Time, lastingness, and gratitude

If you take an extended break from what you regularly do, you must know how hard it is to get back into the groove, particularly of the creative act. False starts besiege you. What used to take only a couple of hours to write now consumes a whole day. Assailed by doubts about your “lastingness,” as Nicholas Delbanco calls the challenge of creativity in old age, you seek consolation in past productivity, wondering if that is not legacy enough.

For the first time in the 20 years that I’ve been writing this column, I took a month-long break in early December to join my wife Karina on a trip to the United States to welcome the birth of our fourth grandchild. Born on Dec. 9, the baby boy named Alonso is our daughter Nadya’s and her husband Paul Nievera’s first child.

On previous trips abroad, I would conscientiously send my columns from wherever I was in the world, waking up at the oddest hours to meet self-imposed deadlines. The column was a compass that kept me oriented to what was happening at home. But this time around, having decided I owed myself a real vacation, I asked to be allowed to go on leave for an entire month.

The experience has been unsettling in many unexpected ways, testifying to the truism that we are indeed creatures of habit.

I would still wake up at the oddest hours, thirsting for coffee, my fingers aching to open a laptop. Resisting the physical need to write and the sense of guilt that drives it, I would make myself a cup of coffee and open a book instead. But soon my mind would be redirected to events unfolding at home.

To assuage the guilt arising from willful idleness, I would make mental notes of what I might be writing about in future columns. To take my mind off writing, I did what I most loved to do when I am in the United States: motorcycling.  My brother Goli had carefully planned a leisurely three-day tour of the historic mission churches that dot the vast California countryside. But gripped by an inexplicable anxiety that I could not shake off, I asked that we settle for short daytime rides. We rode only once, and that was it.

I think that what seized me in an uncanny way was an intimation of mortality. I felt that my reflexes were not as sharp as before. In welcoming my newborn grandson into the world, I also sensed that my own generation was due for culling. This thought flooded me with sadness. Seventy years separate us from one another. There is no past we can share, and this child’s future is yet to begin. The fleeting present is all we have.

But the cause of the vague uneasiness that accompanied me from the moment I landed in Los Angeles wasn’t so much the state of my health as that of my wife’s. She had two angioplasty procedures in 2015 and this was her first long trip after her health crisis last year. Lugging a big box of assorted maintenance medications, she arrived in the United States one week earlier than I, hoping to have more time with our daughter as she navigates the critical first three weeks of caring for a newborn infant. Four days after her arrival, however, Karina landed in the emergency room of Kaiser Hospital in West LA for what seemed like an ordinary case of diarrhea. Dehydrated, she was put on IV fluids and was promptly sent home the day after.

In the meantime, the little boy, snug inside his mother’s womb, was taking his sweet time. Due on the first of December, he showed no sign of keeping the appointed date. Like things in nature, he seemed mindful only of his own time. Despite his mother’s heroic effort to deliver him naturally, it took a Caesarean section to bring Alonso out into the world.

But what a magical moment a birth is!

Suddenly, there is this other human being in our midst, his gentle crying proclaiming the urgency of his appetite. At once, he is brought skin-to-skin to his mother’s breast, rapidly gaining in color as he drew warmth from this life-giving contact.

Coming back to their apartment two days after the delivery, we braced ourselves for a wakeful first night at home with the baby. But just before midnight, it wasn’t the baby’s crying that woke me up but Karina’s soft moaning. She was clutching at her chest and knowing her heart problem, I feared that she was having an attack. I asked my son-in-law Paul to drive us to the Kaiser Medical Center, 12 minutes away. The ERs in US hospitals are exactly what we see on TV: They are beehives of life-saving activity. Within 10 minutes, the doctors ruled out a heart attack. A substantial drop in Karina’s hemoglobin level was what had caused the chest pain. She had been bleeding internally without her knowing it.

An endoscopic procedure traced the bleeding to an ulcerated polyp in the duodenum. The doctors had planned to remove the polyp, but fearing complications, they opted to clip the ulcer in the meantime. This gave us a window in which to take the return trip to Manila just before Christmas. I intend to write about this amazing encounter with the American medical system in another column. Suffice it to say that our gratitude to Kaiser and its extraordinary staff, most of whom are ethnic Filipinos, is boundless.

Contemplating my wife’s frail condition in the same hospital where our grandson was born a few days before, I found comfort in William Wordsworth’s timeless ode, portions of which I had memorized: “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: / The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, / Hath had elsewhere its setting, / And cometh from afar: / Not in entire forgetfulness, / And not in utter nakedness, / But trailing clouds of glory do we come/ From God, who is our home: / Heaven lies about us in our infancy!”

Happy New Year to one and all!

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