By Marivir R. Montebon
Cliffside Road – Filipino families whose members contracted the coronavirus had their lives turned upside down, with children forced to become caregivers to their parents and doing things anxiously because all they had to provide care remotely, using cellphones to stay connected. For Laura and Yuka, it was a time of fear for the uncertain, and also a time to grow up fast and stay positive in order to save their loved ones.
New Jersey is home to the largest Filipino population in the East Coast, estimated to be 113,000 (1.89%) of the 8.9 million population in the 2016 US Census, brought about by high birth rate and an in-migration of an estimated 8000 Filipinos annually.
For a culture known to take utmost care of their loved ones personally, the coronavirus may have brought about triple anxiety to Filipinos as they took care of their sick loved ones.
Remote Mothering Without the Manual
In the time of the pandemic, the one news that a mother truly fears to hear is when her daughter, no matter how grown up she has become, tells her that she is feeling sick with cough and fever.
Dr. Laura Garcia had to wrestle with this dreaded information from her 37-year-old daughter Teza on April 7, 2020. “Mom, I have a fever and I am coughing,” she confided on the phone. She prayed it was not COVID19.
Bouts of anxiety had begun for Laura, foremost because she’s a mother, despite her academic background and expertise as a Registered Nurse and Nurse educator. “Life changed in an instant with this virus. There were lessons we had to learn without the manual,” she said.
Laura’s busy schedule as civic leader in the borough of Manhattan and President of the New York chapter of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NAFFAA) – New York, had to be set aside, for the sake of her daughter and her family.
Teza lives in Jersey City (pop. 240,055 with 6.6% of which are Filipinos) with her husband Ty and two children, Layla aged 5 and Tyler, 3. She finished International Business and graduated cum laude and is working on her second degree in Nursing. After she broke the news of being sick, what followed was the most difficult days of their lives as a family.
“In normal times, I would have dismissed it as my daughter’s endearing attention-seeking behavior, especially if she doesn’t hear from me in days. But these were not ordinary times and the dreaded words you don’t want to hear in these dark days of COVID-19 are fever and coughing,” she said in an interview.
Like a typical mom and nurse, Laura asked a barrage of questions to Teza: “Did you get tested? When did the coughing start? When did the fever start? What other signs and symptoms were you feeling prior to the fever leading up to now? How are the children?
She found out that Teza and son-in-law Ty had been having sniffles for a week before the onset of fever.
Ty went to see the doctor first because he had the symptoms, which qualified him for covid19 testing. He had the routine exam and a chest x-ray which showed infiltrates in his right lung indicating pneumonia. The doctor thought it was likely he was positive for the virus.
Teza, on the other hand, only had mild fever that didn’t necessitate going to the doctor like her husband did.
Even before the test results were out, Ty already self-quarantined in their house. He occupied the family room, Teza took the master’s bedroom, and the two children were in their respective bedrooms.
When Teza had sustained symptoms that wouldn’t go away, she finally went out to be tested. The results came out positive for both her and Ty. Laura said she had died because of worry and fear upon hearing it.
“I felt that my world was crashing around me when I learned about it. My daughter texted me this message as though she was the Mom and I was the daughter: “Listen, I don’t want to sound morbid but Ty and I talked about this and we are in full agreement so I’m going to tell you our plans just in case…we want our kids to be…”
The rest of the message of what to do in case they’d die blurred Laura’s mind as she saw images of her daughter’s life flashed before her. Is death near? That’s a mother’s worst nightmare, fearing for her child’s life. But before she could break down and cry, she had to take a grip of herself, to stop being swallowed by fear in order to think straight.
“I have to show a brave face, just like my daughter has shown me how to be brave,” she said.
After Teza informed her father and brother who were in Cebu in the Philippines of their condition, the entire family, from Cebu and Manhattan, had remotely supported them through phone calls and FaceTime.
The next thing the couple did was taking care of their health and giving instructions to Layla and Tyler, on how to conduct themselves in the house. Laura was trying to be on top of the situation digitally through cellphone, telephone, and messenger.
Teza and Ty had to emphasize a-matter-of-factly to the children how serious things have become because “Mommy and daddy are sick.” They were told to always wash their hands, never touch their faces, cover their mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, drinking lots of water and sleeping early.
“These were the rules. And the children were gently reminded to do those things. My daughter had been raised well by my mother, her grandmother at an early age when I left for the US to immigrate first. She has become independent and responsible at an early age. During the pandemic, she has instilled it hurriedly to her children,” said Laura, who couldn’t believe how they survived those harrowing days of their quarantine.
She wanted to get her grandchildren away from their house in Jersey and move them with her in Manhattan, but a medical practitioner had advised otherwise because the children may only expose the older folk.
Hence, while Teza and Ty were reeling from COVID19 for two weeks, there was no laundry, no food shopping (they had enough supply) and the kids just did their own sponge baths. They have learned to change clothes when they wake up in the morning and change to pajamas again before going to bed. Their parents monitored them through baby cameras which were installed in their bedrooms, the kitchen, and dining room.
Layla became an instant parent to younger brother Tyler. She helped him in the toilet and prepared food for him as well.
“That granddaughter of mine is going places. She is the one who was the real help for her brother and mom and dad. I am so proud and grateful,” said Laura who was constantly on the phone, checking on the four of them, and giving instructions to the kids on how they’ve been doing.
In retrospect, Laura said she was feeling for the first time a great amount of anxiety and helplessness during her children’s quarantine. It was unbelievable that a virus has created a barrier between you and your family when they’re sick, she said.
“I felt helpless, and it was frustrating,” she recounted. “On Easter, my daughter texted me to say that she had like panic attack, because she couldn’t breathe and she felt like she was going to pass out. Then one morning she texted me to ask if it’s normal for your breathing to spasm. I was confused and asked further. She said, last night I couldn’t blow a straight breath. I had to remind my daughter to call 911 if she felt her condition was getting worse. I died a thousand deaths every time I think of what my daughter and my son-in-law were going through.”
After two weeks of rigorous medical treatment, constant phone consultation with doctors, Teza and Ty were finally out of the woods. Today, their bond as a family has never been stronger, and the two young children have, in a way, become so responsible for their age.
Laura could only heave a sigh of relief and gratitude. “It is the worst feeling to want to be with your children when they’re sick and you can’t. This pandemic changed everything in an instant, including your ways of parenting. I also realized that my daughter and my son-in-law have been icons of strength for each other and their family with their courage, strength and determination in overcoming this unseen enemy.”
Mixing Information and Positive Attitude
In the Filipino-Japanese Agulan household in Elizabeth (pop. 120,627, .71% of which are Filipinos), Yuka Masui Agulan, wife to Rev. Greg Agulan, a businessman and religious leader for the Unification Church, tried to maintain her wits in taking care of her husband who tested positive of COVID19 after their two-week stay in Las Vegas.
“I watched the news and read articles on how to deal with it. I heard that the virus stays in the air for certain periods of time, so I decided to put curtains in the hallway to prevent the virus from going through the other rooms,” said Yuka whose symptoms of fever and cough went away after three days of medication by their primary doctor.
Unfortunately for her husband for 27 years, Greg was the one who had contracted the virus and was advised to be quarantined at home by the doctor. It was for him the toughest two weeks of his life. Greg isolated himself inside their master’s bedroom while Yuka and their only son Sean stayed in the living room and guest room alternately.
“It takes a lot of determination to win the fight against COVID19. I feel the pain in my neck and chest when I cough. I have to make shallow breaths to not overwhelm my lungs and avoid coughing. When I cough and cough hard, my body ached all over. It was tough. Like doing a 12-bout boxing. I am grateful to my wife who took care of me. And my entire team at home,” said Rev. Agulan in an interview.
Yuka for her part said she did her best to take care of Greg, and thoughts of him not making it through would be “God’s will.” “I put on a mask and gloves in the house. I actually massaged Greg’s back to help him relax and sleep with my gloves on. I may be called the closest frontliner,” Yuka, who was born in Japan said.
As the only caregiver to her husband, Yuka said that having proper information will allay fears away. “Worry and fear make you sick and make your sickness worse. Positive mind, words, and actions are very important,” Yuka quipped.
Today, Rev. Greg is out of the woods and continues the health habits of boosting his immune system and staying away from crowds as the coronavirus remains a global mystery in the absence of a definitive curative drug and vaccine. #