Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"Take Care of My Negatives:" Coping with Cancer and Thoughts of Death

It was not even five o’clock in the morning when they came to wheel John out of his hospital room to prepare him for surgery.  

In November last year, we discovered that his prostate screening antigen level was elevated. A month of being on antibiotics did not bring it down, and a series of tests revealed that he had stage two prostate cancer. The year’s months passed while he hopped from one doctor to another, seeking a second, third, fourth opinion.  I was getting exasperated and told him that he was running out of urologists to consult.

I did not want to nag him, so I enlisted our daughters’ help to convince him to undergo a biopsy, the only definitive test to determine if he indeed has cancer or not.  Finally, he did, and the verdict was as feared – he had the dreaded Big C. We made a new round of doctors, and diligently researched on the Internet, as we “shopped” for a treatment option. All doctors tried to soften the blow. They told us what we have already heard and read about prostate cancer – that it was a slow moving cancer, and as one doctor said “if we could choose a cancer, this is what we would choose.” Another doctor said some men who have prostate cancer could die of old age and not even need treatment for their prostate cancer.

But just as we were heaving a sigh of relief that he had the least troublesome kind of cancer, one doctor said he should make sure that the cancer is contained only in his prostate. He prescribed scans to check John’s bones and abdominal organs. We were back on the rollercoaster of anxiety and apprehension as John dutifully submitted himself to the scans and waited for the results. Thankfully, both scans were negative.

But the different ultrasounds and scans also showed that he had a stone in his ureter. One doctor prescribed medicines to try to melt it, while another doctor ordered a lithotripsy (shock wave treatment to break down the stone so he could pass it down). John went for the lithotripsy.

He rejected radiation therapy (too time-consuming, too many trips to the hospital) and decided that he wanted surgery. Having narrowed down his choice to the most radical treatment meant looking for the best doctor and the best-equipped hospital. Consulting with friends and relatives in the medical profession, we were told about robotics surgery, and that the latest equipment were available at St. Luke’s Medical Center at Global City. Two doctors were needed to perform robotics surgery – one to handle the robotics while the other stood by the patient’s bedside, prepared to do traditional surgery, in case something went wrong with the robotics equipment. The two doctors whom we had approached at St. Luke’s were both trained and experienced in doing robotics-assisted prostatectomy, and reassured John that he would fine no matter which surgeon he chose. He didn’t think it was right to let them toss a coin to decide who would be the lead surgeon, so John decided to go for the older doctor to handle the robotics.

John worried about the cost of the operation until I told him that it would be covered by his Blue Cross medical insurance. Our insurance was reimbursement-type, but our broker had mentioned years ago that if we made prior arrangements, Blue Cross could pre-approve the procedure and hospitalization, and we would not need to advance payments. That was another worry off his mind, as we made the trip to the hospital.

We checked in the night before the 7:00AM scheduled surgery.

The hospital staff was friendly and efficient, with nurses or doctors introducing themselves and explaining their roles, (“I am Nurse Christine, your night nurse. I will be attending to you until 6am, when your day nurse, Jerry, would take over.”) They pointed to the features of the room – the buzzer to call nurses in, the lights, how to raise and lower the bed or parts of it, what time the doctors were expected to come. They patiently explained all the procedures that they were required to do, and what the patient should even expect to feel and experience. Before all that, as a standard security measure to make sure that they are dealing with the right patient, they asked him for his name and birthday.

They prepped him for the surgery, putting in I.V. needles on both hands, even though only one received intravenous fluids that night. We were introduced to the new machines that detected the flow of IV fluids – which beeped when the flow was blocked. John must have had a restless night, as that machine beeped many times through the night, and I had to press the buzzer just as many times to call in the night duty nurse to restore the flow.

He was awake, and so was I, when they came before five o’clock in the morning.

 I stood up and walked the few steps from the daybed where I was supposed to sleep but hardly did, to just outside John’s hospital room door that was as far as I could join him. He held my hand, and whispered, “Harvey, take care of my negatives.”

This is 2013, and we no longer shoot with films, and therefore have not been handling negatives.  But his admonition takes me back further than 13 years ago when we gave up analog cameras to embrace the digital revolution.  It takes me back to 1972, and to another hospital situation.

John’s papa had gifted him with a new Honda 300cc motorcycle, and young and recklessly daring as he was (24) at that time, he accepted a dare from his friend, Ernesto, to a race on Roxas Boulevard (then called Dewey Boulevard). (If I may digress a bit, the whole stretch of Dewey Boulevard lined Manila Bay then, and Manila’s famed sunset could be enjoyed by any who would sit on the breakwater that ran parallel to the boulevard. In later years, reclamation projects pushed forward the shoreline, and we have lost this easy access to the magnificent colors of the sun’s going down).

Since his friend had a more powerful motorcycle,  John was given  “partida” – allowed to have a headstart.  After a couple of minutes of driving alone, he heard his friend revving his engine. As the sound of the other motorcycle’s engine grew louder and nearer, John steered his motorbike to the right side of the road, to give his friend space to overtake.

But his friend – violating basic Philippine (same as U.S.) driving rules – overtook on John’s right side, and the two men and their motorcycles collided. His friend was not harmed, but as John later recalled, his last memory after their motorcycles crashed was of him “flying, and looking back at his motorcycle.” He landed face and belly down on the curb, the full impact of the crash leaving him unconscious.

He was rushed to the “Hospital de San Juan de Dios,” just a few meters away from the scene of the accident. One of his mother’s employees (as I recall, his nickname was Taba) rushed to fetch me from the apartment that I was sharing with my brother, while someone else summoned his mother. He was still in the emergency room when I arrived, but they were getting ready to wheel him into the X-ray lab. John must have been in terrible pain and probably having thoughts that he could possibly die as a result of this accident, when he very faintly whispered, “Harvey, please take care of my negatives.”

Miraculously, he had no fractures, but his skin –on the right side of his body, from his face down to his finger tips – was peeled off, exposing his flesh, as if he had suffered third-degree burns. It took a month in the hospital (how he survived a month in a hospital is another story) before new skin grew.

When he was finally released from the hospital, he went straight into doing photography. One day while going through his files of old negatives, he called me, and with grim expression on his face, and great drama in his voice, asked me, “Do you remember that night that I had a motorcycle accident?” “Yes, of course,” I answered. “And do you remember that I asked you to look after my negatives?” “Yes, of course, I remember.”  Those life-or-death moments are difficult to forget. Just as I braced myself for possible bad news, John broke into an impish grin, and said “Well, I’m sorry that I thought I was leaving you my most valuable legacy – but there is nothing among my photos that is of value.” Relieved that he was out of danger, we could now afford to laugh at how much we cared and shared about each other, even with how little we owned.

Forty years later, as he said those words again, “Take care of my negatives” I was not sure what to think – was he thinking that he was near death once more, was he sharing our in-joke, was he reassuring me that four decades later, his negatives must have escalated in value, what exactly was his message? Confused, worried and anxious, I sat alone on the bench in that empty hospital room, and turned to prayer.

It’s been a month and a half since that surgery. His PSA level is down to .0003 (maximum is positive 4), and while it is still difficult to get him to rest and take it easy, he is more patient with himself, and willing to slow down, just one bit. This is what John has to say, after his encounter with the Big C and his near brush with death:

Since my operation... I have had a different outlook in life... Patience is now a virtue that I hold close to my heart... Savoring every moment of whatever Life has to offer me... I watch young people in love and see old couple enjoying the mall, little children playful and laughing... I see grouchy old men too... I hope one day I won't be one... Learning new things which I should have learned a long time ago... Luckily, I still have time left...

Monday, August 05, 2013

Family Sunday Strategy

Our youngest daughter, Sacha, blogged that she prefers to be a homebody, even though she remembers that as a child, we would always eat out and go malling. I will confess to the first but not to the second (neither John nor I like to shop, although I could stay the whole day in a bookstore), and will explain why we formed the habit of eating out.

John has always been a workaholic.  We all needed to be because advertising photography work is notorious for not following office hours, or even office days, weekends or holidays.  Every job always seems to be a rush job, and clients anxiously wait for us to submit transparencies or prints, in the old days, and in today’s digital age, CDs, DVDs and now, hard disks. For this reason, although I would have wanted to raise our children away from the city, we chose to combine our photography studio and residence together in Makati. John would proudly say he has a two-second commute. This was the only way to avoid the traffic jams that choke our highways and city roads in order to come to work quickly while still being  close to the children, and accessible to them even during office hours. Weekends and holidays were not something we could commit to spend with the family, so we made up for those days by making spontaneous trips whenever we could, sometimes, to take them on our location shoots, no matter that they may be during school days.

Due to the demands of work, it was difficult to have regular family dinners. Advertising photography meant that we could be working all day and all night (our record stands at 39 hours non-stop), and lunch and dinners were grab-a-bite affairs. John takes about two minutes to gulp down lunch, and most often, dinners were like that, too.

Although I cooked on special occasions, I could not commit to cooking regularly – since in addition to the family, we also serve meals to all our employees, and occasionally, for clients. We have a full-time live-in cook, so even until today, I cook very rarely. During those rare occasions when I did cook, John would briefly join us for dinner, and then quickly leave the dining table to go back to work. Between the call of work, and the need to sit down properly for a home-cooked meal, John heeds the former.  It’s okay – I was never an enthusiastic cook anyway, and I did not mind employing the “let’s eat out strategy.” At least when dining at restaurants, we had a bit more time to enjoy each other’s company.

For reasons cited above, I planned that every weekend that John did not have to work, we would eat out. Not in fast food restaurants where there was no waiting, and not in fancy restaurants where food was expensive. We would go to restaurants that could be classified as casual dining places – Dulcinea, Via Mare, Luk Yuen, Hap Chang, Amici, Max’s, Aristocrat, Pancake House, Rack’s, Teriyaki Boy, Almon Marina, and occasionally, to restaurants that are a little bit more upscale, like Mario’s (we don’t know where they’ve moved), Italianni’s, or our favorite 24-hour restaurant, the Old Swiss Inn.

Between the time after we’ve placed our orders and before we were served, we had a few minutes – usually five to fifteen – and throughout the meal – maybe another 15 or 20 minutes – my family would be gathered around a dining table, albeit not our own, and we could have  - not the after-dinner conversations that I craved for – but the precious before-and-during dinner time, when we could finally connect with each other.

Yes, eating out is a strategy to bring together our family.

All the children are grown up and gone now, but out of habit, John and I still eat out on weekends – patronizing the same restaurants, occasionally joined by Kathy and her John. And Gaby, of course. 

But today, Kathy and her little family are in Holland and John only spent the morning between the zoo to look after Maali, and FPPF to inspire young photographers. John made no plans to fly his RC planes today – I wonder why. John and I – just the two of us - had the rest of the day – from lunch to dinner – to saunter around the mall. John promised to avoid the usual restaurants, and we tried the Mu Noodle Bar (he liked the beef noodle soup). This is out of our usual strategy – John normally does not like trying out new restaurants, but it was fun. John even threw in a little malling, as we explored the new computer shops on Glorietta 2. Again, that was a special treat – not because of the shops – I didn’t buy anything, John did – but that it afforded us time together.

This is the icing on the cake:

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v80), quality = 95

Oh... Its Sunday... forget about everything... time to smell the roses... get a life... taking Harvey for a lunch date... Enjoy the day. FB Friends... Feels good speaking to a group of newbies at the FPPF Seminar...

John Chua One lovely lazy afternoon indeed... We went to check out Glorietta Two ( since we have been shooting the place last week... Ate at a MU noodle bar... got ourselves two powerful mini speakers for our laptops... window shopping... enjoying every minute... Now back home after the mass.... Hmmmm a nice home movie would be just perfect to end the day... I hope you got a nice day too... You deserve it... Tomorrow... well its another day.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

War Photographer

At the beginning of each term, as I face a new class, I always ask my students what specialization they wish to get into. Nowadays, it’s mostly fashion or travel, but I came upon a demure, slim, very feminine looking girl – probably 18 0r 19 years old – who very shyly said “war photography.” I wasn’t sure that I heard her right, so I asked again, and in almost a whisper, she repeated, “War photography. I would like to be a war correspondent.”

I was intrigued. I asked her why she had thought of becoming a war photographer. She said that as a child, she came upon some black-and-white war pictures and saw the strong emotions portrayed in them, and since then, she has been wanting to do the same kind of powerful imagery. She wanted her photographs to be memorable.

Since I did not want to pay singular attention to her, I moved on to ask the others, but I continued to be intrigued by her ambition, since it seemed inconsistent with her appearance and demeanor.

On our third session, we delved deeper into the different genres and the personal characteristics of the photographers pursuing each specialization – that someone who would like to do fashion photography would do well being fashionable herself, that a landscape photographer should be an early riser to catch the fleeting sunrise of a beautiful morning. That someone who wanted fixed hours should not do advertising photography, which we know demands work beyond normal hours, but probably should work in a portrait studio in a mall. As I went through each of my  students’ choices, I named a few very well known photographers who represented each genre.

When we touched on war photography, I named a famous Filipino photographer who had covered the war in Iraq and Afghanistan but somehow, in an effort to put across the message that war photography has its own intrinsic risks and extraordinary demands, I got drawn to cite John’s own experiences while covering coup détats. I related that I would be nervously praying for his safety every time he left the house for such assignments. At that time, the military was restive and John was doing photography for Asiaweek.

I asked her if her family would be able to accept the risks that she would face as a war photographer. She did not answer. Is she physically fit and mentally agile?  Would she be able to think on her feet to make split-second decisions that may be necessary to save her own life?

A scene flashed in my head – of a story that I heard from John, and for which I am eternally grateful that he survived and I did not have to witness. He was covering one of a few attempts to overthrow the Corazon Aquino administration. John said that he had aimed his camera at a soldier, a bit far from him but within the range of his telephoto lens, who was aiming his rifle at a civilian, when suddenly, he found the end of the soldier’s gun aimed at him. For a nanosecond, he froze, then realized that he had to disengage from this encounter. Understanding that the soldier must have been also tense at the moment, he did not want the soldier to further feel challenged, so without looking at him, and in the slowest manner, he turned his telephoto away from the soldier and downward to the ground. He pivoted his body to also turn away from him, took a well-planned step, again in the same slow-motion fashion that made a few seconds seem like eternity. Still curious as to how the soldier was reacting to him, he caught from the corner of his eye that the soldier also turned and walked away from where he stood. John withheld even a sigh of relief so as not to call further attention to his presence. During that tense moment, the last thing he wanted to hear was the sound of a gunshot, since silence meant that he was still alive.

After covering a few coup d états, John was starting to believe that he would make a good war correspondent.  He probably would have, but it would have come at the expense of my sanity. He told me that if he didn’t have a family, he would have gone. I am glad and grateful that he went back to being an advertising photographer. It’s not exactly an uneventful life – something that is hard to do with John - but at least we were far from a war photographer’s daily dose of life-or-death situations.

I hope my student listened to my narrative about John. It was not just a story -  it was my personal plea for her to reconsider her choice of a career in photography. But then, I know of course, that it is her decision and not mine. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Stars and Skype

A long distance relationship is difficult, but nowadays, technology makes it somewhat bearable. Cellphones and computers allow friends, families or lovers to chat and see each other at any time of day or night, and in the privacy of their own rooms, or even cars (Just don’t drive and text).  And while we need to pay for Internet or cellphone service, connecting to another anywhere in the globe is actually free with Facetime, Viber, Hangout or Skype.

In the early 1970’s, when John was courting me (in those days, men courted women and we never said  “when WE were courting …”), John’s mother did not approve of me because I was encouraging him to work as a photographer, which meant that he was not paying attention to the family business. To separate us, she sent him off to Iloilo to stay with his sister. Now, in those days, there was no Internet, email or Skype, there were no cellphones or even pagers, and public coin-operated phones were just for local calls. Mailed letters took a long time, so any messages that needed to be rushed were sent by telegrams. 

My family was poor and we did not have a phone at home. If John wanted to call me, he would have to call my aunt’s house, which was next door, and wait for someone, usually my aunt’s maid or houseboy (then called servants) to call me and for me to rush to my aunt’s house. With cousins practically eavesdropping, there was no chance for John and I to say sweet nothings to each other. Besides, in those days, telephones had party-lines, meaning, two phone owners, usually neighbors, took turns in using one phone line. As a matter of phone courtesy, when one lifts the handset and hears someone talking, that person must put the phone down gently, and wait. If you’re the one using the phone, sometimes, it meant hearing that handset being lifted and put down over and over again, and when the other party becomes impatient, they say “Hello, party line, puede ba ako naman (may I have my turn?)  There was no way to stay on the phone a long time to make “telebabad” (staying too long on the phone).  

It was too embarrassing to use my aunt’s phone to call long distance, so for calls that I would have to initiate, I would have to go to the Philippine Long Distance Company office in Port Area, near the foot of Jones Bridge (two jeepney rides or approximately five kilometers from Paranaque, where I lived).  There were booths there, and callers were guaranteed not only soundproofed privacy, but also no party lines waiting on the wing for me to finish my call. But long distance calls were expensive, and I did not have the money to make such calls. 

Before he left for Iloilo, and anticipating the difficulty of keeping in touch given that I did not have a phone at home, John agreed to my romantic suggestion to connect somehow by agreeing to gaze at the sky, and look for Orion’s Belt (a row of three stars) at the same time every night at exactly 7:00PM. We synchronized our watches. There no cellphones or Internet, it is true, but what we had was a direct connection, soul-to-soul through the stars, it was private, and it was free. Who needs Skype?

John eventually came back to Manila. We set up Adphoto, got married, and raised three daughters.Today, we connect with our children, relatives, friends and each other through Skype, Google Hangout, Viber, Facebook or FaceTime and marvel at how technology keep us connected;  but once in a while, through the more than 40 years since the 1970’s, when John and I look up at darker provincial skies (disappointingly, Metro Manila’s pollution and bright city lights obscure views of Orion’s Belt), we give thanks that when we did not have Internet or Skype in the 1970's, we had the stars in the sky to give us direct connections and clear signals.  We’re still together, so obviously the stars worked.