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Happiness is… a Hot Cup of Coffee

14 Mar

Most mornings, I break my fast with a cup of coffee. Some days I brew coffee; most days, because sleep is a premium, I go instant. I heat about two cups of water in an electric kettle and pour it over a heaping teaspoon of coffee granules. I add a packet of stevia, then a tablespoon each of heavy cream, butter, and coconut oil/MCT oil, the last depending on what I have at the moment. I pull out my Aerolatte frother and stir away, creating a rich, smooth, and creamy concoction. I smell the faint hint of coconut and the strong notes of coffee, and already, my senses are wide awake.

I like to take my time to savor my coffee. I usually just have one cup a day; on special occasions, though, I make an extra cup. But when Alphonse- my coffee guzzling son- comes out of his little schoolhouse in the morning, I have to gulp the whole thing down in a hurry, leaving only a teaspoonful or so at the bottom of the cup for him to drink. I have to tell you that caffeine and Alphonse don’t mix very well, unless I want a hyperactive man-child literally climbing the walls.

Lately, Alphonse has been asking for more and more coffee. I take that as a sign to stop drinking coffee in front of him so I decided to extend my intermittent fast to 18 hours, moving my BPC in the afternoons while Alphonse is busy. This way, I have a few hours to enjoy coffee without downing the whole thing in one go.

Now this is where Ember comes in to give my life an extra boost of happiness. I got the Ember travel mug as a Christmas gift over the holidays, and while I have accumulated a wide variety of mugs and tumblers over the years- from double walled stainless steel vacuum flasks to plastic reusable mugs and hardy acrylic cups to dainty ceramic teacups- nothing quite beats the virtues of the Ember.

Just what is the Ember?

The Ember is the the first temperature controlled travel mug that keeps your beverage at your desired temperature for hours, allowing you to enjoy your drink without hurry. For people like me who like to sip and savor, the Ember is a handy mug to have around. It may seem like a novelty, especially since some thermal mugs can keep things warm for hours, but once you’ve tried it, you’ll love the way your coffee (or tea) stays exactly the same way for hours.

At USD150, the Ember travel mug is a pricey deal, particularly when one considers that its volume is only 12 ounces. The 10-oz Ember ceramic mug is a little more affordable at USD80, but without a lid, it is more useful for home and office use. I prefer the flexibility and durability of the travel mug. The huge advantage Ember has over newer, less expensive temperature mugs (such as the Lexo tumbler or Joeveo’s Temperfect mug) is that it allows one to remotely set the temperature via a smartphone. While I write, or clean, or bake, or even get the occasional catnap, I keep the Ember filled with hot coffee and it helps me get through another afternoon of chores. I’ve been using it for a few months now and I can say with certainty that it is a great way to enjoy a hot drink any time of the day.

Most US Starbucks stores carry the Ember, but for those of us here in Asia, Amazon is our best bet for purchasing one. The good news is that the product is available for delivery to the Philippines.

Pros: easy to use, remote fine tuning available, completely washable

Cons: price, availability in the country

Verdict: If you love coffee, you won’t go wrong with the Ember. 🙂 It’s worth every cent.


Help-less, not Helpless

16 Feb

It’s Friday morning; one more day and another busy week will come to a close. I look forward to the weekends, as many of us do. It’s when I get a couple more hours of shuteye without interruption, when I don’t have to wake up too early to get a jumpstart on a long day. On weekends, we usually get breakfast to go for the kids and that, by itself, feels like a rewarding treat after a long, hard week. Compared to weekdays, weekends are not as stressful, although they can be just as physically taxing. The time when we spent Sunday mornings in bed doing nothing is a time long gone.

We’re surviving these help-less seasons in our household strongly, something no one would ever have thought possible in a household with autism. In a country where domestic help is legal and available, our family is one of the few who have decided to do things our way. In this case, everyone pitches in and everyone pulls his or her own weight. Not even Alphonse is exempted. Of course, we’re dead tired at night but the house is clean (somewhat, haha), our bellies are full, and Alphonse is almost always happy. That, by itself, is already big change.

When I injured my neck in 2009, I had a lot of difficulty moving my upper extremities. Back then, I couldn’t lift my arms, my hands were thick and numb, and my neck stayed uncomfortably bent for months. I couldn’t do a lot of things that I used to do. I was suddenly very dependent on others to help me with activities of daily living. My husband took care of me when he was at home but when he was at work, we needed more help around the house, people who would care not just for Alphonse but for me as well. Thankfully, my neck got gradually better over a two-year period and I was able to take over some of my previous chores again.

The nannies stayed because Alphonse fell in love with them. They became his lifelines to the world and having just lived through my “limited participation” in his life, we didn’t want to take away any of his emotional and physical security blankets.

In time, however, they all said goodbye to make new lives for themselves. We looked for replacements to help with Alphonse but none worked out. We went through a succession of people before we finally decided to quit the cycle. By then, we noticed the emotional toil this revolving door of nannies left on Alphonse. He was, in turns, self-injurious and highly aggressive, unable to trust anyone, not even us.

In the many months since then, we’ve overhauled how our household works, splitting chores among the three of us and assigning simple tasks to Alphonse (mostly clean up scut work and removing laundry from the laundry wash line). Over time, we also reestablished a new relationship with Alphonse. Today, Alphonse is thriving under our care. He is expressing himself more, and for a nonverbal fellow who is used to using his burly brawn to get his way, it is quite a feat. We haven’t had to use the wrap/restraint his previous caregivers employed for meltdowns (knock on wood) and I think that’s because he feels more secure with us around him. He knows we are always here for him. We don’t put him off for a cellphone call or Facebook. We kiss him more, hug him more, and just love him more.

Lest you think I make it sound so easy, allow me to disabuse you of any rose-colored notion. Being without help isn’t so bad really; any full-grown adult should be able to fend for himself. But when autism gets thrown into the mix, it becomes quite a different thing altogether. Think about having an overgrown man-child constantly needing you, demanding one-on-one time, requiring 24/7 supervision, and think about how one can only do so much in a day and within limits, and you can maybe scratch the surface of what we live with autism.

The truth is, most nights, we are dead on our feet and running on empty. Some nights, even rest isn’t possible as Alphonse occasionally finds sleep elusive. These are the moments that test our patience and strength. When most everyone would be willing to throw in the towel and give up, we draw on our rediscovered sense of unity to help each other get through one more night. And one more day. And maybe just another night again. And so on and so forth.

I guess it’s true. You never really know how strong you are unless you are tested and pushed to your limits. And knowing that, I don’t think we can ever call ourselves helpless again.

Alphonse says hello! ❤️


19 Dec

I came home on Sunday afternoon, rejuvenated, refreshed, and with a newfound sense of purpose, from the Son-Rise Program Start Up, the very first in the Philippines. For the five days I was away from my family, I learned new things, made fast friends, and gained a whole community of support. Over a hundred parents participated in this life-changing program, each one with a different, yet completely relatable, autism journey of his/ her own. In those five days, we learned to shift our mindsets to a new paradigm, forever altering the way we see our interactions with our children in the autism spectrum.

With Ron K. Kaufman

On our last morning, before we all said goodbye to each other, we wrote letters to our children- letters of affirmation, of commitment, of love- and some bravely shared theirs with us. It took all I had not to dissolve into a blabbering, whimpering crybaby as one father said “I would go to hell and back for you.” I still get teary-eyed when I think about it.

Last night, as I said my bedtime prayers after another long day with Alphonse (yes, it’s him and me again!), it struck me how apt and how perfect that line was. Alphonse was reticent and distant the whole day, ignoring me most determinedly. My absence had hurt him, and I knew he was not going to let me back in his life without an apology, which I gave, repeatedly. No dice. He also wasn’t feeling well and a sudden tummy ache turned into a “poo-nami” (think tsunami, but poo😳) at dinner time. While he writhed in what I can only assume to be colicky pain, he threw our dinner to the floor and spilled everything within reach of his hands. Then, he looked at us expectantly, waiting for our reaction. While I silently perused the scene of devastation, A❤️ kept his composure and reached out for Alphonse’s hand. Alphonse took it. My husband helped him get cleaned up, but Alphonse had several more poo-nami episodes that didn’t reach the bathroom just in time. A❤️ patiently washed our son, deftly steering him away from the remains of food and waste on the floor.

It wasn’t the homecoming I expected. After being away, I wanted Alphonse to run to me and act like he missed me. He did kiss and hug me once sincerely, but he moved away just as quickly, eyeing me suspiciously from the corner of his eye. I was hurt, truth to tell, and disappointed, but as my husband talked to Alphonse in a low, soothing voice, I saw in him the lessons I picked up from my time with Son-Rise and, like him, drew strength from love. Even after Alphonse was clean and had drank oral rehydration salts thrice, A❤️ had to scrub a whole section of the house for an hour before it was clean. We had to move furniture to make sure little bits and pieces of our dinner weren’t left for mice to feast on. He scrubbed the floor with bleach and soap and water to remove all traces of poo and I mopped up after him. I laundered the stained chair covers and table mats in one cycle and hang them up to dry. Later, I headed to the kitchen for my hour of washing up and A❤️ followed to help with the rest of our chores.

I realized this is what it means to “go to hell and back for you.” Because every single day, we do. And we do it without complaints, without begrudging him anything, and with much joy and enthusiasm, because we love Alphonse.

Before I finally fell asleep, I remembered something else. I’ve been meaning to write about this picture but a fog had settled in my brain. Anyway, I was sorting the photographs in my camera roll a few nights before I left home last week when my eyes wandered over a particular picture. It was one my husband took while we were in Taipei two weeks before that. It was part of a series of similar pictures- same pose, same squinty smile, same background- and were it not for the figures on the right side of the photograph, this particular photograph would have ended in the deleted pile along with ten others. For some reason, my eyes lingered on those two figures and stayed there.

I drew on my recollection of that day to place them in the picture. On that cold morning, as A❤️ and I ambled along while taking photographs, I didn’t even know that the camera had caught them. What I do remember most was the sound of a male voice mumbling slowly in a monotone behind me as an older female voice talked soothingly and calmly. I remember whirling around to catch a glimpse of where the voices came from. I remember seeing an adult man and an older woman holding hands as she gently led him across the wide main road, talking him through it. I remember thinking that anywhere in the world, a parent loves his/her child with special needs, and this love, while most unique and exceptional, can also be quite common.

Take A❤️, for example. Or the old Chinese woman with her adult son. Or even the father who choked back his tears while reading his letter to his son.

“I would go to hell and back for you.”

Yes, we Will.

Yes, we Do


One (Wo)Man’s Trash…

9 Dec

Is another (wo)man’s treasure.

I’ve been meaning to get a new case for my phone but I was too stingy to spend for one. I saw some really nice ones in Taipei just recently, but with the peso at a low, it just didn’t seem to make sense to spend for non-necessities right now.

So I made this.

Trash- packaging of Hello Kitty shampoo- turned into treasure- an upcycled iPhone case. What could be cooler than recycling?


The A- Team

18 Jun

An elderly man hurries down a flight of stairs, a packet of medicines in his hand. He stops by the kitchen to get a glass of tepid water and heads to his sons’ room. He opens the lights in the room and picks up things as he makes his way through – a towel left on the floor, a bubble wand thrown under a chair, even a shirt stuffed under the table. He nudges both boys awake, gently calling out their names. The younger boy meekly accepts his medicine, his first in a series for the day, as the older one holds his water ready for him. 

A young man unwraps a sandwich and cuts it into small pieces. He lays the pieces gently into a small plastic plate before handing it over to his younger brother. He wipes his brother’s mouth every now and then and catches falling crumbs on a tray. If he isn’t fast enough, those crumbs are eaten as fast as they are found, even if they’ve found their way to the floor.

The elderly man sits on an old armchair, visibly tired from a whole day of work. It is nine in the evening but his day isn’t about to end just yet. In his left hand, he holds his phone as he checks email and responds in real time; in his right, he holds a towel and clean underwear as he waits for his son to finish his after-bathing “touching” rituals. 

It’s three in the morning. A young man shrieks as the top of his lungs, singing, nay, shouting, his wordless songs. For some reason, he won’t, or can’t, sleep. His big brother, eyes bleary from the lateness of the hour, sits with him patiently as he tires himself out. It will be morning before they even get some sleep. 

This is what every single day is like in my home these long, hard days. And these men are my lifelines to the world. They are my A-Team. My Autism Team. 

Living with a loved one with severe disabilities is not for the faint of heart. Alphonse is 22, a grown, strapping young man by physical appearance, and yet, he remains a young child in many ways. He needs assistance and supervision in almost every aspect of life, from eating to toileting. He needs help asking for things and in getting them. He can’t be left alone for a single second as his compulsions almost always overcome any measure of restraint in him. 

Day in and day out, we work to help Alphonse find peace and joy in this turbulent world. And while I may play a small part in Alphonse’s life, in truth, it is Anthony and Alex who make our challenging lives work. They carry the weight and burden of caring for Alphonse as much as I do, maybe even more. 

Some would judge Alphonse as as unfortunate individual because of his disabilities. I happen to think otherwise. Alphonse, for all his limitations, is doubly lucky because he has the unconditional love and patient service of his father and brother. 

On Father’s Day, I pay tribute to his two fathers, two of the bravest, most loving men I’ve ever known. Would that every child gets loved the very same way. 

“If everyone helps to hold up the sky, then one person does not become tired.”


An Extraordinarily Ordinary Life 

1 Jun

I woke up at 8:25 in the morning, the telephone ringing loudly in my ears. I snatched the handheld from its cradle and answered the call. My daily alarms are set to 5 and 8:45 in the morning; I try to catch some Zzzs in between. I rued the lost 20 minutes as I stretched lazily in bed, thinking of all the chores that were waiting for me. We’ve been without nannies and household help for a while now. While their services were appreciated, it seems as if they’ve become more trouble than help of late as we bent backwards more and more over their demands. Going without help has gotten easier with everyone willingly pitching in, but my days have not necessarily gotten shorter as I obsess continuously (and sometimes needlessly, I have to admit) over unfinished chores . 

Today marks my 50th birthday, and were it any other year, perhaps all I would be thinking of would be a visit to the salon for cut and color, maybe even a manicure. And while I’d still be busy with housework, I would also have the luxury of time to get ready for a birthday date with my husband late at night. Instead, all I can think of as I opened my eyes this morning were the hundred and one things that needed my attention – a house that needs cleaning, clothing that needs to be folded and stored, meals and medications that have to be given on time, and a sweet, guileless man-child who still needs my hovering presence, supervision, and help, 24/7. 

Today has been spent in a flurry of never-ending laundry, with more regular household chores squeezed in between. Alphonse accidentally pooped in his bed this morning, and while I had just laundered all the dirty linens yesterday, I had to manually wash and scrape poopy sheets and clothing twice (!) before throwing them in the washing machine. To be fair, Alphonse did try to run to the bathroom as fast as he could when he felt the runs coming; he just didn’t make it in time. I almost broke my back with the sodden king-sized comforter I had to wash thrice in as many days (he threw up on it the other night) and to make up for the hardship, Alphonse peppered his poor Mama with kisses. 

Last year, as Anthony and I prepared for this year’s milestone, we had planned for a trip to Paris to celebrate our 50th revolution around the sun. Today, because of the special circumstances of our lives, we are thousands of miles from where we planned to be. 

Still, I have no regrets. For even as today blends into a thousand ordinary other days just like this, I feel truly blessed. I have all that I want and need- Anthony, Alex, and Alphonse- and they make every one of my days truly extraordinary. 


Prescription: Getaway

20 Feb

Riding the free T Galleria shuttle

I had the chance to finally break out of house the weekend leading to Valentine’s day after almost two months of bed rest and forced “quarantine.” Which was just the perfect time, as my cough was almost gone, save for an occasional tickle in my throat, and I’ve been weaned off daily nebulizations by then. Traveling light, I had to choose between carrying my portable nebulizer or a doll, and I ended up chucking the nebulizer for two Blythe dolls! It felt great!

Where did we go, you ask? I had visions of sun and sand before we left, but Guam, which was our destination that weekend, pulled a few surprises on us. Sure, there were plenty of blue skies, warm sun, and gorgeous sand, but there was also rain, and not just mild drizzle, mind you. The weather was surprisingly fickle that weekend, flipping hot and cold at all hours of the day. Good thing I was and always have been more of a precipitate kind of person, so I enjoyed the weekend, sun and rain and all. Besides, Guam was simply too beautiful to hold any grudges, and what started out as a whimsical trip where almost everything went wrong (a story for another day) ended up as being one of the most relaxing days of my life.


The view from our room

We didn’t have a fixed itinerary so we wandered when we felt like it, slept when we were exhausted, and explored just a bit. We were happy with the hotel booking we got; we felt even happier that the back of our hotel was beachfront property so we had ample access to the sea and salty air. There was a little time to explore the shops (DFS Galleria, Micronesia, Guam Outlets, and K-mart!) and watch at the cinemas of the Micronesia Mall. Everywhere we went, we were met by Filipino-Americans who still speak the language, welcoming us with their special brand of island hospitality. We came to unwind, and that was what we did.

We all need that quick getaway now and then, and precious time with A♥ was exactly the answer to my cabin fever. Moreover, I felt rejuvenated and relaxed after a few days, just like the doctors ordered. Alas, I just wish I took more pictures!