Birthdays Past and Present


the first birthday

Two months ago my older daughter, Rajini celebrated her 19th birthday. This was her second birthday away from her family. When she was at home, my thoughts at this time would have been focused on planning the birthday party because this daughter is the one who enjoys gatherings of family and friends combined with food. The past two years have been different since I was no longer required to plan her birthday celebration. So the party planning has been replaced by leafing through the album of memories in my head of the birth and growing up of this daughter of mine. That remembrance triggers also a period of reflection on the wisdom and ways of being that I hope I have managed to pass on to her. Equally important, are the wisdom and ways of being that I have learned from Rajini herself, and from being her mother. This time of remembering and reflecting I have come to see as my gift to myself and my daughter, as we find new ways to celebrate her coming into this world. The memory page I lingered on this year is an event which occurred in the first year of Rajini’s academic career…

It was the summer term of 2005, and Rajini was in her final term of kindergarten. Although she enjoyed going to school (and learning to read), from a health perspective it was a rough first year of school as she battled chest and ear infections, and we discovered that she was asthmatic. Shortly before the end of the last term in kindergarten, she got sick again with a chest infection and the asthma got worse. One fateful evening when I got home from work, she was so drowsy and lethargic that I had to rush her to the emergency room…memories of my medical school training about the danger of an asthmatic suddenly becoming drowsy wailing loudly like an ambulance siren in my panicked brain. The fact that I was a doctor only made things worse as I imagined all kinds of awful scenarios more horrifying because I felt they could realistically happen.

That trip to the hospital initiated a 12 hour stint in the emergency room where her father and I prayed and kept our fingers crossed that she could be treated and released. When those prayers were not answered, and she did not respond well enough to standard ER asthma treatment to be discharged we crossed the threshold into another hell. The one where your small child gets admitted to the hospital and has to endure things like intravenous drips, nebulisations and being separated from her little sister. That journey lasted about 5 days and was one of my scariest experiences as a mother.

After 12 hours in the ER, sitting in either my lap or her Daddy’s lap, we finally got her into a bed. At this point she was feverish, and as I held her hot little hand and watched the pulse race in her neck, I had visions of febrile convulsions. Exhausted, worried and completely out of patience I marched over to the nurse’s station to request (probably not very politely) that someone come and check my child’s temperature and give her something for the fever. A few minutes later, a nurse came over, as if she was doing me a favour, to check on my daughter. When she realised how high the fever was, the pace of care delivery picked up a notch or two. But I had already made up my mind that my precious child was not going to be left alone at the mercy of the nurses on the ward.

For the first 2 days of her hospital stay, I sat beside her bed from sunset to sunrise watching her chest rise and fall with each breath, the pulse racing in her neck, and checking the drip, the oxygen and the pulse oximeter that monitored her blood oxygen levels. I don’t know how much of this my daughter remembers but I can still feel the icy cold fear that clutched my heart as I watched her sleep… a fear (perhaps irrational but still very real for me) that she might die. During the daytime, her father, my mother, father or sister would sit with her while her I went home to shower, change and reassure my younger daughter, Darshini, that her mummy had not forgotten her. Somewhere in that time I also managed to snatch a few hours of sleep in a horizontal position before one of the aforementioned family members would come to the house to stay with Darshini so that I could return to the hospital.

Thankfully, Rajini responded well to the treatment and by the second day in the hospital she was awake for longer periods in the day time. She and I passed the time by reading “The Secret Garden”, the unabridged version, and her first book without pictures on every page. Finally after about 5 days, she was deemed recovered enough to go home, and was discharged. Thankfully, there have been no hospital admissions since then

Fourteen years later, as I reflect on my memories of that episode in our lives, I realise what stands out most in my mind now is not my fear for my daughter’s life and health, but the fact that I survived the episode because I had a strong support network. My husband was fully present as a co-parent. My mother was there to provide sustenance in the form of food for us all. My father was there to drive me up and down, and to sit with whichever granddaughter needed babysitting at a given time. My sister was there to fill in the gaps, and to reassure me that I was a good mummy, and not a failure because my child got sick enough to end up in hospital. My mother-in-law was there to back up that reassurance. The more I reflect on my entire parenting journey to date, the more I appreciate how much support there has been from my family, friends, colleagues, teachers, fellow parents, and the list goes on. The road has not been an easy one, but with the help of many along the way, we have managed to make it this far.

Today that little girl whose bedside I anxiously sat by is an adult. When she left home a year ago to start college I went with her as much for my peace of mind as to help her get settled in. Again, in a different but still somewhat daunting setting, we were helped along the way by family and friends. A family friend picked us up from the airport, and took us to the home of another family friend who hosted the first few days of that “leaving home” journey. One of my sister’s parishioners gave us a ride to the university for the first day of orientation. My sister provided transport, food and shelter, as well as emotional support for the rest of my visit to witness by daughter’s entry into college life. She also facilitated her niece getting the cell phone and service that is an all important part of a young person’s survival gear these days…the phone that helped us all remain connected in a way that was not possible more than a quarter century ago when her parents were going to university. We survived the transition because of all those helping hands.

As I rummaged a little deeper in my head, I realised that in fact the best way to live a life is to support and be supported by those that we share this world with. We talk a lot about teaching children to be independent and stand on their own two feet but perhaps not as much about the value of interdependence. I think it is equally important that as we learn to stand on our own two feet, we also learn to use our hands (which are no longer weight bearing) to help those around us who may be stumbling or falling . When we wobble on our own two feet, our non-weight bearing hands can receive support until we can once again stand on our own. Both the giving and receiving of a helping hand as the need arises is important for the welfare of the individual as well as the group, be it family, friend squad, neighbourhood, or larger community. Recognising the value of interdependence is as important as establishing one’s independence.

Two weeks before her birthday, I had to call my daughter with the news that her grandfather had died. She cried on hearing the news. I had already asked my sister to check in with her, but after I hung up, I felt the need for reinforcements, so I messaged her Jamaican friends with the news of her grandpa’s death and a request to check in on her by Whatsapp. As it turned out, she not only had her aunt, and old Jamaican friends for support, but also her new “Canadian” friends all keeping her company in her time of need. Two weeks later when she celebrated her 19th birthday this year, it was with her new friends/roommates, in their shared rented apartment. These friends took over the role of planning and executing the birthday celebrations that had been my responsibility when she was at home. Her co-workers also surprised her with a birthday cake and the usual vocal accompaniments of such a cake.

While my daughter was busy learning to use public transport, paying bills, doing laundry and grocery shopping and getting a job she was also building meaningful connections with other human beings in her new environment. It seems that she had absorbed not only the lessons of independence but the value of a support network to get you through the sad times of life and help you celebrate the good times .

Independence will ultimately feed and clothe her body but interdependence will feed her soul. In order to successfully complete our human journey on earth, we need both. I celebrated her birthday this year, not by planning a huge celebration, but by quietly and gratefully reflecting on my memories of this child of light, a living manifestation of her parents love for each other, and the life lessons I have learned in the 19 years of being her mummy.

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