Present and Accounted For

25 Jan 12647688_10207356738890657_797840846_n

I’ve been trying to think of a word to describe how Alphonse has been in the last month or so, but no matter how I rack my brain to do it, nothing seems to fit. Aware? Conscious? Sensitive? I find myself at a loss for words. Somehow, these don’t seem apt at all. Then too, if I use them, do they betray a prejudice against individuals with autism by attributing them with the lack or absence of these traits? Alphonse is certainly aware, conscious, and sensitive of us and his environment; if at all, he is painfully burdened by an over-awareness of everything that goes around him. Perhaps the word or words I am looking for are more related to a perceived emotional distance, an aloofness that disconnects him with other’s intentions and motivations.

And yet, today, even as I write this, Alphonse seems more here, more present with us these days. I can’t explain it at all. I don’t know why or how, he just is.

He tries to reach out more often, making himself seen and heard. Would you believe that we’ve been able to have conversations with him- funny ones at that? Despite his inability to communicate through spoken language, he has managed to make his responses understood. There is also a remarkable degree of restraint in him these days, something we have not seen in a long while.

Consider this.  When his nanny absconded early last year, despite a promise to return (with an advance on her salary, a paid-for return airplane ticket, and a borrowed cellular phone), Alphonse didn’t break out in tantrums right away. We had given him a social story on his iPad to read before and during his nanny’s absence. I made sure to include a calendar marked with her vacation days. Three days after she was due to return and with news that she had eloped, Alphonse finally had that full-scale meltdown. He pulled our hair, threw all our borrowed dining chairs, and even tried, on several occasions, to bite us. It took about a week before he calmed down.

Knowing his reactions to loss, we resolved to make the next transitions smoother. With our previous successes with social stories fresh on my mind, I worked on poster pictures for Alphonse, giving him copies on his iPad and printing out some to post on the walls. I even kept copies on my mobile phone so would always have them on hand and ready for viewing. We showed the pictures to him every day, and after about two weeks, he began to really understand what they were for.

No pulling hairWhen another nanny informed us of her plans to “retire” soon after the others, we redoubled our efforts at showing him these pictures. Three weeks before his nanny left, I gave him another social story, a goodbye book to prepare him for her departure. We took pictures of his nanny waving goodbye. We told him she would not be coming back, but that she would keep in touch through Facebook and phone calls. On the night he first read the book, Alphonse shrieked and yelled in heartbreak. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he proceeded to throw what he could lay his hands on BUT he did not pull our hair. When I ran toward him to comfort him, he sobbed even louder, burying his head in my shoulder. I noticed his hands were clenched in tight fists. He had clenched them so tightly that his hands were bright red and his nails had dug marks into his palms. That was when we began to realize the extent of his self-restraint (no pulling hair, Alphonse!) and his new-found understanding of what he may and may not do.

That he’s been more attuned to us continues to be a source of our amazement and joy. We ask him questions and surprisingly, he gives us answers. The easiest questions are those he can reply to with a nod or a shake of his head. Of late, he has also started verbalizing more, often accompanying his nod with a “Ya” and the shake of his head with a “Na/No.” Even more amazing, he would say “Ayaw ayaw ayaw” (I don’t want to, I don’t want to, I don’t want to) when pressed into doing something against his will (like bathing with cold water, heehee). When presented with choices, it’s comforting to know he knows what he wants and can often choose to his satisfaction. Little things to many, but for one who has never had his own voice, they certainly mean a lot.

Just this New Year, on the way to lunch with the rest of the family, we asked him what he wanted to have for lunch.

Do you want chicken? Na.

Do you want pizza? Ya.

Shakey’s? Ya.

Pizza Hut? Ya.

Yellow cab? Weh? (He’s never had Yellow Cab Pizza, I forgot.)

Poor thing. We ended up eating at Max’s Fried Chicken because Shakey’s was closed and we didn’t want to take another stab at finding parking. It took a while before his gloomy face brightened and only after we bribed him with a whole Max’s fried chicken. Still, it makes us happy to know he has opinions and choices; we only need to find a way to help him bring them out in the open.

I can only imagine what the future has in store for us and for Alphonse. But if this is any indication of what we can expect, then we shall see Alphonse evolve and continue to grow as he ages. All children grow, and children with autism are no exception. But Time, it seems, is what they need the most of.

For now, it is enough he is here, present and accounted for, struggling against the mighty wall of his disabilities. We shall continue to arm him with the picks and axes he needs to tear down these walls. Time, I pray, will do the rest.

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Keep Calm and Break Resolutions

8 Jan

Broken ResolutionI have only two resolutions for 2016 and on the eighth day of this new year, I realized I’ve already managed to break them both.

The first one was to write more. I’ve been putting off writing for a while now. When my PC’s hard drive died on me at end of the year, I figured I had gotten off easy with fulfilling my first resolution. I shushed the voice inside my head that nagged at me (“But don’t you have a laptop? And an iPad?”) and pretended that the death of my PC was the most compelling reason not to write. The truth is, it isn’t for lack of anything to say. In the last few months, writing- the physical act- has become more difficult. I can’t hold a pen firmly and my handwriting, once the stuff teachers raved about, has become illegible. Even typing is hard, as my fingers lack the strength and the feedback it once had. All I feel now is a lot of achy pins and needles in my hands.

Fortunately, while fine motor movements are difficult, gross movements can still keep me busy. I can cook and bake, but my knife skills are shot. I can still whip up a mean cake, but I can’t ice it. I can hold a doll, but I can’t brush her hair or dress her up in her fine little clothes. I can only look at my little Sylvanian toys now so I play video games more; smashing buttons is easy. Little things that I took for granted are once again the bane of my existence. Heck, I can’t button my clothes or hook my bra! Even typing these last two paragraphs have taken longer than usual as I now need to look at the keyboard more often to see if I am hitting the right keys. My fingers feel thick all the time.

I don’t know what caused this but I have a nagging thought that my neck, stiff and unyielding again, is related to it. (I’m also keeping a close eye on my blood sugar levels, promise!) So while I muster the nerve to show up at my orthopedist’s office, I will have to manage this the way I did seven years ago- through sheer grit. Wish me luck I can squiggle my way through this.

My other resolution was to walk more. I’ve been taking daily walks with Alphonse since the start of the year, nothing big, just short walks around the neighborhood. The plan was to walk slowly and build up my momentum so I can go back to longer distances. Somewhere at the back of my head, I thought that maybe I can even manage to learn how to ride a bicycle. (Unless my husband caves in and buys me a three-wheeled bike! Please, A?) But in the last two days, Alphonse has had other things in his mind except walking and we’ve been stuck inside the house. Resolution two broken before it even got off the ground.

The good news is that there are still 358 days left in the year, time enough to restart and get a do-over. Also, there’s another New Year coming up in about a month, so if this New Year isn’t enough to galvanize me into action, maybe a second one would finally give me the shove, errhm, push I need.

So here’s to the New Year, dear friends! May it be kinder than the year that passed and may God bless us all!

“No matter how hard the past, you can always begin again.” ~Buddha

Thanksgiving

1 Dec

This post is a little late for Thanksgiving, but then again, each moment with good friends is a moment for gratitude and  appreciation.

quipple846Last Thursday was the first time in 30 years that my own “band of brothers”- A♥, JD, and JI- was complete. In the three decades since we left high school, we have not had the chance to get together again as a group. We had seen each other on separate occasions, though these meetings were very few and far between. The last time I saw JD, it was at my father’s funeral last year. He had come to comfort A♥ and me at a time when we were both reeling from our loss. The last time I saw JI, it was in August of this year, when he and his wife graciously opened their Dallas home to A♥ and me. Yes, thirty years have stretched our ties and pulled us all in different directions.

I looked at the men before me and tried to remember the young boys they were in high school. I know A♥ the longest, having met him in debate team in the latter half of freshman year. JI and I became fast friends when we became classmates the following year. The three of us- JI, A♥, and me- became classmates with JD in junior year. Soon after, our little gang of friends was born.

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Back in high school, JD was the quiet one, but beneath his baby-faced looks, he was always sensible and smart. He helped temper my brashness and impulsivity with sound advice. JI was funny, carefree and adventurous, but he was also highly protective of his friends. He would make sure I was right behind him when we crossed streets, reminding me so often to look both ways. A♥ was my counterpart in nonstop chatter. We both liked the same books and music so we always had much to discuss. Out of kindness, however, he would always let me talk more. These three boys were my lifelines then. We were were all fiercely loyal to each other.

As I looked at each of their faces that night, it struck me how we have all been changed in so many ways. Now in our middle years, we all tread different paths and circumstances. Our lives are bigger than just our dreams now. We have beloved spouses and children, work and responsibilities, extended families and communities. But even just for several hours that night, I remembered how it was to be surrounded by my closest friends and feel secure in their friendship.  And just like in high school many years ago, we reached out to each other in genuine acceptance and cast anew bonds that hold us together not only as friends but as chosen kin.

It dawned on me then how apt, how fitting, nay, how right it was that we got together on a date that was celebrated as Thanksgiving, for truly, such a moment was what Thanksgiving was all about.

 

Alphonse at 21

3 Nov

I can’t believe you’re 21 today, son. I can’t believe we made it this far.

Happy birthday!

Many times, over the years, I often wondered if we would ever get past those years of heartbreak and violence. I wondered if we would live to see this day, if we would ever reach this point when we could look back with relief and, yes, gratitude, that we made it through those long stretches of heartache. And mind you, son, we have lived through much.

We’ve had times when our whole world was in shambles, when we lived in sorrow and darkness. We wept for days and clung to each other in helpless surrender. We forged through your terrors and rage. We loved you, always, even when anger blinded you and fear made you reject and push us away.

Now, here we are. Twenty one years into a life we never knew could change us so much. A life with you. A life with autism. A life shaped by adversity, tempered by grace, made whole by love.

Thank you, Alphonse, for all that you have brought and continue to bring to our lives. Thank you for teaching us to love unconditionally, without hope of return or reciprocation.

Thank you for showing us the limitless spools of our patience. We have learned to wait and find joy in the waiting.

Thank you for teaching us to endure, to be steadfast and unwavering in our fortitude and faith.

Thank you for teaching us to bend, to kneel, and to submit wholeheartedly and with all humility to the One who gave you to us.

Thank you for bringing out the best in us. Who knew that Mama, your scaredy-cat mother, had strength and courage? That Papa, firstborn and strong-willed, came with an inexhaustible supply of steady, constant patience?  Or that your Kuya Alex, your big, burly full-bearded brother, was capable of so much spontaneous outpouring of gentle love? Your presence in our lives allowed us to find these wellsprings of kindness in our hearts.

Thank you for showing us the pleasures of little things, the wonder of tiny miracles, and the sheer delight that comes from just being alive.

And thank you, for knowing and finally accepting our love, and for loving each one of us back with your kisses, hugs, and many more quiet acts of tenderness and love. Yours is love in action, our son.

Happy 21st birthday, Alphonse. Ours has been a journey of unbelievable, unimaginable adventures and it has only just begun.

We love you always.

Alphonse as a newborn, two weeks early, two days late
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Loved since birth

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and loved always, even when autism came (diagnosis at 18 months old).

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Cute and cuddly, (and wearing Mama’s baptismal dress), falling in love with this little baby was always easy.

Alphonse as girl

But as he grew older, he developed differently. While typical little boys play, he would prostrate himself on cold floors for hours at a time.

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Our baby went to school earlier than most, his days revolving around therapy centers and special education. 

Alphonse toddler

At his school, he was the youngest child to be diagnosed then.

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Alphonse was different. His fascinations were different. He loved twirling the plastic rotor blades of his Fisher Price helicopter.

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But there were times we could almost pretend we were “typical” and “normal,” and have our pictures taken like regular people… 

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Even as his interests grew differently from his peers. He has always loved water and could spend hours playing with the hose.

Alphonse and the Hose

And pieces of string and twirly slinkies could keep him preoccupied for hours.

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With autism came periods of stress too, of self-injurious behavior, which caused us grief and endless worry.

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But his gorgeous smiles always made the hard times worth it.

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Bestowed with the gift of beauty,

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yet often fierce and funny,

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this boy spreads joy with just a smile.

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And as he grows older,

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and bigger,

My Alphonse

wiser and stronger,

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may his smiles remain with us

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to give us light when darkness comes

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and to bind us in love and kindness always.

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Happy birthday, Alphonse!

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We love you so. 

 

How to Survive Your Husband’s Retirement

22 Oct

Published in HerWord on October 20, 2015.

 

pic for blog 05My husband Anthony retired- or shall I put it more accurately- was retired in late July of this year after almost 26 years of service to the company. I suppose you could say we were surprised when it happened, but, in truth, with the change in ownership in 2013 and the merger of two papers this year, it was no longer quite as shocking or unexpected.

Amazingly, he took it all in stride. This was not to say that he was happy with the decision, but always the optimist that he is and, between the two of us, always the one who saw the good in people’s actions and intentions, he respected it and chose to dwell on the experience of gratitude. He was indebted to the Boss, Mr. Raul Locsin, and Mrs. Leticia Locsin, his first employers, who saw potential in the fresh college graduate he was in 1989. And he focused on the privilege of working with people he considered his second family. These thoughts carried him over fear and worry.

In the beginning of July, he said goodbye quietly to his closest friends even as he started to dismantle more than half his life into boxes. On his last day of work, he gave back the keys to his office, had lunch with a few of his colleagues, and drove back home with the last of his personal boxes. At the age of 47, he jumped, once again as in the beginning of his journey with the company, into the great unknown.

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Lunch with some of his colleagues on his last day of work: a farewell, not goodbye to good friends

We’ve all read the same studies: retirement is never easy. My father retired in his sixties after a series of debilitating strokes that put him longer and longer in the hospital with each stay. In the last few years of his life, he would often wake up disoriented and unable to recognize his caregivers. But he remembered, quite distinctly, the work that he did all his life. He would rifle through old papers and books, looking for his ledgers and checkbooks. He remembered the names of his suppliers and how much business he did with them. And he would often end up in a state of panic as he scrambled to locate papers he thought he needed, from a business then more than 10 years closed. Even as his mind began to wander, he never forgot his work. It was what defined him most of his life.

If retirement at old age is problematic, then retirement at middle age is doubly difficult. No one ever quite prepares to lose his/her job in his/her forties or ever dreams of having to look for one again. For many, there is an unexpected void to their daily lives. There is boredom and lack of socialization to contend with. The sudden freedom that comes with the absence of structured activity may be exhilarating at first but wears down quickly with time. And though foreseeable financial issues weigh in heavily on the retiree, especially for single-income families like ours, there are far greater things at stake than the loss of a paycheck; the absence of an integral part of their days begins to rub raw the definitions of self and worth.

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photo from Groovy Grandmas on Facebook

For the spouse who is left to deal with the newly retired husband/wife, the sudden change in your routine as a family may throw you off balance. Your plans, both for yourself and for your family, may have to change, putting undue stress in your long term goals. It may even put a strain in your relationship, as the hours of interaction become forcibly longer. Problems you could avoid when one or both of you were at work suddenly turn into problems that stared at your faces 24 hours long.

I can only speak for myself and how we dealt with the changes in our lifestyle, household, and family since the end of July. I do hope, however, that this piece of insight we gained over the last few months makes others realize that retirement does not necessarily have to be a bad thing.

It helped that in 24 years of marriage, my husband and I have always had open lines of communication. We don’t hold back thoughts; we don’t keep secrets from each other. We discussed the situation rationally, keeping our emotions and personal opinions in check, but allowing each other the space and time to vent, if necessary. Again, between the two of us, I was the one with the unrestrained hostility to work out, and he took this as a challenge to help me get over my anger and indignation.

Once we got over the first hurdle, we discussed what we were facing head on and decided to implement changes to keep our household working, a sort of a post-retirement game plan. Since we have a severely disabled child who requires 24/7 care all his life, we resolved to keep the most important parts of our child’s life consistent. From scheduling, to decisions on education, to treatments and medications, we agreed to sacrifice just about anything but we would not touch Alphonse’s life unless it was absolutely necessary.

We made a loose time frame to follow for the period he was home but other than that, made no demands of each other’s schedules. We kept each other busy by tending to chores and errands we could do together. In his now “almost all” spare time, I noticed he read a lot, watched movies, wrote his sports columns, and caught up on his sleep. I ended up chucking my chores just to sleep with him when he did (it was so tempting), and within a few days of his being home, our body rhythms, once so disparate (he was an early riser and I was a late sleeper), were in sync.

We decided to take a long trip together. Although I worried about leaving our son, I also felt my husband needed the distance to heal and recharge. We entrusted our son’s care to my family and took the trip to reconnect with his family abroad. Seeing my husband with his father, the joy in their faces so palpable, I knew it was well worth the time and money spent. My husband went home tired, but happy; a little broke, but also richer in love and experience.

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With Daddy, in one of my favorite stores (heehee)

They say that in marriage, “give as you would take,” and we took this to remind us to be kind and loving to each other even when the 24 hours of imposed togetherness sometimes took its toll. I have to credit my husband for his extended patience when mine wore thin and I vented on him, as I did on our third day in New York.

It was beastly hot, the walk from subway stop to the theater and back was tough under that heat. Worse, I had a migraine headache to deal with. At the end of the day, I was snarky and irritable, certainly not the best person to be with, 13,000 kilometers away from home. I threw up twice in the hotel bathroom. Livid at the weather and helpless at its relentless effects on me, I grew angry at him instead. Nice “logic,” right? My husband helped me undress as I crawled under the cool sheets and ignored him deliberately. I fell asleep sullen and cross.

I woke up at two am, finding myself cradled in his arms. He had put his arms around me and I was too out of it to even notice. He woke up when I squirmed and said “I’m sorry, honey. I hope you’re feeling better now.” I grew ashamed of my own actions. Think about this: when spouses become victims of their husbands’ or wives’ anger, how many would be able to draw on love and not pride to carry them through? Over the past couple of months, there would be times my husband would lapse into bouts of unusual and unnerving silence and the memories of that day helped me to reach out to him in patience and love. Give as you would take.

Remember the synced body rhythms? This worked great for us after our trip, when jet lag kept us up at three in the morning. What did we do then? We talked a lot, nonstop for hours, it seemed. We cuddled. We prayed for our children and for each other. We held hands. And when we found ourselves drowsy, we held hands some more till we fell asleep.

In the end, his retirement proved to be short-lived. Going back to work was an easy decision for him. Perhaps, and we say this thought out loud, that were both our children independent adults, we would have no second thoughts living simply with what we have. We could run away to the province, live off the land, and experience Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in action. Still, the reality of our situation makes us take stock of our decisions. Parents of children with special needs cannot afford to be foolhardy.

We realized that because our child would need care all his life, we would need more resources to help him and his older brother manage in the future. We disagreed on when, however. I wanted him to stay at home longer. He insisted he needed to get back to work, for fear of losing our little savings to inaction. After a period of thought, we established a timeline we could both live with. I am proud to say that my husband has gone back to work, as of this writing, for a very reputable firm in another industry, a decision he made with purpose.

Losing work is not easy, more so when it is almost a lifetime’s worth. The reentry to the labor force is another period of adjustment that can also be difficult under the circumstances. Still, it is wise to remember that when faced with the prospect of change, whether favorable or not, there is no wall as easy to breach as a fragmented front. Communication and planning are key elements to holding your family together in times of crisis. Most importantly, a marriage that is strong in love and held together by faith, fidelity, and a steadfast belief in each other’s abilities will always thrive. Looking back, I can honestly say that I loved every second of my husband’s time at home with me.

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I not only survived my husband’s retirement; I aced it- with him!

The Right to Be

29 Sep

Six days ago, in what should have been just another “ordinary” work day for folks in Broadway, an incident in the matinee of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” made waves in social media for entirely different reasons. As the actor Kelvin Moon Loh tells it, a young child with autism got affected during the whipping scene and overcome with emotion, cried out loudly. It wasn’t the child’s reaction that bothered the actors on stage, Mr. Loh, particularly; it was the audience’s response to the child and his mother. I should simply post what Mr. Loh wrote about this incident. It’s far better than any way I can tell it.

I am angry and sad.

Just got off stage from today’s matinee and yes, something happened. Someone brought their autistic child to the theater.

That being said- this post won’t go the way you think it will.

You think I will admonish that mother for bringing a child who yelped during a quiet moment in the show. You think I will herald an audience that yelled at this mother for bringing their child to the theater. You think that I will have sympathy for my own company whose performances were disturbed from a foreign sound coming from in front of them. 

No.

Instead, I ask you- when did we as theater people, performers and audience members become so concerned with our own experience that we lose compassion for others? 

The theater to me has always been a way to examine/dissect the human experience and present it back to ourselves. Today, something very real was happening in the seats and, yes, it interrupted the fantasy that was supposed to be this matinee but ultimately theater is created to bring people together, not just for entertainment, but to enhance our lives when we walk out the door again.

It so happened that during “the whipping scene”, a rather intense moment in the second act, a child was heard yelping in the audience. It sounded like terror. Not more than one week earlier, during the same scene, a young girl in the front row- seemingly not autistic screamed and cried loudly and no one said anything then. How is this any different? 

His voice pierced the theater. The audience started to rally against the mother and her child to be removed. I heard murmurs of “why would you bring a child like that to the theater?”. This is wrong. Plainly wrong.

Because what you didn’t see was a mother desperately trying to do just that. But her son was not compliant. What they didn’t see was a mother desperately pleading with her child as he gripped the railing refusing- yelping more out of defiance. I could not look away. I wanted to scream and stop the show and say- “EVERYONE RELAX. SHE IS TRYING. CAN YOU NOT SEE THAT SHE IS TRYING???!!!!” I will gladly do the entire performance over again. Refund any ticket because-

For her to bring her child to the theater is brave. You don’t know what her life is like. Perhaps, they have great days where he can sit still and not make much noise because this is a rare occurrence. Perhaps she chooses to no longer live in fear, and refuses to compromise the experience of her child. Maybe she scouted the aisle seat for a very popular show in case such an episode would occur. She paid the same price to see the show as you did for her family. Her plan, as was yours, was to have an enjoyable afternoon at the theater and slowly her worst fears came true. 

I leave you with this- Shows that have special performances for autistic audiences should be commended for their efforts to make theater inclusive for all audiences. I believe like Joseph Papp that theater is created for all people. I stand by that and also for once, I am in a show that is completely FAMILY FRIENDLY. The King and I on Broadway is just that- FAMILY FRIENDLY- and that means entire families- with disabilities or not. Not only for special performances but for all performances. A night at the theater is special on any night you get to go. 

And no, I don’t care how much you spent on the tickets.

~Kelvin Moon Loh, September 23, 2015

As a parent of a severely disabled young man, I can speak first hand of how this lack of compassion has been the norm most of my son’s life. There have been many times when Alphonse has been shooed and shushed for his actions in public, when his loud shrieks and squeals have received angry stares, when his large, jerky movements have been met with impatience and hostility. Mr. Loh’s experience with the unsympathetic, almost boorish, behavior of the audience is not strange to us. Despite this, parents of children with disabilities- those with autism most of all- have to always walk a tightrope balancing their children’s needs with those of the larger public. It is a most difficult line to tread. I refer you back to an excerpt from one of my old posts: 

I have to speak my mind on the entitlements many feel we parents of autism use to “get our way” in the world. As a parent of a child with autism, I am very aware of my son’s dependence on the kindness, tolerance, and compassion of others. As such, we have never used autism as an excuse to take advantage of others or refrain from obeying rules. Autism in our lives has not given us a sense of claim and privilege; on the contrary, we have learned to sublimate many of our own needs in favor of others’ comfort and wellbeing. We are always mindful and grateful for accommodations made for our son. And in the event that our son feels uncomfortable or overwhelmed or frightened, we are always first to remove him from these situations. The only real thing we ever ask for always is not to be judged. (from Flight Risk, 27 June 2008)

While we have always been quick to intervene, to calm, coax, and comfort him, we realize that we have done these less for his sake than for ours. Ashamed to be in the middle of curious, often unsympathetic, stares, embarrassed by the unwanted, unfriendly attention, we have often voluntarily given up his right to be seen, heard, and be part of this world.

Not anymore.

We owe Alphonse his chance to move in the same world we do- to explore, to grow, to learn by experience. Lack of compassion and empathy from a society that treats him and others like him as inconveniences notwithstanding, we continue to struggle to give him his space under the sun. We owe him that much.

Mr. Loh, thank you for standing up for our children. Thank you believing them worthy of your talent and time. Thank you for your respect and kindness. You have given us new dreams for our children. God bless you always. 

In parting, I leave you with pictures taken from last Sunday’s outing with Alphonse. You can see the happiness in his face as he steps out into the world.

 All set to go out into the world!

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My Boys

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We will always walk hand in hand.

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Should you bump into him one of these days, I pray that you find it in your heart to show kindness and compassion.

I promise you his smile will be all worth it.

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Matthew 25:40

 

 

 

 

The Cab

24 Sep

It was the second cab I hailed successfully that Tuesday afternoon, and the first to agree to accept me and my companion as passengers. There were many other empty ones passing the stretch of road we were in, but not one slowed down. By the time this cab came, I was relieved that the driver even stopped at all. My relief turned to gratitude when he opened the door right away. I thanked him profusely, gave him our destination, and we headed off.

The cab smelled strongly of Coronado Cherry, a popular scent of the air freshener brand California Scents, one that I know very well. Back wCalifornia_Scents_Spillproof_Organic_Coronado_Cherryhen our then eleven-year-old car needed a bit of sprucing up, scent-wise, to hide its age, this was our product of choice. True enough, I spotted the familiar dark pink tin can tucked between the driver and front passenger seats. The scent of cherries filled my nostrils and made my chest feel tight. “This is too sweet and cloying,” I thought, but I was more grateful than annoyed so I simply let it pass.

I tried to engage the driver in small talk but he would only respond in monosyllables. He did, however, tell me he would need additional details on my destination. I gave up on the chitchat, pulled my phone from inside my bag, and opened my mobile phone to access Waze. I was still busy fiddling with my phone when I inadvertently looked up. I caught the driver looking at me and my companion through the rear view mirror. Ordinarily, this would not have seemed suspicious except there was something in the way he looked at us that unsettled me. When our eyes met, he hurriedly looked away.

I sent my husband a Viber message giving him the license plate number of the cab I was in. Then I took a picture of the mobile number stenciled on the inside paneling of the door to my right. I made a big fuss about sending the message; I read the license plate aloud as I typed it so that the driver knew someone else had my whereabouts at that moment.

Now and then, I snuck quick glances at him, only to find him looking at us surreptitiously and repeatedly. That was when I pulled out my pepper spray, set it to spray, and held it, just in case. My chest was tight and painful. My heart and head were pounding. I debated silently with myself, wondering if staying inside the cab was a logical decision. It was mid-afternoon, almost rush hour, and if only one of all those cabs I tried to hail even bothered to stop, what were my chances of getting another cab in this traffic? After all, all I had were my instincts telling me something was wrong; he had not done anything untoward against us at all.

Save for the queasiness I felt, we reached our destination safely, thank God. The queasiness turned into a pounding headache soon after. I was nauseated badly and my stomach hurt. I initially attributed it to the overwhelming odor of the air freshener, made worse by paranoia and nerves. I drank some hot tea to calm my tummy but the pain and tightness persisted. A few minutes later, my companion reported that she was feeling dizzy and nauseated. Something had happened during the cab ride.

In hindsight, I can point to his strange behavior as extremely suspect. He drove unusually slow, seemingly taking his time, an oddity for cab drivers out to get as many flag downs and rides as possible. He took us through side streets with little or no human traffic, even when the main thoroughfares were clear, making the trip longer. And his shifty-eyed, furtive rear view glances, well, they were enough to heighten my senses to impending danger. Was he waiting for something to happen?

At home, I asked my companion if she noticed any other thing during our ride. I had not told her any of my suspicions, aware that I was treading on flimsy ground. “Uhm, Ate, he held a small, clear spray bottle in one of his hands and he squirted its contents by his legs,” she replied reluctantly. My companion sat on the back passenger seat diagonally across him while I was directly behind the driver. The only reason she didn’t say anything was that she wasn’t sure what the bottle was or what was in it. Now that we were both feeling sick, we had a strong feeling it was something intended to make us sleep or sick, something that can be camouflaged by the strong scent of cherries.

I only have my word against the cab driver and short of evidence- the kind that would stand up to scrutiny under the law- I choose not to post his license plate or any other identifying details. I can only attest to what happened to me during and after the ride. I write this, however, to remind everyone that crime is no longer stuff we just read in the papers. It is coming nearer and nearer our homes and our persons every day.

Please be safe, everyone, and take all necessary precautions when getting rides. If you can access Uber (my husband told me to use this service but again, I was foolhardy), this is ultimately a safer, albeit more expensive, choice.

Still, we can’t all be afraid all the time. We can’t let fear rule our lives but we can try to always be safe. Here are some of the lessons on cab riding that I’ve learned from this experience:

  1. Try not to commute alone. Bring a companion, if possible, or go with a friend. Ask your friend to alert you if he/she notices something suspicious.
  2. Call for a taxi instead of hailing one. Some taxi companies have hotlines you can dial. If they are not able to provide you with one, find a taxi lane and get your cab there. Security personnel in most malls and hospitals make a list of the cabs that take passengers and they are most likely to have CCTV footage.
  3. Take a picture of the exterior of the cab before you board it and take pictures of the driver’s ID, license plate, and their contact numbers. Check for meter, ID, and window and door handles. Don’t go in if the cab is missing any of these. Check if the door opens from the inside and if the windows can be rolled down.
  4. Call a friend and text him/her your cab details so he/she will have a record of where you are and who you are with.
  5. Sit in the back passenger seat. It’s the safest place for lone passengers. Again, make sure the doors and windows can be opened, but once you’re inside, lock them.
  6. Do not bring valuables and jewelry. If you must bring them, try to keep them discreet. Leave your credit cards if you don’t need them. Hide your valuables but keep your phone near you.
  7. Save an emergency number you can call withblog safety one key stroke.
  8. I always carry a whistle and pepper spray when I commute. The latter is not for everyone but the point is to be proactive and not be a victim. Know how to use them.
  9. Plan your destination and know the possible routes you can take to get there. Find out how long it will take you to reach your destination. Waze is a great application for this.
  10. Trust your guts and instincts. They’re usually more right than wrong. (Remind me to heed this next time.) And don’t forget to pray.
I am still reeling from this recent experience. I got lucky (again) but I am always mindful that it only takes one slip-up for bad things to happen. I continue to pray for safety and send you, dear friends, my wishes for peace and safety in our cities and country.

 

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