That morning, I woke up to an empty bed. My parents, who slept on a mattress on the floor, were gone. My sister, who slept on the other side of the queen-sized bed we shared, was also missing. My mother’s Left Behind book lay face down by my feet. As I sat up, my stuffed Winnie the Pooh pillow fell to the floor. The room looked eerily tidy; even the frames of our family pictures were aligned. Living in the same space as my sister, my mother, and my father meant everything was shared, including cleanliness.
“And cleanliness,” my mother always said, “is next to godliness.”
I opened the bedroom door to see the sun pouring in through the window at the end of the hall, and thanked the Lord for its blinding beauty. In my grandparents’ house at the heart of the Philippine city of San Juan, everything was warm. Every surface was drenched in sunlight.
Barely awake, I made my way up four stories to the kitchen. For breakfast, Mamita always welcomed my stomach with rice, sunny-side-up eggs, and fried eggplants. We ate on the rooftop every day, our dining table next to the washing machine where we did our laundry, watching the morning news on TV while we dug into our food. But today was different. No one was in the kitchen. Silence fell on everything like dust. I went back down the stairs one step at a time, and dialed my mother’s office number on the telephone. Silence answered me.
My understanding of the apocalypse is this: When the Rapture happens, all the believers, both dead and alive, will ascend to meet Christ in the air during his Second Coming. At ten years old, I was too young to understand the theological implications of eschatology, but I was old enough to know that if I was bad—if I disobeyed my parents and watched too much Disney—I would be left behind. I would suffer through the Tribulation. I’d be forced to hide in basements to escape being guillotined. Unable to buy food without the Mark of the Antichrist—a microchip that would send me to hell if I did accept it—I’d starve. But what terrified me was not the promised weeping and gnashing of teeth. What I feared most was suffering through judgment in the absence of everyone I loved.
“Oh Lord, take me. I’m sorry for my sins,” I screamed to the ceiling that morning, tears welling up in my eyes.
Then the door of the bathroom opened and there was my aunt, her hair wrapped in a towel, looking confused.
“I thought the Lord took you away,” I said.
After that, I only became more convinced that the rapture was coming soon. I refused to sleep alone; I was not taking any chances. If Jesus decided to take my parents while they were in the room with me, I could bargain with Him. I could make him take me, too.
In 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul says that it will happen “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye”; that he is coming sooner than we think.
My mother had just finished the twelve-volume series of Left Behind books and insisted that we watch Doomsday, an apocalyptic film about the Rapture. She was so excited she even bought the DVD. That Friday night, our family witnessed the miraculous disappearing unfold onscreen.
As I remember it, whenever someone disappeared in the film, the camera would pan away until they were no longer visible. In one scene, an unbelieving daughter was checking her car engine in the middle of nowhere, and lost sight of her devout evangelical mother. The young woman looked everywhere. Realizing that her mother was gone, she screamed at nothingness. “What’s happening?” she cried. Her mother had vanished into thin air and there was nothing she could do.
In 2005, when I was five years old, my mother left me in Manila to board a silver plane. When she disappeared into the bright fluorescent tunnel, her small frame indecipherable from the forms of other passengers, she became a ghost, a character I imagined.
When I was a child, it was as if what wasn’t there ceased to exist. This was why the things that felt most real to me were within reach. I knew where to find Aslan, Nancy Drew, and the Boxcar Children on the shelf. I memorized the channels where I could watch Kim Possible, Madeline, and Winnie the Pooh. Eventually, my mother herself became another character I only read about and watched on a screen, a pixelated face that appeared after paying a few coins. For an hour a week, my mother existed on Yahoo! Messenger, inside a thick PC monitor at the computer shop beside the wet market: She asked how I was doing in school and if I was watching too much TV. When the time ran out, the screen became a black mirror and she was gone.
I was face-to-face with disappearance too early. For months, I repeated the words of Lilo, Disney’s orphaned Hawaiian girl: “Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.”
Being left behind is a kind of neglect. According to Child Welfare Information Gateway, the psychological effects of neglect include low self-esteem, difficult relationships with peers and romantic partners, trust issues, anger issues, mood swings, codependency, fear of intimacy, anxiety disorders, panic disorders, and depression.
A generation of Filipino Americans were left behind by an army of fathers. Subic Bay was the largest US naval base outside the mainland United States, and the nearby fishing village became a pleasure den for the foreigners to fulfill their fleshly desires. But when the US bases closed in 1992, more than 50,000 children were left behind, many of them born to women presumed to be Filipina sex workers and fathered by American servicemen. Abandoned by their fathers and never recognized by the US government as legitimate children, these young Amerasians were called “iniwan ng barko,” which means “left by the ship.”
The Philippines was left behind after nearly 400 years of colonial power. When the Spaniards came, they came for the soul. After converting the natives to Catholicism, the Church transformed the social and economic landscape of the land. The church bell dictated the time of the day for waking, working, and going to bed. For 333 years, the Spaniards stayed. They destroyed Indigenous literature and set up a Spanish naming system, which turned everyone into Santiagos and Marias. The Spanish tinkered with the very fabric of the Filipino identity by baptizing us with new names. Before this, I learned, Filipinos were called by names that changed depending on their position in society. Permanence did not exist. My last name, Agustin, is forever attached to my green card.
As a child, I was told that after their husbands died, the left-behind wives of the Mansaka Tribe in Davao, Philippines, would burn the family house down and move on. It is easier to get over grief when the reminders of it are gone, when there is no place to return to, and all that’s left is ashes.
In 1898, the Americans came for the mind. The Thomasites, a group of 600 Americans, some 526 of them teachers, journeyed to the Philippines soon after it was declared a US territory. The Americans made public schools available to every native regardless of socioeconomic status, and sold education as a ticket out of poverty. In civilizing the Filipino mind, they gave the natives a new tongue, making English the primary mode of instruction inside universities, courts, and high offices. It is the language of the elite and the educated, which is why I grew up learning English before Filipino and watching Disney movies for hours on end for “practice.” When I came to America, people would tell me that I spoke very good English: as if I have lived here my whole life.
Because my grandparents’ house in San Juan was built in the low elevated barangays of Manila, every storm came in uninvited, sometimes bringing along empty packets of junk food, diapers, and swimming rats and cockroaches. Typhoon Ondoy in 2009 was no different. It turned the streets into black streams. By 5 a.m., the city had no electricity. I saw the water creep up over our doorsteps and it never stopped.
By 9 a.m. the water was up to our knees. The second floor of the house—our typhoon safe zone—was filled to the brim with furniture, picture frames, and kitchen cookware we’d brought up from the ground floor. But we could only save so much.
Here are the things that were left behind: the stove, the dining table, the sofa’s skeleton, the antique wooden wardrobe, and the beloved refrigerator that was bought by my uncle when he worked as a truck driver for a Dunkin’ Donuts in Manhattan for a year. I volunteered to take the plunge and save the fridge—I started swimming when I was two, after being thrown into a pool before my first lesson—but it was too late.
The refrigerator was submerged a day before the flood receded. Yet ultimately it survived, whirring in resistance to retirement. Years later, the stain of the canal water ghosts the murky surface of its door. In the mornings, my mother kneels before it with a rag. No amount of kitchen bleach can whitewash its facade.
The Japanese came for the body. In Manila during World War II, they tossed babies in the air and bayoneted them, raped women, and hung clergymen in their churches. They stayed for three years. During the rampage, my grandfather ran to the mountains and swam across a river to escape the war zone. After the invasion of Aparri, he stopped studying. The schools were decimated into ruins. Because of this, my grandfather never picked up a book again. His life was never the same after the war.
To be left by colonial powers was a victory, but when it happened the Philippines was left with nothing. One cannot feed on independence. This is why many wonder what our country would look like if we were still a colony, reasoning, Even if we are in shackles, we would still have something left. The Philippines could be as beautiful as Hawaii and as modern as Guam, with Filipinos crossing the Pacific border with a blue passport. Our country wouldn’t be exporting cheap labor by the thousands to the global north. It wouldn’t be enveloped in filth and poverty, the city’s sidewalks brimming with beggars. Still, I often wonder about the cost of these desires. At what point does the postcolonial mind begin to imagine a future of its own?
In the Bible, when Job was left behind in the desert by his cattle and his children, he put a sackcloth over his body.
“The Lord gave,” he said, “and the Lord has taken away.”
My grandmother Inang was left behind in 1989, 1996, 2005, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019, and 2020. Dementia makes memory leave repeatedly. But I am grateful for her inability to remember. It makes our departures hurt less, even though we know her time is running out. Our family is in California, Wisconsin, Ontario, Manila. Mandaluyong, Ilocos, and Tuguegarao—everywhere but home, where Inang is, the far-flung rice fields of Cagayan Valley. Inang is now ninety-one years old.
My grandmother is a peasant worker who tilled the farms as soon as she learned how to walk. But no matter how hard she worked, the ground did not grow enough money. For there to be food on the table, she had to watch her sons and daughters leave. Her eldest son left first: Tito Ben was a seafarer who traveled every year. Next, her eldest daughter left to be a caregiver in Kuwait. Her next daughter became a nurse in Saudi Arabia. Her next son left for Canada. Her youngest daughter, my mother, is an assisted living facility nurse in Wisconsin. Among the siblings, the only one left to take care of Inang is Tita Azon, who tills the farms from dusk ‘til dawn. Her own son is gone to California and her daughter to Illinois. When Tita Azon calls my mother in Wisconsin, her voice yearns to bridge the uncrossable gap between our visas. The US embassy dictates this distance. The longing is immeasurable.
Inang does not know the names of any of her children anymore, not even the daughter who died stillborn. When my mother calls her, Inang stares at the video confused. Inang’s face is deeply lined and her lips have aged into a permanent pout. When she forgets something, she smiles out of embarrassment.
Inang will also leave us, the very people who once left her. There is almost no one left to ask her to stay.
In the Old Testament, Noah was left behind and it became his salvation. The Lord preserved him while submerging the rest of mankind in a cleansing flood. I often wonder if Noah ever felt guilty about being spared. The unrighteous were raptured by the waters, drowned and erased from the face of the earth while Noah, his family, and the ark full of animals docked safely on the mountains of Ararat.
After forty days of the storm, I can imagine the earth’s silence, the cleaving loneliness. How does one live through the wrath of God? Noah had to bear the weight of the knowledge that he could not save anyone but himself and his family. He lived at God’s mercy, extricated from the drowning waters because of his obedience to that which was unseen.
When God sent a rainbow as a promise that he would never again destroy life with flood waters, Noah must have kissed the ground he stood upon. He was left behind, and it saved him.
My house is built on things left behind. Living in a college town in the Midwest means living with the furniture of students who have hollowed out their apartments, who have left their younger selves in a place they will never come back to.
Because these students have been raptured everywhere but here, they leave sofas, lampstands, beds, mirrors, chairs, and cabinets on the front lawns of their houses. My father and I proceed to take these things into the hollowed-out home of our American dream—a two-story apartment rented by my sister, my mother, my father, and me. Because of our trips to the streets, my sister has a dresser for her clothes with a stranger’s name stickered on its front. I have a wooden table that my dad picked up from a dumpster by the apartment he cleans. My mother has two recliners that were harvested from the donation center. My father has a plethora of tables and chairs hidden in our garage even though we never have as many guests as we had in Manila. Overcompensating for the lack, we filled all the empty spaces that America couldn’t. It was a part of making a home.
My family still does not own much, but after two years, we have been blessed with more. We now have two sofas, moss green and cerulean, countless fake plants and pieces of unknown art—all previously owned by strangers. While these things cannot replace what we left behind, they have given me a soft space to rest my head. And when the time comes for my body to be raptured from our makeshift suburban home, they will be just memories left on the curb.