THE VOICE: Eighteen and More

PUERTO PRINCESA CITY, Palawan (MindaNews/05 December) — The priest concluded the mass by praying over Gel.  It was a beautiful feeling – so much to thank for this beautiful person in front of me who, eighteen years ago, fought for life in the emergency room of the Cotabato Regional Hospital.

The night before Gel was born, I felt a certain tightness in my tummy; but my date with the stork was still a month away so I did not worry a bit.  I had a prayer meeting to attend and Brod Nerio of the Elim Community offered me a ride on his motorcycle.  Jun didn’t like the idea but I justified it was more convenient than walking to the highway to get a jeepney and walking further to reach the venue.

By around two in the morning I was awakened by active labor.  I had to rouse Jun from his sleep to call my mother-in-law.  After examining me, Mamang said I would be giving birth anytime.  Doeh gave us a ride to Auntie Annabelle’s clinic; who said there was not much time so we went straight to the hospital.

I sat on the passenger seat, with the backrest reclined all the way down.  Doeh sped while Jun at the back comforted me as I mustered all my strength with every contraction.  On instinct I raised my feet on the dashboard. Somewhere along the way everything that wiggled from my insides were caught by my nightdress.

Upon reaching the emergency room I said with the loudest voice I could gather: “Unahin ang bata, unahin ang bata!”  Only then did everybody else realize I already gave birth.

There it was – a slimy little creature, full of superfluous hair, swimming in amniotic fluid on a cold stainless steel tray.  For what seemed like endless millions of seconds I waited for a cry, a whimper – the faintest sound to tell me that my baby is alive.  No, I did not wait for anything to tell me she was alive: Deep in my heart I knew that my baby was alive.  All that came out from my mouth were praises and thanks to God for the gift of life.  There was no room in my mind for anything except life for my little one.

“Baby Girl!” Doeh announced to everybody.  We were all happy.  My baby girl looked like a wet kitten, motionless while hospital staff put tubes into her tiny nostrils.  I was whisked off to the delivery room separating me from my newborn infant.  I was confused.  I was told I had a “precipitate baby.” What’s that?  I just want my baby beside me!

In the delivery room Dr Redoble removed my placenta and told me they would dress me up soon.  Remember we were not able to bring anything in the flurry of things.

Shortly afterward Jun came with a change of clothes and told me that Gel weighed 1.9 kilos and is doing well.  But she needs to be incubated.  The nursery was being renovated and the incubator is in the nursery.

After I was sewn up and cleaned by Auntie Annabelle I was transferred to another room with three other mothers who also just gave birth.  I was the only one who did not have my baby with me.  I soon found out that there is a different protocol for “precipitate babies.”  In layperson terms, that means hospitals follow a different set of steps for babies who are born outside the hospital.

I was getting upset.  I requested for a wheelchair that did not come even after an hour.  I did not have slippers so I borrowed from one of the moms.  Holding my jelly-like tummy, I hobbled to the other end of the long building or else I would go berserk if I will not see my baby.

Finally at around 9 o’clock, I saw Gel again.  Rather, I had to find her from under the sheets.  She was so tiny she was a far contrast from her two brothers when they were born.  I often compared Gel’s body to a pint-sized Selecta cup topped with a dollop of ice cream for the head.  That small.  I sang her a lullabye whose title I now miss – but the lyrics were “I Stand In Awe of You”.  I was that.  Literally.

She was sleeping – serenely as an angel.  Her mittens fell off when she moved because it was too big for her fists even if the laces were tied.  An overhead bulb provided the warmth she needed.  She had a dextrose needle stuck to her tiny foot.  Jun had to scrounge the pharmacies in the city because the needle number Gel needed was so small it was rare.

Angeline.  Such a fitting name for something so beautiful.  Everything about her was complete – except for her size and number of months she was supposed to stay in my tummy.  I have always dreamt of naming my daughter after my maternal grandmother Angelina who is also my namesake.  At least one of my four official first names.

Sahadia was supposed to be her second name in Arabic like her two brothers — but in the rush we were able to register only Angeline.

There were perhaps a dozen more beds in the public ward.  All baby patients and their mothers.  There were also watchers who slept under the patients’ beds.  Gel’s bed was beside the window.  Ram who was just six suddenly looked like a giant beside his little sister.  Then we called Raj who was a sixth-grader in Cebu.  We were a happy bunch.

By 630 in the evening a heavy rain fell.  One of the panes on the window was missing, sending strong winds and rain spray on us.  Other mothers helped us move (Jun was running errands) to an empty bed near the door, away from the missing pane.

Late in the evening Gel was fitful and started crying.  Wow she had strong lungs!  She’s healthy!  When I cradled her in my arms she quieted down; but shortly after I put her back on the bed, she was crying again.  After a couple of visits, the nurse turned off the 500watt lamp.  Gel went back to sleep.  So it was the heat from the bulb.

By dawn she was fitful again; and the nurse suggested I breastfeed her.  Gel suckled, but I wasn’t giving any milk.  I was almost in tears, feeling so inadequate.  The nurse came back with a small plastic disposable container and a medicine dropper.  It was breastmilk from the hospital’s milk bank! We fed Gel drops at a time.  Praise God for breastmilk from other moms.  It helped us through until my own milk flowed in the afternoon.

Gel was given antibiotics intravenously every now and then.  She had to be observed by her pediatrician and I was impatient for us to go home.  The hospital was never a place for me to heal and be back in one piece.  I also badly needed a bath.  More than a dozen people in the ward at any given time did not help dissipate the heat.  Finally after two days and two nights in the hospital we were discharged.  This was the longest I stayed in a hospital after giving birth.

From then on it was a life of constant visits to doctors.  Confinements in the hospital and other challenges made babyhood for Gel opposite from that of Raj and Ram.  She was born in a public facility (Notre Dame was razed by a fire in September of that year).  She didn’t suckle my breastmilk much.  She was lactose-intolerant we had to always be on the lookout for a steady supply of lactose-free infant formula.  We took jeeps or multi-cabs to rush her to the hospital when she was sick; or even traysikad to have her immunizations.

I worked outside of the house before she was a year old; and I was an absentee mother for most of her formative and character-building years.  Jun and Mamang filled in the gaps.

I always dreaded Monday mornings when Gel would chime, “Alis ka na, Nanay?”  Not “Alis ka na naman, Nanay?”   There was no “naman“.  A child’s pure heart did not set conditions.  Despite security restrictions on traveling after 5pm, I found ways to travel Friday evenings and be home on weekends.

Then Gel went to boarding school for secondary education.  Remote control supervision was the next best thing to motherly presence.

Coming of Age

To think she is now eighteen.  Boodz reminded me that not one of us four sisters had a celebration when we turned that age.  Shouldn’t it be time for us to be thankful for the next generation?  Gel is so special since she is the first in her generation to continue the DNA of Avelin, our mother; and yes further up – of Angelina, our maternal grandmother.

The celebration need not be fancy.  A mass and an intimate dinner after that would be fine.  In many societies, when a girl reaches a certain age (15 for some; 18 for others), it is expected that she should have already been armed with the rudiments to face life ahead.  Life skills, so to speak.  Interestingly though, presenting our girls to society for marriage does not fit into our family’s idea of coming of age.

And so it was.  Fr Caabay of Sta Monica Parish was available for the 630pm family mass on the day of Gel’s birthday.  It would be at Fat Tony’s for at most twenty guests.  Fat Tony’s just launched a day before and it has an impressive menu of healthy, organic ingredients and they do not use MSG.  The place is also non-smoking and has a patio.

Pink roses were not available as direct flights to Puerto Princesa were canceled for the APEC Meeting in Manila.  But chrysanthemums in three shades of pink were just perfect for the celebrant’s bouquet.  The Red Velvet Cake from Heavenly Desserts was just – yes, heavenly with 18 lighted candles.

My heart was just full of gratitude for Gel and how she has grown despite my constant absence.  When she was a baby, we loved to ask her: “Sino ang baby na hinatid ni Lord sa highway?” She would answer with glee: “Gel!”  Her birth certificate cannot indicate the name of the hospital because technically, she was not born there.  So the name of Sinsuat Avenue, a highway, is filled in the blank.

With Jun in Cotabato, Raj in Davao, and Ram in Saudi – physically, there was only Gel and I for her coming of age.  But we celebrated it together with loved ones and friends who sent their love, prayers, well-wishes and positive thoughts, transcending space and distance.

The preemie who once slept face down on my tummy is now tall and lanky.  There’d more multiples of 18 birthdays ahead of her.

I thank God for this day and more.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Aveen Acuña-Gulo posts herself on Facebook as a Monumental Operations Manager (MOM) and is now vacationing in Palawan not as a tourist.  She is a Bukidnon-born Cebuano mother of three (3) Maguindanao-Ilonggo-Cotabateño children; who will always be a child at heart even if she is a hundred years old.
She wrote a column “The Voice” for the Mindanao Cross from 1991-2006.  She likes to challenge stereotypes.  “Don’t worry about my opinions.  It won’t make a dent to the conventional,” she says.
She wrote this piece on Novmeber 19, 2015, her daughter Gel’s 18th birthday)