Stories in Drawings

image Leila’s interpretation: Mama is carrying Rahul and I am jealous. Papa is next to me and there is a heart in the middle. (Did you see I drew a heart!?) Roman is a baby, and Mina is also a baby.

For the Brothers

This August full moon, it’s down to recycling my Raksha bandan post from two years ago.

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Raksha Bandan – Bond of Protection

When I lived in Zambia my family celebrated Raksha Bandan, a North Indian festival that honours the love between sisters’ and brothers’. It falls on a full-moon in August every year.

My parents, aunts and uncles took a day off work, we a day off school. We wore traditional Indian clothes and jewelery, and gathered at one if the homes.
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My mum, aunts and I picked out beautiful rakhees weeks in advance. There is a range of choice, from simple threads to more extravagant ones with mirrors and gold fringes. A few years ago there was one that played a popular Bollywood song. This year the fashionable rakhees have green, red, and shiny diamond-like stones on them.

I always chose the simplest threads and tied one around each of my brother’s and “cousin-brother’s” wrists. This gesture was to symbolise my love for them. In return my brothers’ had the duty of protecting me. From what, I wasn’t always sure.

After I tied the rakhee, we hugged each other. I always whispered an awkward, “What are we doing guys? Do we need this string to symbolise our feelings?”

I was the pain-in-the-ass, no fun girl who wasn’t into rituals, or for that matter, kitsch Bollywood dance because as a classical Indian dancer, Bollywood dances were corrupt versions of the real thing.

So, back to the hugging, after that we fed each other Indian sweets that my mum and aunts had prepared over the last week or two. In return, the brothers’ proudly offered me envelopes stuffed with notes.

Next was my mum and aunts’ turn. They tied rakhees around their “cousin-brother’s” wrist. He was the only one in Lusaka. They sent the others theirs in the mail, without fail.

My dad received his two rakhees by post, usually in good time. Since his sisters lived elsewhere it was my job to tie them. I got two envelopes from him as well.

Once it was all done, we’d have a big meal, and spend the rest of the day together.

When I left Zambia at 16, I forgot all about Raksha Bandan. One July my mum called to remind me about it. She asked if I’d sent all the boys a rakhee. I replied that I hadn’t so she quickly bought some on my behalf.

On the full-moon day, she called me. My little brother had refused to wear the rakhee since it wasn’t an initiative of mine. I was taken-aback. I had no idea that this really meant anything to him, or to any of them.

I immediately apologised, and ever since, I’ve made a special effort. I don’t always send them a rakhee in the mail, but I call or at least email.

This year, my mum only “reminded” me about it yesterday. There is no way I can get them rakhees in time. Phone calls will be in order, and a promise of more planning and organising for the years to come.

In my mum’s typically thoughtful and unimposing manner, she mentioned, by the way, “I’ve sent you a rakhee that L can tie around R’s wrist, if you guys want to do that of course.” I can’t wait to see the mini-rakhee.

My brothers are dearer to me than I can express. I do in fact feel safe, supported and strong when they are around.

So why not have a special day that celebrates the bond between sisters and brothers.

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Raksha Bandan This Yeara

Raksha Bandan – Our Version

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This morning – Our version – two rakhees, one each.
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9 Years and Moving to the Beat

9 years ago today Maher and I got married. In Montreal. We were amidst close family and friends – a party we won’t forget.

Guajira – I Love U 2 Much

Dandia RaasThere was dancing – from barefoot in the rain with Yerba Buena at the jazz fest, the garba and dandiya raas non-stop night, to the gypsy band “Soleil Tzigane” who used to play Friday and Saturday’s at Cafe Sarajevo, what used to be my hangout while we long distanced. We were thrilled that the musicians accepted to do our reception.

Ederlezi – Goran Bregovic (First dance)

I can’t just grab a photo that represents the occasion from my phone’s camera roll or off FB, our wedding photos are stuffed into a steel box in Chengdu. Hard copy.

Together koh samui

4 moves, a few mistakes, a stroke, IVF, NICU time, Leila and Rahul, long distance all over again on, and we continue to sneak moments together, learn about each other, grow in our relationship, listen to each other more intently, accept each other more sincerely, continue to compromise, let go, and love more deeply.

At least that’s what we try to do anyway. And hope for more years together.

Related:

Waiting for Cafe Sarajevo to say Good bye.

For Just Being There

In July last year, Maher bought me an iPhone for our anniversary. My frist ever Smartphone. Of course, I didn’t even open it for a few months. Now I’m hooked.

And then my brother introduced me to WhatsApp while complaining about how people don’t just pick up the phone and call for a few minutes. Instead they chat on this thing for hours on end.

Then last month one of my friends suggested I get it. So here I am now, chatting with my friends around the world, anytime of day or night – and yes, sometimes it’s more of a monologue than dialogue. But they understand, they know I’ve lived on the moon for the last ten years.

I was chatting with some of my friends while my kids were in hospital last week. Sending emails too.

A couple of weeks into the NICU experience in Nov and Dec of 2009, one of the nurses organised a Parent Support Group. After some hesitation, it being our first “support group” and all, Maher and I went. We were only two couples in the English speaking section, and the woman leading the group showed us a day-by-day photo album of her twin boys born there, at 26 weeks gestation. Actually, one of her 6-year-old sons was taking us through the pics himself. His mum openly discussed the challenges her family faced at the NICU and over the following years. Of course, she encouraged us to talk. What struck me was that the other couple had shared their baby’s photos on Facebook. Their naked baby with a ventilator, feeding tubes, bandages, IV’s, the works.

They found love, support, and strength through their network of family and friends.

I, however, was unable to call my own brothers. I almost dialed my closest childhood friend’s number a few times. Even did once, a few days after Rahul was already home. Chatted for a few minutes.

A couple of friends of mine dropped everything that was going on for them in Chengdu and came to see me in HK. I barely even spoke to the one who stayed two weeks. She got to know my mum amd mother-in-law a bit better though.

That’s the way I used to deal with things, and during the NICU time and later, this reflex kicked in more strongly than ever before. I felt that no one could help anyway, and isolating myself was the most efficient way to deal with what was in front of me. It made sense at the time because only parents were allowed into the NICU, and I wanted to savor every moment I had alone with my babies. I was too fragile to handle criticism and questions, stress from others, and least of all pity. And there was no way I would break down. Not then.

But then a few months later, both babies out of the NICU, and home in Chengdu, I relaxed. I started to comment on blogs. (Big step!) Then I started my own. I got a VPN in China, to access Facebook again, right after Zambia won the Africa cup. I couldn’t join the celebrations, not even over FB. That was too much for me to handle!

I tried to create a network of my mum friends via Multicultural Mothering.

When one of my friend’s twins were in the NICU a year ago, I felt the need to be present. He had no problem communicating with me, explaining, and even listening to me. I was impressed. And now while my kids were in the hospital last week that same friend along with others all listened, and shared their own experiences. It made everything more bearable. Others read my endless WhatsApp monologues.

Thanks for the support over the last couple of weeks, for the brainstorming sessions, the connection. For just being there.

When I saw this talk for the first time a couple of years ago, it was perfectly timed then. I immediately forwarded it to an exhaustive list of friends. A few days ago my cousin shared it with me again. It was just what I needed to hear. Again. For my friends – old and new.

Brene Brown on Vulnerability

How November Whizzed By…

A Family of Scorpios and My Non-Existent Asana Practice

November 1: Happy Birthday Rahul and Leila

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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

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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.

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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

Teta

A week ago today, Rahul and Leila’s Teta (Arabic for grandma) returned home after a quick week-long stay with us in Chengdu.

In between early morning whines Leila asked, “Where Teta Mama?”

“She’s in Lebanon baby.”

“Waaaah, where Tetaaaaa Mamaaaaa?”

“Rahul love Teta. Rahul love Teta Mama,” he said.

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While having her diaper changed half an hour later, Leila said:

“Teta said, ‘Je t’aime’ mama.”

NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit)

My friend’s wife, Maria, was on bed-rest for the last few months of her twin pregnancy. They live in Cyprus. I’ve been checking in with them on Skype, every other Thursday. It gets down to numbers – be it weeks, days, weight, length, or contractions.

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“30 weeks. Woooo hooooo!”

“So far so good! Maria is doing well. Bored, but fine.” he replied.

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“32 weeks – great news! What’s the latest?”

“Doctor says all is good. We’re aiming for the 22nd of December; 36 weeks.”

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And last Thursday: “34 weeks, how’s it going?”

“We’re scheduled for a C-section in about 3 hours.” They were at the doctor’s clinic, waiting. “The smaller one has plateau’d at 1.7 kilo; the bigger one is 2.4 kilo. The smaller isn’t growing anymore.”

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Friday on the phone with my friend: The little one is doing well. It’s the bigger one though, he cried when he was born, and then suddenly stopped breathing. I was asked to leave the delivery room at that point. They held him upside down. He was blue…I panicked.

I remember the worry that gripped me every time I was asked to leave the NICU. Either Rahul had gone into yet another sleep apnea; for what seemed like a little too long, or they had to set, and then re-set an IV into an already rebellious Leila’s miniscule, 1.2kilo body-weight, hand or foot. The screaming, the suffering you hear from a creature as tiny as she was, through the thickest hospital walls, is heart-wrenching.

My friend and his wife seem to have their emotions under control. I clearly remember that it wasn’t easy to stay level. But I had to, no matter what. I seemed unemotional, distant, “strong”, because otherwise I would break down. That meant I barely spoke to anyone, other than minor, somewhat polite interaction with the medical staff and with my parents and mother-in-law, who had moved to Hong Kong to help me during those 6 weeks, and after. I managed it the best way that I could. That’s it.

I hated my phone more than ever before. I couldn’t stand to see Maher on his. It had to be off in the NICU. And if I wasn’t at the hospital, and it rang – it was one of 3 options: Maher, someone I didn’t really want to go into any detail with, or the NICU. Luckily for us, it was never the last option.

Regardless of the calm my friend has portrayed, I’m contacting him daily, but apprehensively. You never know with this: one day the milk feeds are up, the next day they’ve been stopped because it seems there is a fatal infection brewing in the intestines. One day Twin 1 is moved out of the NICU into the slightly bigger babies room, the next day the baby in the bed next to Twin 2 dies.

One of my initial, harder moments was on a Wednesday afternoon, the third day after the birth. It was the day I left the hospital. I walked out, free after months of bed-rest; but I was leaving my babies behind.

Maria will only see her babies on Sunday, after she is discharged. On Thursday, she gave birth at the clinic, and the babies were rushed off in an ambulance, to an NICU. I realized that what my doctors did, what seemed obvious then, makes much more sense – they put me in an ambulance at the private hospital where I’d spent the last two weeks of my pregnancy, waiting out contractions, so that I could give birth at 31 weeks, at a major, public hospital, that had a state of the art NICU on its 6th floor.  I didn’t see my babies until they were 17 hours old, but they were in boxes, safe, somewhere in the same building.

In the hour after I saw them for the first time, when I saw and heard Rahul cry out – in pain – and I couldn’t do anything, not even just pick him, I realized that I would have to find the deepest of my strengths, love, and compassion to get through this.

She was 2 weeks old when we saw Leila’s face for the first time; Maher and I happened to be next to her incubator when a nurse changed her sunglasses. Both babies had jaundice when they were born, which is quite normal. Leila’s dragged on for a while though. It is treated by phototherapy – a light that shines on the babies – front and back. The babies wear a white mask to protect their eyes. On most babies in this ward, the patches are as big as their faces.

I tried to spend every moment possible with my babies, visiting hours for parents only, were from 9am to 12:30pm, and then from 2pm to 8pm. I spoke to L and R, sang to them – out of tune, and during the week, when Maher was back in Chengdu I played an Mp3 of him singing for them. I caressed them, and when they were stable enough, I clumsily changed their diapers, and even attempted to breastfeed them.

The medical team of this hospital, The Queen Mary, HK, knows what it’s doing. From the moment we arrived – me contracting and making guided decisions in labour, Maher figuring out the administrative details, we knew we were in good hands.

But the NICU staff didn’t always explain a lot to us, nor were they particularly nice. Of course the team is very busy giving life to babies; giving them a second chance. They don’t have time for frantic, lurking parents; at least that’s how we felt at our NICU. They deal with immense fragility scientifically; they attach ventilator’s to tiny babies, insert IV’s, measure and inject milk feeds into a tube that goes straight into the baby’s stomach, and then suck out and measure the undigested material through the same tube, they monitor and record every minute change on a tight, 24-hour schedule. Not easy for any parent to handle. And oh yeah, they let the babies cry.

There was one nurse though, who made the difference. She always smiled. She not only encouraged me to breast-feed, but she also advised me and gave me pamphlets about it. She’s the nurse who organized a parent support group one Sunday afternoon. That meeting opened us up. Her kindness and compassion made my visits a little easier.

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At the NICU in Cyprus, my friends are only allowed to see their babies between 1 and 2 pm, and then again between 5 and 6pm.

A friend of mine had to send her 2 month old baby to an NICU in Chengdu, for pneumonia. No one was allowed in. Full stop.

On the other hand, a friend of mine in the UK would go in to see her baby in the middle of the night be it because she was gripped by anxiety or because she had a strong urge to stay close to her baby.

The NICU rules everywhere seem to differ. What was your NICU experience like? What were the visiting hours? Was the staff pleasant, and helpful towards the parents? Did they encourage breastfeeding? Who was allowed in?