SYDNEY—Up till boarding time at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, I continued to receive calls and text messages from friends wanting to know if I was proceeding with my trip. My departure for my nth visit to my daughter Giselle in Sydney would have been uneventful if not for the concern roused by news about Tom Hanks contracting Covid-19 while filming in another Australian city.
I was somewhat unnerved, but I assured the message senders that with Giselle, I doubtless would be in good hands whatever happened. Still, with word of an impending lockdown in Metro Manila coming on the heels of the news on Tom Hanks, a few like my sister Maxie wondered if I could even leave at all.
I did fly out—but my arrival here on the morning of Friday, the 13th of March 2020, was just about the only thing that went as planned. From that point on the pandemic threw a monkey wrench into my schedule for the next three weeks. For starters, Giselle’s booking for dinner at Darling Harbour on my birthday was canceled.
Two more birthdays and six months later, I’m still here. And as though to defy the odds, I’ve had an extraordinary visit, marked by milestones and unplanned adventures. For the first time in 15 years, I celebrated Mother’s Day with my daughter again; I had a mammogram (free every two years for women aged 50-74); I got to watch Giselle, a choir leader, interviewed on national television when churches reopened after three months.
I dropped by a pink-themed gathering of Pinoys and, months later, participated in the Philippine presidential polls as an overseas voter.
In filling the hours and setting a routine reminiscent of my errands to the talipapa (street market) back home in Taytay, Rizal, I became a regular walker, going around the neighborhood every morning and stopping at the park or the bakery and grocery store.
Occasionally Giselle and I walk together after she logs off from work and on weekends in surrounding suburbs. During the four-month lockdown in Greater Sydney last year, we kept within the five-kilometer radius of our place in Artarmon. Down here, the great outdoors is never too far away.
I’ve had plenty of time to indulge in my favorite walk, across the Sydney Harbor Bridge 134 meters above sea level, overlooking the Sydney Opera House. The pedestrian walkway links Milsons Point in the city’s North Shore and The Rocks in the CBD 1.5 kilometers away. I did just that last March 19, the bridge’s 90th anniversary.
Gradually I proved my mettle in the 10,000-steps-a-day challenge I picked up from Giselle’s friends, whom I have joined on treks. Together with my “other daughter” Rhea, I did the breathtaking coastal walk across the 665-m Sea Cliff Bridge, which is part of the Grand Pacific Drive in the New South Wales South Coast.
Once, I even made it all the way to a mountain summit!
Two months ago, I emerged from a different kind of “adventure,” one that came completely out of left field. But I’m getting ahead of my story.
My original three-week itinerary began the day after my arrival when Giselle and I drove to Canberra for a weekend catch-up with her Ninang Malou. But in keeping with the physical-distancing advice, Malou and I agreed not to see each other for the sake of vulnerable members of her family.
On our return to Sydney on Sunday evening, the prime minister announced a 14-day quarantine for international arrivals effective the next day. I was not covered, but we chose to follow the spirit of the rule and informed Emmy, my annual Melbourne host, that this time I wouldn’t come.
Four days later Australia closed its borders and, consequently, its flag carrier suspended international flights, mine included.
I was initially unfazed. Not only had the first volley of restrictions missed me, it also looked as though I could be spending more time here with Giselle. The portability of my line of work enabled me to remain productive with writing/editing assignments from friends.
Still, anxiety over Covid combined with the fluid situation presented a dilemma. The longer I stayed here, safe and sheltered, the greater my worry—no, guilt—for being away from my mother, of whom I had been primary carer for the past eight years. It became increasingly uncomfortable to have to lie whenever, during our video calls, she asked, “When are you coming home?”
Repatriation flights were complicated and risky, and Giselle, barred from leaving Australia, would not be able to come to my aid in an emergency. Through my debates with myself, my dear colleague Tess shepherded me with her honest discernment in our email exchanges.
Maxie, who took over our mother’s care and everything else (with our locked-down house help), suggested that I email a letter to explain the situation and why the physiotherapist, the nurse, and the lay minister who gave her Holy Communion, even our sister Elise, no longer came around.
Giselle lifted the burden off my shoulders when she took it upon herself to inform my sisters that she wanted me to stay. That was in September 2020. Three months later, on the feast of the Holy Innocents and six weeks after her 93rd birthday, my mother passed away.
Her condition had been deteriorating; Maxie and our niece Erica were on deathwatch with Nurse Sarah. Dr. Cayanan, our family physician, was out of town, giving instructions on the phone. Giselle and I were on the road in a regional city when we saw two ends of a rainbow. “That must be Lola’s ride to heaven,” she remarked quietly, remembering that her grandmother’s favorite song was Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow.” Three hours later, her Lola was gone.
As though it were heaven’s further assurance of my mother’s peaceful passage, the young Dr. Gab who was assigned to the private ambulance and who pronounced her dead happened to be the son of a good friend, Giselle’s Ninong Ben.
By God’s grace, my absence dulled the pain of loss: I think of my mother as she was when I left, in the veranda in her wheelchair. On the first day of 2021, the Most Rev. Bishop Teodoro C. Bacani Jr., gave the final blessing during an online memorial, set up by Giselle’s classmate Net.
Giselle and I never spoke about it, but my mother’s demise must have brought her deliverance from what must have been her own burden: that of keeping me from home and duty.
7 bridges, 7 churches
Two months prior, when I learned that my mother no longer asked about me, I accepted the inevitable. The 7 Bridges Walk took place around that time, providing distraction as well as emotional release. The annual event draws thousands who walk some 28 kms around Greater Sydney, crossing seven bridges, to raise funds for a cancer charity.
Giselle and I joined, along with some of her choir mates, Elmer, Mark, Liv, Lynne, Charisse and sister Mea, and Rollie and wife Mercy. We completed the walk in about nine hours, in intermittent rain. On hindsight, it was symbolic of the coming together of companions to walk with through tough times.
Among ourselves we held similar activities, organized as tournaments by Rollie, a serious walker who used to live in Japan, where the 10,000-steps challenge originated. We formed teams, including family and friends, even those from other states and in the Philippines, and logged our steps daily. I held my own against Giselle’s generation, so much so that two of her friends gifted me with a Fitbit (activity tracker).
Tournaments were spread over two to four weeks and set during occasions like Australia Day and Holy Week/Easter. During the latter we went on a “Visita Iglesia” to seven churches—on foot—praying two of the 14 Stations of the Cross in each one. Other choristers Caj, Joy, Nica, Rea, Wush, and their friends Mars, Leah, and Monchie went along with the bridge-walk group.
Starting at the Our Lady of Dolours church, where the choir sings, we concluded at St. Mary’s Cathedral for the solemn Good Friday service, with the resident professional choir singing centuries-old hymns now, lamentably, rarely heard.
Down to the southern tip
My walking adventures literally peaked when Giselle took me along with another group of friends to Australia’s southernmost state, Tasmania, an island off the tip of the mainland.
Arriving by plane in Launceston city in the north, we spent the morning in the nature-trip hub around Cataract Gorge, where visitors cross the river riding in a chairlift or walking on a suspension bridge. We chose the latter.
Our afternoon stop had an interesting story. Grindelwald Swiss Village was built by a businessman to replicate the town of the same name in Switzerland that he and his wife had visited and so fallen in love with that she wanted to relocate there. The husband could not leave his business, so he did the next best thing.
Grindelwald has a population of about 1,000, living in Swiss-style houses built around an artificial lake. It is also a resort with a chateau hotel, a shopping center, cafes, bistros, and facilities for golf and boating.
On Day 2 we drove through fog in 3-C weather to the Cradle Mountain-Lake Saint Clair Reserve in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. A shuttle at the visitor center took us to a station leading to walking tracks near Lake Saint Clair, with Cradle Mountain in the background. The sight of the calm sapphire waters brought me back three decades to Banff, Canada, where the spellbinding serenity of Lake Louise moved me to tears.
Another easy walk led to Lake Dove, where a boat shed made for an interesting photo subject. There our group of six split up, one half exploring other points of interest on generally level terrain, the other continuing farther toward the mountain summit. I boldly went along with the latter, my confidence buoyed by having Giselle beside me every step of the way. She and her friend Ezelle are experienced hikers.
It was about noon when we commenced our trek on the boardwalk behind the boat shed. In the first hour, the level of difficulty was manageable even beyond the end of the boardwalk. Later, Giselle and Ezelle took turns helping me through the rainforest, particularly on rocky, wet and narrow trails with damp, mossy boulders on one side and steep wooded drops on the other.
All the way to the top
Navigating challenging paths, I contemplated every step to keep a stable footing, occasionally with a prayer my sisters taught Giselle to say whenever she was in pain when she was little: “Help me, Jesus!” Crossing paths with other hikers who’d been there, done that, among them families with young children, even babies bundled up and strapped to their daddies’ chests, was reassuring.
Although my two companions consulted a map every now and then, I had no idea where and how we were going. I focused on the path ahead, imagining that we would chance upon a point where we could detour toward a descending path. (I learned later that we had “abbreviated” the walk, for instance, by not completing the Dove Lake Circuit.)
We recharged in some picturesque stops like Wombat Pool, where we first caught sight of what appeared to be the summit, with tiny dots of hikers moving around. We asked a couple of fellows who had overtaken us and they confirmed that, indeed, yonder was the summit.
“Could you please wave to us when you get there?” we told them as they went on their way, following them with our eyes till they vanished. We thought they were on their descent when, having progressed on our hike, we spotted them again, as they did us. They then motioned to us to turn right, where they were headed.
We followed their direction and stayed on the track till gradually we found ourselves in open space: the summit! Ezelle went ahead, Giselle stayed close behind me as I practically crawled my way up, afraid that if I stood, I’d topple over or be blown away by the strong wind.
On the summit shaped like a cradle—thus the mountain’s name—we walked around surveying the surroundings and the scenery below, savoring our moment of triumph. We took pictures as proof of our achievement.
The trail on the descent was still difficult, though there was a refreshing stop, Crater Falls. Imagine our relief when we espied in the distance the final stretch of boardwalk that ended in the shuttle stop. Nearly four hours after we separated, our companions Avie, Mars, and Wush broke into applause as we reunited at the visitor center.
From Launceston, we drove down to Hobart, the capital. On our penultimate night while strolling in the pier area, we saw a reflection of the Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights.
Adventure, miracle, blessing
Something else had motivated me to do the summit walk—a forthcoming adventure, not in the great outdoors but cocooned in a sanitized environment.
In July, I underwent laparoscopy to remove a benign tumor in my right adrenal gland. It was detected in the course of tests to determine the cause of discomfort in my upper right side. An ultrasound and MRI revealed the 5-centimeter tumor, prompting the GP to refer me to an endocrine surgeon.
The tumor, or adrenal adenoma, is generally noncancerous but can become malignant. What causes it is unknown, and it is usually detected incidentally, or by chance, thus its occasional name, “incidentaloma.” It grows less than 3 millimeters a year.
I had hoped that by some miracle, the tumor would shrink or disappear before my appointment with the surgeon. But, I realized, the miracle was that it was detected at all.
A week before the surgery, I asked close friends and colleagues for prayers. Longtime friends in Manila sent help. Giselle had informed her own friends and church community of choir mates and coordinators of the Filipino chaplaincy. They responded with overwhelming support in various forms, and I realized just how much my daughter is loved. What a blessing!
I met more Filipinos during various stages of my medical experience—Christine, who assisted in arranging my MRI schedule with the technician; Nancy, who drew blood for tests before and after surgery; Bianca, a nurse in ICU, where I spent the first night after surgery.
Other nurses, on learning I am Filipino, all had a good word—“lovely”—about colleagues who were my compatriots. I’m certain the same is said of those in other hospitals, like choristers Liv and Mark, who shared what they knew about the procedure and assured me I had nothing to worry about.
My two-night hospital confinement at North Shore Private was quite a novel experience, too, with every aspect tech-enhanced. For one, admission papers are all accomplished online. For another, the bed is electric, enabling the patient to adjust the height and position by pushing buttons on the inner and outer sides (unlike the hand cranks on the manual type metal-frame bed). And nurse-call buttons are strategically installed on the side of the stand closest to the bed, by the toilet door and inside, next to the toilet seat and behind the shower chair.
The TV remote control was something else. When a nurse said that I might want to turn on the TV, I replied that it might be heard in the other rooms. Oh, not at all, she said. It turned out that the sound comes from the remote itself, so it doesn’t waft outside one’s room.
Pre- and post-op
On the eve of surgery, a hospital staffer called with admission instructions, including taking an antigen test before leaving home. The anesthetist followed, with a run-through of the procedure from her end and a query about any concern. She put me so at ease that I asked to be ensured I was kept warm.
Overnight in the ICU, although still groggy, I noted that my blankets were constantly changed with fresh ones that felt as though they came out of a steamer.
Awake in the morning, I overheard resident doctors consulting my chart commenting, “She’s doing very well…” The nurse, Judy, noticed and remarked, while spreading jam on my toast, “You’re lucky, he’s the best,” referring to my surgeon, Clinical Associate Prof. Mark Sywak of the University of Sydney and head of the Department of Endocrine and Oncology Surgery at the Royal North Shore Hospital.
During my checkup two weeks later, Prof. Sywak reported that my remaining adrenal gland was functioning well; he said lab tests confirmed the tumor was benign but that it was bigger than the MRI showed: 6 cm. It must have been there for 10 years, he said, and in another 10 years might have become malignant.
Indeed, he and Dr. Justine Hester, the GP who had me undergo the tests, virtually saved my life.
A month after surgery, Prof. Sywak’s assistant Shannon emailed to say the surgeon was seeking my permission to include my “surgery information and result” in a paper he was writing for the Australian Medical Journal. Attached to the email was a brochure of the Kolling Institute Tumour Bank, where tumor tissues are stored for research, and a medical records consent form for my signature. My “adventure” continues.
On my discharge, heaven sent me a gift: a rainbow seen from my hospital window. I have always believed that God looks after each one of us. The events in my life prove it time and again, particularly these last few years.
With everyone everywhere going through their own pandemic experience, countless messages of comfort and hope have been exchanged. Two have uplifted and sustained me profoundly. One is Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.”
The other is a quote texted by my friend Lynett, with whom I have a shared experience as carer to a family member. The message seemed to speak to me. I found out that it is from the book “Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith” by Anne Lamott: “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”
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