Beginning to look a lot like Christmas

I woke up this morning feeling cold. I pulled up the comforter to warm me up a bit. As I opened my eyes I was greeted with snowflakes softly tapping on our windowpane. It is December after all, and in two weeks it would be Christmas.

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view from our window

Today, my wife decided to decorate our home for the season. Yes, we were a little late decorating this year. We even skipped having a Christmas tree this time. Putting up a freshly cut tree had become a tradition in our home since we moved here in Iowa.

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our fireplace

As we hung up our holiday ornaments, and with snow continuing to fall outside, it is really “beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” just like the popular song goes. That also means that I need to shovel and clear the snow in our the driveway later. Rats! Though my son was excited to go outside and build his snow fort. One man’s misery is another one’s fantasy!

However even with the “holiday cheers” in our home, for some reason I cannot get off my mind the images of a place where I was, a little more than a week ago. A place of devastation (see previous post), where Christmas is the farthest thing you think of. And another familiar song is ringing in my head – “do they know it’s Christmas time at all?”

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(image from Manila Bulletin)

As I ponder on this, I was comforted with the thought that real Christmas is not about decorations and Christmas trees. It’s not about shopping and completing our list (wives, are you listening?). It’s not even about receiving gifts or exchanging gifts (good luck telling that to your kids!).

Christmas is commemorating the coming of the Son of God to this wretched planet (wars, calamities and all), to redeem our dying world. With that thought, we all can celebrate Christmas.

White Christmas

I am dreaming of a white Christmas. Not!

A warm Christmas maybe. A brown Christmas will do. Or better yet, a green (as in tropical!) Christmas.

I agree a white Christmas is so beautiful and iconic. Until you realize you need to shovel that pile of snow in your driveway in the subfreezing temperature. And there’s nothing beautiful in the bitter cold unless you are a polar bear.

But whether it is white, or brown, or green, or red, or even pink, that is not important. For Christmas is not about snow or colors. It is about the birth of a Redeemer, that though my sins are like scarlet, He made them as white as snow.

In that sense, it is a white Christmas after all. Have a blessed Christmas!

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(*photo taken last winter)

Christmas List

While I was in the clinic the other day, a patient of mine asked me if I was done with my Christmas shopping. I laughed. Done? I have not even begun!

With the holidays fast approaching, people are rushing, scrambling, and hustling to get their last-minute shopping to complete their long Christmas list. It’s no wonder we get so stressed. Are we sucking out the joy of the season? Why did Christmas become so commercialized and when did this holiday become synonymous with shopping anyway?

To the modern times, Christmas is not Christmas, unless we have completed our list (and checked it twice), and all the gifts are bought and wrapped, and all of those gifts are sitting pretty under the Christmas tree waiting for their eager recipients to open them with much elation (or much disappointment if it’s not what they want) on Christmas morning. Bah, humbug!

I know this season is said to be the season of giving and people often refer to the Biblical story of the wise men who came from the East to visit the baby Jesus, and they brought gifts for him. This is supposed to be our model for gift giving on this season. Really? Maybe we got it all wrong. Maybe we are missing the real essence of the season. Maybe we are taking too much emphasis on the gift-giving. Or maybe I’m just playing Scrooge.

Ten days before Christmas. I got time. Where’s my list? What list? Oh, I have not even drafted one yet.

But wait. Isn’t it 12/21/2012 arriving before 12/25/2012? Isn’t that the end of the Mayan calendar? Isn’t that the end of the world? What if the Mayans are right?

Then I don’t have to do my shopping after all!

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Mayan calendar

Christmas in June

Sunday is a day of chores and house cleaning in our home. Unlike the norm of the middle and upper class families in the Philippines where they have house helper or maid, we don’t have one in our home. So me, my wife, and my two kids share in all the household chores. Having your kids share responsibilities for regular chores around the house teaches them the virtue of work. And it does not mean that we could not have fun while we are working. Because we do.

I usually have my iPod on and listen to my collection of 80′s music when I clean the floor. Yes, “Floor Manager” is my designated title. My 80′s music (from my highschool and college days) includes songs from Spandau Ballet, Tears for Fears, Sting, The Cure, A-Ha, Depeche Mode, REM, Mister Mister, Pet Shop Boys and many others. It makes me feel young again.

My teenage daughter will most of the time listen to her music on her iPod too, while she does her chores. She loves Classical music and only listens to these. I am not sure where she got her genes for the appreciation of the works of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Dvorak, Chopin, Vivaldi, Debussy, and others. Maybe we really have a highly cultured and aristocratic bloodline coursing in our veins. It just skipped me.

For my son who is now nine years old, he is in charge of dusting the window blinds and furnitures. He likes to listen to music also while working. So he have our CD player at full blast when he is working. And what kind of music he listens to? He plays Christmas music! His favorite album is Mannheim Steamroller Christmas Symphony. And he even dances with it as he performs his tasks. It does not matter whether it is Christmas season, or it is in the month of June and in the middle of summer, we have Christmas songs blaring in our radio.

Does music help us do our work better? Studies have shown that music increases workers’ productivity  by about 6 to 10%. It appears that music helps us work harder too. In one British study performed in healthy college students, they let them ride stationary bike while the tempo of the music they are listening to are adjusted 10% faster and 10% slower. The researchers found that speeding up the music increased how fast and how hard the participants pedaled while slowing the music has the opposite effect.

Music uplifts our spirit and puts us in the right mood as well. And what kind of music can make you feel jolly? Christmas songs of course!

I don’t mind having Christmas music in the summer, as long as my kids do their work and have fun completing their chores. I just hope the neighbors will not hear “Deck the Halls” in midsummer, or they will think we are a bunch of weirdos. Or maybe they will just think that we are a bunch of hardworking Christmas elves.

(* image from here)

Signature Baby Clothes

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” Luke 2:12

Are you fascinated by signs or clues, just like Sherlock Holmes? Well, the shepherds were given a “sign,” to know that they found the right baby to visit that first Christmas night. I suppose there might be a number of babies born that night.

Finding a baby in a stable and lying in a manger was strange enough I would say, but there was more than to it. The baby was wrapped not in a diaper or a blanket, but in a swaddling clothes. Have you ever wonder why the swaddling clothes was a sign? What is a swaddling clothes anyway?

A swaddling clothes is a long and narrow bands of cloth that is used in wrapping a body in the olden times. Then, where did Mary and Joseph got this “signature” cloth, you may ask, to wrap their baby? No, not in a shopping mall or store, for I don’t believe they had time for that, though I think  there were a lot of merchandise and bargains in Jericho, which was on the way. And definitely that type of cloth is not something lying around in a stable, or something that they just stumbled upon on the road in their long trip to Bethlehem.

The ancient Middle Eastern culture have a tradition that when they travel that will last for many days to months, men will take with them, a long, thin, gauze-like cloth, and wrap it many times around their waist. This would be one of the bottom layers of their clothing, and this would not be like Calvin Klein or Hanes . This cloth is reserved for death, if in case this will happen while they are traveling. If someone died during the journey, their friends and family would use this cloth and wrap their body from head to toe, just like a mummy, so they could complete their journey.

Since Mary and Joseph’s journey from their hometown of Nazareth, to Joseph’s ancestral town of Bethlehem, was a couple of days travel (80 miles in distance one way), it was most likely that Joseph was wearing his “death” cloth according to their custom. Do you see where this is going?

Though it cannot be proven with certainty as it was not recorded directly in the scriptures, but it was very likely that baby Jesus was wrapped in Joseph’s “death” cloth! That would make one of the wise men’s gift even more appropriate. Myrrh, was the spice used to embalm the dead. It was basically a deodorant for the dead.

Do you see the theme here? Jesus was a baby born to die. He came to this world to die for you and for me.

As we celebrate this Christmas, may we for a moment, pause for the real meaning of this occasion. It’s not about shopping (though that was what commercial institutions want you to believe), nor about our kid’s or our own Christmas wish list. It is not about Christmas trees, nor sitting on someone’s lap, nor filling our stockings with goodies, nor the gifts under the tree.

But yes, this season is about “the gift.” The gift was not wrapped with bows and ribbons, but with “death” cloth. The gift was not under the tree, but rather, He was hanged and died on a tree.

May you have a blessed Christmas.

The Christmas Homecoming

He arrived with much fanfare. Clad in a brightly orange suit, with two escorts on each side. He made a jingling sound with every small step he made. People turned around and looked as he walked and passed through the hospital corridors, for it was an unusual sight to see.  But he did not mind their glaring stares. He came for a special purpose, and that’s what matters. He came to see his father.

His father laid in our ICU. He suffered an acute and severe bleed to his head. The bleeding was so extensive that he required a neurosurgical procedure to evacuate the large collection of blood inside his skull, and placed a shunt in his brain to relieve the high pressure, in an effort to save his life.

However despite of all the intervention, his condition did not improve. In fact, it even got worse. After the surgery, he had more bleeding and swelling to his brain. And no further surgery could fix or decompress the pressure that was squashing his brain. There were no “miracle” medicines that can be infused on him that would make him better. No further medical intervention left that could be done to save him. His condition was unsurvivable. Sooner or later, all the life-sustaining machines  hooked on him would be deemed worthless as he would be pronounced brain-dead.

Due to the grim development of events, the patient’s family were all in agreement to discontinue all life support. Though they had one request before that happens. They pleaded for the patient’s son to come before he dies. A son who had not seen his father for a long time.

In the past 10 years that I have been an ICU physician, I have signed for diverse medical and non-medical requests – a disability form for a patient who was critically ill, a leave of absence for a relative who’s loved one was in our ICU, a letter to the military requesting for a deployed soldier overseas to be permitted to come home to be with his mother in her last days, or a letter to the US consulate for a patient’s mother in a foreign country requesting for a visa to see her son, who was in near-death.

This time I signed a request for a detainee to be released briefly from prison, to visit his dying father.

And so he came.

The brightly colored clothes was not because it was the holiday season, but it was the standard issued jumpsuit from the prison. The jingling sounds as he walked, was not from trinkets or bells to announce some holiday cheer, but rather from the chink of the chains that binds his ankles. He brought no gifts as he came empty-handed, except for the handcuffs. There were guards that flanked him as he made his way through, and people watched and stared, but it was not a parade.

He was led into the ICU room where his father laid. Her mother who was at the bedside, cryingly welcomed him with open arms. It was an embrace of acceptance to their “wayward” son. Like a homecoming of a prodigal son, if you will. Yes, it was a sort of homecoming alright. A very sad homecoming indeed.

As the son stood silently beside the bed of his comatose and dying father, the tears began to flow from him. Prison, I supposed, did not harden him enough to be devoid of all emotions. If only his father can see his tears, but it was too late. Whatever demons he had in the past, and I don’t care to know, he was still human after all. Just like you and me.

Was the tears for his father, who he knew he failed, and who he would never see again? Or was the tears for himself, as he had caused his family such heartache and disgrace? Was it tears of painful loss and farewell? Or was it tears of remorse and repentance? Or maybe it was a combination of all of those reasons. Whatever it was, only he alone knows.

There will be no singing of Christmas carols, I guess, in his dark and lonely cell tonight.

Season’s Tinsel and Glitter

When I was growing up in Manila, we did put up some decorations during Christmas. The ornaments were not much – a colorful parol that we hand-made (oftentimes as a school project) hanging outside the window, and a small Belen in the living room, but that was enough to spruce up the holiday mood. We don’t have a Christmas tree, not even a scraggly fake one, though sometimes we had “kumukuti-kutipap” lights. And I don’t mean lights being on and off due to the frequent power outages that we had then.

Now that I moved out of the country, it also became a tradition in our home here in Iowa to decorate for Christmas. This, I believe, decreases the pangs of homesickness for us, while in turn, creates wonderful memories for our children. We even have a real live Christmas tree inside our home that we get from a tree farm each year. And we don’t need to add fake snow, we have lots of the real one. Yes, too much (*sigh*) of the real one .

Here are some of our Christmas decor this year:

parol made of capiz (from the Philippines)

“Behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them.” Matthew 2:9

"PEACE" hanging in our fireplace mantel

“Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”

wreaths adorning the stairs

star lights on the window

“O star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright.” (We Three Kings of Orient Are)

soft glow on the porch

dangling luminescence on a clear night

“It came upon a midnight clear.”

trimmings on our tree

silver bells, silver bells.....I mean......balls?

“O Christmas tree! O Christmas tree!”

JOY

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”

crystal Nativity

It is easy to get lost in all the tinsel and glitter of the holidays. But let us not forget the real reason for the season.

the real reason

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” Isaiah 9:6

My Christmas Calling

Christmas morning. Freshly fallen snow was on the ground. It was a White Christmas after all. Bah, humbug!

I forced myself to get up from bed. My throat was so sore, it felt like somebody stuck a fork in my throat and scraped it raw. My body aches like I just ran a marathon. I caught a Christmas bug, you know. No, not the “joyful feeling” of the holidays. A real bug.

I don’t want to go to work, emotionally and physically. But I had to. I am on-call for Christmas, and our patients in the hospital, especially in the ICU, needs my care. (But who will care for me?) On days like this, I just have to suck it in, take a couple (or make it a handful!) of Tylenol and will myself to go.

I left home with the kids still sleeping and the gifts under the tree unopened. Maybe I would be able to come home early and we can open the gifts.

In the hospital I greeted people with perfunctory “Merry Christmas,” though I was not feeling the “merry” part, and in fact was in a Scrooge-mood. It was a busy day: 32 total hospitalized patients I rounded upon, 2 hospitals I went to, 19 ICU patients, 12 ventilator-dependent, 2 carbon monoxide poisoning that needed hyperbaric oxygen treatment, 1 chest tube insertion, 1 endotracheal intubation, 1 arterial catheter placement, 2 central venous catheter placement……. and a partridge in a pear tree.

As I dealt with the very critical patients and talked with their family, I knew that I was not the bearer of good tidings and joy, but rather of grim news most of the times. As the families broke into tears and comes to term to the gravity of the condition of their loved ones, I thought that these people are experiencing far worse Christmas than I am. At least I am going home tonight. My patients will not. Some of them will not come home, ever. And for these families, Christmas will never be the same.

Slowly my “Grinchy” attitude peeled off and was replaced with a sympathetic spirit. I then realized my purpose for this holiday, and that is to give my compassionate care for these unfortunate people, in this supposed to be joyful occasion.

The last patient I admitted to the ICU came late afternoon. He was 32 years old. When he was 7, he received a life-giving gift, when he became a recipient of a heart transplant. His donor heart had kept him alive for all these 25 years. However, for the past few years, his existence was less than joyful. Complications after complications have developed, and one by one his organs started failing, including his borrowed heart.

Today he was brought to the Emergency Department almost dead. After transferring him to our ICU, placing him on a mechanical ventilator, placing tubes and catheters in his body, and flooding his system with medicines, his condition did not really improve much. After I spoke with her mother in the ICU waiting room, she quietly, but boldly stated, in between sobs, that she was ready to let go of her boy who have suffered enough. She indicated that she just wanted him to go gently into the night. Somehow, the ‘miracle’ heart will be resting this Christmas night.

Did the miracle ended? I don’t think so. For the miracle of love persists. Love that is shown here by letting go, which in some occasion, is more selfless than holding on.

There is another  7-year old boy who is waiting for his gift. That boy is my son waiting at home. He may be anxious to open his gifts, but then again, he may be anxious just to see me come home.