Do you look for signs? I do. And the word “signs”, for me, is a magic seed, germinating into the first line of the chorus to the hit song by Five Man Electrical Band (1971), also covered by Tesla (1990) with some raunchier lyrics thrown in.
Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs.
Day 1. Habitat for Humanity Build, Quezon City, Philippines. I’m at breakfast in the Fersal Hotel. Okay, I’m a bit nervous. I worked a few days once on a build here in London, Ontario, but I’ve never done what they call a “Global Village” build before. I know most of the Canadian team members. I’ve just met Wei Chen, who’s joined our team from China. And I’ve just been introduced to a 12-member team from the U.S.
A scary email, from my brother-in-law, drops into my in-box on my iPhone. He doesn’t say anything, just forwards a copy of an email he received from my son, Jay. It starts off “in a bit of a pickle here in Costa Rica” and details how Jay and his girlfriend had everything stolen: passports/phones/computers/cash. My heart drops into my stomach. My mind races.
People disappear in foreign countries, without a trace. I don’t even know specifically where he’s going. He showed me pictures of a cool, treehouse Airbnb. Why didn’t I ask where it was? Cripes. He’s 27! Did I tell my mom where I was going when I was 27?
Because Randy is with me and knows her way around an iPhone, I FaceTime audio my brother-in-law using the hotel’s Wi-Fi. He hasn’t heard from Jay, despite responding. He received an email recently – worded almost the same – that was a fraud. And, he points out, the email doesn’t say where to send the money.
Randy and I laugh. Would Jay even say “in a bit of a pickle”? Nah.
But it niggles at me as we jump into cargo vans to head to the job-site. Team member Jackie Dewan, also a neighbour, says, “It’s too bad you don’t have a code word. With my kids it was always ‘Pegasus’.”
I don’t have a chance to say anything because we are unloading and Randy and I are walking by a cement pillar at the job-site entrance. In green spray paint, on both sides of the pillar, is printed “ROY”. Now, I know it’s a popular first name, but so is David and John. It says Roy. And I was just talking to Roy’s father, my brother-in-law. Roy died in 2007.
Later in the day, Randy is working alongside Canadian team member Jack Smit. He starts belting out, “Hey Jude” and it makes Randy feel so good; it’s a thing her father used to do.
When we gather for drinks in our third-floor lobby after work, Jackie notices the Pegasus tattoo on my ankle. We talk about it, how me and the kids all have the same tattoo, how it’s in memory of Hugh, how he loved horses and he flew away from us, so the wings just made sense.
The next morning, it’s team leader Kathie Wolcott getting a scare, with news coming in on her BlackBerry that her granddaughter has had a seizure due to a high fever. “I just want to be sick,” Kathie says. She is relieved later to learn her granddaughter has been sent home from hospital and is doing fine.
On the weekend, Randy is helped aboard a horse-drawn carriage by a Filipino man who says, “You know, the only thing I know about Canada is Terry Fox. I just love him.”
Hugh also loved and admired Terry Fox, participated in many of the September runs and the Terry Fox Foundation was the charity we chose in lieu of flowers at Hugh’s funeral. So, they chat about Terry Fox for a while.
Right after this, the North American team sits down to lunch at Barbara’s in the historic district of Intramuros – “within the walls”. A trio of musicians comes by to entertain us, offering to sing songs in various languages. They know a Chinese song – one Wei also knows – and she joins them. The song is beautiful, melodic, and as I sway along, I realize it does not matter that I haven’t a clue of the meaning of the words; their voices transport me to another time, another place, transcending limitations of earth and of space.
Many members of the Canadian team befriend Allan, who Randy describes as a Filipino Jimmy Fallon. He slaves away in his kitchen at the end of the lane whipping up meals for the construction crew on-site. We visit him after lunch and he is positively giddy over our presence and our singing (I wish I could say our singing is deserving of his giddiness, but really, it’s just okay). We do a rendition of “Signs” for him, recalling most verses. Another day, Sandy Reid, Deborah Phibbs, Wendy McCaul and Jackie sing “Trailer for Sale or Rent”, that old Roger Miller tune. Allan tapes it. He tells Carole Sutherland that he listens to it at night, before he falls asleep, and it brings him such comfort.
Oh, did I mention Allan loves signs? He’s also the safety officer on-site, posting signs everywhere, urging everyone to be safe.
Unfortunately, it turns out Jay would say “in a bit of a pickle” under duress – he was writing on a borrowed laptop and didn’t have much time. His things were stolen from a locked rental vehicle, but the important thing is that he and his girlfriend made it home safe.
I get so jazzed by signs and, as you can see, many of my signs are accompanied by a musical soundtrack. And while I am cognizant of safety rules and regulations – I bought CSA-approved boots for the build – I knew Roy was guarding the job-site gate and Hugh was our constant eye in the sky.
Stay safe, my friends. And look for signs.