states or overseas to another country. And not to sound like a whiny brat, but it was usually when the power was out for an extended amount of time, or when I just wanted to go to a Starbucks to read the paper, and exist in a place where I knew absolutely nobody and nobody knew me. Anonymity. It is something that does not really exist in the islands, unless you retreat and hide under a rock from the very beginning like a shadow creature.
In October 2017, I traveled back to the islands for one week to help my my daughter's Dad clean up our home. The trip was surprisingly a lot of fun. I think a lot of people were happy to be alive. There was barely any traffic because lights were not working (and traffic runs better that way), and it had not been THAT long without power so a lot of people were still running on adrenaline, generators, battery-powered lamps, and the like. For most people whose first major hurricanes Irma and Maria were, I think it seemed like a fun extended camping trip. I was not one of those people, but I remember seeing Facebook posts speak to the camping trip comparison. People also still had paychecks or wages from September or even October paydays in their bank accounts. Those who were fortunate enough to still have jobs, still had jobs.
Finally, the day before my return flight back to the states, I got a phone call from a friend of mine. This person was one of my most cherished mentors and has now become one of my nearest and dearest friends for life. We are forever bonded by a series of storms we did not even know each other were going through. Now let me explain. During that conversation, both of us, for reasons I will never fully understand, let it all go. No boundaries. No walls. No facades. It was poetic. This person opened up to me about something they had been hiding from the world and I opened up to them about a secret I had kept in the dark for far too long at the expense of my mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. It was one of those conversations that was so intense, I still get emotional reliving it. I was shedding the types of tears that saturate everything - physical and non-physical. The type of cry when you cannot breathe but you feel like you are slowly being lifted up into the air. You feel exposed but protected at the same time. You feel like you are vulnerable but becoming braver and achieving more freedom with each tear that falls. It was spiritual. It was powerful. And it started my journey into Mama2MamaGifts, which is now its own storm in the making.
I will end this by saying that my hope is the storm of Mama2MamaGifts touches and lifts as many people as possible up and out of darkness, just like Irma did for my friend and I. I hope the beautiful, sometimes loud, sometimes silent storm that is Mama2MamaGifts, and also Jacqueline Ferrer Xavier, can accomplish much more than originally envisioned, and I hope I can see that happen in my lifetime. Like every storm in life though, you never know what is coming. You hope for the best but prepare for the worst. The rest is not up to you or anyone else on this planet.