Blue Christmas

Fellowship Training can be harsh but harshest of all is spending the supposedly merry time of Christmas in a foreign land...oceans away from loved ones. Loneliness inevitably sets in. Here are Christmas stories from our fellow eyeMDs that show us how the spirit of Christmas prevailed over the hardships of Fellowship Training.

Not so Blue Christmas After All
by Norman Fajardo, MD

It was Christmas morning, and I was almost halfway into my subspecialty fellowship. I was renting a room in a house owned by an elderly Filipino woman who I fondly called Manang Au. She took in mostly post-graduate students from the universities in town. Most of them were also Filipinos, and it was the closest that I could get to feel like home.

Although I had attended several Pinoy parties, I felt gloomy leading to that Christmas Day. My wife gave birth to our first born a few months before, and I had not seen my baby yet. Most of my friends either went home or went out of state. I felt really sorry for myself and was resigned to spend the day alone in the big house. “Poor me,” I told myself.

Come Christmas day, I woke up late without expecting anything. I had brunch and decided to surf the net the entire day to kill time. Suddenly, somebody called my name downstairs. Manang Au and her group of Pinoy housekeepers were having a get-together for late lunch after strolling around the city. Many of them had no papers and were working to provide for their families back home. They cooked crab and pansit, and we exchanged gifts. We exchanged stories about our respective families and aspirations. It was a simple but heart-warming lunch. I was happy they included me in their small celebration. It was not a blue Christmas after all.

My Blue Christmas

Buenjim Mariano, MD

Christmas… A season filled with joy, love, and family. It’s also the season for simbang gabi, puto bumbong, bibingka, and gift-giving. Loved ones gather to look back on the past year and all the blessings that came with it. It’s a time to be thankful for love within the family, prosperity, laughter, and good health. Christmas has never been without these for the first 33 years of my life.

In 2011, I was taking my Neuro-Ophthalmology fellowship at Moorfields Eye Hospital and the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London. During this time, I was living modestly with what my scholarship and my father could provide. With the fellowship ending in February 2012, flying back would be impractical if not ludicrous. December 2011 was the first time I was far away from loved ones and what I have grown accustomed to.

I had to trade my tablea tsokolate for mulled wine, steaming hot puto bumbong and bibingka for mince pie, and the ever-recyclable fruitcake for Christmas pudding. I also missed out on a series of Filipino parties that are commonly filled with stuff-yourself-crazy holiday heart syndrome food and alcohol to canapés and a few glasses of wine. Noche buena has always been about enjoying a sumptuous Christmas feast and exchanging gifts with the whole family. But for the British, there was the Christmas Eve dinner. Gift-giving and opening happened on Boxing Day, the 26th. These changes were welcoming, as these new experiences on my amateurish mind were educational. For a time, these made me forget about the routine stuff I have been so used to.

But my heart had other plans. On both Christmas Eves in Manila and London, I cannot help but feel incomplete. No amount of gift, surprises, food or drinks could fill that emptiness. Skype was the best alternative. When I saw and heard my family online even for a short time, my voice broke and my eyes were filled with tears. Despite my attempt to hold back my emotions, I was euphoric. I couldn’t ask for more.

Conversations with my dad were always the highlight. His smile and laugh alone were already enough for me to feel so loved and blessed. I still could remember how amazed he was and how he would say “parang nandiyan ka lang” and the only missing was physical presence. I had technology to thank for feeling less homesick.

Back to the present. I thought my stint in London was my only blue Christmas. Now I know it won’t be. My superhero, idol, father, and best friend passed away this year. This will be my first Christmas without the person I have been so used to talk to about the good and bad things that happened during the day, concerns, secrets, dreams, and ambitions. And the saddest part is that there’s no Skype. This makes me wish there was a way to have visiting hours in heaven, or a technology that would allow me to see and talk to him even for a short time. I remember how much he enjoys stories on weird cases I’ve seen and public figures I’ve had as patients. It’s impossible but I wish I could save and send the memory I have of how proud he was when he saw me on TV and heard me on the radio for interviews.

This year will surely be different now that my dad won’t be with us to celebrate Christmas. But because he gave us his best, his love for us will not be easily forgotten. We’ll share this love in our family as we share stories and look back with gratitude on the past year.

During my first Christmas season away from my home, I managed to stay sane by praying for my family and saying the Holy Rosary daily. Even now, I pray that our Almighty Creator will always protect all my loved ones from harm and illness. With every silent prayer, I also hope for my love to reach each one of them.

About The Author

Norman Fajardo, Out-going PSPOS President, self-proclaimed wine connoisseur.

Buenjim L. Mariano is a Neuro-Ophthalmologist, Cataract, Refractive and Certified Femto Laser Assisted Cataract Surgeon at St. Luke's Medical Center Global City and Quezon City.