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Gifts that heal

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF UNSPLASH/ROSIE SUN FAMILY will always have each other’s back no matter what.

No matter how weird your family seems to be, they will ultimately always have your back no matter how much you mess up. Your parents are two of the best people I know even if, like everybody, they’re not perfect. They (and we, your ‘tribe’) will always be here for you whether you like it or not.”

This was part of the note I wrote my niece when she turned 18 last September. It was supposed to be one of the “18 wishes” but it didn’t read like one. In retrospect, it might have been a reminder to myself, too, considering how I had been an absentee daughter, sister and aunt even before the Covid-19 pandemic happened.

When my father turned 80 at the start of 2021, travel restrictions kept me from going home to join the family celebration. I thought I could make a trip within weeks after that big occasion I had missed but it wasn’t until June that it was possible to do so. From a simple hop-into-a-bus-get-off-the-intersection -and-have-brother-pick-me-up process, I’ve had to take an RT-PCR test, brave a long queue at the bus terminal, and then go through the designated triage area after disembarking before I could finally reach my destination: Baguio General Hospital. Papa was going to undergo surgery.

When you’re told one of your parents has cancer, it hits hard. Having a doctor in the family makes it somehow easier to deal with it because you will have accurate medical information you need to process things — at least on the intellectual level. But seeing someone you’ve invariably thought invincible struggle with not being able to do as simple a thing as go to the bathroom is another thing. At the same time, being witness to everyone in the family doing their best to cope is heartening.

Even the youngest grandson would tell his mom he missed her but it was okay since she’s taking care of “Papa Lo” (the grandkids’ nickname for grandpa, a combination of ‘Papa’ and ‘Lolo’). When the eldest granddaughter, who’s in Grade 12, volunteered to be in charge of dressing the wound and changing colostomy bags after hospitalization, everyone was surprised. Teenagers are, after all, known for being queasy when faced with such tasks. It turns out she’s interested in pursuing a nursing degree in college so she said she might as well practice. The 19-year-old grandson who seems indifferent managed to keep calm — not even blinking at the sight of blood — when one early morning, grandma woke him up to help carry grandpa who slipped as he was getting up from bed.

I’ve always defended young people whenever I hear complaints about their being self-absorbed but sometimes I would find myself thinking we were a lot better at that age compared to Gen Z kids today. I couldn’t have been happier to be proven wrong time and again, seeing how my nephews and nieces have been helping care for Papa in their own ways. The trick is not to nag them. Just lay down the cards, tell them what needs to be done, and let them feel you trust they will do what is expected of them.

As for me, I have learned that “taking over” kitchen duties — which I thought was a favor for Mama — is something a daughter who’s hardly home should never do because it is intrusive. After all, it is her kitchen I was messing with. What I had read in Tuesdays with Morrie all those years ago should have guided me, too, when I tried to micro-manage everything that had to do with Papa’s medical needs. In an effort to make sure medicines are taken as prescribed, I had forgotten that patients who have been used to independence would resent not being given the chance to decide even the simplest thing such as what fruit will help “push down” various capsules and tablets.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF UNSPLASH/ joshua hoehne

Just when I thought we had everything exactly down pat in my newfound role, Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) hit me — and how. One day I was the caregiver, the following day I was helpless, not even able to walk without assistance. No matter how I wanted to spare my parents from worrying about me, I couldn’t hide the symptoms of the autoimmune disorder about which I had suddenly become an expert in an effort to find answers. A mother’s intuition is mysterious. She would show up in the exact moments you’d rather she wouldn’t such as when your brother has to carry you to get into the car, or your sister-in-law has to assist you in taking a shower. And no matter how you adamantly declare you are all right and tell them not to worry, instead of appeasing them, parents will say it’s their job to get worried.

I’ve never doubted the power of prayer but I also knew getting diagnosed correctly is crucial so I rallied family and friends to pray for the specific intentions of finding the right doctor/s and getting the medical intervention necessary. Some prayer warriors added a further specification: That these things happen on time. The response has been overwhelming. Even friends who claim not to believe in God prayed. Several started online groups to pray together. Some who haven’t spoken because of differences in political opinions started talking again albeit only virtually. My nephew, who just “got back” his Mom when Papa Lo was discharged from the hospital, had to “give her up” again. Before my sister-in-law could ask him if it was all right for his online schooling to be temporarily supervised by his older cousins, he told her: “Mama, dito muna ako (in his uncle’s place) para maalagaan mo si Tita.”

Hit with rare disease

My niece who dreams of becoming a nurse someday welcomed the chance to validate what she had learned in Grade 9. “You are a textbook case for GBS, Tita,” she said, dimpling, “You check all the boxes.” I heard her explain things to her Dad when my brother was struggling to make heads and tails of the different variants of GBS and what could have caused mine.

Why I was hit with a rare disease is more an existential question more than a medical one although the fact that all the prayers of the people around me led us to a recently-opened hospital in the province (Pangasinan) owned and directed by someone who used to head the Neurology Department at the Philippine General Hospital seems to be a convergence of the two.

At the onset of GBS, I asked God not just for the strength to endure whatever is thrown at me in order to be healed (so I could continue helping take care of my father) but also to keepy my sense of humor. Both were granted. And I have the PM/DM exchanges with friends to show for it.

One thing I will always be truly grateful for — aside from the gift of healing — is the chance to witness the generosity of everyone especially my childhood friends who, with the little that they have because their livelihood has been adversely affected by the pandemic, dipped into their pockets to contribute financially even without being asked. But a bigger
pre-Christmas gift is the opportunity to give hope, though perhaps inadvertently, to those who have had doubts they can get up again, both literally and figuratively.

This reminds me of the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in Spes Salvi (Saved in Hope): “It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.”

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