Withstanding the tempests


During the wedding anniversary of one of my aunts, Divine Mercy Parish, Sikatuna, Quezon City. Feast of the Divine Mercy, 2015.

Recently, my Lolo Max comes to mind quite frequently. Interestingly, it’s not through specific memories of being with him, but through recalling his life advice. Most useful for me now is how he taught us to weather the figurative tempests in our lives: difficult memories and their accompanying emotions.

Once in a while, in between projects and busy schedules, memories come to mind which evoke a variety of emotions. Some give solace in times of stress, others stress in times of relative ease. Inevitably, there will be people, places, things, and other sensory perceptions that would produce emotions that are just too difficult to ignore.

I guess that this is the innate difficulty of someone having a keen sense of memory, something that was definitely useful back in college. But just as how this facilitates unwieldy emotions as much as pleasant ones, I have come to realize that managing memories and the emotions that accompany them require the ability to step back and look at the greater picture.

Perception of the greater picture, for me, is just like looking at the satellite picture of the Earth, with all kinds of clouds forming seemingly out of nowhere. Some clouds turn into storms, others into thinner clouds that bode well for outdoor activity. This perspective teaches me that emotions are just like these storms, they come out of nowhere, but also pass away.

Further supporting this realization is a personal experience of our family more than two decades ago, back when my parents were adjusting with the new life we had to adjust to in the province, after living the first eight years of my life in the city. My mother was having difficulty managing all of the adjustments–new language, new way of life, new office–and she sought the advice of my grandfather. My grandfather Lolo Max, the wordsmith that he was, wrote her about the “need to withstand the tempests,” and “being well-assured that everything shall be well after the storm.”

I quote him now with bare assurance of accuracy, as I was only able to read that letter when I was in third grade; it had been lost. But with how things went for the better and how negative events and emotions have come and gone, I now realize the wisdom to withstand the tempests, and being well-assured that all shall be well indeed.

The last instance I was able to share with him was the pain of rejection after not getting accepted for further training. I remembered him giving simple yet practical advice, effectively cutting through his senile-looking self. He first asked me what I was planning to do next. When I replied that I was going back to the academe, he simply told me, “galingan mo na lang sa ginagawa mo (do well in what you are doing),” and continued to challenge me to excel and reach the pinnacle of the career I have chosen.

This, from a man who despite his advanced age, endeavored to learn and show his innate strength, who even toyed with the idea to attend law school, and who in his youth took on a variety of jobs that showed his multi-disciplinary prowess. A native of Southern Leyte in the Visayas, he was a photographer, a painter, a writer, a poet, and a traditional healer. In his sunset years, to pass idle time, he would read from law books he had borrowed from my parents, and made effort to ask about current events. On the day of his death, I even felt a strong force pulling my legs out of bed, which happened at about the same time he had lost consciousness. I now choose to believe that that was his way of telling me that he would always be with me, and that I should always stay strong.

To stay strong and keep trying, knowing that difficulties come and go, memories and emotions are transient, and everything shall be well: that was his advice. I have since chosen new paths to follow and places to leave behind, some amicably and unfortunately some not, while nevertheless knowing that all shall be well.

It’s been almost a year since Lolo Max died, and as I navigate the world with all its drudgery, tears and joys, his advice continues to inspire.

Thank you Lolo. I miss you.


Assisting at Anointing

(originally published 26 Nov 2009)

I just assisted at anointing one of my patients, who presented at the emergency department with a very poor prognosis. Unresponsive to all of the stimuli I tried to rouse her from sleep, and her pupils not responsive to light, she looked as if death were waiting around the corner.

Since I started rotating in the hospital as a clinical clerk, in other words a junior doctor, the phenomenon of death has never failed to perplex me. It seems so fast as it comes, snatching life out of those whom it calls to. I once had another patient who, after being suctioned of his phlegm through his breathing tube, suddenly became agitated and died. Death is as scary as it is abrupt, all that has been with the person is now over. The heart stops, the eyes cease to respond to light, the breathing stops, and the blood pressure goes down to 0/0.

It is not a comfortable feeling to have one of your own patients die.

I have often been exposed to death as though it were something to be expected, something after which, life could go on for the rest of us in the hospital. Back to work. No debriefings. No processing sessions. Just getting back to work. One still has other patients to work on. One still needs to study. One still needs to go on, move on.

I have not gotten used to it though. There is still a part of me that wants to grieve.

My friend, a religious novice, once asked me how we medical professionals manage to cope with witnessing death. I told him there is no single way.

I imagine myself suffering with the family, and the dying patient as my own flesh and blood. This brings tears to my eyes, in part, because this person has been loved and cared for by his family and loved ones.

I cry. I slowly realize that all that this world has to offer has its end. And I slowly get reminded to work for riches that will at least earn me a place in heaven. Or, to put it more altruistically, to work so that I can help other people earn their respective places in heaven too.

Witnessing death may have caused me sadness. But if I were to look at death as a path towards life eternal, I ought to feel that death is also an opportunity for those living to realize how we should make the best out of the life that has been given us.

Assisting at this morning’s anointing just made me realize this: God is still calling me to do greater things than this.