A hospital is not the best place to spend the holidays in, but this year that’s where my mother has been. On Christmas Eve she would be into her fourth week in the intensive care unit (ICU).
She is blissfully unaware, and I visit just to hold her and tell her to get well soon, knowing that with geriatric illnesses, “getting well” has become relative in our day and age, with so many hospital confinements in the last seven years that I’ve lost count.
People ask how I cope and I say by walking, through the hospital. I walked through the corridors with one of my daughters—three years old at that time—the day before her open heart surgery, until
one of the security guards, who, clearly with good intentions, thought of cracking a joke, a Filipino
way of coping: “Gandang hapon po. Di niya yata alam na kakatayin na siya (Good afternoon. She probably doesn’t know she’s about to be butchered).”
I’ve learned to walk up and down the stairways instead, where people are not likely to try to engage you in conversation. It’s during those walks that I process the medical interventions, finding joy in the successful ones, and confronting the ones that are still not working.
It’s also during those walks that I think of work issues… and of what to write in my column. Maybe because I had just finished a column on gift-giving, a story line kept popping up in my head in the last few days. It’s one I had read many years ago in college, about a woman who, with her paltry savings, knew she could not buy anything substantial for her husband. She cut her long hair and sold it to get a beautiful gift for him. The husband came home that night excited to present to her his gift, for which he also had to sell a valuable personal item.
It took me two days before I could recall the title of the story and its author: O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” first published in 1905 and now freely available on the internet. It’s a very short story but it will leave you thinking about what the author wanted to bring out: wise gift-giving. He calls the husband and wife “foolish,” but the label is rhetorical. The Magi, who O. Henry says started this whole matter of Christmas gift-giving, were indeed wise, but, as with that couple, wisdom sometimes needs to be taken in context.
I know this weekend will be devoted to last-minute shopping, so permit me a second column on gifts, this time on how we might be wiser with selecting gifts.
The Chinese have a saying, “Food is heaven, and heaven is food,” so yes, food items make good gifts. Even after they’re consumed, good food gifts linger, stored in our brain together with other memories of friendship, camaraderie, and love, even puppy love.
But be wise, too. Be aware of who you’re giving a food gift to. You don’t want your gift to cause a sudden crisis for patients with diabetes, or cholesterol problems. Remember that LDL means both lechon de leche and low-density lipoprotein, better known as bad cholesterol.
It helps to ask, and it helps to leave instructions, on what to do with the food. These days we have so many exotic items on the market that people might not know what you gave.
It helps to just write out the explanation to enclose with the gift, but make sure as well to verbally instruct household help or office staff if the food should be refrigerated.
I also don’t pass on unprocessed food gifts because you don’t know when it was produced. Even fruit cakes don’t last that long. I write this thinking of the moldy gifts I’ve received, which always get me thinking about how the first director of the Philippine General Hospital, an unpopular American, was poisoned, with his nursing staff being the main suspects. I’ve wondered if the poisoning happened around Christmas.
Yikes, I hope I’m not giving anyone ideas.
Safety’s important, especially with gifts for kids. Do heed the warning labels on toys about age-appropriateness. The warnings are there mainly when there are small parts that very young children (and pets) might swallow.
Mugs are popular but when you ask someone, especially children, what they got, their face tells it all when they say: “a mug.” I’d avoid mugs, too, because some of them can have significantly high levels of lead which, incidentally, can also be found on the paint used for toys.
Beverage bottles are popular but do be careful with the plastic ones. “BPA-free” is an important label for plastics, referring to bisphenol A, a toxic substance that disrupts hormones—something you don’t want happening with your growing children. Lately, consumer groups have been warning that “BPA-free” labels do not necessarily mean they’re totally safe because plastics have other chemicals, including some similar to BPA. I’d stick to steel and glass containers, but the latter are risky for children.
We’re just surrounded by so many other risky products that the Food and Drug Administration is unable to regulate. I’d steer clear of skin products, especially if they’re from China. Mercury is frequently found in China’s skin-whiteners.
Durability is an issue, so while cheap Chinese toys have flooded our markets and seem like a bargain, do remember that they might break down the day the kid gets it.
When you think about it, durability is not just mechanical. Durability relates to timelessness. Give books, art supplies, or a fountain pen (which you will need to explain to many of the kids… or even store clerks). Don’t splurge yet on an expensive fountain pen for very young children. I do appreciate how China has made fountain pens and calligraphy pens so much more affordable now, coming in sets with ink cartridges and instructions. For older kids, and adult friends, look into Japanese pens, and an assortment of inks in all kinds of colors.
Gift baskets are always a tempting shortcut but customized ones are better. It might be too late to order these customized ones but smaller stores might be willing to help you with this. I had a small store, Vegan Grocer (it’s on Facebook), handle the gift baskets this year because it has all kinds of hard-to-find products like tempeh, vegan cheese, santol bagoong, and much more.
Gift recycling can be wise, too. There’s only so much you can take in when it comes to food and clothes, for example. As for the children, Christmas is a time to remind them that other kids are not as fortunate as they are, and would they be willing to share what they’ve received?
With my two older children, the only ones who can enter ICU, I’ve talked about how each visit is a gift, too.
Offer to read a wonderful love story together before you talk about sharing gifts. You know which love story that is.
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