Missing their papa: A mother’s thoughts on the coronavirus lockdown
MANILA, Philippines – What’s the biggest thing you miss from our condo? I asked my children Narra, 10, and Guijo, 8. When President Duterte announced that Manila would be on lockdown a few weeks ago, we moved out of our densely populated condo and went back to our old home where we could be with my parents and sister. It was in a quieter part of town, had a garden and trees – but it had very poor phone and internet signal.
I thought my daughter would say she missed our high-speed internet, or Netflix, or the 7-Eleven downstairs. I thought my son would say he missed having helpers so he wouldn’t have to babysit his 3-year old brother Lauan or do so many chores (our helpers hurriedly left for the province to be with their families the day before the lockdown took effect). I thought my kids would enumerate the comforts and conveniences of pre-quarantine life in our condo.
But their single response was: “we miss being with papa.”
My husband Oliver decided to keep his business up and running during the ECQ. It’s a decision that comes with personal sacrifices. It means camping at his factory on weekdays, and coming home to an empty condo on weekends. It means seeing his family for only a few minutes on Saturdays when he delivers supplies – leaving groceries outside our gate, as he waves and talks to us from a distance.
We settle for air hugs, flying kisses and brief exchanges. When he leaves, my kids cry. They’re sad to see him go and constantly worry for his health and well-being. And they miss his physical presence and his reassuring hugs.
They wonder: if he doesn’t want to touch us, does it mean he is sick? For the first two weeks of separation, my kids asked me daily if he developed symptoms. I reassured them that their father was just being extra careful and was just following social distancing protocols.
I knew I had to do something to help my children cope with displacement, anxiety, and isolation. I had to figure out a way to frame our quarantine experience in a way that addresses their concerns and I had to think of concrete activities.
We started by tackling the coronavirus topic head on. We watched the news together, and looked for posts online to get a sense of the situation. We discussed numbers, locally and worldwide. We watched the movie Outbreak which paved the way for a conversation on different ways a virus can spread. We looked up precautions we can take at home and started cleaning. I gave each kid a spray bottle (of bleach solution for the older kids, and just soapy water for our 3-year old) and wiped all surfaces. And then we did gadget clean up, of phones and keyboards.
Beyond disinfecting surfaces, we expanded our activities to fighting dust and reducing allergens. We discovered an old bin full of stuffed toys that were dusty with age, and we washed them. The kids loved soaping, scrubbing, rinsing, wringing, and drying their old furry pets. I also assigned them the chore of changing sheets weekly – and they look forward to it because it comes with pillow fighting privileges.
My daughter Narra loves climbing, so I got her to take down curtains and put them back up after washing and it made our room smell so fresh and clean. Doing these things helped us settle in our new environment, and reduce the threat of coronavirus in our home.
Coping with isolation
Cleaning somewhat addressed our feelings of displacement and anxiety, but we still had to find a way to cope with the effects of isolation, especially from my husband Oliver. For that, my strategy was to rely on the art of storytelling! At the end of each workday, when we do video chats, my kids are very excited to talk to their father. They do funny faces and laugh, but after a few minutes, they run out of things to say.
Over a few days, the precious video chats became perfunctory: “hi papa!”, “how are you?”, “we miss you so much!”, “love you!”, “good night!” and not much else. It is painful to watch knowing there’s a deep longing for one another, and a great desire to spend more time with each other even if only online, but all there is are "his" and "hellos."
'We needed better storytelling, and we needed stories to tell. I had to find ways to direct my children’s activities at home towards their absent father. But how? The piano was one answer. We did not have a piano in our condo, but at my parents’ house, it was a central feature. Teaching the kids piano pieces gave them something to report and even perform for their father.
Lauan was too young to play, but he loved singing nursery songs so I taught Guijo how to play pieces like “Old McDonald” and folk songs like “Bahay Kubo” – simple stuff that can be learned fast. For Narra, who is older and more capable, I am teaching “Fur Elise” – it will be her quarantine piece but it may take many more months to finish. But when she played parts of it, my parents felt nostalgic – it was a piece often heard at home in our youth.
My sister and I ended up playing ourselves, revisiting old pieces we hadn’t played in many years. My kids watched in stunned silence, seated on stair steps mesmerized – either surprised by the fact that we can play, or touched by the music. I’ve tried to make them take piano lessons before, but they weren’t inclined then. But now, it’s different.
The quarantine to them must be like what brown-outs and coup d’etats were like to us decades ago. The piano to us then, was a source of solace in times of uncertainty and we sought refuge in it – and this may be the case for my children now. At night, they excitedly report to their father what new things they’ve learned to play. And their father made a request: “learn something contemporary, young, and new”…oh dear, it means I have to learn new pieces to teach my kids. With that one sentence, my husband didn’t seem far at all – it felt like he was in my face, reminding me to update my repertoire. And it’s actually not bad advice for quarantine days.
Our toddler Lauan was another excellent source of stories to report. Every day, he is able to say and do new things. My older kids and I deviced a caregiving schedule so we could take turns in caring for Lauan. Guijo had the mid-day shift from 10am to 2pm, Narra got the afternoon shift from 2-6pm, and I had Lauan at the start and the end of each day. I initially created this schedule so I could work from home, but an unintended and pleasant effect of this arrangement is it created opportunities for “exclusive reports” on Lauan’s latest antics and acts of mischief.
Narra excitedly reported to me how Lauan said to her “Don’t touch papa’s cars, they’re papa’s cars” — pointing at my husband’s diecast cars displayed on his shelf. We’re happy he used a complete sentence, and we’re even happier at the message! He’s been gunning for those cars for many months, sneakily climbing up the shelf. Funny how he’s now respecting his father’s things now that he’s not around. Lauan knows something’s up. He always asks “where’s papa?”, and each time he hears honking from outside, even if it’s the garbage truck, he will shout “is papa there?” and runs to the window.
Lauan turned 3 while we were on lockdown. His birthday gave us reason to “come together” to celebrate, quarantine style. With our go-to bakeshops being closed, Narra had to make her brother’s cake. She asked her father for her baking supplies and he dropped them off. I took photos of her baking process and the final outcome to send to my husband. Guijo, meanwhile, was in charge of gifts. We found old unboxed gifts from Lauan’s past birthdays. The toys were for ages 3+ and we waited until he matured enough to enjoy them. Guijo wrapped the gifts and helped his brother unbox them the next day.
It being a workday, Oliver couldn’t be with us on the actual birthday. We took videos of the candle blowing and of Guijo playing “Happy Birthday” on the piano. The next day was a Saturday and Oliver arrived with one whole pizza and a bottle of Coke! He sat on a bench outside our gate while we set up plastic chairs, a meter apart, in our driveway.
We each enjoyed our slice of pizza while keeping our distance. It was our first meal “together” in 3 weeks. Seeing him, even if it’s only for a few minutes, has been the highlight of each week on lockdown.
We’ve adjusted to the lockdown as best as we can. We keep finding stories to tell – from spotting a bird’s nest outside, to harvesting mangoes from our tree – we find everyday adventures to report for our daily video chats. Most days feel “normal” and we seem to be ok.
But one night, I called Oliver in panic. The Meralco post right across our gate burst into flames. Our whole street went dark, save for the fire crawling on the wires and it was a terrible sight to see – our trees were touching the wires! I loaded my kids in the car, and drove off to the nearest guard post to report the fire to our village authorities while my parents and sister called Meralco and kept watch from home.
The fire was put out not long after, and Meralco workers labored away to bring back power. We had to sleep in the dark for a few hours. My parents and sisters decided to camp in our bedroom so all of us could be together and my kids were so delighted. They arranged mattresses on the floor and brought out camping lights, candles, fans, and rosaries and we prayed as a family. They had another home adventure and story to tell their father.
But in the dark, I finally cried.
It hit me. How much I missed all the reassurances my husband’s presence brings. He was not around, and I let it sink in at last. He was my security blanket and he’s out of reach, and the situation’s getting desperate for so many Filipinos and this lockdown may go on for who knows how long? I cried while praying and allowed myself to feel emotions I’ve been suppressing – mostly fear and axieties related to health, food supply, security, my own work load, but most importantly – the plight of so many who are in dire straits.
But as we continued reciting the rosary, I remembered how many times we’ve done this when I was a child – this whole crying in fear while praying routine – because my father, a military man, was always away on red alert – during EDSA, and for the many coup d’etats that followed after – and we worried for his safety. I think of my mother, and understand a bit more now, how she must have felt then. I remember coup d’etat moments when we’d pack our bags to move out of the military base where we lived, and stay with relatives until the situation has settled. And our means of coping with displacement, anxiety and isolation, then…as it is now, has always been prayer.
“Please keep Oliver safe and healthy and cover him with your mantle of protection," my mother uttered… then she continued to pray for the rest of the family, the country, and the world. And we prayed with her. – Rappler.com