Tag Archives: caregiver expat

The Gift on My Mom’s First Birthday Since Death

 

Photo credit: "Single" by Linsday

Photo credit: “Single” by Lindsay, used with Creative Commons License

On January 27, 2015, my family lived through the first birthday of my mother after her death.  On that one day, I cried and I laughed.  I bummed around and I got dressed up.  I slowed down enough to get nostalgic and I rushed in between hectic events.  On that day, I learned that I could experience “all of the above” while still grieving.  I also received an unexpected gift.

We celebrated my mother’s birthday in honor of her.  When she was alive and especially when she was able bodied, she used to celebrate the birthdays of loved ones who were far away and who had passed away.  For her, being absent was not an obstacle to celebrating special occasions.  Of course, celebrating special occasions with certain loved ones missing is not the best.  Perhaps my mother learned this as a wife of a career diplomat moving globally as an alternative to the feeling of missing out on everything as an expat.  We celebrated my mom’s birthday in her absence because she did that for so many of us through the years and because we miss her.


I my mind, I needed to stay at home and absorb my mom’s absence on a day that was probably going to be one of the days of the year I would grieve most intensely.


 This year, my mother’s birthday was the same day as a close friend’s wedding.  At first I was hesitant about going.  I was not sure I would be in the right frame of mind or be emotionally energetic enough to attend a wedding.  I thought to myself, “Of all the days in the year, it had to be on her birthday??… How am I supposed to make that decision?”  In my mind, I needed to stay at home and absorb my mom’s absence on a day that was probably going to be one of the days of the year I would grieve most intensely.

However, I surprised myself.  About two weeks before the wedding, I decided to offer my close friend and his fiance a formal wedding portrait package as my wedding gift.  Whatever plans they had for a formal wedding shoot had not yet been solidified so the wedding shoot became useful for the couple.  The desire came naturally and I began to look forward to doing this for my friends on their special day.

Doing the wedding photo shoot was a giant step for me.  The last formal photo shoot I did was at the end of February, 2014, about two weeks before my mom passed away.  That photo shoot took me out of the house for some hours on the last day it turned out she was speaking with full consciousness.  It’s still too painful to count exactly how many hours I was away from her side… it’s a useless and pointless kind of painful.  


I carried around guilt for over ten months because of the timing of when I left the house to do that last photo shoot.


When I came back home that evening, something seemed different about my mom, but I thought she was just tired.  By the next day, her speech and mind slowly began to show signs of deterioration.  I carried around guilt for over ten months because of the timing of when I left the house to do that last photo shoot. I had a hard time looking at the photos from that photography session for a long time.

At this exact time I am writing this sentence, I am realizing now that the wedding photo shoot was a gift from my mom to release me from the guilt I carried around for over ten months.  The timing of the wedding and the fact that my friends did not yet have any offers for a formal wedding photography session came into play for me to learn that I should not stop doing what I love doing.

The question I previously thought to myself is now my answer:  “Of all the days in the year, it had to be on her birthday.”

Because of the wedding, what started off as a day of nostalgia and a sense of homesickness for my mom, ended up being a very full day.  January 27th this year started off with me looking at photos and videos of her birthday from last year shortly after midnight.  When I woke up in the morning, I called one of my mom’s sisters to talk about my mom and the mini celebration my aunt was preparing for the day also.  

I cut fresh roses from our garden and arranged them in various vases on the area we reserved for my mom’s urn.  We set the framed photo of my mom, my dad’s favorite photo of her, the birthday balloon and small birthday cake I got later, in the same area.  I said my birthday wishes to my mom before I rushed out the door for the photo shoot.


My visually creative side was alive again and everything seemed natural to me.  My friends look beautiful in the photos and I am grateful I was there to capture the moment of the day they got married.


The photo shoot was wonderful.  My visually creative side was alive again and everything seemed natural to me.  My friends look beautiful in the photos and I am grateful I was there to capture the moment of the day they got married.  We proceeded to the reception venue and I set up an area for photo sessions for the guests before rushing back home.  My dad, my son and I would be home and awake at the same time only in that window before the wedding reception. 

When I got home, we celebrated my mom’s birthday and took photos together of the occasion before I quickly dressed up for the wedding reception.  I rushed back to the reception wearing an outfit that resembled my mom’s style, including a top she gave me a long time ago.  I used one of her purses that matched my outfit.  I met up with my date at the reception, someone I laugh a lot with, and we just enjoyed the evening. I took photos, I ate, I drank and I was merry.  Within the few hours of the reception, we all created memories that will now always be part of the day my friends got married.


I know my mom would have loved to smell the roses, have some cake, hold the birthday balloon in her hand in her childlike zest for life, and hear all the stories about the rest of the hectic day…(it) makes me cry, but I also smile because she gave me a gift on her birthday.


 At the end of the day, I came home to a quiet house.  But it was also the quiet you get after a full day lived well.  I know my mom would have loved to smell the roses, have some cake, hold the birthday balloon in her hand in her childlike zest for life, and hear all the stories about the rest of the hectic day.  To imagine how it would be to still have her here with us on her birthday makes me cry, but I also smile because she gave me a gift on her birthday.  

On my mom’s first birthday since her death, my mom gave me this message:  “Live days worth telling stories about.”

"Mama's Gift on Her First Birthday Since Death"

On January 27, 2015, I learned I must continue to be present in this life, unpause what I love doing and continue to live out my days knowing it’s ok to miss my mom deeply, but also making sure I don’t miss out on life.

 

Thank you, Mama, for your gift to me on your first birthday since you left us.

We love you, Evangeline Vitug Dumapias, January 27, 1945 – March 15, 2014.

 

Expat Youth In Aging and Disability: Why It’s Not Just about the Elderly

"Hold On To Your Children" Photo Credit - Spiesteleviv Used with Creative Commons license

“Hold On To Your Children” Photo Credit – Spiesteleviv Used with Creative Commons license

We see families at the airports, at times perhaps with more than two generations represented, briskly walking through the terminals in long single file or as a wide marching band at a parade with various carry-on luggage as musical instruments.

While middle aged adults that pass through the airport corridors seem to begin to resemble one another in attire, the younger passengers tend to show more individuality:

…the teen girl with a partly shaved head with purple tips wearing a Ramones t-shirt, the tween boy with one eye covered by his long hair dressed in black or grey clothes, the cosmopolitan little lady wearing her kid sized tweed travel jacket with suede elbow patches, the toddler with a bowl haircut in the stroller calmly snacking on soft cookies while the mom is dashing for the connecting flight, and the baby in the infant carrier kicking the air and giggling at strangers behind his father who enlarge their eyes as part of their big open-mouthed, head nodding smile.

If we could see a floating bubble attached to each family member narrating a summary of each person’s story or reason for the trip, we’d probably be amazed by the depth of what we don’t know about strangers.  Out of these stories are trips adults make to tend to a family member experiencing a sudden health crisis, and their children, whether they travel with their parent(s), stay behind or end up following after, are affected.

Photo Credits: Yogendra Joshi  Used with Creative Commons license

“Granny… I Am Coming!” Photo Credits: Yogendra Joshi, used with Creative Commons license

My son and I lived one of these stories.  I received the call that my mother had a stroke the night after my son attended his first day at kindergarten.  We were in Los Angeles, California.  My parents were in Manama, Bahrain.  I was preparing to start my second year for my Masters in Social Welfare at UCLA.  I had just met my supervisors for my second year internship placement.  I was about to serve as one of two co-presidents who tied in elections for the Social Welfare Asian Caucus that upcoming year.  That would have been my final year for a graduate program that accepted only 20% of its applicants.  My son had to take leave of absence after just one day in kindergarten and I had to file for leave of absence before my second year orientation even started.

Since that phone call, our lives as a collective family as well as each of our lives individually, were never to be the same or “normal” again.

I had no idea that the photos I took of my son’s first day of kindergarten were not going to be the first in a series of photos representing the traditional path of education most children living in one country take.  I had no idea it would take me several years to finish my masters degree for a program that usually lasts for two years.

When my son and I left to go to Manama, I only knew a portion of what I was about to find out as soon as I landed.  It turned out that what I thought was a mild stroke for a 57-year-old woman was actually a severe stroke, involving the cerebellum and a coma. My mother’s doctors did not hold back from preparing my dad for funeral arrangements.

It was a long journey itself to watch my mother in her coma.  People did not dare to raise our hopes about her situation and I could see in some of the eyes of my parents’ friends at the hospital that they themselves were scared to hope.   Most of my mother’s siblings were there visiting, but it is a world of a difference when a health crisis like this happens continents away from the larger family.  My father described the days before my mother’s siblings, my son and I arrived in Bahrain as the loneliest and longest days in his life.

My family went through a rough, dark, faith-testing journey while visiting my mother daily in her comatose state.  However, after three weeks, she came out of that coma that was supposed to take her mental alertness, memory, speech, and overall capacity to interact with us again if she even survived.  Never in a million years did I have a clue I could ever find strength though an experience like that, but I found it through prayer.

When she woke up, our small family, consisting of my father, my son and myself, were about to live the rest of our lives with a family member who would be disabled without the ability to walk, sit on her own, go to the bathroom by herself and  swallow food and liquid completely.  Yet my mother was so filled with life and a desire to be around us that she mustered up enough strength, faith and passion that she survived that stroke for almost 12 years.   It may sound like torture to some of my readers, but it is a gift when the survivor is your  loved one.  It is a gift when you see your loved one’s eagerness to keep waking up to see another morning with and say another “good night” to her husband, only daughter and only grandson, and enjoy everything that can happen in between.

This drastic life change came much earlier than I had anticipated.  I had imagined that if I were to experience a sudden onset of disabling illness of one of my parents, that my son would perhaps be in high school or college.  My son was four years old,  about to turn five.

Photo Credit: Rajesh Pamnani, Used with Creative Commons LicenseUp to that point, what my son knew about his grandmother after the time she stayed with us when he was born and during the few months after, were our visits to the Middle East, my parents’ visits with us in the US, letters with photos, and gift packages filled with books, snacks, clothes and toys.  After this point, the one he used to know as his active grandmother excited and delighted to meet him at airports and who threw big celebrations for his birthdays became someone  who spent the majority of her days lying down in a hospital bed if not in a wheelchair.

One of the areas a middle aged or  elderly person’s health crisis can affect grandchildren is their education.  In our situation, my son’s education involved various twists and turns because of the series of relocations necessary to accommodate for my mother’s caregiving needs as well as the transitory nature of my father’s career.  The temporary leaves of absence we had in our perspective schools became permanent withdrawals.

By the time my son turned five, when it became clear that we were going to live in Bahrain for some time, he started attending the Philippine School in Manama.  He was nicknamed “Little Ambassador” after my father, who helped secure a much larger property for the campus together with the Prime Minister of Bahrain.  By the time my son turned six in the Midwest, where my mother temporarily stayed with a sister while my father’s assignment was in transition, I was homeschooling my son.  The timing of my parents’ relocation and the availability of caregiving resources did not align with school semesters.  After living in Bahrain, my son and I lived back and forth between the Midwest and California until my father’s next assignment to Mexico.

The rest of my son’s education involved a quilt of educational settings that involved difficult decisions, paying for private school, attending a school on a scholarship that taught three foreign languages, trial and error, more homeschooling, and adjusting to the transitions between the US public school system divisions of elementary, junior high and high school.  Looking back as a parent, I may have been able to make different decisions and stick to one, but each school transfer decision was made for a good reason. A few of the experiences could only be discovered with trial and error and some decisions had to be made to fit our family’s unique needs and circumstances.

Not only was my son’s education affected, but my mother’s stroke also affected his own personal growth.  The children of caregiving parents can also be affected when their parents’ caregiving role plays a large part of their daily environment.  This may apply to a daily environment of one parent’s absence.

When my father retired,  I started supporting  my parents due to the various needs that come with physical disability and post-stroke health management.  This impacted my son’s life dramatically.  My son left a school that he grew to love so that we all could move to a city where it was economically feasible for me to support everyone.  We all moved in together so it would be practical for me to help with my mother’s caregiving as a single parent without someone to tag team with and to make sure my father, as my mom’s main caregiver, also stays healthy.

 

http://www.4to40.com/greetings/cards.asp?festivals=Love_You_Grandma-Grandparents_Day-442

Image of the Filipino “Mano,” a gesture of respect to the elderly. (Artist: Jasmin O.)

My son grew up in an environment where my mother’s caregiving needs were always a backdrop to his childhood and adolescence. However, it also deepened his understanding about the capacity of supportive relationships, humanity, the value of life and time with loved ones.  He grew up knowing medical terms and concepts, understanding it can be an everyday routine for one person to depend entirely on others to survive and that it’s actually okay, not being able to go on family outings with the whole family, and not being able to expect a rigid schedule for things that require flexibility.   My son’s childhood and adolescence involved sacrifice and nothing looked picture perfect because his grandmother was physically disabled, but he learned to go to where a person is and be okay with it.

At a young age, my son learned to deepen his love language, or how to express love to and receive love from a person who is limited by physical disability.  He learned little things, like conversation at home with grandmother, is enough to build a relationship on and enough to continue valuing that bond.  He didn’t require kiddie rides, trips to theme parks, movies at the cinema or lunches at a favorite restaurant to maintain that bond.   My mother would of course have loved to continue doing all those things with him through the rest of his childhood, but she was content with letting him enjoy his outings and hearing stories about them when he got home.  I am so proud of my son for this.  I don’t think he even realizes this is something not everyone learns in youth, but my son demonstrated it through the remainder of his grandmother’s life.

Towards the end before my mother passed away, my son began to share some of the caregiving tasks.  When my father and I needed a break, he would feed her her nutritional formula through the feeding tube in her stomach.  About sixteen years prior, my mother used to feed him infant food.  My mother lived to see things come full circle and witness many milestones in her grandson’s life.  My son matured to watch his grandmother look into his eyes without him having to stand on a footstool to see above the bed rails of her hospital bed.  My son continues to cherish her as someone who is irreplaceable.  Both lives, along with my son’s relationship with his grandfather, forever imprinted by love language that evolves through drastic life changes.

The next time you see the families at the airports, stop and take time to consider the journey they may be on.   The next time you get to know a caregiver with children, consider what their children are going through and the unique perspectives they have to offer.  They may teach you something.

“Children Looking at Taxiing Airplane” Photo Credit – Thaths, used with Creative Commons license ***Special thoughts and prayers for all the families affected by the lives lost on the recent Malaysia airlines flights of 2014. With Kuala Lumpur as my childhood home, I will always remember you, Malaysia and its expat/ foreigner community. – Myra Dumapias***