My Warrior

Part 1

The Shake Up

I was on the phone with my husband when the earthquake hit.

“There’s a….” were his last words, before he dropped the phone and rushed into the stairway. People screamed. Hundreds descended towards the ground. Maher followed, barefoot, in the dark, he slid his hand along the banister for guidance. He was pushed along by nervous men and women, some carrying babies. 

As the 30 storey building swayed wildly from side to side, he had a moment of realisation. That he was in an earthquake. A serious one. That this was the end for him, for all those around him, and probably for many more. What he struggled with was disappointment. How could this be it, no light, no big epiphany moment?

He took a deep breath in, and changed his pace to a walk.

When he dropped his phone, I was left with an eerie silence. I called back –  two, three, four times. I tried his brother, Marwan. No answer.

I was in Ahmedabad at my nanaji’s (maternal grandfather’s) house in India. We were about to have lunch, the typical Gujarati meal, a vegetable dish with dal and chapati. I waited eagerly for Maher to call me back. Nothing came. We ate, rather quietly. My mind raced. Was it a snake? That’s ridiculous, how could that be, in a city building? It must be an urgent business call… that’s why Marwan didn’t answer his phone either. They were on a work call together… 

Maher, a quick thinker, creative, is known to find atypical solutions to problems, which in retrospect seem so obvious, had we only thought of it ourselves! He says he would have been a good warrior in a different era. He is a fighter who perseveres with zest. A fighter who did everything in his power not to join the obligatory military service for young men both in Lebanon and in France at that time, his two home countries.

Hoping for an email I opened up my laptop. Out of habit I logged into my Facebook account. That’s when I realised what had happened on that Monday afternoon, the 12th of May 2008, at 2:28pm, China time. 

Sichuan province shook. An 8.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Chengdu, the city we lived in. Those 3 minutes felt like an eternity of uncertainty, and of devastation for millions of people.

When Maher, with all the improbability possible, of making it out alive, saw the bright light of day outside, instinctively, he looked up. To his relief, the buildings around our neighbourhood were all standing. That’s when he saw Marwan rushing towards him. Marwan had run over from the office building to make sure that Maher was ok. They stared at each other for a moment. The ground beneath them had literally shifted, the buildings had swayed and they had escaped serious injury or death by the width of a hair.

Thousands of people were wandering around, lost in the streets. Confused, searching for family and friends. The phone lines in the city were mostly down.

At 3:30 pm Chinese time, I received a call on my grandfather’s landline in India. It was Maher. 

“It was an earthquake. A big one. The phone lines in all of Chengdu are dead. I finally managed to get through to you. I’m ok, Marwan too..we are working on a plan now.”

“Should I change my flight and come back earlier?” I asked

“Yes. As soon as you can get a new booking. Come.”

We spoke briefly. It was noisy around him. I could only imagine the panic, families who couldn’t reach each other, children stranded at schools without their parents, workplaces shut down, and for how long? And then, the possibility of aftershocks.

By then Marwan, Maher and his Chinese personal assistant were at the bottom of the office building, contacting staff including factory workers, office workers, Chinese, foreign, their families. They strategising an emergency action plan for everyone. 

Maher is young, fit, a strong runner of medium build. He comes from a lineage of prematurely balding men, and he is no exception. His attentive eyes, kind smile and generosity are unforgettable. Maher’s olive toned skin, big nose, warm, and welcoming personality are typical traits of his Lebanese origins. Emotionally, he is level headed, calm, a quick thinker, a natural leader — in the modern sense. Even at his young age of 31, he was well-respected by his employees and their families, some older than his own parents.

We moved to Chengdu in 2005. Maher literally worked days and many nights relentlessly for months on end, to put together a team of people, and with them set up an office, build and run a steel pipe factory in Qin Bai Jiang, a suburban district of Chengdu, 45 minutes outside of the city.

By 2008 the company had hired 900 local factory workers, as well as office staff, engineers, and upper management from China, Lebanon, North Africa, Eastern Europe, and France. Balancing everyone and their interactions, considering their different cultures, needs, and miscommunication was highly challenging, yet something Maher showed immense talent at. He was international in his upbringing and life journey. He had gone from Lebanon to France as an 8 year old, and then to the UK and Canada as a young adult, and more recently to Asia. 

Maher managed this crisis situation with everyone in mind, with his usual composure, empathy, and strength. Some were terrified, many were emotional. His own fears, his own need for safety and comfort, were never addressed. Instead, Maher listened, talked to his staff, built trust and even friendships with them and their families that have lasted a lifetime. 

Unlike other foreign owned and even locally owned businesses, theirs was shut down only briefly. The foreigners with their partners and even some babies and children were resituated to the newly built dorms at the factory site, the key point of that being the rooms were on the ground floor.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, the 14th of May, I returned to Chengdu. The taxi left me outside our residence. The usually over-crowded lift to our 20th floor flat was empty. Maher was at work. It was uncannily quiet. I left my baggage upstairs and ventured out for a walk, in search of evidence of what had happened. 

There were tents across Chengdu. The city had turned into a camping site. People were eating, drinking, sleeping on the street level. As aftershocks continued, they spent at least a month living in makeshift housing on the road sides, at university campus football fields, at plazas in front of shopping malls, anywhere that was at ground level. 

Greater Chengdu was a city of more than 14 million people at that time, designed in unending rows of towers, 20 – 30 storey high complexes housing both families and companies. During the early 2000’s millions of people across China moved from the countryside to the cities. We were told the view from our flat windows, only ten years prior, were different. The rows upon rows of tall buildings we saw used to be fields of farm land.

Chengdu

On my way back from the walk, I met Maher, Marwan and a co-worker of theirs at the building entrance. On our way up to the 20th floor, they looked at each other uneasily, and barely spoke. Every minute spent up at our flat was a minute too long. Their colleague felt vertiginous when he approached the windows.

“Did you feel that?” He asked, pale, his eyes filled with terror.

“It moved.” He pointed at the suspended lamp in the centre of our living room.

“It’s an aftershock.” replied Maher.

“Yalla, let’s go back down, get what we need and go,” Marwan tried to comfort him.

Even though I had been standing right next to them, I missed that 5.0 magnitude aftershock entirely. There was no way for me to understand what they had been through. I couldn’t place myself in their bodies or minds. Their nervous systems were on high alert. The question now was even though these buildings survived the earthquake, would they now be able to withstand the aftershocks?

Chengdu’s geographical location protected it from the seismic shifts. It is built on a plain, surrounded by mountains. It sits on loosely set soil. This, along with the high quality of the building structures meant our towers were indeed flexible and strong enough to show resilience in the face of the earthquake. And the aftershocks. 

Surrounding towns and areas were less lucky. Entire villages were erased, schools and buildings collapsed. 69,000 people died, and 18-20 thousand were assumed missing, caught in landslides and under building debris. Assumed dead. A monumental tragedy in contemporary Sichuanese history. 

The Chinese government reacted swiftly. Approximately 148,000 military, police, and reserve members from across the country were sent in as part of the rescue operations. A friend of ours working for the organization Medecins Sans Fronitiers or Doctors Without Borders, had been sent to Chengdu at that time. She explained, the Chinese had managed the crisis impeccably and they had no need for additional international support other than in the mental health department. She was surprised at the lack of attention in that area considering the level of trauma everybody had collectively experienced.

With this tragedy playing out in the backgrounds of all our lives, we were forced to focus on our immediate day to day actions. Maher and his colleagues quickly obtained the necessary safety clearance from the authorities in charge to continue production of their pipes. 

Like most others, I temporarily closed my yoga studio. Not only would people refuse to come to classes held in a tall building, but also shock from the event as well as survivor guilt were at play. 

Even if counterintuitive in such a devastating period of high need, short sessions of dynamic movement as well as meditative practices are an important, healthy way to better manage such trauma. One quickly gets back into the body and into the present moment, by focusing on the breath for example, with the possibility of moments of toned down anxiety levels. But most people were too busy with more basic problems. 

I offered free Saturday afternoon yoga classes for three weeks on the grass at the East Lake Park. A handful of people attended. 

The Stroke

On a very hot Monday afternoon, an immensely busy work week for Maher, he called me on the phone. It was the 2nd of June, less than a month after the earthquake. He slurred, his voice was faint. He said three words, “I love you.”  

Many times in the future through moments of doubt, I have pulled that memory and those three words up to remind me of Maher’s most sincere, true love for me. 

Then I heard Marwan’s voice. He had grabbed the phone. 

“Maher collapsed. Come to the hospital in Qin Bai Jiang.”

They were in a company minivan on their way to a little hospital, the closest possible. Marwan refused to let Maher lose consciousness. Maher fought hard to keep his eyes open. 

I scrambled to find our passports, some money, and my house key. I jumped into the first taxi I could find. During that 45 minute drive from our flat to the town where Maher had built the steel pipe factory, my mind raced from Maher, to our families, to our friends, to our life in China, to…

Maher built the Chinese sector of the company by hiring each person interview by interview. 

Roger was one of those people, a young, eccentric Chinese translator who ended up working with Maher for many years to come. We were intrigued by his fresh, energetic way of being. Maher rarely encountered a defeatist, negative, or even hesitant attitude with his young staff in China. There was a vibrancy and a sense of possibility for entrepreneurs there in the mid 2000’s. 

As I entered the emergency department of the little provincial hospital, I saw Maher laying in a bed, a white sheet covering him to his waist. His big feet remained exposed. He had come out of a CT scan, and was surrounded by nurses. His colleagues looked at me solemnly. 

Maher had lost use of his right arm and the right side of his face was paralysed. His mouth was twisted. When he saw me, he tried to smile, to say something. I heard only incomprehensible sounds.

I was numb. It wasn’t the time or place for emotional outbursts. But I was ready for action, pumped with the adrenaline that flows in emergency situations. I slipped my fingers through his, and joined the support team that included Marwan and Maher’s personal assistant. We were all behind him.

Maher had run 10 marathons by then, including a couple at a sub 3 hour pace. He was a healthy eater with no cholesterol, no blood pressure, he didn’t smoke, and only drank at business dinners. He had no underlying diseases that we knew of. 

During the earthquake, everything he imagined of others’ romanticised accounts of near-death experiences were not close to what he had felt. He was dissappointed.  “Is this it?” He wondered, “This is how I go – no light, no big epiphany?”

And less than a month later – a stroke. We were confused. Maher was angry. He refused to accept death like this, unable to use his body or voice. He fought hard, refused unconsciousness, refused to go without a fight.

Part 2

Paris

A week after the stroke, with Maher stable, protocol allowed him to fly. We were to be evacuated to Paris, Maher’s home as a young boy and teenager. France remains to be the place he trusts most when it comes to medical attention. It promised him some familiarity and a sense of safety.

I returned to our flat to pack our luggage for the trip to Paris. Having a couple of hours to myself, I pulled out my yoga mat in desperate need to move my body, to feel my muscles work hard and stretch. To sweat, to feel my heartbeat, to breathe, and to regroup. That’s when the scream escaped me. A long wail of agony. And then, the tears.

We spent a couple of weeks at the Salpetriere hospital, an old institution in Paris, composed of large stone buildings amidst vast gardens. Maher was first admitted into the cardiac department. We spent a few nights there, jet lagged. I woke up early in the morning while it was dark outside, quietly pulled out my yoga mat and began my daily practice, both breath work and movement. These were my centering techniques. My time in the day. 

By the time the nurses arrived to check Maher’s vital signs at the break of dawn, I would have already showered and folded away my bedding. 

The doctors discovered something of interest –  a hole in Maher’s septum, the wall between the right and left atria of the heart. In 25% of adults this hole doesn’t close after infancy. “When it doesn’t close, it’s called a Patent Foramen Ovale”, the doctor explained, “quite likely the cause of such a stroke as yours. You are young, and there is no other reason for you to have a stroke.”

If the stars align so to speak, that is, a blood clot that would typically be dissolved by the body, passes through the hole in the heart, is then propelled up into the brain – voila, a stroke. Or another possibility, it is because of the PFO that a clot is formed. The clot then shoots up to the brain. 

There were two views at the time. One group of doctors would perform open heart surgery to “close” the hole, another would argue that the most up to date scientific studies show no particular benefit in “plugging” the hole, especially according to the leading doctors at the Salpetriere Hospital who were followers of the latter theory.

Upon listening to the advice from the doctors and after some internal debate within the family, Maher decided not to operate. 

As part of a continued in depth study to understand why Maher had the stroke, the head doctor sent him to the neurosurgery department. The atmosphere there was different. As part of the protocol, every inpatient member had to spend 24 hours strictly in the hospital bed upon arrival, and only then could the investigations begin. Maher had his mobile phone, bedpan, food and water close. Family was permitted during visiting hours. Only. I was firmly denied overnight stay.

Maher needed the time and space to reflect on his life, his second escape from death, to understand his new situation. In fact, he preferred that no one stay with him. He was introspective and uncommunicative. He spent long hours playing on a Nintendo Gameboy, and pulled out his classical flute, a great way to work on his fine motor skills. 

The doctors had been phenomenal in getting him through the stroke itself, but no one sat him down and explained how he was to move forward. He saw a psychologist two or three times.

The heart specialist at the hospital warned him against marathons. The sheer exertion needed to train and then run for that long a time was too much stress on the body. The word “stress” came up a number of times. Other than that, after Maher left the hospital, he felt he hadn’t enough answers, enough guidance. Physically he was almost all healed, even if uncharacteristically tired, but mentally and emotionally he was in the unknown. 

The chief concerns were how likely was it for Maher to have another stroke, and how best could he prevent or delay that? Maher needed numbers, some kind of certainty. He made appointments with specialist doctors, outpatient. He dug deep, read every study out there, interrogated experts who accepted to see him.  

According to these doctors, the recurrence rate was 4% per year, incremental. That meant he had a 16% chance in 4 years and so on. He was on aspirin for life. It was to keep his usually thicker blood due to high levels of red blood cells and platelets, thin. Since cholesterol is a risk factor of stroke, it’s standard procedure to prescribe anti-cholesterol medication, even though Maher’s cholesterol was lower than normal. 

For a few years to come, Maher would wake up in the middle of the night, he would clench and unclench his right hand, his breath rate was high. He would pace around the room. “I think it’s happening again.” He would say. “It must be a warning sign.” 

When this happened, I woke up too. I breathed with him, one hand on his belly as we watched it rise and fall with every inhale and exhale. “Lengthen your exhales,” I said. 

The panic attacks were most frequent the first year post stroke. When he realised the control he had over them simply by breathing differently and putting his awareness on it, he was empowered. With every following panic attack he could see it more clearly for what it was. He put his hand on his abdomen and controlled the length of each breath slowing down the overall pace, and improving the quality of his breath. In turn his nervous system would follow and calm down.

Ten Years Later

We were at a charming, simple 2 star hotel in Krabi, Thailand, before our 7 year old son Rahul’s football tournament the next day. We drove from our then home of Koh Samui, to Krabi, as part of a convoy of parents and organisers from our football club, Samui United. Maher and Rahul were in one room. Our daughter Leila and I were in another along the corridor a few doors down. It was barely 9 pm, and both our children were long asleep after an exhausting day. We had taken the ferry from Koh Samui to the mainland, and then the car for another six hours. It was a hot Thai day. Maher had driven all the way.

The phone in my room rang. It was Maher.

His voice was faint. He spoke slowly, but calmly. 

“I’m having a stroke. Come.” Click.

“Are you sure it’s a stroke?” I asked bursting into his room.

He was sitting meekly on the bed, a bottle of Singha beer next to the phone on the bedside table. 

“Call an ambulance,” he advised. 

He was looking at his right hand, trying to clench and unclench it. “My hand is tingling, and I can’t speak, same as last time.” His lips weren’t moving freely.

“I was drinking my beer, and couldn’t swallow any more.” 

He was unable to squeeze my hand.

I woke up a couple of our Thai friends, who could communicate with the hotel receptionist and hospital staff to arrange an ambulance. Quickly. 

I moved Rahul into my room, and left both kids in the care of a friend. Maher waited patiently. 

He smiled at me. I was surprised at his calm. I assumed he’d be upset like he was after the first stroke. But instead there was a hint of sadness in his eyes and a deep acceptance of the situation. An understanding of the impermanence of life.

“Make the kids strong,” he said.

I bit my lip, swallowed, and breathed in. 

I managed a nod. 

The doctor on call at the emergency department listened to my story about Maher’s past stroke history. He checked Maher’s right hand by asking him to squeeze his fingers. The doctor swiftly put Maher on an IV drip. 

A CT scan confirmed it – stroke. Exactly 10 years after the first one.

By midnight, only 3 hours later, Maher had mostly regained use of his right hand and his speech was improving. What luck I thought. I get to have him, we all get to have him for a little bit longer.

The next morning I brought the kids in to visit him. They played with the drip, tried on some surgical gloves and masks, asked if their papa would die, and threatened to tell the nurses if I snuck in a coffee for Maher, against the doctors’ orders.

Maher was given yet another chance at life. He improved rapidly. He used his right hand to hold the coffee cup I secretly handed him, and he managed to speak, slowly and sparingly, but surely. As usual he joked with us, his way of lightening any heavy moment. 

With help from family and friends – from caring for our kids when we were occupied, to putting us in contact with leading experts in the field around the world, the next few weeks went as smoothly as possible. After the three days minimum of doctors and nurses closely monitoring Maher in hospital ICU, followed by another four days at a hotel, we were given the go ahead to fly to Singapore, a short, two hour direct flight from Krabi, Thailand. The risk of a follow up stroke, like an aftershock, is quite high during the first weeks after the event. We saw that in the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. The aftershocks can be just as devastating if not worse than the event itself. But having been warned by the event, it would be foolish not to take precautions for the near future. So we took it easy and listened to expert advice. Maher managed the earthquake with great poise and a fighting spirit. It had been a great lesson in managing a stressful situation, and now after a lifetime of growth, children, and better self awareness handling this stroke was less scary.

The leading expert in the field in Singapore, strongly advised us to close the PFO. According to the latest scientific studies carried out by researchers in France, a PFO must be closed to prevent future strokes. It is a relatively simple, but only recently more practiced procedure. They no longer needed to perform open heart surgery. A catheter is introduced from the groin up into the heart, and the PFO closed. Much less invasive. One or two nights in the hospital is all it takes. 

Since there was a waiting list of a few months in Singapore, the doctor recommended Paris. “They have a good track record with this procedure, one of the best. If you can go there, do that. I highly recommend it.”

We had a place to stay in Paris, family and friends, and a familiarity with the medical system. It was a convenient option. We shopped for pants and coats, boots and socks, and off we went. Paris in October.

One day towards the end of the month, as Maher ordered his contact lenses at the optician down the road from his parents flat, I admired myself in a pair of designer Chloe sunglasses. I peered into the mirror. They were flattering. Coyly, I showed them to Maher. 

“You want to buy me a gift?” I winked.

“Nice. They look good on you. How much do they cost?” He asked, looking at the price. “Ah!” He laughed. “If I live through the procedure tomorrow, I’ll get them for you!”

I threw my head back and laughed. He gently held my hand, smiled, and we exited the store. 

A few days before the kids 8th birthday on the 1st of November, we went back to the optician. I walked out, proudly flashing my new sunglasses. 

Maher and I continue to live in Koh Samui, Thailand with our children. Maher never stopped running. His runs are pleasurable now, not competitive. And since 2008, no marathons. Sleep is a priority. Coffee consumption is down by half. He is running a community football club for children in Koh Samui, as well as an academy for Thai kids, scouted from across the country, who will become professionals. They are taught by world class Thai and International coaches, all individually picked and hired by Maher and his team. He’s building professional football pitches and a major sports complex, a hotel and apartments that will host kids and their families for sports camps. All this along with running the steel pipe factory in China, remotely now, with Marwan and others more involved in the day to day busy-ness of its management. 

He teaches Rahul and Leila by example — how to persevere. “I don’t care if they are the best at anything, just that they don’t give up trying when things get tough, or ‘boring’”, be it the piano, football, or simply showing up at school, everyday. 

And he continues to say those three words to me. I love you.

Installation Art

A few months ago when the Chengdu rain was pouring incessantly, and probably around a full moon day, I bought a bunch of frames from Ikea. I picked a handful of my favorite paintings by R and L and created a colourful installation.

Me: Do you think these two work in here, in the black frames?

Maher: Yeah, why not. But what do you want to do with all of these frames?

I tore down my yoga-photo wall. After 7 years, a change was necessary.

Me: What do you think Maher? Does it all look fine like this? Too bad for that basket ball hoop.

Maher staring at his Ipad: Maybe you should put them up at a museum.

Me: Oh man, thanks for your help. But hey, what a great idea 😉

Leila's pink painting

Rahul's blue piece

Leila's colourful finger painting and more pink

Installation plus basket ball hoop

 

 

How November Whizzed By…

A Family of Scorpios and My Non-Existent Asana Practice

November 1: Happy Birthday Rahul and Leila

photo(4)

Birthday cakes at snack time

November 7: “He won,” Maher exclaims as I walk in. “Now I’m ready to move to America!” he winks.

“But I don’t want to go to America on the Mayflower,” Rahul says. “If we go to Plymouth, America, we will get sick. And then the small people will take care of the big ones.”

We laugh.

“Papa’s joking about moving to America Rahul, and we don’t have to go on a loooong boat ride like the pilgrims, we can take a plane.”

Rahul and Leila break into song: “The pilgrims went to America, America, America…”

November 11: Happy birthday tonton (uncle) Jalal

November 12: Welcome to the World and to Chengdu, cousin Mina XiaoYu Kassar

November 13: Happy Diwali

photo(6)We talk to my family in Zambia. We all wish each other a Happy Diwali. Maher and my Canadian, soon to be sister-in-law also exchange happy diwali’s on the phone.

Maher jokes with my parents that the children are learning all about Halloween and Thanksgiving at school, but they know nothing about Diwali.

“Hey, we did dress up, and take a photo!” I interject. “Maybe next time the diwas (oil lamps), sweets, and stories. I need to google it!”

November 15: Happy Birthday Nana (grandpa) Ravi

November 16: Happy Birthday Jiddo (grandpa) Kamal

November 18: Jiddo Kamal arrives in Chengdu to visit his three grandchildren.

November 22: Happy Thanksgiving

photo(7)

Leila’s Turkey

Rahul's Turkey

Rahul’s Turkey

Thechildren have turkey and cornbread muffins at school. They talk about corn husk dolls and symbiosis.

November 23: L cries and R whines when I meet them at school. They want to do a full day, eat and nap with their friends. Thankfully I’d just discussed this with their teacher.

The evening after their first full day Leila is sure that she wants to stay all day, everyday. Rahul is sure that he wants to come home, always, before lunch.

November 26: Thus begins my three trips a day to the school, one refuses to come home, the other refuses to stay beyond noon.

As a mum of twins this is a big step – the kids first clear decision to do something important and rather long-term independently of each other.

—————————————–

Thanks for sharing this crazy month with us teta Houda.

Thanks for sharing this month with us teta Houda. Finally not only one, but two people who can keep up with you!

Finally not only one, but two people who keep up with you!

"Papa and Teta" Photo by Rahul

“Papa and Teta” Photo by Rahul

Baby Newton

“Mum look kshhhhh, looook, kshhhh doing kshhhhh up kshhhhh down.” That’s what I heard this morning. Rahul was trying to tell me something. Something BIG of course.

I was focused on staying out of his and Leila’s hyper-excited way, working hard at Facebook.

I look at him as he’s throwing a toy into the air, about to move on to another game. I might still be able to listen this time. “What’s up love?”

“Look mum, when I throw it up, it falls down.”

I smile.

“Yeah! Amazing isn’t it.”

I tell Maher about it when he walks into the room.

Leila is a keen listener and vibe picker-upper. Half an hour later she tells me when she throws her doll up, it falls down. She looks me in the eye. She knows I caught her out. We smile.

The only requirement for preschool – which starts middle of next week – is that they’re potty-trained, well other than that they’re 3-years-old by November 1st. Now I don’t know how early Newton figured all that stuff out, we’re still working on it. Baby Leila’s pretty much got it. Our baby Newton might need a little longer.

Wemember Me

First day back in Chengdu after a month.

Leila hesitates before descending a slope.

Leila: Mum. [Re] Member me, I fall down here?

Me: How the hell did you remember that? I remember Leila!  A few months ago, you fell down this steep slope.

Leila: I cry mummy.

Me: You’re bigger now. You can do it this time.

——————————

Maher buys bread at a bakery / café. We wait outside, with Rahul asleep in the stroller.

Leila: [Re] Member me, yesterday, I eat cake with you here. Inside.

Me: Oh yes now I remember! You and I came here one afternoon.  Many months ago.  We shared a piece of cake.  You chose it.  We sat there. (I point at the corner table.)

Leila: Big cushion, mama.

Me: Yes that’s right! We put a big cushion on the chair so you could reach the plate.

Leila: No Wrahul, No papa.

Me: That’s right, it was just the two of us. You and me together.  Rahul was at home with papa.  And before we left, you chose a cake for them.  And the ayi
(aunt – lady behind the counter), packed it in a box.

——————

As we walk by our favorite Japanese restaurant.

Leila: Hey mum! Wemember me, Wrahul, you, papa, Imad, Pascaline, Liu Yan, Marwan go here to eat. We sit down. We eat a lot.

Me: Yes my love, we ate here many times. We sat together and ate lots of noodles, fish, and spinach.

Leila: Many times.

—————————————

Leila looks at the weighing scale.

Leila: Wemember me, I baby, I lie down here. And Rahul also.

Maher: Oui, bien sur mon bebe, je me rapelle!

Leila: Wrahul cwy, Leila cwy.

Maher: Oui c’est vrai, quand vous etiez tout petits vous pleuriez quand on vous pesait.

—————————————-

At a fountain in our housing complex.

Leila: You wemember me, Leila and Wrahul sitting here, on the step. Wrahul stick. Leila eating.

Me: Yes I remember baby girl. You were sitting next to each other. Rahul was playing with a stick.

Parenting and Practicing Yoga: 40 Day Salute by Kalley Hoke

Kalley is a stay-at-home mom, trying to model a life well lived for her two wonderful daughters.

40 Day Salute

When I practice yoga regularly, life is better.

I first discovered this relationship while travelling in Kenya at age 20. After finding a basic (though oddly illustrated) book on yoga in Mombasa, I began to complete a simple series of postures on a daily basis. For the first time, I felt strong and capable in my body. The practice, along with the mind-opening experience of living in a different culture, gave me a sense of peace and power previously unknown. I found myself making better decisions and glowing in increased self-faith. It was a wonderful process that I wish for every 20-year old girl. Unfortunately, I quickly fell out of the practice after returning to the US.

The next time I practiced regularly was three years later after leaving my second Peace Corps assignment. Though not as consistent as my practice in Kenya, I once again found carving out time and space for yoga to be motivating and empowering. Yet, as before, as soon as my circumstances changed and I had a more demanding job, I dropped the yoga.

Thankfully, seven years later I met my fantastic teacher, Natasha, in Chengdu, China. Natasha introduced me to Ashtanga yoga, and I finally developed a consistent yoga practice. My body and mind responded accordingly. I felt more grounded, confident and creative. The practice was so motivating that I was able to wake up consistently before 5 in the morning to get it done – even with a couple of wakings each night to feed my young baby.

I was able to maintain my Ashtanga practice more or less regularly for about two years. However, I became pregnant with our second child immediately after moving to Switzerland and the first-trimester blahs took any motivation out of me. Although our second daughter is now nine months old and I am well settled into this new country, I cannot get my practice back on track. I know the multitude of benefits that consistent yoga provides, but when I have the space, I can’t find the time. When I have the time, I can’t find the motivation. When I have the motivation, I can’t find a space in our little apartment. It is a vicious drain on my well-being and I need to make a change.

With that in mind (and a little nudge in the back by Natasha’s request to write for her blog about parenting and yoga), I have decided to stop complaining and making excuses and reactivate my practice. My first step is to tackle my perception that I don’t have time. In order to make the leap, I am committing to 40 days of Sun Salutations. I am dedicated to completing five simple (Sun Salutation A) salutations a day with an open mind about where each salute will lead me. On the days I have more time and energy, I will do more. On days when those precious resources are scarce, I will be happy with the basic five (and remember that five is plenty with a 9-month old squawking in the corner and a 3-year old climbing under every downward dog).

Day 10- Lows and Highs

I managed to complete my minimum commitment of five sun salutations nine out of the past ten days. I could make up some pretty good excuses for why I missed that one day but when it comes down to it, I just didn’t get them done. I felt awful about it – like giving up the whole idea. I tend to be dogmatic that way. Thankfully I realized at the time, and the next day, how ridiculous the thought of giving up was.

That low point was balanced out by a substantially more extreme high today on the tenth day of my commitment. In the morning, I experienced a familiar disinclination to complete the salutations. However, this afternoon, amid a minefield of toys with both girls at my feet, I pulled out the mat. Immediately, D said she wanted to join me. She made it through two and a half salutations (without my guidance!) before calling it quits. Those were the best sun salutations I’ve ever experienced – brought on in part by my commitment to daily practice regardless of when and where.

In addition to occasionally blogging about my 40 day salute, I will be using a social networking website called SuperBetter for extra motivation. I have been fascinated by SuperBetter since hearing about it five months ago. The network was created to help those with traumatic injuries improve their healing processes by playing an imaginary game against barriers with the support of friends and family (“allies” in the SuperBetter world). It has taken some time for me to create my account because I felt like a fake without a traumatic or life-changing injury. However, five months after initially becoming interested in the site, I have made no changes to my routine even though I know how critical yoga is to my physical and mental well-being. Not traumatic, but definitely life-changing for me. If you’d like more information about SuperBetter, visit www.superbetter.com and contact me if you’d like to become an ally in my mission to reactivate my yoga practice.

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Day 31
I intended to sit down every 10 days and reflect on my 40 day commitment.

Where did the time go?

I think my missing updates are indicative of the results of my commitment to 40 days of 5 sun salutations – I have experienced a range of changes physically, but far fewer emotionally and spiritually. My body feels stronger and is noticeably more flexible. I notice poor posture readily and my back occasionally feels tense and misaligned- a sign that it is leaning toward alignment and away from the couch. Because I have practiced a small range of postures, my hips and torso are itching for opening – telling me that the sun salutations are not much more than a teaser. My endurance has increased and I can complete far more than my minimum five without getting winded.

On the internal side, I continue to feel rushed and harried (especially during my kids’ “witching hour” – late-afternoon and early-evening), though perhaps not as intensely as before. I don’t look forward to the mental component of my practice and my mind doesn’t “itch” for it the way my body does. My breathing, while on target, is not deeper or more meditative. I have noticed few changes to my level of patience or compassion.

My results so far lead me to the conclusion that while five salutations is something, it is not enough to bring about deeper changes (at least not for me). I need to continue searching for time and space to complete more thorough practices.

Prematurity and School

Also posted at How Do You Do It? at this link.

When my babies and I returned to Chengdu from Hong Kong after their birth at 31 weeks of gestation, they were almost 6 months old. Many of our friends came over to visit; to meet the tiny babies.

One of those friends was a school principal. Since we’ve been considering schools, and when to start them – I’ve heard from friends that children start anywhere from 2 to 6 years old depending on where they come from and what their parents can manage and prefer to do – I remembered something she said to me.

For every week of prematurity, hold back the child from starting school by a month.

When we visited a school a few months ago, that principal also suggested that we hold them back and not push them into school early.

This all worked well with my thoughts on not sending my children in too early, on not pushing them.

Then more recently, yet another principal talked to us about some of her experiences in the past, with premature children having difficulties in music classes, for example.

I’ve felt that my children are in the average of their age group. I can’t say that on any scientific basis, but I’m not too bothered with what they can or can’t do, of course that is keeping in mind that they are highly energetic children with no major, obvious issues. They talk. A lot. They play and laugh.

Last month I sent my 2 year 3 month olds to school. They were the youngest in their class, by a few months. At this stage of extremely quick growth and change, I’d say they were the youngest by far. So after a week of battling with myself, after having done the exact opposite of what I believed in, and what I was advised – I pulled them out of school.

In terms of separation from me, interaction and focus in class, they did very well, but I wasn’t convinced that it was the best thing for them at that time. My son was crying in his sleep, and unusually quiet and forlorn. My daughter became even more clingy than usual. I saw obvious changes. Of course there will be an adaptation phase when they start school, but we didn’t have to have it at that time. I have the luxury of being a SAHM (Stay At Home Mum), and all the plans that I made of what I would with my free-time, can wait a few more months!

But mainly I am hoping that the extra six months at home with us, will give them more confidence and security, other than more words, the ability to better express their emotions, they’ll be potty trained. After speaking to a number of close mum friends, I realized that almost all had waited until their children were 2.5 or 3 before sending them to school, and even then, they only went 3 half days every week.

Now, we are doing many activities that include music, dance, and just simple play – and we are all happy with our decision. I’m sure that the 6 months I hold them back will give them time for growth, and confidence.

My question to parents, both of premature children and not, to teachers, educators, paediatricians, and anyone who has opinions on this: When did your children start school? Is there much change in a child between the ages of 2 and 3?

Have you read or heard of studies about prematurity and education, prematurity and its relation to holding back children from starting school?

Parenting and Practicing Yoga: How I Almost Became a Yoga Addict by Pascaline Perdikas

Pascaline has been practicing yoga for almost 10 years but she doesn’t talk about yoga a lot, doesn’t think yoga, doesn’t wear yoga clothes, never was a vegetarian, and never did a workshop.   She moved from Paris to China in 2008 and since then a lot changed.
How I Almost Became a Yoga Addict

Yoga helped me get through my pregnancy with minimal discomfort.

Every time I am asked about my pregnancy, my answer turns a simple question into a long discussion about the benefits of yoga during pregnancy.

Let me say first, that I never took yoga seriously before my pregnancy. My practice through the years was quite scattered, sometimes it was once every 2 months and sometimes 3 times a week. I practiced with friends, or because I had found a good teacher, and at some point in my life it gave me something to focus on when everything else seemed out of control. I never took it seriously, never pushed myself to go to class – except, when I was pregnant.

During my pregnancy, yoga became a serious matter. I was already in my 8th week when I found out I was pregnant. A few weeks before that I felt my body & ligaments were more flexible; suddenly I was able to go deeper into postures and it made me feel good but I didn’t understand then why I was so dizzy and tired after each class.

Pregnancy caught up with me and I had to stop yoga almost immediately after that. Basically I stopped going out of the house until my first trimester was over. Being in bed with morning, afternoon and night-sickness, made me feel awful. I refused to accept the situation, I was almost angry at my body for making me so sick. I promised myself that as soon as I felt better I would do something about it.

So as soon as my first trimester ended, I started practicing yoga. Religiously.

Going to yoga classes was challenging: a 30 minute walk, a 7 storey trek without an elevator up to the studio, 1.5 hours of yoga and then 7 floors down (sounds easy but try doing that with a watermelon in your arms), and then of course, the 30 minute walk back home.

My teacher Judy. and friend Natasha both took the time to show me modified versions of the Ashtanga Vinyasa postures, to work with me on a self-practice, advise me, correct me, inspire me. Next to Judy’s yoga studio there is a nice little farmer’s market. So on the days I lacked motivation to go to class, hunger and cravings for fresh fruits and vegetables (especially avocados, my special thing during pregnancy) pulled me out my door.

Yes, I did eat before classes, actually when you are pregnant you shouldn’t practice on an empty stomach; and you should drink small quantities of water during practice to prevent dehydration and uterine contractions.

Yoga was not a painful activity anymore; it had become something I desperately needed in order not to BE in pain. The benefits were amazing: Being healthy from yoga practice gave me self-confidence; I was at peace with my body going through all these changes.  Doing my pranayama almost every day made me feel calm, and relaxed. It helped me breath through back pain and deal with shortness of breath.

Two very common feelings during pregnancy are fear (the fear of something going wrong, the fear of pain for example) and stress. Meditation techniques helped me deal with this. Closing my eyes and putting my hands on my belly, breathing and emptying my thoughts, focusing, all this brought me awareness and helped me connect with my baby in a way that is impossible to explain.

I felt calm and confident.

The Triangle pose helped me build up strength and removed tension from the lower and upper back. The Cat and Cow Pose did wonders for my back. The Pigeon pose was my favorite hip opener; something in this posture was just wonderful. And of course, I loved Child’s pose. I used to spend several minutes just breathing in this posture.

I felt prepared for the birth.

Yoga helped me bring awareness to my breath and body, it reduced my worries and I felt like I could adapt quickly to a new situation. I managed to go through the contractions without drugs, just by using my breathing exercises. The conditioning gained from mula bandha (like Kegel exercises) and breathing techniques helped me a great deal when it was time to push the baby out.

Did I become a passionate and devoted yoga student after this positive experience? Well, to be honest, not exactly.

After birth, I just didn’t have the time between feeds, naps and diaper changes. The me time was barely enough to have a shower, brush my teeth and call a friend (or two if the nap was long enough).

Then 3 weeks ago, my baby turned 1 and showed me in her cute little way, she was actually OK with me not being around all the time. So, this week I’ve attended 2 classes. A small victory. A sort of declaration of independence on my side too.

I also found my way back to the farmer’s market, so once again, my baby and I enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables.

For more info about yoga during pregnancy: http://www.ashtanga.com/html/pregnancy.html
http://www.babycenter.com/0_great-pregnancy-exercise-prenatal-yoga_7862.bc