My father, my ink, and my inheritance

On the side of my right thigh, more or less in the middle, is a tattoo:  a green infinity symbol, with one side twisting into the word “brave” and the other side adorned by a red poppy.  It is the second of three tattoos that I have, and I had it done in August 2012, some months after I said my last farewell to my father in the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery here in Montréal.

I was not yet twenty-two when my father passed away on a cold February morning two days after his fifty-seventh birthday.  I was awakened by the sound of the ringtone I had assigned to my grandfather’s mobile, and the moment I heard it I knew that something was wrong.  He never called me from his mobile unless there was something amiss.  The moment I answered the call, I knew exactly what it was, and suddenly there was a tremendous weight on my young, irresponsible, and selfish shoulders:  “Please call your siblings in Vancouver and let them know,” my grandfather said.  “We have to speak with the medical team – they just arrived.”

To be the one to tell three of my four older siblings that our father had passed away was the hardest thing I have ever been asked to do, and it had to happen before I could leave my own apartment and walk the five blocks to my parents’ home in order to do what I could.  But I had no idea what had to be done.  Twenty-one years on this earth prepares one for absolutely nothing, especially when it comes to the task of laying a parent to rest, and all that such a task entails.  The following quote pretty much sums up the entire experience of being a child who is suddenly faced with this ordeal –

 “What happens when the light first pierces the dark dampness in which we have waited?  We are slapped and cut loose.  If we are lucky, someone is there to catch us and persuade us that we are safe.  But are we safe?  What happens if, too early, we lose a parent – that party on whom we rely for only…everything?  Why, we are cut loose again and we wonder, even dread, whose hands will catch us now.”

I have to say, with no small amount of amazement and gratitude, that I was lucky.  I was lucky because I had my brothers and sisters to lean on – emotionally while I waited for them to arrive, and physically once they did.  I was lucky because my grandfather was there to help me console my mother.  I was lucky because my mother had passed on to me some the tempered steel that is her willpower.  I was lucky because I had friends who let me know that I was in their thoughts and hearts, no matter how far away they were.

But most of all I was lucky because I am, after all, my father’s daughter.

Fathers are not only role models for their sons:  they are their daughters’ first heroes as well.  My father’s body – frail and debilitated as it was by Parkinson’s, Ankylosing Spondylitis, and a heart attack – housed an indomitable spirit and active mind.  Some of us have trouble getting up in the morning because we haven’t yet had a cup of coffee, or we went to bed too late.  My father literally had trouble getting out of bed in the morning because his body fought against him every day.  But each and every morning, he woke up and faced a day of intense physical suffering without so much as a peep of complaint.

That is extraordinary bravery and strength in an ordinary life.  And that is always how I will remember my father – as a brave, strong man who, despite his physical afflictions, lived a life of faith, hope, and love for the sake of his family.

I have only a small measure of my father’s profound faith, and mine is shaky at best.  I am cynical and jaded, and have been known in the past to consider love as being both arduous and futile.  But being my father’s daughter means I have more of him in me than I think or than is outwardly recognisable.  I may not have had much time with him, but I have a lifetime ahead to appreciate and treasure his legacy.

It is a simple legacy – but then again, “all the greatest things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word.”  In my father’s case, there are four words that will always come to mind when I think of him.

Bravery.  Fortitude.  Perseverance.  Strength.

And so, on the side of my right thigh, more or less in the middle, is a tattoo:  a green infinity symbol, with one side twisting into the word “brave” and the other side adorned by a red poppy.  It is the second of three tattoos that I have, and I had it done in August 2012, some months after I said my last farewell to my father in the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery here in Montréal.  It is not a tattoo that was picked out of a book or drawn out of whimsy onto a napkin.  It is a reminder of my father – because to me, José Victor Olaguera was known simply as “Poppie,” and for me, he was a man who was, until his last breath, forever brave.

Throwback Thursday: Growing Up through the Girlish Frivolity of Makeup

At first, I was going to continue the Heartstomping Series…but then I figured that’d be nice to do that after Valentine’s Day because that’s simply poetic justice in its own way.

Then I was going to post a bit of a deeper-thoughts rant about girls these days, but…nothing came.

Then I realised – hey, it’s Thursday.

In the world of the interwebs, Thursdays are the day of the Throwback.  The day when you dig something out of the dusty photo albums from the days when those were actually books…and you post it, in all its embarrassing nostalgic glory, for the world to see.  And since it’s 100% authentic vintage, you don’t need a fancy filter for it.  (Though some people seem to think even an actual old photograph needs a filter to look even more like an old photograph…)

This actually does have a point, but for now I’m going to ask you to hold that thought while I go back in time to a story of sisterhood.  (Don’t worry – it’ll all come together.)

Anyone who knows me will know that I am something of a makeup junkie.  In total disclosure, I’ve been fooling around with makeup since before I can actually remember.  No joke.  My first encounter with beauty products was at the tender age of two.  My oldest sister was supposed to be watching me at the time but was evidently not, as I managed to get into our mother’s bathroom and smear an entire tub of some very expensive night cream all over the walls and mirror.  Literally.  Now, my oldest sister doesn’t have a mean bone in her body, but she does have a mind that remembers the best and worst of what the rest of the brood has made her go through.  Let’s just say she still hasn’t entirely forgiven me for that.

Fast forward many years and here I am today – still playing with makeup, but in a less…abstract way.  Some of you who met me within the last five years or so will know me as somebody who takes pride in the fact that she can put on her entire everyday face in seven minutes.  And that usually ends up looking something like this:

06Jan-04

Most of you who know me from my wayward adolescent years can join me in a moment of nostalgic chagrin.  Adolescence is a time of self-discovery.  We don’t really know who we are (and anyone who claims to is either lying or really weird) and we’re trying to figure that out in the midst of teenage angst and growing pains.  And since we don’t know at that age how to deal with it, we rebel when things don’t go the way we want.  Now, I don’t know what your rebellions were like, but mine involved heavy metal.

From listening to the music to playing it to dressing like I was already a rock star, I went all-out when it came to being a metalhead.  I listened to just about everything out there in the genre as a whole, but I will admit that I had a particular propensity towards Scandinavian (especially death/black/thrash/symphonic/progressive) metal.  And with looking like a Scandinavian shredder came…doing my makeup like one.

I’m pretty sure my mother’s blood pressure got a little higher when she saw me in thick black eyeliner and goopy mascara for the first time, and I’m pretty sure I managed to add more than a few grey hairs to my dad’s head that morning as well.  Though, come to think of it, perhaps the “Piece of Mind” Iron Maiden t-shirt I’d gotten from my brother for Christmas that year didn’t really help.  Neither did the Children of Bodom grim reaper tees that followed, come to think of it…

Whatever their initial reaction was, not much was said about my preferred look, even as it progressed towards urban-bohemian-grungecore (lots of black lacy peasant blouses with torn denims and Cleopatra-esque eyeliner, topped off by tons of studded, clunky hardware and a stormy countenance).  In retrospect, I appreciate the fact that my parents let me stage my insurrection with little comment so far as looks were concerned.  We fought about a lot of other things, of course, but at least we had an uneasy peace about how I dressed (most days, anyway).

As it is with most phases, I eventually outgrew it, but not before I had figured out a lot of things about myself while in the thick of it.  The abridged version is that I learned how to be myself and express myself creatively, and eventually didn’t see the need to use my face as the canvas to do so.

In all honesty, I don’t have any pictures left of that particular phase, so for the whole photographic element of this particular throwback I had re-create it.  And even then, it’s not the way it used to be.  But that’s just because I’ve grown up a bit since then.  Just remember, though – you asked for it, and I did what I could to deliver…

2014-02-13 22.48.18

My Father’s Month

February is a month that will always remind me of my father.  For my parents, Valentine’s Day was “their” day (no surprise, what with five children squawking in the nest) and my father, the great romantic, always had something special for my mother.  February was also the month of his birthday (which, in 2004, he came to share with my nephew).  And February was the month in which he passed away in 2012.

My father was 57 when he passed away, and many people have asked me if it was a sudden passing, such as an accident or heart attack – to which I must sadly reply, no.  He went peacefully in his sleep after a long and arduous battle with both Parkinson’s and Ankylosing Spondylitis.  It was so long, in fact, that I do not remember my father as the healthy, spry, and vivacious man that started our family in 1974.  To me, Poppie was always stooped, shuffling, and shaking.  However, to me he was no less a man or father than any other out there.  Poppie was a man of great faith and wisdom.  He had a strength of character than very few people in this day and age could hope to claim, and he was utterly selfless and entirely devoted to his family.  And for somebody suffering from debilitating diseases, Poppie never uttered a word of complaint out loud.  He never used his disabilities and illnesses as an excuse for anything, not even when most people would probably say that he had every right to do so.  Surprisingly, he remained rather self-sufficient until quite literally the day he died, working slowly through unimaginable pain each day to bathe, clothe, and feed himself just so that he would not overburden my mother.

And while his physical strength had never been enough to carry me as a child – and, towards the end, to even embrace me for longer than a few fleeting moments – my father carried within him an inner strength that was able to shoulder the weight of my world, and that of everyone else in his life.  My father had the courage and the faith to find something truly wonderful and good in the midst of his physical suffering.

At a euthanasia hearing here in Montréal in 2011, my father gave the following speech.  This is his legacy to me, and it is not one of despair and self-pity, but one of hope and great dignity.

I’ve had Parkinson’s Disease since 14 years ago at age 42; shortly thereafter I was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, a form of arthritis that among other things, fused most of the upper vertebrae of my spinal column. Last summer I had an MI—otherwise known as a heart attack.

I know the physical pain and the mental suffering that go with those medical conditions: the feeling of not being useful anymore, the humbling reality of not being able to do the activities of daily living, the prospect of getting worse (especially with chronic and degenerative diseases) and being a continued burden on the family.

That said, I empathize with those who are in terminal stages and in severe pain. They face hard choices and at times are alone in their plight or feel they have lost or are going to lose their dignity and have become intolerable burdens for their families. But perhaps, a different outlook is needed to find meaning behind all this pain and suffering, a more positive outlook that I believe has already helped others to look at death in a new light and discover that euthanasia is not the only alternative to preserve one’s dignity.

These medical conditions are blessings rather than punishment. The pain and suffering are opportunities we get for offering them up for the intentions of our loved ones and friends.

Let me explain: It is a basic human instinct to help anyone in need, more so if the one in trouble is a loved one. The help can be either material or non-material, sometimes both. A non-material help can be just simply good wishes and keeping in mind the one in need of help. Whatever form it takes, helping someone requires giving up or offering up something of value because we have empathy, the desire to be united with the one who is in need. Even if we are disabled, and perhaps because we are disabled, we can be of much help to those in need by offering up for them the things we have that are valuable: our pain and suffering, the sense of isolation and desperation—and the greater the pain and suffering, the more valuable and effective our offering up becomes.

We can become an inspiration for our family and friends. Remember John Paul II – who also had Parkinson’s – and was universally acknowledged by the world which witnessed the last minutes of his life still doing his work for which he had great passion. Perhaps having the courage and the strength to live to the end without resorting to euthanasia would be the best legacy we can bequeath to our family. This is genuine dignity.

To all my fellow disabled, we should not feel useless and unwanted, for we are the treasures of humanity: treasures that are valuable and irreplaceable. We should not allow ourselves to be discarded like objects that have no practical value at all, that have outlived their usefulness and have become instead an unacceptable burden for others. We are the treasures of humanity which remind the world that despite the fragility of human nature and its inevitable mortality, the dignity of every human being is based on his or her right to be of service to others precisely through their pains and suffering offered up for the needs and welfare of their family and friends.

Lost and Found in Translation

This particular headline has been popping up on my FaceBook news feed all evening.  And it is why I am still awake at this hour, writing this blog post for all of you.  In the sprit of this post, if you want translations of the paragraphs that are not in your language of preference, let me know.  It might take a couple of days to get it posted, but if I have to make this entire thing totally bilingual for you, I will.

(NB:  No translators, Internet or Human, were used in this blog post.  Any glaring mistakes are mine and mine alone, but please let me know so that I can improve.  Especially since I tend to offer unsolicited corrections to mistakes made in English.)

***

You could probably say I’m used to knowing what it’s like being one of the “others.”  As the youngest child of an immigrant family from Southeast Asia, I grew up as a visible ethnic minority.  I was terribly conscious of the fact that I was not blonde and blue-eyed (and, to add insult to injury, for the longest time I had the Asian-child bowl cut as well).  My daily nourishment was food my schoolmates considered gross and inedible because it wasn’t red meat, two veg, and potatoes, but strange, smelly, saucy concoctions of seafood, pork, and chicken served with mountains of rice.  (Some of you might think that’s actually pretty cool, but most six-year-olds I know wouldn’t agree.  See the problem I had as one?)

And I actually spoke flawless English and read at a higher reading level than what was available in my elementary school’s library – but because I’m a visible minority, it was believed that I ought to be put into ESL classes anyway.  (Luckily, my oldest brother was made the guinea pig for this, and after literally making an afternoon of the entire ESL course, he – and by extension, I too – was deemed to be in good English standing and allowed to remain in the normal curriculum.)  But, little did I know — this was the first of many challenging experiences I would have in my life regarding language.

À huit ans, j’ai eu ma première expérience avec la langue française.  Madame Crockett, ma maîtresse pour la troisième année, était une francophone bilingue qui a eu le désir à amener sa langue maternelle à tous ses étudiants.  Avec elle, j’ai commencé un grand voyage:  d’apprendre une nouvelle langue.  Tout au long de l’école primaire, j’ai pris des cours de francais avec Madame Crockett.

Avant que je continue, je veux vous informer que les cours qui sont disponible pour les écoles primaires à la Colombie-Britannique sont très simple.  En fait, le programme pour les cours au niveau primaire est répétitif et on doit attendre pour l’école secondaire d’apprendre plus que les choses de base (comme les conversations brèves, les chiffres, les couleurs, le calendrier, etc).  Mais tous les écoliers ont l’opportunité à prendre les cours de français à partir de leurs jeunesses.  Donc, mes parents – qui parlent chez nous en anglais et aussi dans la langue philippine – ont pris la décision que ses enfants parlent dans les deux langues officiels du Canada.

Because we were not in Early French Immersion but rather in a totally Anglophone primary school, my brothers and I all had to wait until we were thirteen and in grade eight to begin Late French Immersion.  This program lasted four years, during which we all took at least four of our eight required subjects in French (and in which we all excelled).  After taking an extra regular French course in my senior year to have another Provincial Exam under my belt for university admissions requirements, my classroom education in French was neatly tied up in a final grade of 96% given to me by the provincial government.  I was then accepted to Concordia University in Montréal, and I moved from British Columbia to Québec with a lot of optimism.  I would be going to an English university, but I would be living in a French city.  I would actually get to use the language I’d been learning in school.

However, upon landing here I found a fly in that honey.  You see, Late French Immersion had prepared me best to read, write, and – to a much lesser extent – listen in French..but as far as speaking was concerned, most of what we’d done had been scripted.  That included most of our oral exams, as we were given several questions to prepare ahead of time (and then we’d only have to answer a few of them).  I did not have much by way of ability to speak in French when I arrived in Montréal, and learning to understand it when it was being spoken to me at the speed of an animated chipmunk was a challenge unto itself.  And for the first two years of my life in Montréal, I actually lost more French than I gained simply because most of the Francophones I met would switch to English because “this way, it’s easier for everyone.” (These people then became the ones who would relentlessly rag on me, demanding to know why I “hadn’t yet made an effort.”)

Mais en 2011, une poste dans un environnement francophone m’a donné des nouveaux collègues et amis qui ont remarqué (dans une manière positive) sur mes faiblesses. Malgré la barrière de la langue, ces gens francophones au travail m’ont aidé beaucoup à améliorer mes compétences et à gagner la confiance à communiquer dans une deuxième langue.  Je me souviens une expérience sur la plancher du magasin quand j’ai eu beaucoup des difficultés avec un client qui était un francophone militant (en plus, il était très impatient).  Par miracle, j’ai complété la transaction toute seule avec succès, mais l’expérience m’a laissé découragée et frustrée.

Deux jours plus tard, j’ai pris la bouffe avec un ami, Félix Antoine.  On a discuté la question de la langue pendant qu’on mangé, et quand je lui ai dis de l’expérience que j’ai décrit en haut, il m’arrêté:  “Je t’ai entendu, Angela, quand tu as parlé avec les clients francophones sur le plancher.  Tu as plus des compétences que tu penses.”

So, I hear you ask, what’s my point?

Yes, one culture can point out what’s wrong with the other. Yes, we can all argue that neither side is perfect and that both sides have much room to improve. These are truths about the society in which we, as residents of Québec, live and work and study.  But if we spend all of our time bickering with one another about language and culture, we will all miss the opportunities we have in this unique province to learn and grow together.  It’s the little things that bolster us and motivate us to continue.  There is so much more to be said about acknowledgement of effort and continuous encouragement than of shortcomings and closed-minded criticism.

À tous mes amis francophones qui m’a aident avec l’amélioration en ma deuxième langue:  je vous remercie beaucoup.  C’est grâce à vous que j’étais motivé d’écrire ce blog aujourd’hui.  Et pour ceux d’entre vous qui m’a demandé pour l’aide avec l’anglais, c’est toujours un plaisir.  Quand on partage la connaissance et les compétences, quand on peut reconnaître les opportunités pour l’amitié au milieu des différences — on peut vivre.