On dying and other concerns after 50

My brother met his untimely demise June 30. Two days after his wife’s birthday and ten days before his 57th birthday. Not that there is such a thing as a timely demise. I don’t even know where that idiom came from. But in light of all the supposedly joyful days surrounding the day of his death, I couldn’t think of a better word to describe it than untimely. He was handsome, quiet, and somewhat of a peacemaker.  Some would argue that he was the most good-looking of the brothers, but there is no doubt that his siblings looked up to him although he was the shortest, literally, and the middle, not the eldest, child. Maybe because he was the youngest to have kids and get married and prove he could be a good family man, unlike the father they knew or hardly knew. The same man as the handsome, quiet dad who cooked arroz caldo for me and rubbed my back with Vicks when I got sick.

My brother’s death brought up memories of long steamy summer days spent at my grandfather’s place in Mandaluyong, a city east of Manila. For some strange reason my grandpa, or Apo as we lovingly called him, doted on me, the bastard child of his youngest son. Maybe it was to compensate for the fact that I was born out of wedlock, which back then was a real stigma. Maybe because he only saw me in the summertime, unlike the countless little grandkids running around his tiny wooden house day in and day out, forming clouds of dust on his dirt floor and crowding his sala as they watched Oras ng Ligaya on his 12 inch TV. Or maybe because I could sing Matt Monro’s “Born Free” on cue and with perfect pitch at 3 years old.

Ever since I can remember, I had looked forward to those summers to reunite with my cousins and friends and engage in unbridled play all day within the hollow blocked walls of the working class compound nestled beside the Pasig River. Such carefree innocent times playing jackstones at Elsa’s house. Lovely and meek Elsa, who died in her 40s of breast cancer. Her sister, Vic, following 10 years later. Also of breast cancer. Or playing pretend games at Benjie’s big house with the watermark on the cement walls, a reminder of a typhoon that caused the river to swell and flood their first floor.

I want to remember her now, Elsa. Soft voice, soft curls, soft… her laughter like short hesitant bursts of sunlight through feathery clouds. I visited her once as an adult and she seemed embarrassed, not as excited as I was to see her it seemed, more concerned about her messy room, messy hair. She had the same smiling eyes, but we were not the same. There was an air of sadness and defeat about her. As if she had given up already. There was no time to talk but I wish I had made time.

Then, her sister, Vic, so beautiful, so handsome, with her killer lashes and James Dean stare. Passing away 10 years later from the same malady. One out of eight women will develop invasive breast cancer, statistics say. Early detection is key to survival. But back home, not many have health insurance, and one goes to the doctor only when one feels sick. By then, it may be too late.

As I write this blog my fingers are tingling, my feet swelling, and when I close my eyes the pain is almost palpable. Ah, to be 50 and somewhat beautiful, yet having tennis elbow when I don’t even play tennis, not even badminton. Sharp pains on my pelvic bone. My knees creaking like bamboo floors with my every step down the stairs. Calcification in my breasts dotting my biannual mammograms. It is unfair to be wiser yet grow older, unable to apply lessons learned from a twisted ankle or a skinned knee. Tried trampoline for the first time in how many years at 53 and spent the next six weeks limping from a sprained ankle. Some peers scolded me, saying I should have known better; they who are in their 30s and 40s, still menstruating, ovaries still fertile, vulvas not needing lubricant.

Part 2

Who knew. Ten days after Butch died I find out I have cancer cells in my left breast. How cruel. I dread the thought of losing my breast. It is one of the very few times that I felt helpless, no control at all of the outcome, like when we kept trying to have a baby and I would have those false positives, and I kept cheering myself up silently as I gave myself a subcutaneous shot of lupron on my thigh every morning.

When I told my childhood best friend, Ge, that I was going to have a biopsy to follow up an abnormal mammogram, she said, “You can’t get cancer. Only rich people get that.”  We laughed, because back home, that’s the truth. I wondered if Vic and Elsa would be alive today if they had more money.

The doctor said I have DCIS — ductal carcinoma in situ. Cancer cells in place. Not moving, not roaming about infecting other cells, staying in one place like a “good wife”. This is supposed to be a blessing, a cause for a close friend to text “yahoo!!!” after I shared my non-benign biopsy result. Since when have cancer cells become good? Is it like good cholesterol? Not harming or causing damage? Just hanging out politely, lurking on the sidelines, not trying to clog arteries? Fish and olive oil versus red meat and barbecue grease? Is it like that?

I must admit, having cancer seemed a bit cinematic. Ali McGraw had leukemia in Love Story and my sister swooned no end as if romance meant “til cancer do us part.” Cancer was the kind of disease you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy because that would be too kind. You see, Hollywood would make you believe that cancer is glamorous and only good-looking people made up to look sick can have it.  But I should know better. In fact the only thing good thing about getting news that you have cancer cells residing in your body is if you have health insurance to get the best treatment!

How am I to have a good sleep when I will see an oncologist tomorrow who will tell me the best treatment for this?

(To be continued)

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Fostering

When a child comes to you, you are mistaken to think you have a choice. He has chosen you, the way kitty cats rub their noses against your face while you lay asleep to leave a scent that says, “you are mine.” The way your heart sinks at the sight of a beloved, or swoons over scents that remind you of holidays past: pine, roasted poultry, sugar baking in the oven, gunpowder, crispy paper bills.

You are arrogant, even cruel, to think, “Yes, this one, and not that, pretty please with icing on top.”

No, this is not so. A child comes and that is that. Your lives are linked, from the moment he grabs your finger, and walks with you with tentative steps to make known his presence… Indelibly mark floors and ceilings with his being there, forever altering time and space, and dinner plans.

You do not watch and wait to “see if this works.” Like some Christmas present you received and immediately deemed “for regifting.” He does not come with a gift receipt. No certificate of authenticity, or two-year warranty… just a yellow carbon copy of a transfer form, a Husky garbage bag of clothes and toiletries, a favorite action toy, shoes that are two sizes bigger, and yes, possibilities, and confusion, and night terrors.

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Faculty Development

(Wrote this little poem in honor of faculty development week. Yeah right. Enjoy ;-)!!!!)

And when one faculty is developed,

What happens to the rest?

Do they whither and crack like dry hay

Turn into tumbleweeds

Quietly roll in the wind, cross paths with

Ghosts of cowboys killed in shoot outs

Or accidentally hit in merrymaking

When random folk shoot their guns

In the air, as if bullets don’t fall,

fast and fatally upon reveling heads?

Do they turn sour like pansit,

Left too long out on the buffet table

Then taken to work the next day

Noodles mushy and stinky with

Yesterday’s unfulfilled wish?

Or do they take off?

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The village, not the state

It takes a village to raise a child, or so the cliche goes. And I believe this saying with all my heart, using it unsparingly to remind teachers, principals, and camp counselors that kicking a child out for misbehaving is not in the child’s best interest. It has worked for the most part. But when that village also includes lawyers, social workers, and omniscient therapists, the village can get a tad annoying.

I do subscribe to Kahlil Gibran’s words when he states that: “Our children do not belong to us. They are life’s longing for itself.” But if I have to fill out another consent form so we can take our kids to a vacation out of state, I am going to scream!!!

We have been parents to our children for the last 3-5 years of their lives. They are now 11 and 7, respectively. When we first signed up for the six-month foster parent training over five years ago, we had been clear about our intentions: we want to adopt.

I found a DCFS-approved agency online that was not too far from where we lived, and we made the first step by calling and having the director come in to measure our house. “You can take in two kids!” Two? Wow. We were only thinking of one, preferably an infant to a five-year-old.

The First

We fell in love with him instantly, this child who was turning six the week he was brought to us. There were challenges then, as there continue to be now. Initially, he was “reunited” with his biological family within a year of being with us. My husband and I were devastated.  One moment, we had a son and the next, he was gone! Just as we were starting to understand each other’s cues and quirks, when to laugh at the other’s jokes, when to show affection, or when to step back and give the other space.  He was a stubborn little boy who would not take no for an answer, but in time he softened and relented, realizing that yes, we can be trusted to know what is best for him. There were tears in his eyes when his caseworker took him and the four boxes of clothes and toys he had accumulated in a year. We hugged him ever so tightly and told him that we will always be here for him and that we will always love him.

Within five months, he was back in the system, but by then, we had already taken in a beautiful and precocious three-year-old girl. Unfortunately, while we wanted him back, we only had two bedrooms, and DCFS rules that two kids of different genders cannot stay in one room together.

Almost a year later, the agency told us that he needed a permanent home. Well, hasn’t he always? Doesn’t every child? We did not waste time. We bought a bunk bed, put it in the sun-room, curtained the area off, and voila! an extra room. We have since moved to a place with three bedrooms and he has been with us for the last 2 1/2 years non-stop.

From the beginning, the agency reassured us of the possibility of adopting right away, raising our hopes up with every administrative case review, every change of goal discussion, and every permanency hearing. But it has been five years of being told that, “it will just be six months” or “the most would be a year from now.” Meanwhile, our children cannot have an MRI, go to a water park across state lines, or get their ears pierced without getting a consent form signed by DCFS. The kids have become well-acquainted with the terminology: “Mommy, I scraped my knee; shouldn’t we fill out an incident report?” or “Oh, my other mom did that, you know, my biological mom,” “When is the next court hearing?” or “Why did my case worker come to my classroom!!! It was embarrassing!”

I have also gotten tired of being addressed to as Mrs “(my son’s last name)” or Mrs “(my daughter’s last name)” by teachers and administrators at their school or by their friends.  And while I never did try to correct them, it is a heart-breaking reminder that, legally, I am only my children’s caregiver.

We understand that the system is not perfect. Our own caseworker handles over 30 children, placing them in homes, visiting and checking on them at least once a month. Agencies are encouraged to push for reunification with original family, arranging visits with biological parents who may still be struggling with heavy drug or alcohol use and are still unable to care for themselves, let alone their children. At times, these visits could prove traumatic to a child, whose emotions are caught between loyalty and the desire to live a less stressful life, or between love for their biological parents and their own longing to be loved and cared for in a more consistent way.

Many have warned us of getting entangled in this imperfect system. “Why not just adopt a poor child from the Philippines?” my relatives had suggested, when we said we are thinking of fostering. But having worked with Chicago’s inner city youth and children, my husband and I understand that the third world exists within the first world, and that all children, no matter what race or economic background, deserve to live in a happy home.  Lilla Watson, an indigenous woman artist from Australia, referring to social workers and other do-gooders at a conference, stated:  “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Well, we have chosen to take this route because we know that our liberation is bound up with our children’s.

In the end, all we want is to be seen and treated as a real family, living in a village of our own that includes close friends and family and our own trusted health workers and caregivers. A family that we know in our hearts we are.

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Kuto!!!!

I had a feeling he had them when I saw his hair — so dry and mangy, like he hadn’t washed it in days.  We had told him to shampoo his hair, then so beautiful and wavy, like Luis’s was when he was his age. He said he did.

“I did,” he would automatically retort to every hygiene-related query or command–without blinking, without thinking– like it was the most natural thing in the world for him to do and how dare we question! One day, after I begrudgingly took the forgotten lunch and camp shirt to the park (lest he be disallowed to go on a field trip), I saw him scratch.

Sitting forlornly on the steps to the field house, it wasn’t just the intense movement of his fingers through his hair; it was also his face — unsmiling, almost contorted, closing eyes every now and then to contain the inconsolable itch. I remember that look from grade school– my cousin’s, my best friends’, my own reflection in the mirror, the girl sitting in front of me in class. Long-haired, bespectacled, with the calm countenance of a reincarnated guru when not scratching her hair,  Marivic was also the smartest girl in the class. I often wondered what made her smarter than me — writing the best essays, getting the highest scores in Math and Science. But more than that, I was mesmerized. Or more like distracted, I guess. During Math, I would catch myself watching her kuto jump from one straight hair strand to another,  fat and jet-black against her stringy, dark brown hair.  I consoled myself with the thought that, although she was the class valedictorian, the only living creatures that stuck close to her were her lice. What a mean thought, now that I recall!

Now, my own son had made a cozy home for them in his gorgeous golden brown mane, and the house was in a panic mode — his aunt, his uncle, my husband at work, on his phone texting urgently: “vacuum his room!” “put his head in a plastic bag!” “it’s his own damn fault!” “I keep telling him to…”

And my son, watching youtube videos of people playing Minecraft on the computer, sat immobile like the sun, while we hovered and revolved. “Look at him, sitting so unfazed,” my sister-in-law observed. She had come to pick up her girls, who were hanging out with my seven-year-old daughter in the backyard. Now, she too was concerned, asking me to please check her girls’ hair as she had never seen these blood-sucking little bastards in her life before. I have suddenly become the expert, having come from a third world tropical country, where mothers warned their daughters about being flown to the highest coconut tree if we didn’t let them comb our infested hair with the fine, sharp-toothed torture device called the “suyod”.

I checked the girls’, including my daughter’s, hair. Clear. No sign of those tiny silver spheres known as “nits” clinging to healthy hair strands. Only my son’s hair was infested, and possibly mine since I had shared his comb once. Really? The joys and travails of motherhood, indeed.

“Didn’t I tell you to keep your hair clean?” He had not cut it since fifth grade started, and now, in the last few weeks of summer break, it had grown halfway down his nape and he was proud of it. He shrugged. On days when he actually shampooed and conditioned, his locks shone in the light, and all those who saw were drawn. Waitresses gave extra fries, little girls whispered and giggled in passing.

“Girls used to stop me in the street wanting to touch my long hair,” my husband reminisced once, looking at our son’s hair with just a tad longing in his eyes. While this child did not come from us, he is undoubtedly of us. As in, one of us. One who goes against the grain, not caring much about what people might say or think, a rebel, and a survivor. (I have shaved my head more than once, and both me and my husband are intensely inked.) He is “rough around the edges,” as people would say, insists on calling us by our first names, instead of Mom and Dad, which I don’t mind much. My son once got in trouble for having a yelling match with a fundamentalist Christian boy in his class, arguing against the existence of an omnipotent god. “Well, he did make pretty good arguments,” his fourth-grade teacher conceded at the principal’s office, where my husband and I had become constant visitors.

But this boy has also been to hell and back, moved around and shuffled within the foster system like an unwanted piece of lettuce on a child’s plate; good hygiene is the least of his concerns. Our goal as his forever family is to actually make him care more, make him feel more, make him realize that it is okay to grieve and mourn when one loses something, because this means that one has loved.

“Fine. Just cut it!” he uttered with seeming nonchalance. I fussed, cut and plastic-bagged his locks, and when my husband came home, he buzzed the rest with a new electric razor. After all was done and the little growth left was treated with RidX, I looked into my boy’s eyes, and I saw it. His pain. He had lost something. Again.  The way he had lost toys stolen at the shelter, the way he had lost friends made because he was moving to another school and the school-year wasn’t even over yet… the way he had lost his biological mother. “I want to kill myself!” he cried, as he fell in my arms.

That night, I went to his room and, as I had done in the past, told him a story about my childhood. This is how we bond. I learn about his story through sheafs of paper from social workers and doctors; he learns about mine through stories I tell before he goes to bed.

I told him about the time I was seven and how my mother, tired of the infestation in my hair, took me to a salon one day, and how the hairdressers fussed and touched my long black locks like they were something precious: “So thick and beautiful,” they remarked, “What do you want us to do?”

I told him how my mom, annoyed and frustrated, yelled: “She has kuto! Cut it all off!!!!” He smiled through his tears. I told him how I didn’t go out of the house for days, fearing the kids would make fun of me, and how I stayed quiet when my friends called out my name to play. It was summer then, just like it is summer now, and I missed days of enjoying the sun because I was being vain. “At least, you’re a boy; can you imagine a bald little girl?” He laughed. Then, I asked if he wanted some cookies and milk and, of course, he did.

“I love you,” he said, reaching for my hand when I tucked him under the sheets. “I love you, too,” I said, planting one in his chubby cheek. “It’s all going to grow back, you’ll see. And more beautiful than you can ever imagine.” I believe it, too.

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