And so the heart yearns…

I recently came across a video, The Conditioned – it’s about a homeless man in Brazil who sat in his little island, a mere patch of grass “island” between car lanes, where he wrote down his thoughts about life. A woman had seen him writing as she passed him daily on her way to work. One day, she dared to speak to him  and found out he was writing poetry, which she thought should be read by others, so she started a Facebook page for him and soon, his whole life was changed.

One quote struck me and has stayed in my thoughts since viewing the video. The homeless man said, “Hope is the heaviest weight a man can carry.” It saddened me that hope was equated with being a burden. I thought hope should be something uplifting, encouraging, something positive, but not a burden.

Then I reflected upon his words, I reflected upon his plight, I reflected upon my own personal struggles and understood that he was right, at least in some cases, “Hope is the heaviest weight a man can carry.”

I suppose when one has become as old as he, he is 77 this year and has been homeless for many years, you would see life and the world in a different way. Personal struggles and tragedies have a way of teaching us valuable life lessons but it also alters our perception of what we otherwise, would have regarded as normal, positive even.

During these last few years, I have encountered people who have hoped for one thing or the other. Several of them hope for a partner in life, wondering if even they would have the privilege of having someone to call their spouse as many of their friends are already married.

Some hope for better health, just to be “normal” and have the strength to carry on as many others take for granted that their bodies would just function normally all the time, that the strength and vitality of youth would always be there.

Some wish to have children but after years of marriage, still wait and hope for the miracle of  baby. Some wish that the one they love would love them back as much.

Some wish that they didn’t just focus on their careers, that they would have taken time to find a partner and build a family, and hope that it’s not too late.

Hope is indeed the heaviest burden a man can carry, or rather, hope is the heaviest burden the heart can carry. Especially in cases where disappointment, heartache and constant struggle seem to be the norm as opposed to having things “fall conveniently into place”.

Spring, the return of life

We hope because it is unthinkable not to hope. We hope because we know that things in life won’t always be difficult, we hope because the heart yearns for something wonderful, something beautiful. We hope because we know that there is something far greater than our troubles, that love would carry us through to a brighter future.

Taking for granted the vigor of youth

Two and a half years ago, I was pregnant for the first time in my life. I was enthusiastic, excited and exhilarated at the prospect of having my own baby.

The pregnancy went well for the most part save for the recurring chronic back pain which I’d been living with for the past twenty years due to my scoliosis.

Seven months into the pregnancy though, I noticed that I simply couldn’t walk as I normally did. My body was undergoing such changes that normal movements began to feel strained and challenging. I’d lose my breath quite easily and I’d be too tired to stay awake for more than nine hours in a row. Each day after work, I needed a nap before dinner time.

My pelvis was loosening towards the end of my pregnancy such that setting my feet apart more than a meter would be painful. It also meant walking quickly would be painful. I would blame myself several times during the course of my pregnancy for not having taken care of myself well enough, so that I would have had better physical condition and strength. Nevertheless, I carried on and tried my best to regularly do the stretches and exercises recommended for pregnant women, feeling every joint, muscle and sinew complain. The only exercise that was relatively painless was swimming, so I swam once every three weeks, all the way into the last month.

At my mid-thirties, I never imagined being almost incapacitated to do anything. At home and at work, I’d have to ask people to help me reach things and carry things since I simply couldn’t perform the task. Even walking across the pedestrian lane was a challenge, in the last three months of my pregnancy, I simply had to accept that I could only walk to half of the road and wait for the light to turn green again before crossing the rest of the way.

I remembered that at some point in my young adult life, I was in such good physical condition that I could easily take a daily swim of 1.5 km without feeling like I’d drown, I could bicycle with 20 kilos of food in different baskets hanging on the bike and in a big backpack, right in the middle of winter and it would be just another day as a college student. I’d gotten so used to the strength in my body that I began to forget to exercise as I got older. When I started working, I was so exhausted that I didn’t bicycle anymore but instead took the bus.

Being pregnant showed me the limits of my body; it also gave me a glimpse into what it might be like getting old and needing help all the time. It took a good eight months after my son was born before I started to feel strong again. It was a humbling experience and I try my best to be grateful for the strength and health I possess each and every day.

Latin church songs during the late afternoon mass – invaluable legacies to my childhood

A tall, light, handsome and elegant man turns the music sheet over and starts waving his hands in unison, directing the most impressive male choir I’ve ever had the chance to grow up listening to and knowing.

I sit in a corner, not to disturb them, clutching my small teddy bear named Barney. Dressed in a casual green and white stripped dress and flip flops, I was hardly prepared to go to mass. But straight after lunch at home, my father and godfather prepared to drive to church to begin choir practice, I asked if I could come with them and my father said, “Only if you can get into the car immediately.”

At seven years of age, I didn’t really understand that my father didn’t really want to take me with him, what would a seven year old girl do while a choir of 25 to 30 men, aged 25 to 45, led by an older mestizo choir leader do while the choir practiced? I donned on my slippers and sat in the car as fast as I could. My mother said, “Make sure to bring her home before the mass starts.” My father nodded in reply.

And so there I was listening to the choir practice. I don’t remember much else, I suppose I did play and ran along the pews only to be told to behave. Nevertheless, I remember the echo of the organ, the wonderful chorus of four voices, singing in complete harmony, in a language which I didn’t even understand but which, to me, was simply heavenly. I’ve always enjoyed listening to the choir in which my father sang, and it’s always left me feeling calm, like peace finding its way into one’s heart.

Two hours of singing was interrupted by a short snack, with nuns bringing hot coffee and newly baked pan de sal. In the midst of their chit chat and jokes which I still couldn’t understand, I chewed on the pan de sal given to me. They resume singing thereafter and I looked at each and every one of the choir members and noted how they sang, what they looked like and imprinted the images in my memory, it’s so unfortunate how there weren’t any Smartphones during that time. I would have taken photos and recorded videos otherwise.

I missed my nap time that Sunday, my father didn’t have time to drive me home before the mass. By the time the mass started at 5:30 PM, I was sitting on the pew where my father’s voice type sat, struggling to keep my eyelids open. At one point, I woke up with a stiff neck, almost drooling; mortified, I realized the mass was almost finished, and the choir was standing above me, singing in full force. October 7, 2014

I miss hearing their voices that way, especially during the Christmas Eve Mass. Soon it will be Christmas, and I will take a pause to close my eyes and hear their voices, filling my heart with peace and wonderment yet again.

On Motherhood

Call me strange but for some strange reason, I’ve assumed that I can’t have kids so I simply set aside thoughts of motherhood lest I be disappointed. Almost two years ago though, I got pregnant. After three pregnancy test kits and a visit to the clinic, my pregnancy was confirmed; I was going to be a mother.

Having moved to Sweden 11 years ago, I wasn’t sure what it meant to be a mother here. I had seen many mothers with a baby or two or even three kids in tow; every mom I’ve seen seemed to be a supermom. They looked strong, alert and very capable of having three kids in tow while running errands and balancing part time work and still have time to go to the gym. I wondered if I would fit into this category of supermoms. I didn’t.

Right from the start, I was simply tired, I have had chronic back pain for twenty years now due to my scoliosis and it drained me of energy, after my short induced labor of three and a half hours – I was spent. The first few days in the recovery ward were a blessing! Having my husband and son in a private room with food delivered to us for the first three days was such a convenience. Being back at home though was tougher. Lack of sleep and back pain were my constant companions… now I also had a little son to care for, nourish and keep safe. I wondered if I had the strength for the journey called motherhood.

Our son has had his share of challenges; constant tummy pain at night during the first three months, eczema on his face, tummy and back which worsened with the application of the wrong type of cream. Gassiness came and went during the fourth to sixth month; my son seemed to be sensitive to what I ate, so I had to avoid gas-producing foods until he didn’t have any adverse reaction to breast milk.

Throughout all these months, I’ve had to learn not to worry so much. I accepted early on that I don’t know everything about being a mom so I will simply have to learn by reading, asking questions to the right people and trying out my new knowledge. I’ve had to learn to be mentally strong so I can be composed and calm in situations which require it so I could and can make the best decision for my son. Physically though, I’ve realized and accepted that I won’t be as strong as the other supermoms in Sweden. I have my handicap of having chronic back pain but it’s at least manageable.

ImageMy son’s now 13 months old and he’s a bundle of energy and joy. Every time I feel tired, I look to him and a small grin is always more than enough to lift my spirits and assure me that yes, I do have what it takes to be a mother.

Reflections on the disaster management efforts of the Philippine government in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan

It’s been a week since the super typhoon Haiyan devastated the central Philippines; it seems that relief efforts and the distribution of food and water has not advanced considerably, it has even been internationally criticized as unorganized.

I’ve been away from the Philippines for a total of ten years now. I’ve lived in the Philippines twice as long as I’ve been away. It’s unthinkable for me that there appears to be no master plan for disaster management. Every single year, there are at least twenty typhoons coming and going through the islands. While the extent of each typhoon’s damage varies, each typhoon would always leave a number of people displaced, injured, hungry and thirsty.

The Philippines should be more prepared for natural disasters. There should be a chain of command coming from the president’s office all the way down to the local government authorities, with deputies ready as well, just in case the local government authorities become victims themselves.

Can’t the Philippine government be more pro-active? Surely there are areas in the larger cities of the Philippine islands where permanent facilities for relief goods can be stored. Why is everything based in Manila? There are over 7,100 islands in the Philippines. Concentrating all relief and rescue operations from Manila is a disaster in itself as precious time passes by and people who need aid and rescue suffer or die from waiting too long. Good and strong leadership, proper planning and execution of plans are utmost necessary; otherwise, everything won’t be in place in time for the onslaught or aftermath of bad weather.

In a country with over 110 million inhabitants, there should always be regional centers for disaster management. If we don’t have technical resources for such regional centers, we should at least have manpower, trained and informed on what to do and prioritize in the event of a natural disaster. I saw on the news, five days after the typhoon, that it was only then that assessment of damages was being done. Shouldn’t this be completed 24-48 hours post-natural disaster? We should also be humble enough to admit to the world that we lack resources to carry on relief and rescue missions. If we can be humble enough to admit what we lack, then perhaps, neighboring countries with such resources can send the needed aid immediately so that the victims need not wait too long for food and water or to be rescued.

The Filipino people are a mighty strong people; those who have been up day and night working to get relief goods sorted and sent out, those working to help rescue people, bury the dead and tend to the sick, transport victims are all commendable. I admire you all and thank you all for your selfless giving and tireless dedication. Sometimes though, this isn’t enough; I call for a concrete and workable disaster management program. One which does not concentrate everything in Manila, even the people of Visayas and Mindanao are capable of helping… let’s get everyone involved!

The first few hours after my son’s birth

A good friend of mine recently had her baby delivered through Caesarian section since her baby was in breech position. She couldn’t meet her baby at once since they had to check on it extra. It reminded me of my own experience.

I had about five minute’s undisturbed time with my son lying on my chest, I noted he had ten fingers, ten toes and he looked complete. I registered that his hair smelled a bit like some sweet chemical smell. It surprised me since I thought babies should smell of milk and sweat. My thoughts on how babies should smell didn’t trail off too far since then they told me that they needed to bring out the placenta, it came out in one push, and then they examined my uterus.

They poked with instruments and pressed my tummy repeatedly to contract the uterus. I received three doses of Syntocinone to contract the uterus further and soon my whole body was shaking uncontrollably. They poked some more and it really hurt, I heard a hushed conversation, one echoing concern. I was informed that the specialist will come soon. I had another five minutes with my son, I held him in place, trying my best not to shake too much; then the specialist came, she spoke in a hushed tone to the midwife and ordered that I be taken to the operating room immediately. I was bleeding too much and I needed stitches. They gave my son to his father, after a quick good-bye, they rolled me away – it was almost midnight.

I felt so cold and couldn’t stop shaking, I was transferred to another ward altogether. They gave me more blankets, I was freezing and shaking, I wondered how bad it really was.

At the operating ward, they gave me the epidural – a warm feeling started to spread from my hips down to my feet, soon the pain was gone. It was a welcome relief, I was so exhausted; I was shaking a lot they had to strap me to the operating table, I couldn’t lie still and I felt so cold. At one point, I felt like I was drifting off, I managed to ask the assisting doctor if I could sleep, he said, “No.”

The surgery took less than an hour; I was transferred to the recovery ward and asked to see my husband and son, they said that they don’t arrange visits. I felt so dismayed; I wanted to see my husband and son. I lay there feeling thirsty. I asked for water, they said I can’t have anything until the epidural had worn off.

After about two hours, my husband arrived with our son wrapped in a blanket, only his head peeking out. They had been waiting in the new-born ward and asked to see me; I was so happy to finally hold our son, amidst my exhaustion, I felt a wave of joy and a burst of energy as I gazed at his beautiful face.

Bringing our son out to the world

They say that child birth is painful, that it is painful enough so that the mind won’t remember the details. That wasn’t the case for me.

I’ve been around to see old friends and old colleagues, most exclaiming how beautiful our offspring is and many encouraging us to have another baby soon. I told them that I’d want another baby when the memory of my delivery has waned. I wonder when that would be since my emotional memories tend to stick in my mind quite long.

I didn’t have a long delivery; in fact, it took only three and a half hours for my son to come out into the world. I didn’t notice when my water broke, being highly pregnant, I thought that I was simply incontinent. I kept feeling liquid passing out in small quantities, now and then, for a few days so I went to get examined. At the examination table, they informed me that my water’s broken. I was given 48 hours to observe if I would get contractions, if not, then we were instructed to come to the delivery ward so I would be induced to labor.

I didn’t have contractions, I merely felt some dull menstrual cramp pain, and since I have scoliosis and have had chronic lower back pain for over 20 years, I didn’t really know how my brain would perceive the pain accompanying labor.

Well in the delivery room, they induced me to labor. After barely 30 minutes, the pain came in full force, leaving me winded with its unexpectedness. All the years of chronic back pain seemed to come to me, all at the same time. I had practiced breathing exercises and tried my best to keep at it… I had experienced sever back pain before, quite similar actually to the pain that coursed through my lower back and hips, I thought that I should be able to endure this as well. Apparently, I was wrong.

I wanted to get the epidural. Unfortunately, my contractions were barely a minute apart so I couldn’t lie still for them to give it to me. I took the nitrogen dioxide gas, it barely helped but it did leave me dizzy between contractions. Throughout my labor, I kept my eyes shut, the gas was making me feel sick otherwise and I concentrated to getting my son out. Soon enough he was on my chest and I was grateful that the ordeal was over.

December 17 2013I was so relieved that we made it, my son and me. I was amazed that my body could take such a beating; I was impressed by how determination and the maternal instinct kicking in gave me strength to endure. I was in awe at how much love, for my son whom I hadn’t yet met, I felt when they gave him to me. There were no tears to cry, only joy and deep gratitude to be had as I stared at his face, meeting him for the first time. Welcome to the world!