Mommy, I See Dashornees!

31 03 2011

Last summer, after a rather late night with much deserved mojitos, my son Sebastian pushed and prodded me to wake up. It was 5:00 AM—on a Sunday. For many parents, the hour wasn’t so ungodly. However, I had just entered the sweet zone, when the effects of minted rum invited me to a deeper slumber. I was at the precipice, ready to succumb to dreams with a fresh coat of vivid paint, when my son jerked me back from the edge. He was tugging on a fistful of my hair.

Sebastian must have mustered whatever might he had during those pre-dawn hours to then yank my pillow from underneath me. Although my head plopped onto the mattress, I refused to budge. The idea was to ignore him and force him back to sleep. Undeterred, he tried to roll me off the bed by wedging himself against his dad and using his legs to push against me. But Archimedes’ principle did not work, and I remained unmoved. Next he pulled on the sleeves of my nightshirt so that the collar was forced against the side of my throat. He groaned, from effort and frustration. Maybe if I snored, he’d go away, I thought. But he sat by my side, silent and plotting.

A few minutes of peace passed. Then, Sebastian pinched my cheeks. Stifling yelps as his claws dug into my skin, I flung my left arm across my eyes to avoid his crab-like torture. To Sebastian, I was still asleep, but my mind was suddenly alert. And I automatically began the day—just as millions of moms do—by making a to-do list. First item: Trim Sebastian’s nails.

“Mommy, mommy! MOMMY! Open eyes!” My little boy’s voice echoed in the dark bedroom.

I lowered my arm, and replied with a guttural, “Arrrrrrgh?”

“Mommy, I said wake up.” He shook me some more. “Please. I say, please.”

This better be good, I thought. Before I could voluntary raise my own eyelids, Sebastian was already prying them apart; a fingernail pierced a tear duct.

“Hello, Mommy.” The lashes of one eye tickling mine.

My vision was still pretty blurry, but I could see his face, illuminated by the Mickey Mouse night light. Uh oh, I thought. Sebastian had crazy eyes. Focused. Determined. Absolute. He was on a mission—one he had hatched before midnight.

In the gentlest of tones, hoping to soften his exploding excitement, I whispered, “Shhh, Sebastian, Dad is still asleep.”

He looked over to the other side of his bed, shrugged and jumped back around to face me. A small knee dug into my hip. He bent forward and inched toward my ear. Thinking he was whispering, he instead yelled, “Mommy, I want to see dashornees. Ok?”
Hmmmm, dashornees? Was it Albanian, the language of my parents-in-law? It certainly wasn’t Tagalog or Bisaya, the two dialects my side of the family speaks. Dashornee? It sounded like dashuri, or love. Maybe he wanted to see Anna, one of his teachers, at daycare. But he would have just simply uttered her name with glee.

“We see dashornees, please?”

I went through my mental bilingual dictionary—toddler utterances and their equivalent translation into English—and could not discern its meaning. My parents-in-law were often easier to comprehend than my rambling toddler. Dashornees? I squinted and focused on my son’s nodding head and grin. I couldn’t let on that I had no clue what he was talking about.

So I grunted.

It was neither affirmation nor denial of his request. It was just a grunt—one that suddenly elicited a boisterous guffaw.

“Mommy, you funny. You sound like dashornees.”

Ok, I thought, a clue!

So, a dashornee has a sound. Was it like the deep timber of a tuba or ship’s hornblower? Could it create light and lilting tunes like a piccolo? Did he want to watch a concert? Gabba Gabba—the puppets from TV—were coming into town after all.

“I like dashornees, too, Sebi. I like their songs.”

Sebastian sobered quickly. “No, mommy, they not sing. They go like this.” Sebastian raised his claws, bared his fangs and growled. Then, he chomped the imaginary prey around him.

I slapped my forehead. The answer was obvious. Playing it cool, I replied, “Of course, dinosaurs don’t make music. I thought you wanted to see Barney, the purple dinosaur.”

“No, not Barney. The big dashornees!”

“You want to see dinosaurs today?”

He nodded and then jumped on the bed, oblivious to his grumbling dad, and cheered, “I see dashornees! I see dashornees!”

Sebastian and the Mighty T-Rex
Verbal agreements at dawn may not have been the most prudently made. I never realized the way the speedy negotiations had unfolded, and during which I assented to take him to the museum. He and I at least decided together that we would not head there before sunrise but would wait until after breakfast.

“Mommy, the sun still sleeping. We go see dashornees later.”

I ruffled his hair, and after a couple of kisses and cuddles, my 28-month old quickly fell back asleep, leaving me wide awake and rueful. This was going to be a long day, with a dangerous combination of willful toddler and a group of 150 million year old skeletons of giant monsters that were far from the squishy puppets and blue dogs with silly owners that he was used to watching. Maybe he would wake up and would forget the whole need to see dashornees.

But of course, he never did. Five hours later, on the way towards Washington, DC, my little boy was chanting, “Dashornees! Dashornees! I see the Dashornees!” And my parents-in-law tried to correct him with, “Dee-nosaur! No, Sebastiani, dee-nosaur!” The exchange, which seemed interminable, lasted until we reached the steps leading up to the entrance of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History.

Upon entering the Great Hall, adults gravitated towards the giant replica of an elephant in the middle of the circular room. Kids, on the other hand, were looking feverishly around for the passageway that would bring them to the dinosaurs. Sebastian craned his neck to peer around the forest of museum visitors in search of his path to the prehistoric.

“Mommy,” Sebastian gripped my hand as he shooed his grandfather with the other. “I don’t want my stroller.”

I quickly calculated the potential outcomes of not keeping a toddler strapped in—like the vision of him using the vertebral column of the brachiosaurus as a ladder or walking off with trilobite fossils—but I decided to let him walk into the grandeur of dinosaur alley on foot. Together, we entered the dimly lit cavern, where a glass enclosure of fossils and a timeline that spanned back to the Triassic period partially obstructed our view.

Sebastian jumped up and down as we kept inching forward.

“Whee! Dashornees! I coming!”

As we rounded the corner, the Mighty T. Rex suddenly loomed over all those who dared enter. Sebastian halted and then jumped back. His eyes widened before tearing up. He fell back into the stroller his grandfather had been pushing. I don’t remember what came next except the outburst of unholy shrieks that rivaled any dinosaur’s roar.

“Nooooooo! Stop mommy! No I hate dashornees! Scary dashornees! Let’s go!”

Fat tears cascaded down reddened cheeks. I crouched down beside him, but he burrowed further into his stroller. I stroked his leg to calm him, but he kicked my hand away.

His grandparents—Nena and Gjysh—were the first to retreat back from the hall. I stood and slowly pulled the stroller back hoping Sebastian would change his mind and rediscover the excitement that caused him to wake me so early that morning. But our withdrawal was not fast enough for the little one, who wailed anew.

“Mommy, I no like dashornees. Go! Go! Go!”

We made it back to the elephant by the main entrance quickly. Sebastian’s breathing slowed. And as if nothing had happened, he blinked twice and then grinned.

“Are you ok?” I asked.

He nodded, then looked up. “Mommy, we go there!”

I followed the direction of his gaze. Up on the second floor, paper monarch butterflies hanging from the ceiling heralded the entrance to the museum’s newest exhibit. We parked the stroller outside the small-scale tropical ecosystem.. Compared to the feral and fearsome dinosaur, the butterfly exhibit was dreamy. Winged fairies seemed to float on tiny currents. Electric blue and vivid emerald green wings alit atop platters of fruits or on branches of plants. They grazed our skins and tickled our ears as they drifted by. Sebastian, unfettered, reclaimed his buoyancy as he joined the dance of the butterflies.

When we exited, my son grabbed my hand. “Mommy, let’s go.”


“No, to see dashornees.”


“I see dashornees please.”

I wanted to say no, but his eyes and the set of his chin showed his determination to conquer his fear. Maybe I was imagining it all, and I wanted him to not miss out on the wonder he had been so set on seeing that morning. Maybe I was rooting for him to find the courage to face his fear.

“Please Mommy,” he said, “I no scare anymore.”

“Ok.” We would see the dinosaurs but instead of ripping the band-aid off, we meandered slowly through the other exhibits—tamping down any building fears. But Sebastian would not look at the whales in the Great Seas section, nor the Bear in the Hall of Mammals. His chin—solid and purposeful—led the way, back down to the first floor and around the glass encased fossils and timeline, until he stood under the Mighty T-Rex.

He looked up at his former nemesis. “Hello, dashornee. I Sebastian. You my friend?”

And with that introduction, he managed his fear. We walked around the exhibit once without a wail or even a worry.

Later that evening, as I read the book, 10 Little Dinosaurs, aloud, he smiled at me.

“Did you like the dinosaurs today?” I asked my intrepid warrior.

“Yes, mommy, I scared. Then, I tried it,” he paused and gulped in some air, before exclaiming, “and I liked it!”

“I’m proud of you.”

“Me too. I tried it; I liked it,” he repeated his new mantra

Treetops and Triceratops
It has been eight months since the visit to see the dinosaurs. Since then, Sebastian cast aside the giant reptiles in favor of superheroes. However, this past Tuesday, on his third birthday, he let the superheroes sleep in. And at 9am, he and I woke up together sluggishly. It was our day off—from daycare and from work, respectively.

“What are we doing for your birthday, love?” I asked as I peppered his face with millions of birthday kisses.

“Let’s go see dinosaurs! Yay!” The era of pronouning dashornees had ended.  There was a certain sadness to the whole transition.

“Mommy, can I bring dinosaur book, please?”

“Why don’t we leave that here, and let’s read about them at the museum?”

“Yay, museum!” It was nice to see his enthusiasm had not also entered a new phase. “Daddy coming?”

“No, he’s at work.”

Sebastian put his finger to his lips, and thoughtfully replied, “Oh, to make money? To buy me milk and blueberries and birthday gifts?”


As we shrugged off his pajamas, he asked, “Mommy, why you not going to work?”

“Because, I’m spending your birthday with you!”

With his Spiderman underwear around his ankles, he hopped up and down the mattress and then hugged me, “Yay! I have mommy today! I so happy.”

Then he added, “It’s ok. I have money in my pocket. You need it.  It’s here.” He patted the pocket of his left leg, where he kept the $15 dollars he’s saved over the past year.

“Thank you sweetheart,” I answered, touched.

Once again, with my parents-in-law and a stroller in tow, we headed to Museum of Natural History. I wondered during the quiet ride into the city, whether Sebastian would have the same reaction he had last summer. I steeled myself as we entered the Great Hall once again.

Unlike eight months ago, Sebastian strode into the museum calmly. He looked around until his glance fell upon the replica of the elephant. He walked towards the interpretive panel to look at the pictures.

After a few minutes, he looked back at me and said, “Mommy, I’m ready for dinosaurs.”

The four of us entered the dinosaur exhibit and recognized the glass encased fossils and the timeline. Without hesitation, Sebastian walked forward looked up at the mighty T-Rex and then surveyed the entire room—from the archaeopteryx hanging from the ceiling to the stegosaurus on the far right. His eyebrows drew together. Oh no, I thought, here it comes.

Sebastian approached me. I stooped down, ready to seize him and make a hasty exit. Instead, he brought his arms up, and with a perplexed frown, asked, “Mommy, where’s the triceratops?

“What did you say?” I was unprepared not only for the question, but also for the fact that he even knew and could pronounce triceratops.

“The triceratops, Mommy. Where is it?”

Recovered, I stood quickly, and then pointed to the left wall.

“There it is Mommy! Yes, there’s the triceratops.” He ran to the display and clapped his hands. Then he zigzagged across the aisle to view each dinosaur’s bones, while oooh’ing and aaah’ing.

He would point to one display and shout, “Look, there, it’s a dinosaur monkey,” or “this is a dinosaur elephant.”

We went through the Hall of Dinosaurs twice. Our final stop was a diorama that depicted life hundreds of millions of years ago.

Sebastian climbed on my leg for a better view. He pressed his palms and nose against the glass. “Whoa, Mommy.”

“What is it, Sebi?”

He pointed to a scene, in which two reptiles battled each other. “There, a T-Rex is biting other dinosaur, killed it, and then the other one died.”

“Oh boy, that doesn’t sound very nice,” I remarked calmly, trying to disguise the surprise at his vast comprehension.

“Yea, yea,” he nodded and then continued, while pointing to a brontosaurus, “and that one eats trees. See it’s eating the top of trees. That’s a nice dinosaur.”

Score one for vegetarians everywhere, I kept to myself.

He slid down my leg and grabbed my arm. “C’mon, mommy. Let’s go Nena and Gjysh.”

“Where are we going now?” I wondered if we were going for another round of Cruise-the-Cretaceous.

“Nah,” he said. “Let’s see something else. The dinosaurs have to sleep now.”

With those words, we explored the rest of the museum. At the end of his birthday—after a trip to the National Air and Space Museum, a jaunt through the Mall’s lawn, a ride on a carousel, a play in the park with a new tricycle and his dad, and a once-a-year visit to Chuck E Cheese—Sebastian and I got ready for bed. It was close to midnight.

We picked up his dinosaur book to read together. Before we opened the first page, he kissed my arm.

“Were you scared of the dinosaurs today?” I asked my brave budding aracheologist.

“Nope. I three years old. I bigger now. I stronger now,” he growled out. “And I am a superhero.”


“Superheroes not scared of anything. Dinosaurs scared of me,” he explained.

I hugged my little guy tightly. “Happy birthday, my little superhero.”

“I love you, Mommy,” he replied and hugged me back.


Loaves and Fishes: Breaking Fast

10 11 2010

(This essay won the 2010 Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Writing Contest.  This year the theme for the contest: Breakfast)


In Surigao City, the first meal of the day is often at the mercy of the fisherman’s haul.  It has been a tradition since time immemorial.  However, for my great-aunt Sylvia, the first taste in her mouth is the blessed bread placed on her tongue during her daily morning communion.  She eschews the watered down wine and sits alone at a pew and prays.

Every day at 4:30 am, she opens her eyes and lies for several minutes on the bed.  Then, she stretches and blows out a sigh.  Her right hand brings the pendant of San Nicolas, the patron saint of the city, to her lips.

There is no light in the room.  The sun pushes the snooze button of its own alarm for another hour, and Mama Bebing—the name I affectionately call her—loathes the glare from the overhead bulb.  So she dresses herself in the dark and dons her widow’s weeds by memory.  Her stomach grumbles as she walks out of the house and into the streets that is slowly awakening.  The scent of baking pan de sal wafts into the streets; it tempts her hunger but she turns away and heads to the church only a few blocks away.  Mama Bebing breaks her fast with the Lord.

While my great-aunt is in church, my grandmother, Mama Ching, who lives in the same whitewashed home surrounded by fragrant trees—tambis, guava and dama de noche—and pastel colored bougainvillea bushes, shuffles downstairs to the kitchen to grab two woven baskets.  Lithe and willowy, she is a resolute warrior—especially in the kitchen.

She and cousin Lillia head to the tabo, the farmer’s market, where they haggle with vendors.  There, transactions are battles waged over stalls of produce brought in from the lush farms in the hills and plains outside the city.  Mama Ching’s weapons are the raising of a single, sharp, penciled eyebrow and the wave of a long, slim finger.  She used to work in Customs; she has dealt with more vitriolic language and aggressive opponents.  Wanting a fair price for a kilo of kangkong is an easy skirmish.

The fish market at the old pier is a different culture, however.  Behind the long tables, fishermen with hairs bleached by the sea and sun slosh in puddles of entrails, scales, and tentacles. Initially, they flirt with the two petite women.  After a few minutes, they start to plea with them to buy the seafood at market prices.  Then, they succumb to the insistent pressure of wanting a good deal.

Within the hour, Mama Ching and Lillia are armed with heaps of seafood, meats and vegetables.  In one basket are giant prawns, fish, purple mottled squid, and dayo dayo, or blue-black snails.  The other basket is laden with mustard greens, unripe papaya, purple eggplants and multicolored silis.  They also balance bags of buyad, fatty pork rump and whole native chickens with those containing saba bananas and freshly grated coconut.

When the bells peal at 6am, Mama Ching and Lillia head back to Amat Street, where our home is located, and Mama Bebing emerges from the church and walks into the light.  By that hour, the sky has transformed; the indigo and purple strata have been replaced by a wash of light blue.  Outside, vendors have readied their kiosks with seasonal fruits—peeled and sliced green mangos with rock salt, santol, and other spiny, sweet, and sour offerings.  The panaderias have opened.  Mama Bebing buys 3 paper bags filled with hot, crusty bread.

This is a tableau of life in Surigao City—a picture of many summer mornings I have spent there.

In the capital of the northernmost eponymous province of Mindanao, its people eat six times a day. Breakfast, however, is when the entire household gathers fuel, stamina and ideas to tackle the day.  When I used to spend summer vacations in the whitewashed home, where my mother grew up, I used to think it was an anomaly of our home to taste the bounty of the sea just after the morning sky had split open.  I have lived for most of my life in Washington, DC, where people struggle to keep up with the cycles of life and work.  Quick and efficient breakfasts are de rigueur.  When I was younger, I used to ask Mama Ching where the toaster-oven, ready-made pancakes drizzled with sticky, golden amber syrup from plastic packets and the bowls of cereal doused by cold, fresh milk were.

Surigao reminds one that its pace of life is like the rhythm of ripples in a lagoon.  One does not shovel breakfast in one’s mouth.  One sits back and stirs the granules of sugar into a cup of coffee until they dissolve.  That is the gift of time.

One can watch platters being paraded in and placed on the table in the dining room that opens into the courtyard.  One can smell the steam rising from tinuya, fish cooked in clear broth with tanglad, lemons and onions.  One has time to marvel at the striking strokes of paint: the vermilion chilies swimming in dark soy sauce, the caramelized yellow of fried bananas topped with rock crystals, or the albino landscape of plain, white rice in a ceramic bowl.  One can relish the interplay of savory and sweet, and of salty and tang, in the offered dishes.  The tongue can run the myriad textures of the morning, like nilupak, ground steamed saba blended with shredded coconut.

When did my senses first awaken to such culinary spiritualism?

It was during the last summer I spent with my great-uncle, Papa Te.  He was Mama Bebing’s husband and Mama Ching’s youngest brother. The routine, then, was the same.  Mama Bebing brought home bread after church, and Mama Ching brought home spoils after waging war with farmers and fishermen.  Papa Te would sit on the bench outside of his sari-sari store and wait.   During that summer, I would wake up early to join him.  He was also whittling or whistling.  One morning, he was telling me stories from the war and why he learned to speak Japanese.  I knew he was quite sick, but he never showed it.

Back then, I was a college hotshot at 20.  I thought the world was my oyster. Papa Te asked if I had ever eaten one—the kind from shells larger than a soccer ball.  Had I ever eaten soup made from turtle?  Had I ever scooped the flesh from cheek and jaws of large tuna?  Had I ever eaten purple rice?  I shook my head.  Papa Te asked if I even noticed how delicious breakfast at home in Surigao was.  Do I remember its array of tastes and smells when I go back to school?  Do I eat in the morning and appreciate what’s been given, or do I rush to class?

Breakfast is important, he said.  It is the first communion with God and the first communication with one’s family after sleep.  It is the expression of love and appreciation.  He said this as he watched his wife return.  We followed her into courtyard, where we ate our pan de sal withlatik, or jam made from boiling shreds of young coconut for a long time.  It was brown and viscous.  It was cloying, but delicious.  My father used to spoon latik over just ripened mangoes and mushy avocados.  Cousins, uncles and aunts—all of who shared the home—broke their fasts with pan de sal.  Some ate their shares with latik, while others preferred them plain or with white cheese made from buffalo milk.

Several minutes later, Mama Bebing returned with two cups of tsokolate.  She had dropped rounds of tableas into boiling water and mixed in a few tablespoons of cane sugar and evaporated milk.  We dipped our breads in this and caught the sagging ends and trailing chocolate with our mouths.  Immediately, the brew scalded my tongue, but I could taste its sweet bitterness.  It was heaven.

Papa Te mentioned that our neighbors across the street start their mornings drinking rice coffee.  I had thought that this was a concoction distilled from beans grown in paddies.  Instead, grains of rice were toasted until slightly charred (this depended on how one preferred the coffee’s strength).  Then boiling water was poured over the brown-black bits, which then settled to the bottom.  The liquid was strained and mixed with brown sugar and fresh milk.

After our first breakfast, Mama Ching announced that the real one was ready.  We took our places at the table, where rice—either steamed or sautéed with lots of garlic—replaced bread.  Also on the table was paksiw.  Anduhaw, a silver fish, had been simmered in coconut vinegar.   Several cloves of crushed garlic, slices of ginger, and a long hot pepper had been added to the broth.  Chopped eggplant and ampalaya had also been mixed in, and finally oil was drizzled atop the paksiw once it was done.  This dish embodied the Surigao breakfast.

That morning, we also ate buyad, or sundried, squid and daing of danggit that was paired with paco, steamed curly ferns, and a salad of seaweed that looked like miniature green grapes.  Eggs from native chicken were fried.  I pierced the bright persimmon colored yolk of my egg until it ran like syrup over the rice.  It is slighty sweeter than the regular variety.  It was better than pancakes with maple syrup.  I paired the slickness with the crispiness of torta of dumudot, or fried anchovy cakes that resembled ukoy and which I dipped into a sawsawan of palm vinegar, sili and garlic.  With my hands, I also peeled plump prawns that had been sautéed with garlic.  Papa Te, who sat beside me, told me to suck the juice out of the heads.

At the end of the meal, we had a choice of sweets to finish our meals.  There was moron, naturally purple glutinous rice, grown on the mountainsides nearby.  It had been boiled with brown sugar and coconut milk and then steamed in banana leaves. Budbud and sayonsong—similar versions with white rice or cassava—were placed at the table.

Since that meal, I paid attention to what we ate every morning.  There were certain dishes—like rice, the paksiw, the buyad and the tinuya as well as the fruits and vegetables—that were served every day.  The dishes that accompanied them changed. Sometimes we enjoy torta of talong, boiled saba with ginamos, or cured anchovies, or giniling na baboy, or ground pork sautéed with longbeans and chilis.  These were the vertebrae of our mornings.

By the end of that vacation, I understood what Papa Te was trying to tell me: Look, understand and appreciate what’s in front of you.  Time doesn’t stop, and it certainly doesn’t care if I eat instant pancakes or bouillabaisse of shrimp.  Life whizzes by, and if I rush I will never savor the glorious goodness of a Surigao breakfast, a meal with my raucous family, or a morning with a great-uncle.

Several summers have passed since his death, and I am now in my mid-thirties.  The years between visits back to Surigao have stretched out so that homecomings are sweeter and more poignant.  Loved ones have more gray in their hairs and slowness in their steps. I was last there in September 2009.  Without knowing when I would be back in Surigao, I delighted in everything—from the foods lovingly prepared for me at each meal to the quiet moments I spent listening to the wisdom, stories and recipes of my elders.  There, in Surigao, is a rich legacy I hope to one day pass on to my son.  One such inheritance is the value of the morning gathering—the breakfast.

Evicting the Monster Within

27 10 2010

Five weeks ago, a monster had squatted in prime real estate—my lungs.   Its tentacles snaked through the tunnels of my bronchioles and alveoli and claimed the better part of my breathing.  A week after it took up its residence, its fangs grabbed hold of my larynx.  I tried to breathe.  I tried to cough.  Instead my eyes bugged out as I eked out a guttural roar.

The first day I lost my voice, I stayed home.  I walked my son Sebastian to the door to wish him a good day at school.  Instead of words, more growls came out.

Sebastian placed his hands on his hips, puffed out his chest and shouted, “No, Mommy!  Stop it!”

I raised my palms upwards and asked, “Waaarrrt?”  Why was he yelling, I wondered.

“You [are] a monster, Mommy! Aaarrggghhh!”  Then he ran outside with his dad and never looked back that morning.

I regained my voice a few days later, but  the green-slime monster with the hairy, yellow arms decided to stay.  When a five-day pack of antibiotics evicted the squatter from both lobes of my lungs, it left behind junk that has plagued me since.  My pulmonologist diagnosed me with post-infection reactive airways.

What does it mean?  My airways are irritated, and this causes me to cough continuously.  It takes the wind out of me.  I am left lethargic and uninspired.  Moreover, my chest and abdomen hurt from the constant coughing.  I struggle to complete a full day of work.  I can barely cook or play with my son.  And I have little energy to write.   So, the doctor recommended I take a daily cocktail of inhalers, antihistamines and, my least favorite, cough syrup—with codeine.

I’d been resisting taking the powerful potion meant to relax my lungs.  I was afraid that I would never wake up, if Sebastian needed me.  I even feared turning into a junkie that cruised down pharmacy aisles and then spending the rest of my son’s life in and out of rehab.  Was Tussinex going to be my gateway drug?  Why were there no natural, alternative remedies for my cough?  I thought about my apartment in Oakton turning into a seedy opium den.  I scoured the internet for another solution to my coughing.  I would not go down this path of iniquity.  Clearly, my imagination was a melodramatic monster worse than the bacteria that had invaded my body.  So I resisted the opiate.

But one evening, as my son and I were reading Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” I started hacking away–like  a lawn mower that needed gas.  My son placed a hand over my chest and patted the area above my airways.

“Mommy, you coughing,” he noted. I could hear the tinge of concern in his tiny voice.  “Spiderman help you.  I try, ok?”

I nodded my head in reply, unable to even mutter any words to comfort him.  He wanted to be my hero, and I knew he felt helpless as he stared at me with eyebrows clenched together as another attack seized my chest.  Sebastian waited until my coughing subsided.  He stood up and kissed my cheek.  “Mommy, you see Doctor.  You have monster inside.”

“You’re right, Sebastian.”  The next day, I went to see my pulmonologist again.   He took x-rays of my chest and checked my breathing with a spirometer.  I was indeed fine.  I was still suffering from a terrible bout of asthma.

One thing you should know about me is that I am a hypochondriac.  When Sebastian was born, I drove my pediatrician crazy with questions and suppositions. Did he meet his milestones?  Why wasn’t he growing faster?  Did he have a hearing problem?  I convinced my husband of the latter.  When Sebastian was a few weeks old, he and I would go into his room and start clapping right by his ear to see if he would respond to sound.  He didn’t, but then we found out that he had not reached the age when he was supposed to attend to noise.

When I turn that neurosis towards myself, I start having anxiety attacks, which trigger further breathing problems.   When my doctor, who examined my tests, dismissed my worries with his diagnosis of “plain, old asthma”, I blanched. While the number of deaths due to asthma is low, I would hate to be one of its statistics.  I pointed this out to Dr. M-.   Having known me for over a decade, he simply patted my hand.

It’s hard not to love my doctor.  He reminds me of cross between one of the Marx brothers and Albert Einstein.  His hands are thick, coarse and warm; his mustache is even thicker, coarser, overgrown and gray.  Every time I see him, he wears the same outfit—a dark green cable sweater, khaki pants and Birkenstock sandals.

“Take your cough medicine,” he advised, and before I could argue, he added, “and you won’t become addicted.”

When I’m in his office, I forget I’m 36 years old.  I swung my legs over the exam table and twirled my hair as I answered his question and expected a lollipop at the end of the visit instead of a probable bill.

“Yes, Dr. M-, but…”

“Are you pregnant?”

“No,” I pouted.

“All right then, you have nothing to worry about but your own fears.  Just take it.  You don’t want to scare your son with that coughing.”

I bowed my head and conceded he was right.  That evening, I stared the monster in its eyes .  It stood on its hind legs and “roared its terrible roar, and gnashed its terrible teeth” as if to scare me.  But I quelled it with a few teaspoonful of berry tasting syrup.  Hmmmm….it was delicious, and the effect was pretty quick.  So that was what Elysium tasted like.

Later, as Sebastian and I read his books, he asked, “Mommy, you see Doctor?”

“Yes, my baby.   He told me to drink medicine.”

Sebastian scrambled off the bed and ran to the other room.  He came back holding headphones, which he placed on his head.  Then, he took the end of the cord, and he placed it against my chest.

“Sebastian,” I asked, “what are you doing?”

“I [am] a doctor, Mommy.  I listen to you.”  He pressed his ear and the cord of the headphones to my lungs.  I took a deep breath, and pressed his small, round head against me.  What a wonder it was to hold my son and marvel at the power of his imagination.

“Mommy!”  He shot up.  “You’re better!  No more monster.”

Indeed the my coughing receded that evening, only to return the next morning as I breathed in the cool fall air.  But at least, thanks to the cough syrup, I slept deeply that night with my son in my arms.

My coughing has since abated, but has not completely disappeared.  It returns when I’m agitated or in situations when it calls for silence, like my staff meeting at work.  Sigh.  I still take my medicine, but have weaned myself off of it.  The haze of the codeine and the vivid dreams it induced made me think of Rabelais, Verlaine and Poe, all of who created masterpieces under the fog of absinthe or laudanum.  As a result, we are now graced with brilliant works of literature and fantastic stories that defy commonplace imagination and understanding.  I understand the power and pull of such chemically-induced creativity, but I much prefer the colorful, vibrant reality of my days with my son and my husband.  I’m so happy I’m back on the road to recovery and can write again.

Droplets of candlewax on paper

15 10 2010

I am in Ottawa this week.

I have forgotten how beautiful this Canadian city truly is. The weather has been a walking one, and it has invited me during breaks in my meetings and early in the mornings to let the cool air drift over my face. Before the rain decided to join the playground yesterday, the sun had played shadow puppets against the façade of the Victorian style architecture of the Parliament building and the Chateau Laurier. It tickled the waters of the long Rideau Canal that runs through the central part of the city. In the winter, many come to ice skate the along the frozen water way. I had done so over a decade ago, when I had experienced my first winter in Canada as a student in the nearby city of Montreal. As I strolled along Elgin Street, my right hand opened and closed by my thigh. I was imagining that I was holding hands with my little boy, Sebastian, whom I have missed exceedingly.

While I have traveled for my job for over a decade, it has become increasingly difficult to be away from my family. One would assume that I would finally have an opportunity to sleep uninterrupted through the night. However, I find myself waking intermittently and clutching my pillow. I miss the smell of Sebastian’s baby powder scented skin and my husband’s aftershave. I miss how they both jump on me when I am reading in bed. I miss the three of us cuddling together on the worn brown, leather sofa and eating Milano cookies before bedtime. I am lonely in my hotel room.
Every night, to ease the ache of being alone, I call my family twice. I can see them through a video chat on the internet. We first see each other at 6pm just as my husband and son have come home and I have finished a day of meetings. All of us are excited to see one another.

The other night, most of the conversation consisted of us making silly faces through the web cam, sending my son into interminable fits of giggles. They repositioned the camera several times so that I could see what they were eating. It was leftover pizza night. The casserole I had made before I left had remained uneaten on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. A few hours later, we said goodnight through the video chat again. Sebastian was wearing his glow-in-the-dark pajamas. His wet hair was combed over to one side. He leaned into the computer and placed his hand on the screen, as if to touch my face.

“Mommy, you at work?”

“Yes, I still am here in Canada for work. But I really miss you and your dada, Sebastian.”

“You’re bee-ti-ful. So pretty.”

“Thank you my Sebi. My little baby.”

“No, mommy, I SeBAStian. I not a baby. I a little boy.”

Skerdi and I look at each other through the screen. Our little boy says his name with a slight hint of a British accent. SeBAStian. SeBAStian. I love mimicking the way he says it – like Colin Firth when he enunciates that he is “Mr. DARcy” from the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. My husband told me once that he had learned the Queen’s English back in Albania. He used to say things with a slight accent as well.

“I go sleep now, Mommy,” Sebastian continues. “Daddy read me book, [I] Love You Stinky Face.”

Sebastian squirmed out of my husband’s lap and tugs on his shirt’s sleeve. “Come on Daddy!”

My husband lingers on the screen and reassures me before I even get a chance to ask. “He’s already had a bath and brushed his teeth.”

“I miss you guys.”

Skerdi smiled, as if he was virtually patting my head. “I miss you a lot, too, Honey. But you’ll be here soon to see us all again. This is a short trip for you.”

“Four days seems so long.” From the bedroom, my son calls out to his dad once more. “You better go to the Ali Pasha.”

“I know. I know. SeBAStian needs me. But just remember, you and I were apart for months, and we didn’t even have all this” He pointed right at me, at the computer. “ I love you. I’ll see you soon.”


“Tomorrow. Same time, same screen. Text if you need something.”

The Dark Ages

My husband and I spent the early years of relationship—our courtship—away from each other. Although we met here in the United States, through a workshop, the conditions of his J-1 visa prevented him not only from staying but also from returning back for at least two years. Skerdi left me at the airport with a promise that one day we would be together. It was 1999.

Back then, we were infants not only in our relationship, but in our careers. We had no money, nor did we have opportunities to see each other. It was a tough decision: Would we follow love or would we build our careers? Why couldn’t we have both, we wondered.

Skerdi and I faced this question and many hurdles with the optimism of idealistic twenty-five year olds. We kept at bay the doubts that our more pragmatic side—and also those voiced by friends and family—had. Would a long-distance relationship work? Could promises and dreams sustain us through four or five months without being near each other? The statistics were against us.

Proximity has always been touted as integral to the success of a relationship. In addition, we had the disadvantage of being from two very different cultures. While Skerdi spoke English, language was still an issue. There were missed nuances and misunderstood humor. And in between, we imagined all sorts of misdeeds.

The biggest of the hurdles that he and I faced was communication. In the beginning, Skerdi’s home—like many in Albania at that time—had neither telephone nor easy access to a computer. In Albania, many of the computer stations only had dial-up access. Moreover, neither one of us had a cell phone back in 1999. Long-distance calls were expensive–$1 per minute. We understood the situation, but we also knew that if were to survive between the long months apart, we needed to share our feelings, our thoughts and our ideas.

Droples of Candlewax on Paper

In the first few months, every weekend, Skerdi would go to the main office at the University of Vlora, where he was a lecturer. I bought phone cards, and we would talk for more than three hours about what we had done during the week. We often sent each other faxed messages with nothing more than “I’m thinking of you today.”

Often, an email would pop into my inbox. Those missives were always short. He was taking advantage of the connection and what little money he had to spend at the Internet café.

In our time apart, we also wrote letters. In a memory box kept in the shadows of my closet, where I keep the pictures from our wedding and memorabilia from our trips together, there are pages and pages of hand-written notes from Skerdi. He wrote of love, plans, dreams and troubles.

“There was nothing else to do but to write letters to you,” Skerdi had said.

In one correspondence, he wrote about how Albania had been suffering an energy crisis. The country experienced long stretches of power outages and water shortages. Skerdi wrote about the darkness and how the city was still and lifeless. He could not walk for he could not trust the moon to illuminate his path. So he lay on his bed and wondered what I was doing. I remember that letter well. He called me his little kinesa doll, Chinese doll. I read the letter hundreds of times and tucked it into the pocket of my purse so I could peruse it during breaks at work. I presed my palm upon the lined green sheet of paper and felt the raised droplets of candle wax and saw the slight charring in the middle of the paper . I imagined him holding the flame above the sheet to see what he had written before he stuffed it in an envelope. It took several Albanian stamps to mail the letter to me.

There were many love notes like the one above. Many were written by the flame of a single candle, in the darkness; he wondered constantly about me. Did I get my visa from the embassy? Did I get my paper tickets for my trip? Was I excited to see him?

During one of my trips to Albania, there was a power outage. Skerdi and I sat in the dark, in the dining room, eating dinner by the light a single candle. His mother brought out a box containing all the letters and photos I had sent to him. Several years later, these were the same images that she and my father-in-law had shown to the consular officer who, believing wholly in our romance, had granted them their first visa to the United States. “It’s amazing you wrote letters to each other.

Technology and True Love

Five years ago, Skerdi and I wed on Columbus Day Monday, on the veranda of the Meadowlark Garden’s glass atrium. At high noon, the sun shone overhead, as a lone white butterfly danced around us. The winds crooned its love songs through the whispers of reds and browns of the woodlands beyond. Guests waved wands with bells and red ribbons; while bridesmaids—clad in scarlet, crimson, vermilion and rose—secured the dahlia boutonnieres onto the lapels of the groomsmen. It was a celebration of the joys and the challenges that Skerdi and I had faced. It was also an avowal of commitment, for we pledged—in English and in Albanian—to enjoy the road ahead of us with an abundance of love, respect and fun. It was 10.10.05.

While Skerdi and I were cutting the cake, I thought about the long road behind us and why we survived.
It’s hard to dispense advice on relationships, when we’ve only been together for such a short time. All we know is that in the face of statistics and of weighty challenges, we came out winning. The best thing about being in a long-distance relationship is that we both did work on building a career and on our relationship. When you have so little opportunity to be together or talk on the phone, you make the minutes count. You learn to communicate. You learn to disagree. You learn not to take any words or actions or each other for granted.

When Skerdi moved to the United States in 2002, the first thing we did together was get cell phones. Every day, we talk to each other at least six or seven times while we are at work. We poke each other over emails, text or Facebook. When I travel, we remain connected via video chats, Skype, and emails. Although technology has advanced true love, Skerdi and I are proud that we did not necessarily need it to survive the distance. We had faith in each other.


Since our wedding, I had been excited about my five year anniversary. It fell on Sunday, last weekend, on 10.10.10. For a long time, I chanted those numbers and felt the energy encased within the binary series. At heart, I was a geek. And like all the other geeks—as well as numerologists—worldwide, the symbolic day of October 10, 2010, was to be celebrated.

How? I wanted a grand affaire. I concocted an appropriate, and clever, theme: “Bits and Bytes.” I wanted an outlandish cocktail party, for which invitees had to respond by ticking off a “1” for yes and “0” for no on the invitation I was itching to design. I wanted a 5-tier cake that was actually made of smaller pieces—nano-cakes I called them—with a pattern of 1’s and 0’s stenciled on the fondant. I envisioned servers passing platters of canapés and glasses of cabernet.

Sunday passed. There was no fanfare—no wittily executed plans around creative ways of incorporating binary code. Moreover there was no renewal of vows. There was no assertion of undying passion and feverish commitment.
Instead, there was a simple declaration of love.

On the eve of our anniversary, Skerdi and I shared a five-course meal at a steakhouse. There was something more powerful, more poignant in the quiet of our celebration. For five years, I had wanted to share our day with others, and at the last moment, it was about us.

This is how you play in the rain.

6 10 2010

In the Philippines, the season of rain starts just as the school year begins.  A new grade, a new teacher and old chums—all are met with new uniforms and new shoes that have been soaked, splashed from buses running across puddles that often rise into ankle deep pools.  When the first drops of rain fall across Manila in June, thin arcs of colors pop up between breaks in the clouds.  Everyone sighs from the cooling relief—a balm against the roasting heat of the temperatures of the summer.  However, as months roll into each other, so do the waves of storms that crash into the city.  There are neither breakers nor ‘brellas strong enough to withstand the endless onslaught.  Waters rise in neighborhoods and along major thoroughfares, so that vehicles become islands of steel, and the plastic palm trees atop jeepneys bend and sway with the winds.

I used to love to take naps when the rains hit.  In Quezon City, where I lived during my grade school years, we had a one-level home filled with windows that gifted us with constant light and a view of rice fields beyond the chain link fence that marked the boundary of our housing development.  My younger brother, Paolo, and I shared a room and a big bed that was flushed against the wall of windows.  When the rainy season hit, I loved to open the horizontal glass shutters inside the iron grills.  The water would mist me through the screen, where a few geckos remained still as they bathed in the coolness.  Often, there would be no electricity during a storm, and so we spent afternoons reading or napping—for hours at a time.  My red bicycle remained untouched in the covered driveway.

The staccato rhythm played on our roof made it difficult for my brother and me to awaken in the afternoons.  Nevertheless, mom always tried, especially when the rain was at its heaviest.

“Li, Pao,” she would shake and shove us.  Minantika, she would describe our kind of deep slumber.  It was Surigaonon, her native dialect.  Our sleep was thick as oil, she had said.  “Wake up, guys.  Wake up.”

“Why, Mommy?”  I would groan out.  My brother Paolo used to sleep like my Sebastian does now: on his back with his arms bent on either side of his face, palms opened upwards, and legs spread open.

“It’s time to play in the rain.”

I would sit upright and see how the world outside my window had turned into layers of crystal and silver.  The mist would continue to blow in and settled like dewdrops on my shins.

“Paolo,” I’d bend down to his ear and shout, “Time…to…wake…up!”

My little brother would curl up on his side, his left arm flailing out.  “No!”

I’d lie on my stomach, my head near his.  My fingers would pry open an eyelid.  “Helloooooo.”

“Stop it.  Go away.”

“Mom said, we could go outside.”

He would open both eyes and smiled up at us.  “Let’s go, go, go!”

We’d scramble off the bed and run to the front door.  Always, we would stop and look back at mom.  She would shoo us out with the backward wave of her two hands.

I would look down at Paolo, 3 years my junior, and say, “Ready? Come on. Let me teach you how to play in the rain.”

1. Do not walk.  Run into the rain.

When I first learned to swim, I was seven years old.  On the first day of classes, down at the shallow end of the pool, the teacher asked us to come into the water.  Mom was behind me, in the shade.  We slowly inched to the edge of the pool.  Some sat down and then slid into the water.  Others climbed down the ladder.  A few trembled after having dipped their toes in.

Before class, Mom had said, “Just jump in.  It will be cold.  You just have to do it.”

On the first day of lessons, I looked back at mom.  Then, I jumped.

When Paolo and I first played during a heavy monsoon storm, I thought about my mom’s words.  My grandmothers would have admonished us for getting wet and possibly catching a cold.  However, mom never believed in that myth.  She was more worried about us missing out on an experience.

I grabbed my brother’s hand and instructed, “Do not walk.  Run into the rain.”

Without waiting for him to protest, I pushed the screen door open with my left hand and yanked Paolo outside.  We both laughed as the water—so warm and so plenty—drowned the world outside. Paolo and I ran to the end of the driveway, line by red and violet African daisies that had bowed down to the insistent pressure from the conquering rains. It was like playing in an upside down swimming pool.  We were the only two kids outside in our neighborhood, and we felt like thundergods on earth.

2. Open your mouth and taste.  Open your eyes and see.

The winter of my first year of college—in Montreal, Canada—was a lonely one.  There was no gradual descent into stark coldness.  By November, there was always at least a foot of snow on the ground—usually above a layer of black ice—and the temperatures never again reached 0 degrees Celsius until April.  I wanted to go home—to the familiar.  What was I even doing in Canada, I wondered to myself as I trudged through drifts and slid on hidden slick patches to class.  I cursed as my breath, trapped by a wool scarf wound tightly around my nose and mouth, escaped but then froze on my eyelashes, anchoring them shut.  This was not the experience about which I had fantasized—the one shook me from the comfort of my family.

When I went home for the holidays, winter followed me to the Washington, DC area.  My family and I had moved there in 1985.  We lived on a home, situated on the crest of its own hill.  I cried the minute I arrived back on our doorstep.  Don’t make me leave, please, I thought.  Instead of voicing my despair, I affected a cool that college students wore like a mantle of pride.

That break, my youngest brother, Niccolo, who was 12 years younger than I, never left my side.  He often snuck into my bedroom at night to cuddle with me.  He would sleep with his arms grasping mine.  My son Sebastian sleeps the same way, tucked into my warmth and clutching me to prevent me from leaving.

After the first snowfall that winter in Virginia, I woke Niccolo up early.  “We’re going sledding.”

He scrambled out of bed, and I dressed him in warm layers. Niccolo’s grin was as wide and as a white as the world outside.  Although it was neither as windy nor as cold, the scene that met us when we opened the front door could have been Montreal.

Niccolo shut the door and sat on the front step.  “But, Li, we don’t have sleds.”

“No, you’re right.  But I bet we can find something just as good.”  A few minutes later we were sledding down hill on the metal covers of our garbage cans.  The tricky thing about sledding down our hill is to avoid plowing into the street.  So we aimed for the snow banks piled high by street cleaners.  We landed on our bellies, with our faces in the snow.

“It’s so pretty outside,” I told Niccolo as we made snow angels.

“Nooooo. It’s all white.”

“Open your eyes and see the world, Nicky.”  I pointed to the colorless textures around us—from the candied icicles that hung from our roof to the icy webs that encrusted tree branches to the untouched areas of snow.

Niccolo wasn’t paying any attention to the splendor around him.  He was six.  He put a chunk of ice in his mouth, instead.

“Do you want to taste something neat?”

He nodded his head.  I ran to the house and brought back a bottle of maple syrup.  I swirled amber colored ribbons on the snow.

“We’re making candy.”

“Yup.  Open your mouth and taste.”  We sat there for a while until our bottoms were cold and wet.

I went back to Montreal after a couple of weeks at home—with renewed vigor.  I still missed my family, but I had also missed a lot when I had focused on seeing the wintry landscape of the French Canadian city as bleak instead of seeing its splendor.  When I returned North, it was January, and the temperatures had dipped to – 30 degrees Celsius.  But playing with Niccolo back in Virginia had opened my eyes, mouth and mind to experiencing Montreal and its winter.

3. Splash. Splash. Splash.

The first time Paolo and I played in the rain we jumped into puddles.  The goal was to make the biggest splash.  We pretended to be dolphins arching out of the sea and breaking its surface on the dive back down into its depths.  We ran across the lawn looking for pools of water in which to jump.  We avoided the canals that were already overflowing.  Paolo and I opened our mouths up to the sky and drank in the water.   What we tasted was purity.  After thirty minutes of playing in the rain, Mom called us back in and welcomed us with dry towels and hot ginataan, a sweet stew made with coconut milk, taro, camote, sago, bananas and jackfuit.

This past summer, Sebastian and I spent a lot of time at the pool.  The first time we jumped in together, he cried in fear.  He clung to my neck and shivered in my arms.  I waded with him to the middle of the pool.

“Nooooo, mommy, it’s scary!”

“Why is it scary?”

“Coz…”  He could not articulate his fear.  As a parent, it is difficult to not want to hug him and get him out of the pool quickly.  But I knew if I did, he would miss out on the joy of swimming.  So I splashed him instead — like bath time.  “No splashing mommy!”

He was laughing as he found a way to untangle his arms.  Clad in a safety jacket and arm floaties, he bobbed up and down in the water, by himself.  Then, he splashed me, first with his arms and then by kicking his feet.  When he realized how far away he was from me, he yelled, “I swimming, Mommy, I swimming.”

4. Twirl your umbrella.  Spin it fast.

When my son Sebastian was born four weeks early, he was a little under five pounds.  He stayed in the neo-natal intensive care unit for six days.  While he was growing and glowing under the bilirubin lights that helped erase his jaundice, his uncles, Paolo and Niccolo, visited him.  They promised they would expose him to fun and laughter and light.  I wondered if they would they take him out in the rain?  Would they sled with him in the snow?  Would they splash with him across puddles or in the pool?  I knew instinctively that they would.  For now, it was my turn again to play with Sebastian in the rain.

It has been raining continuously throughout the East Coast.  While most have been bemoaning the weather, Sebastian and I have enjoyed it.   One reason I love the rain is my chance to take an umbrella out of my collection.  In a city, where the uniform is the small, black Tote, my umbrellas are bright and colorful.  For example, this week, I’ve been sporting my periwinkle one covered in butterflies.  On my way to and from work, I twirl it so that rain bounces off in different direction.  Instead of Gene Kelly, Garbage’s “I’m only happy when it rains” skips through my mind.

Sebastian, too, has an umbrella.  The design is a bumble bee—yellow and black striped.  Everyday, for the past week, he grabs his and mine from the front closet before we head out to meet the morning rain.  He, too, has mastered the art of twirling the umbrella.  Occasionally, he will let his dip in order to catch the rain with his mouth.

“I like the rain mommy!  I like the rain!”

What  a difference a few months make.  He used to be afraid of thunderstorms, or bam-booms.  While he still shies away, when the clouds rumble, the rain has been welcomed.  If we are not outside playing in the October rain, Sebastian and I watch it from our balcony.  We are the thundergods.

Last Thursday evening, we sat on stools surrounded by my garden.  “Look, mommy, the tomatoes are wet! The leaves are taking [a] bath!”  He ran over to shake the water from the plants.

“Mommy, can I play outside? in rain?”

“Sebastian, it’s getting dark.  But tomorrow, we will be in New Jersey. Tomorrow, we play.”

An island of sun appeared this past weekend, when Sebastian and I joined our friends in Edgewater, New Jersey.    On Sunday, our hosts—and their two boys around Sebastian’s age—took us to a park.  There were large puddles everywhere.  Sebastian, tired of the swings, slides and jungle gyms, ran ahead of me.

“Stop! Sebastian! Stop!”

My son froze right as before he approached the largest pool of water.  “I splash, Mommy!”

Before I could say no, he turned back and jumped into and then across the water.  And then he ran back through it.  Other parents held their children back from following his example.  After all, the muddy puddle had soaked his socks and the hem of his pants through.  The other parents shook their heads in disapproval.

Instead of groaning, I laughed and swung my son into the air.  He too screamed–just as Paolo had done the first time we played in the rain or as Niccolo did when he slid down a hill and crashed into a snow bank.

“I splash again, Mommy?”

This time I shook my head.  I ruffled his hair and took him to the carousel.

Sebastian looked at the sky. “Mommy, where [is] the rain?”

“It’s coming back.”

“Yea!” To hear his glee reminded me of the days I played with my brothers—in the rain and in the snow.

Ssssh… Spiderman is Sleeping.

28 09 2010

Another Amuse Bouche tale…

After a long day, superheroes, villains, robots and owls need their sleep.

My 2.5-year-old son Sebastian was the first superhero to sleep in our bed.  As our intrepid Tiger Boy—with his lightning movements and ferocious roar—he has reigned over our king-sized mattress for more than a year.  After a long day of battling the perils of toddler-dom and staring imaginary monsters in their eyes, he often falls asleep to the cadence of his favorite book—Ten Little Dinosaurs—being read aloud to him.

It’s tough being a superhero.  With so much more of the world to conquer, Tiger Boy tries to resist sleep.  However, by the seventh dinosaur and its silly antics, Sebastian grumbles and purrs; he curls his body against my side.   He strokes my arm with his cheek until the cublike growls turn into chest rumbles from dreamland.  Several hours later, after my husband, Skerdi, and I have fallen asleep, Sebastian finds a position, in which he’s most comfortable—usually one that discomfits us.  He lays perpendicular to us, with one foot burrowing itself into his dad’s side and the other trying to make its way into his mouth.  His head, on the other hand, often worms its way into my left armpit.  During the night, Skerdi and I find our way to the edges of our large bed.  It is rather obvious that sleep—the uninterrupted, revitalizing kind—has eluded us for a long time.  Would we ever get it back?

A few weeks ago, my son befriended another superhero.  You may have heard of him: Spiderman.  Sebastian and his red and blue action figure are best pals.  They have shared  baths and talked to each other in a different language; although, I do think their conversations were rather one-sided with my son hogging the discussion.  I have even read bedtime books to both of them, until Tiger Boy and Spiderman doze off on the king-sized pillow they share.

The latter always seemed to be the first to snooze.  Sebastian always pulled the flat sheet we’d been using as a blanket during the summer over his friend.  When asked if Spidey was cold, Sebastian would hush me, “Shhh.  Spiderman sleeping Mommy.”

Parents, pediatricians and child psychologists debate the benefits of co-sleeping.  Skerdi and I, however, come from cultures where it is widely accepted.  What would experts think, though, of bedtime routines involving superheroes?  I would hazard a guess that one wouldn’t give any cause for worry.  But what about six of them?

Shortly after meeting Spiderman, Sebastian and his altar ego, Tiger Boy, started rolling with a crew of other friends endowed with special abilities.  One of them was the caped crusader, Batman, who vies for my son’s attention.  Every morning, Sebastian has a clothing crisis as he has to choose between the Spiderman and the Batman tee to wear to school.  The Thing and his rocky musculature has also joined the unique clique that also embraced one of the Transformer robots and an Owl of Ga Hoole.

Like many toddlers his age, Sebastian divides the world into big people (like Mom and Dad) and little people (like himself and his friend at daycare).  There is no such thing as good guys and bad guys.   Villainy is non-existent.  It didn’t surprise me that in his daily summit of superheroes, the Joker is treated as an equal participant.  Maybe it was his winning smile that charmed my son into accepting him, much to the chagrin of his now frenemy Batman.  Nevertheless, the league of seven superheroes, led by Tiger Boy, conquer the world of imagination and embark on adventures together.  On their down time, they sit around sipping milk and babble about the future, which is usually what the other six will do the next day while Sebastian goes off to day care, where no one is aware of his secret identity.

A week or so ago, Sebastian demanded that his friends observe proper hygiene habits.  He forced them to take bubble baths with him so I could scrub them all clean.  As part of their superhero training, Sebastian insisted that they must listen to me read and sing songs.  Inadvertently, they would drift, one by one, into slumber.   As their leader, Tiger Boy was always last to sleep.  He ensured that none of his men was cold by covering them with the blanket.  He warned me to be quiet before he quietly succumbed to exhaustion—one arm lying protectively across his extraordinary friends.  When I try to moved the six of them from the one pillow on which they rested, Sebastian swatted my hand away.

The night Sebastian and his league of superfriends first slept in our bed, Skerdi was oblivious to the uninvited guests.  The toys had been pushed into the crevice of between the headboard and the mattress.  On the second evening, however, Skerdi had a rude awakening as he came to bed after a long night of studying.  When he entered our bedroom,the only light was from the digital clock.  It was midnight, and I was just entering the first phase of sleep.  Suddenly, a loud yelp of pain pierced the silent darkness.

Oh no, he stubbed his toe again, I thought.  I sat up and switched on the light.  Skerdi was holding Spiderman with two fingers.

“What is this,” he demanded.

I motioned for him to keep his voice down and answered, “It’s Spiderman.”

“I know who Spiderman is, but what is he doing in our bed?”

“Sleeping,” I answered as if it were a normal occurrence.

“Spiderman cannot…”

“Shhhh,” I interrupted, “Spiderman is sleeping.  In fact all of them are.”

“What them?”

I pushed aside the covers and found the Joker, the Owl, the Thing and Batman scattered around the bed, mostly on my husband’s side.  Skerdi smiled and then chuckled.  He looked down at his snoring Tiger Boy in his tiger pajamas.  These were his pals.  Skerdi placed a knee on the bed and tried to crawl across it to plant a kiss on his son’s cheek.

Then he yelped again, “Ow, what the…?!”

He looked down.  His other knee had landed on the knobby robot.  “Are there any more?”

I shook my head. “It’s so funny.  I don’t even know how Sebastian got into Spiderman and superheroes.  He doesn’t watch any cartoons about them.  I don’t think he even knows that Spidey can shoot out a web.”

“I thought all kids knew about superheroes from a young age.”

“No,” I replied, “MZ’s son started his obsession with Spiderman only last year, when he was five.”

“Maybe Sebastian learned it from [brothers] Paolo and Niccolo.  They are into all that comics and graphic novels.”

“Paolo has yet to open his hermetically sealed collection of comics, and if Nic did show anything to Sebastian it would be Japanese anime—at least the appropriate kind, like Hello Kitty or Voltes 5.”

Skerdi stared blankly at me.  “I don’t know what those are.”

I had forgotten that growing up in Albania during the waning years of communism limited his exposure to Western (and Japanese) pop culture.  “Honey, did you know about Spiderman and Batman growing up?”

Skerdi shook his head.  He explained that the idea of superheroes—of individuals rising above others due to inherited or developed powers—was an anathema to communism.

“But what about the whole idea of ‘with great power comes great responsibility’?”

Not understanding the reference, Skerdi stared at me again, “The people were responsible to the State and vice versa.”

I could not imagine such a childhood. Mine was rich with make believe and alternate realities.  So I pressed on, “But when you and your friends played, did you ever pretend to have powers?”


“I did,” I said.  “Mom and Dad didn’t give us many toys.  So after school, my friends and I in the neighborhood used to play pretend superheroes.”

“And what were you?”  Skerdi ruffled his son’s hair before aligning his little toy friends back on the pillow.

I told him how I used pretend I was chrono-girl, who could manipulate time and wore a big clock around my neck.  I cocked an eyebrow up and asked, “If you could be a superhero or have superpower what would you be?”

“Ummmm, I don’t know.”

“How about Balkan Man, the name alone would terrorize people?  Or maybe Techno-guy who could kill people through their computers or sound systems?  During the day, you could work for the Geek Squad at Best Buy.”

Skerdi snorted.  “And you, would you still be chrono-girl?”

“Nope,” I said resolutely.  “Imagine if I were chrono-girl now, people would start calling me [rapper] Flavor Flav.”

We both laughed loudly, startling Sebastian, who whimpered and whined for us to be quiet.  With eyes closed, he patted around him to feel if his friends were still there.

Skerdi pointed to the scene and said, “You need to figure that out.  We can’t have all of them in bed with us.  Sebastian is more than enough.”

The next evening as we got ready to sleep, Sebastian arranged all his friends around him again on the pillow, with Spiderman closest to him.  Before I opened the first book, I cleared my throat and said, “Sebastian?”

“Yes, mommy?”

“Tonight, Spiderman, Batman, The Thing, the Owl, the Robot and Joker cannot sleep here in the bed.”

My boy’s eyes widened.  An onrush of tears spilled out as he wailed.  “No, Mommy, no!!”

I stroked his back and hugged him fiercely.  “Listen, your friends have to work.”

Tears were still streaming down, but he managed to ask calmly, “Like Mommy?  Like Daddy?”

“Yes, that’s right,”  I said.  “And why do we work?”

“For Sebi?”  He hiccupped his response.

“Yup.  Your friends are working to scare away monsters while you sleep.”

“Oh?”  Although he looked like he understood, I wasn’t entirely sure.

“Sweetheart, at night, they will stay awake and when you are at Buddy’s house, at school, tomorrow, they will sleep.  Do you understand?”

Sebastian looked over at his friends and then back at me.  “Ok, Mommy.”

The night shift: Our gang of friends watch over Sebastian as he sleeps.

He gathered his toys and arranged them on my night table so that they faced the bed.    “They go to work now.  Good night to me.”

In the morning, Sebastian jumped up out of bed fifteen minutes before the alarm rang.  He checked to see if his friends were still on the table.  Smiling, he jumped down and greeted them good morning.  Before he got dressed to go to school, as Sebastian not Tiger Boy, he arranged them all back on the now empty pillow and covered them with a blanket.  “Good night.  See you later.”

And the world whispers to me…

21 09 2010

Treasure is uncovered by the force of the flowing water, and it is buried by the same currents -- Excerpt from the Alchemist, by Paolo Coelho



Today is my 14th post*.  I’m a quarter of the way towards reaching my goal of completing 52 entries—one a week for a whole year.  When I first started this blogspot, I wanted to chronicle my life as a legacy for my young son. It was also a way to discipline myself and to assess whether my voice was louder than a whisper.   

When I first started my career in 1999, I thought about where I saw myself ten years later.  I knew I wanted to write. Millions of thoughts swam like schools of cobalt colored fish fighting against currents.  The ideas swam in my head with nowhere to go—migrating with no purpose.  All I wanted was to sit patiently in a boat with a pole hanging over the side and wait for one thought to catch.  

The funny thing about life is that those currents made the boat list from side to side.    And I was sitting, passively fishing, when I should have jumped into the dark waters with a net in hand and let the waves take me—no compass, no safety net—to unchartered places.  But I stood back and stayed on the shore and shallow waters—clear and crystal blue, under the aegis of palm trees and atop familiar sands—and built a life and a career I love. 

I’ve been at my job now for 11 years.  And I’ve always told colleagues and friends who have asked me if I had ever wanted a change that I have woken up every day looking forward to going to work.  It’s an anomaly, they said, to feel challenged and have fun after such a long time at a job.  As part of a communications team for an international office, I was constantly creating, learning and traveling.  I’ve built an arsenal of skills—graphic design, web management, technical writing and project management.  

When I turned 36, I hit an odd mental milestone. I woke up feeling…stuck.   It was as if the élan with which I strode into my office with my unsweetened iced coffee in hand had diminished.  Where was the bitter punch of my morning brew? 

Photoshopping My Life 

In college, I did a research paper on acrhomatopsia –true colorblindness.  Those afflicted with this disorder see the world in shades of gray. Oliver Saks, in his book Anthropologist on Mars, highlighted the case of a painter, who could no longer perceive color.   He suffered from a cerebral (rather than a physical) version of the disorder.  In other words, his eyes worked, but the rear part of his brain, or the occipital lobe, which interprets the quanta of light that filters in through the rods and cones, was damaged.  What an ironic blow it was to his soul to no longer be able to translate his vision—in its firework of hues and light—onto his canvas.  His mental palette had dulled. 

On April 6, the morning after my birthday, I thought about Jonathan I., Saks’ case study in his book.  In losing his ability to perceive color, he had lost not just inspiration to continue his craft but also his appetite for food and to love.   But this painter adapted to his disabililty and found a way to paint in color what he saw in grays.  He continued to create. 

I felt deflated.  Jonathan I. managed, in spite of his impediments, to fulfill his dreams.  What was I doing with mine?  Would I wait until the end of my life to tick off the items on my bucket list?  Would I ever have the time now with a family and a career? 

There I was with full mental and physical acuity, a family, a job and close friends—and I was bemoaning my lot.  I flung my arm over my eyes, as if to shield myself from a world that I perceived had lost a bit of its luster.  It was the first morning in 11 years that I did not jump up before the second snooze of the alarm to get ready for work.  Instead, I turned on to my left side and cuddled with my son.  The smell of sleep, sweat and baby powder comforted me. 

In graphic design, if an image I was working with was dim, I could brighten it up on Photoshop.  It was an easy fix.  I could look at a design or a photograph and understand what was missing.  I could see the big picture, and then paint by numbers…filling in the details.  But with my life, I had no tools to remove the blur or to adjust the levels until life refocused into sharpness again.  What was lacking?  What did I want for myself?  It was difficult to talk to anyone about this ennui.  Even I had a difficult time empathizing with me.  

Snap out of it. Snap out of it.  Just snap out of it.  But how?  This was my morning conversation in front of the mirror.  I needed to ignite the fading spark. 

The butterfly effect 

I believe in signs.  It’s a funny concept for one who has always lived in the world of science.  Why one can’t have faith in both, though, I have always wondered.  This duality is my own brand of spirituality.  Science teaches us to open our minds to all possibilities; signs force our eyes to open wider to them.   

A butterfly flutters its wings, for example; it hovers over my hand.  I know that such small actions—its flight—could affect and lead to a larger event in a dynamic system.  It’s a precept in chaos theory.  It’s also terrific precept for living life.  No matter how minute, how inconsequential—what each of us does ultimately matters.  

When I see the orange and black wings of the butterfly, I may also see a sign—a way in which the world whispers to me.  I may ponder a question endlessly, and the clue to the response may be in the seemingly random visit by the fragile insect sucking nectar from a crimson geranium.  

I have always loved butterflies.  It’s such a prosaic creature to admire.  Nevertheless, it has also been one that epitomizes best the idea of transformation and ephemeral beauty—and of inspiration. 

When my husband Skerdi and I were looking for a place to hold our wedding, we evaluated 6 different sites.  The first place I visited, Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, was the only one that spoke to me.  When I walked in, there were two red Adirondack chairs facing outwards towards the copse of trees at the distal end of the grounds.  In between the seats, staked into the earth, was a large cast iron butterfly.   I knew we were getting married there.  It had been an easy decision. 

When our wedding took place, it had rained for a whole week (and up to the last hour) before our ceremony.  But when Skerdi and I stood in front of each other, reciting our vows in both Albanian and in English, a butterfly flitted about us as the clouds parted.  The butterfly played under the sun that shone for thirty minutes before disappearing behind layers of rain.  

Interpreting and Interpretive Signs 

This past May, my supervisor handed me a new assignment—to design an interpretive poster that focused on the collaboration between my office and the Eden Place Nature Center in Chicago.  The partnership concentrates on conserving the Monarch butterfly and its spectacular migration through community outreach, education and preserving urban habitat.  To get an idea of what the Center was about, I traveled to Chicago to meet with its founder, Michael Howard. 

Eden Place Nature Center is located in Fuller Park, the smallest neighborhood in the city.  It is a three-acre parcel of land that had been part of the stockyards and that was once considered the most lead contaminated place in the city – if not, the entire United States.  Michael Howard and his wife, Amelia, wanted life to change in their neighborhood, and green space was the answer.  With the help of neighbors and an army of volunteers, over 40 tons of concrete, debris and trash were removed.  Then, he led the creation of ecosystems—miniature wetlands, prairie grasses, and woodlands.  Vegetable gardens—yielding summer squash and fat tomatoes—were also planted.  Soon the land had been transformed into an urban oasis, a haven for the community but also for a variety of wildlife, like the Monarch butterfly. 

When I visited in the Spring, the prairie habitat was just about to bloom in full.  Butterflies were everywhere.  They played in the warmth of the May sun and tickled the pages of my notebook.  As Michael described his work and how he brings schoolchildren to traipse through his paradise, where they learn basic ecology and biology, such as the life cycle of a Monarch butterfly, I felt the stirring of excitement.  Michael talked about the importance of teaching a child to respect life.  I thought about my boy—my 2 year old Sebastian.  I imagined us peering closely—heads together, eyebrows furrowed—to look on the underside of a leaf of a milkweed plant to count caterpillars.   I thought about Michael Howard and his pursuit of a dream of changing the conditions of his surroundings in spite of the seemingly insurmountable odds.  You must meet him to understand his light, his force.   He is transforming, inspiring.  

At the end of the day of that visit, Michael looked at me and said, “You’re part of the family now.”  And then he enfolded me into his embrace.  Something dynamic was stirring in my soul, and my ideas were spinning.  It was the butterfly effect.   

I was going to create an interpretive poster – no more than 2 feet by 3 feet–and I had to write and design the whole thing.  The focus: the conservation of the Monarch butterfly.  It was a sign. 

I returned home—renewed and reinvigorated by the project.  Though my part was small—to create a poster—I felt I was contributing to the awakening of minds.  Children and adults could read about the Monarch butterflies and be part of a conservation team. 

What I didn’t anticipate, though, was how it would open my mind as well. Drafting the text for the poster reawakened my passion for writing.  What was strange was that I always write at my job, but this project brought that love for the craft back to the surface. I was back on the listing boat with ideas swimming in the currents below the waves. 

The World Cup and a world of wonders 

This past summer, I, along with a couple of colleagues, started a bracket around the World Cup.  The prize was $320.   There were 32 participants, including my husband and my father-in-law, who won.  For him, the prize was so much sweeter, for he had never won anything so grand in his life.  The amount was three times his monthly pension back in Albania.  For my husband, the World Cup was an opportunity to enjoy football with his father.  For me, it was an opportunity to write. 

Every day of the month-long Cup, one of my two co-organizers or I would send out a daily email/blog.  The idea was to keep the level of enthusiasm high across our betting pool.  My colleagues are both fantastic writers and well versed in the history and the statistics of the game.  With nothing noteworthy to offer, I decided to share life in my household during the World Cup with others.  Can you imagine Albanians, a Filipina and a toddler together?  It was chaotic, emotional but also a very deep well of anecdotes. 

During that month, we also raised butterflies, painted ladies.  I wanted to extract from Sebastian a sense of wonder and to instill a deep appreciation for life.  It was the Michael Howard way of teaching—with energy and enthusiasm.  The company that sold the caterpillars warned us that only 6 out of the 12 caterpillars would survive the three weeks of nurturing.  

As we watched nations vie for the top spot  Sebastian witnessed caterpillars munch their way through the food and fall sleep in their chrysalis forms.  When Spain hoisted the trophy at the end of the World Cup, my son shrieked as the butterflies–all 12 of them–emerged.  A few days after the transformation, the entire family gathered out on the balcony to free them into summer skies.  It has been a couple of months, but Sebastian still remembers his first science project.  On our daily walks or when we spent time out on the balcony, where we take our afternoon snacks, he’ll often ask me where the “flutterflies” are.  

From Interpretation to Inspiration 

“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.” – Excerpt from the Alchemist, by Paolo Coelho 

My husband and I wonder constantly about what Sebastian will become when he grows up.  What will he dream about?  Which stars will he stretch to reach?  Will he remember the days of raising butterflies and watching the World Cup?  Will he wonder if mom ever dove into the dark waters of ideas or did she just sit by and let sunset after sunset sink into the horizon? 

Even though I have started writing posts—many of which are about Sebastian’s toddler adventures—this literary journey is mine.  I am pursuing my dream, held at bay for over a decade—maybe even more.  It took creating a sign to see the sign.  The world has whispered to me: Let your voice be heard. 

Where do I go from here, you wonder?  Let’s take it post by post.  Or maybe we just let the waters lead me to the unexplored places. 

Swim with me. 

(See AMUSE BOUCHE page for more posts.)