God’s Favorite Customer

We’re expecting our first child!

Yes, cue the confetti cannons, fireworks display and tears of joy, all of them worthy of this moment of pure elation from two individuals who became one and are now excited to be a three. That saying, this was a 3-0 win where the score hardly told the whole story. Though I must preface that while this was certainly a backs-against-the-wall, huddled in, hard fought victory, it was not won thanks to a ricochet off the derriere of a defender and two goalmouth scrambles but by a sparkling hat-trick in second half extra time by the Big Guy himself. The story? Here goes.

It started on a fairly inconspicuous morning on September 2. My wife had her usual Kiwi breakfast and me my cup of coffee. We had taken the day off for our first trimester scan. The morning was bright. We had the confetti cannons loaded, ready for launch that weekend to happy smiles from family and friends. The pregnancy had been smooth thus far – a little nausea and a sudden taste for sweet drinks aside, my wife was checking more good boxes than a heavyweight champ.

I went into the scan much like how I’ve approached most important milestones in my life – certain of the best, unaware of the worst. That’s not to say I am a raging optimist, but I will concede that I can be as thick as a concrete slab on occasion. To be fair to me, in this case I was urged on by how well the pregnancy has gone thus far. My wife on the other hand is not me. She had strongly considered the possibility of the worst but hopeful that things will be okay. This is as close to a winning hand as my wife would allow herself to have in most circumstances. I took that.

On hindsight, the events leading to the scan were mostly blur and hazy. What I remember earliest was sitting next to my wife as the doctor tried coaxing our baby into a clearer position. The ‘Nuchal Translucency’ scan is to measure the clear (translucent) space in the tissue at the back of your baby’s neck to assess your developing baby’s risk of having Down Syndrome and some other chromosomal abnormalities, as well as major congenital heart problems. She was running through a list of things that she could see during the first part of the scan. Limbs, check. Brain development, check. Spine, check. Go baby go.

Then, some silence. Followed by more silence. Keep going doctor, baby is doing well right?

Right?

Next thing, like a movie with choppy editing, I found myself sat at her desk as phrases such as ‘Below 3 is normal and your baby’s is 3.95’, ‘Down Syndrome’, ‘Turner’s Syndrome’ and ‘blood test to see what we are dealing with’ started washing over us like a bucket of cold water in winter. The conjunctions and verbs did not matter. Those phrases are like zombies, and you want to keep them as far away from your kid as possible. Here they were, right in the same room as our baby and we were powerless to do anything.

It’s interesting. When you are served with the worst news possible, words become the least valuable commodity in that exchange. What said more than her assurance that she has presided over cases with these readings where it came back all okay (“1 or 2 cases”) was the prolonged silence as she combed the scanner over our baby. The skip in her voice as she relayed what her recommendations were. That painful millisecond of eye contact she avoided when she said the words ‘it is more likely to be Down Syndrome than Turner’s’.

We were told to take a blood test that will confirm or rule out the possibility up to 99%. The ultrasound scan only provided an accuracy of up to 70%. Let me try and put this in language that makes sense to me. 70% is a pretty decent score. I would spend my valuable weekend afternoon watching a movie with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 70% without question. The numbers were really against our little one.

We would need to wait 10-days for the results. Yes, 10 days.

Both of us experienced the moment quite differently. For me, it was like being invited to a high tea but unknowingly ending up in a shark tank as the day’s feed. For my wife it was like seeing her car crash happening in slow motion but being assured that there are air bags but being told at the last moment that, “Sorry miss, your model doesn’t have air bags.”

We were distraught and dismayed naturally. My wife took it worst than I did mainly because I could retreat into a fight or flight survival mode, a state of mind that had served me well during the more distressing seasons of my existence. I can best describe it as strapping a bullet proof vest on my emotions and preparing to take heavy fire. My wife had mostly lived a charmed existence up till this point, something I’ve always appreciated and valued because it tempers the more cynical sides of me but it did not serve her as well during this crisis.

That saying, compared to my more challenging seasons in life, this one had different taste of poison to it. It’s one thing to contend for one’s own life with some cards to play, it’s another to contend for the life of a helpless being with a pretty bad hand. The more accurate depiction is that we had no hand, no cards left to play, we were flayed out in the sun, awaiting our fate. We turned to binges of ‘Midnight Diner’ and ice cream (Inside Scoop’s ‘Cempedak’ and ‘Peanut Butter and Jelly’ the chief comforters) to soothe the days over, to distract us from a 50/50 fate with vastly different repercussions.

Terminating the pregnancy, if we were given the news we did not want, was of course not an option. Even removing the obvious Christian reason, I was never going to do it. Not after my little one raised its hand and waved during the ultrasound. Once you accept a wave, you can never take it back (I have since considered the possibility that it was not a wave but a gesture representation of The Beatles’ 1970 hit ‘Get Back’).

There was really nothing much to do but pray. I don’t want to say this like ‘it’s the last girl in the tuition class who is single so you ask her out’ kind of thing but that we were desperate for a miracle and God was really the only one who could provide it. We prayed as soon as we opened our eyes in the morning and prayed just before we shut it in the night.

Our close friends literally cried with us and called us every day to pray for us, prayed with us and encouraged us. They prayed prayers of comfort to war cries for a miracle for our little one. They did communion with us. They had calls with us to just catch up to get our minds off the wait. They recorded prayers and sent them to us. They sent us articles and stories to encourage us. They contended for a miracle for our little one. Our close friends formed a wall around us and protected us from all sides. We are so grateful for them.

Our families prayed with us. My in-laws very sweetly invited us over, uncharacteristic during this pandemic mainly because my wife was not vaccinated so they preferred to keep a distance, and awkwardly suggested a prayer session with my father-in-law penning his prayer down in a notebook. If you don’t know them, I will tell you this – it was an amazingly sweet gesture. My mom went nuclear positive and started suggesting doctors make mistakes all the time and medical machines are never always serviced properly so readings can be wrong. In hindsight, I wish I had the faith and positivity of my mom because as ridiculous as it sounded to us at the time, she was not far from the truth.

I was hopeful, my wife did not dare hope. I tempered my language, toggling between a very niche space of not giving into despair and putting on the complete cloak of hopelessness when speaking with her. My wife asked me how can I so easily have hope. I told her that if you’ve been in enough hopeless situations, a little hope is better than not having any at all.

I know the language I had used up till this point to describe the less desirable outcome can sound too negatively-slanted and perhaps disrespectful to parents with special needs children but this cannot be further from the truth for both my wife and me. All parents begin this journey wanting their children to be healthy and normal but the love we have for our child is not conditional at all. We took the week to process both possible outcomes. Our very human and fallible nature would of course lean towards God tying everything up in a neat bow for the two of us at the end of the 10 days but we also equally processed the possibility of us having a special needs kid.

I won’t lie, the start of the process was difficult for the two of us, owing mainly to having a metaphorical carpet being pulled from under our whole lives. We were mostly reeling from that. As the days flipped by though, we started coming closer and closer to a place of beauty about having a special needs child. I told my wife that in some moments when I think about our family in the future, our kid in that picture is a special needs child and it looked so beautiful to me. I told my wife that if God’s plan is for us to raise a special needs child then I can’t think of two people more qualified for the job.

We were encouraged by stories of people who raised a child with Down Syndrome and how the whole experience was like a positive atom bomb of happiness and love being detonated in the middle of their lives and their other children’s lives. I don’t want to sound condescending because I really am not, but I truly came to a place of such respect for people who have raised special needs children with love and hope. It’s a thing of such pure beauty in this world where the word ‘love’ is sometimes thrown around so cheaply.

But God had other plans though.

At around 3.45pm on September 13, 11 calendar days and 7 working days after we got the news and submitted for the blood test, my wife burst into my work room while I was on a work call with tears in her eyes. Fearing the worst, I haphazardly got off the call and walked up to her, intending to comfort her that everything will be okay because God has a plan when she showed me the message from the clinic that read …

“Good day, your screening blood test report is low risk. Do you want to know gender?”

And just like that, nonchalantly, we were delivered the news. No screeching ring of the phone. No dramatic build-up or necessary verbal gestures over a call. Just a by-the-way message in mid afternoon from a nurse who has probably presided over hundreds of these tests with low risk results, unaware of the week we’ve had. And with a snap of a finger, God had tied the destiny of our little one back into a neat ribbon and restored the carpet back under our feet. It was both a thing of unbelievable beauty and pristine tidiness. God is indeed good and God was indeed willing to give us that miracle. And so He did.

September 13 was in many ways a culmination of a journey that God brought my wife and me on to land us at this perfect place. From my reservations about being a father, my wife’s mental hurdles regarding unrealistic expectations of her and our slight travails during conception, God managed to bring to attention and answer each of those things for us with sharp, emphatic gestures. It’s been quite an adventure but one I am glad to report, brings about the satisfaction of a happy ending. I say this in a way that encapsulates the entire journey and not to suggest that any outcome besides this would’ve been an unhappy ending.

I think God quite wonderfully brought us to a place where we were assured that any outcome would’ve inevitably been a happy ending. We reminded ourselves that despite the scare at the scan that by all accounts our baby was developing well in all other areas and that no matter what hurdles we would have to jump, we would have provided a refuge of love and protection to our child.

I guess for those of you that do not accept stories of the miraculous without a fistful of salt, I unfortunately have no well-drawn charts, roll of citations or 10-point arguments to offer you. It’s always been a struggle of mine to explain the personal relationship I have with God in a way that satisfies a skeptic’s penchant for not wanting to believe. I know, my wife knows and our child is now well despite all the numbers and statistics working strongly against us. There is a strong emotional connection that is form between you and God when you cry out to him in despair, against the odds of the world and he answers in a way that makes it so clear to you that He hears every word.

The beauty of this miracle that God was willing to do for us is none more perfectly incapsulated than in the smile that returned on my wife’s face the morning after we received the good news. She had asked me if it was a dream, during the harrowing 11-day wait. I had said unfortunately, no. She asked me again on the morning of 14 September if it was a dream. I was so glad that I was able to tell her, “Fortunately, no.”

I’ve taken to challenging myself to sing my little one a Beatles song a day every night before we sleep until birth day. On September 13, I sang ‘The Long and Winding Road’. I had told my wife days earlier that no matter the outcome, I would sing that song on that day anyway …

‘The long and winding road
That leads to your door
Will never disappear
I’ve seen that road before
It always leads me here
Lead me to your door

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I watched a documentary called ‘After So Many Days’ yesterday about a little-known husband and wife musical duo called Jim and Sam who embarked on an adventure to play a show a day for a year and how that tested their resolve as a band and as a couple.

I found many aspects of this film moving and affecting at quite a fundamental level. The scene where Jim declared them the ‘Unluckiest Band in the World’ after their highly anticipated but failed SXSW show and started reading out a list of imaginary emails from publications and shows that they wished had invited them for interviews and meetings was painful to watch. Only because I absolutely know what that feels like. I’ve been at that end of that barrel before. Anyone that has every tried to bring their art into a public space knows what that feels like.

Jim and Sam’s adventure, while looking like magnificent copy on paper, was of course, anything but. There were shows that were cancelled cause of weather, shows where they had to just pitch up and play literally anywhere (pizza parlors, salons, barber shops, liquor stores, etc) cause there were no official shows on those days and shows where they had so much hope for which crashed and burned.

Yet, I can’t but feel that at the end of such an arduous year that most people would call pointless (they may have gathered a few new fans along the way but their Instagram followers numbers suggests that they may not have blown up the way they were hoping to) , that the most valuable thing that they have are the memories of that adventure together and that is something that will remain special when the lights are dimmed and the curtains are slowly drawn on their lives.

Sure, experiences like in the Northeast in that mussels restaurant on day 55 was probably painful to endure. No musician enjoys seeing their art being ignored on the account of shellfish. But there was also that wonderful experience of singing at that convenience store on day 110 to a bunch of people who appreciated their music. That show on day 224 in the UK where because Sam was bedridden from stomach flu, they invited some neighbors over and sang a song to them while she was in bed. That spontaneous song they played on day 258 in a bakery in honor of Jim’s aunt who passed away that day. That show in Poland on day 332 where they played to an appreciative crowd and the owner made them fish after the show. That song they sang to two appreciative Starbucks drive-thru staff in the States. Or that show on day 204 playing to a herd of cows in Sweden. Yes, even that half a song they played to that delivery guy in Iceland. The shows in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, etc.

I watch a film like this and it just makes me consider so many things. So many deep feelings about so many things. The life I’ve led. The chances I’ve not taken. The things I could have experienced. I do not envy people who have more things than me in life. People who pursue wealth so they can afford richer food, nicer cars and larger houses. If they are happy with that then it’s great for them. I feel mostly apathy towards people who have more stuff than me.

But I watch an experience like what Jim and Sam just went through in the film and I am seething with envy. Seriously seething. Envy for the fact that they found someone that was equally willing to leave their conventional lives behind momentarily in pursuit of something insane. Envy for how they had the lack of self-consciousness to even attempt an experience as nerve-wrecking as this one. Envy for the fact that for now until the end of their lives, they will always have this amazing adventure that no one will ever be able to take away from them.

And that is really just amazing. So amazing.

My instincts are the enemy

I once scoffed when a friend told me that the reason why her brother broke up with his girlfriend was because, ‘she felt too good for him’. 

I scoffed for two reasons. The obvious being that it sounded like a blatant cop-out. The kiss before the punch. ‘No longer attracted to you anymore’ or ‘I’ve fallen for another person’ not cutting the mustard for his nice-guy image perhaps? It’s like the choice between shooting someone cleanly in the head and ending their misery in a split-second or elaborately trying to hang them on a noose and watching the life drain slowly from their eyes. Assuming you really needed to end someone’s life, I don’t think I need to point out to you which is the better option. 

The second reason I scoffed was that it felt like he was pissing on my meal. A large portion of society are trying to get to a point where they are happy. Or at the very least, happier than where they are at the moment. Some of these people do not know the first thing about where to start getting there. And here comes my friend’s brother who found the door, but decided to slam it shut cause it looked too inviting. 

Sure, in longer hindsight I can recognise that my prejudice grossly oversimplifies the idea of happiness and just how difficult it can sometimes be to allow yourself to be happy when it finally arrives at your doorstep. 

I am at a place where a decade ago, I would define as being ‘where I wanted to go’. I got the girl, I got a home and I have a job that I do not hate. I have enough time to catch up on my TV to unwind on some weekdays and to serve the community at my church on most Wednesdays and some weekends. I am no longer the Arthur Fleck-type character that can’t seem to pull his life together no matter how hard he tried. After 42-years of existing, I may be finally be coming to something resembling equilibrium in my life. Took a while, but I finally got here. 

But yet, I have this almost subconscious compulsion to find something to be unhappy about even when things are going splendid. Perhaps there are those of us that are built with a little more complex parts. Parts that are too intricate so there are more opportunities for the machinery to break down. At least, that is what I say to console myself.

‘You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.’ 

Jin Lee, Columbus (2017)

I’ve been thinking about this quote that zipped almost pass me in the gorgeous sleeper drama Columbus that I watched recently. It’s one of those films that appears to be about nothing, but is really about everything. 

I love films like that sometimes, beyond the smash-grab kaiju films that mostly fill me with glee. Films that can draw you into their solitude somehow by draining all excesses of entertainment, until all that is left is just an emptiness that almost reflects the pockets within the major events of our lives, films like that intrigue and attract me. I almost always feel the same after the credits roll on them. I would like to know more about what happened to the characters. Did they get to where they needed to go? You almost always don’t. And from that minor feeling of frustration and cluelessness, births a kind of fictional loneliness in the heart that I am somehow attracted to. 

I sometimes think I have a sordid love affair with loneliness. I know it is wrong, but I can’t help it. I keep retreating back to that place of despair, like a dog that voluntarily walks back into a small cage, even though they’ve been set free from it, I’ve been conditioned by a kind of loneliness throughout my life and I feel the need to sometimes retreat back there when the lights are the brightest, to hold its hand occasionally just to be sure that it’s cold, unloving comfort is still there if I need it. 

Perhaps my unconscious need to feel this loneliness occasionally mirrors my choice of films. That for every loud, banging blockbuster I watch, I seem to need to dial it all down back into a tiny little arty movie about two unrelated people who meet in a gorgeous charming town and find some solidarity in their respective solitude. Perhaps it is a bid to balance out the diet, with films as is with life. That only in constantly reminding ourselves of unhappiness that we can truly appreciate happiness. Again, this sounds like something I would say to make myself feel better about not feeling better. There is a special kind of insanity that I feel sometimes, being in this body, straddled with this mind.

You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.

Perhaps the trick is to think of this nothing, as something.

I see a darkness

“So yeah, singing as a way of expressing or escaping or expelling unbearable events: if you have a thinking brain, which some of us are cursed with, you have to have something, and it could be singing and it could be alcohol, but it’s progressive rather than regressive—you don’t get better by drinking.”

Will Oldham, from Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy

In my head, I possess an instrument that is able to construct full-formed worlds within seconds, sweep them aside in a torrential tempest of despair before putting myself as the protagonist in a tragic comedy that involves the end of the world, morality and probably, a girl. Yes, I am cursed with a thinking brain, and no, I am not patting myself on the back. To have something within you that is integral to you functioning at your best but having to also constantly wrestle with its basic urge to stage a coup d’état every couple of seconds to entice you to being at your worst is really not something that’s worth fawning about. The bible offers a draconian way of settling wandering eyes and itchy hands but last I checked, it did not suggest us cutting out our brain and casting it into the fire.

Instead it offers us the suggested solution of taking ‘captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ’. Which conjures a mental picture of me trying to get a fidgety and rebellious child to sit still and quiet in the chair in front of me when he/she is in absolutely no mood to. I am not a parent, but I can imagine that is often much easier said than done.  

To be fair, I have over the years, gotten better at taming this wild beast. In my 20s, I used to be able to think myself from fluffy clouds to the sixth dungeon of hell within minutes, without much prodding or encouragement. I could simply think myself into a lonely and dark place without a trigger. Which is probably why it would be peculiar if a review of me as a person in that period did not contain the word ‘moody’. That’s just a polite way of saying I was mentally self-destructive or at the very least, emotionally distracted.

Writing used to be the outlet, the expression I needed to funnel all the thoughts I had into a constructive medium. But over the years, that’s lost a lot of its luster. I still write because I feel compelled to express, but it’s no longer an adequate coping mechanism for the things that are happening in my head. So like a drug-dependent patient with a chronic disease, I’ve given up trying to permanently solve my ailment. I no longer have a creative or feasible means of banishing it from my existence nor am I able to get it to sit down obediently.

So I’ve instead opted to ignore it when it’s quietly perched in a corner. I don’t rouse it and I no longer make any grand overtures to remove it from the room. It has its side of the room, and I have mine. Sure, it occasionally still feels compelled to invade my space and trouble me, but the instances have decreased tremendously over time and I’ve stopped looking for a fight with it. I take any peace I can get and at the moment, it’s rather peaceful.

Perhaps one day I may be inspired to pick up a spear and attempt to bring it into captivity again, but today is not that day.