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A helping hand
Author: Cheryl J. Lobo
Date: 2012-06-25 12:00:04
Category: all categories
Metatags: Christian, Immigrant, Indian, Indian Christian, Loss, Mothering, Personal Narratives, Resilience, South Asian, Toronto, Women

1986 Lysanne and Sunaina enjoy their first snowfall in Regina, SK_image
1986 Lysanne and Sunaina enjoy their first snowfall in Regina, SK
1992 Philoo with her four daughters at St. Lawrence Chruch in Scarborough_image
1992 Philoo with her four daughters at St. Lawrence Chruch in Scarborough
Philoo with Lysanne and baby Sabrina - life with 4 girs isn't always a picnic, or is it?_image
Philoo with Lysanne and baby Sabrina - life with 4 girs isn't always a picnic, or is it?
Terence and Philoo on their wedding day in February 1980_image
Terence and Philoo on their wedding day in February 1980

Philomena Menezes’ broad smile exudes energy and warmth as she welcomes me into her home. Injured arm notwithstanding, she is ever the gracious hostess, immediately offering to make me a cup of tea.


Philoo’s is an inspiring story, roadmarked by hard work, determination, faith and great resilience in the face of loss. Philoo has raised four daughters here and worked for 23 years as an Occupational Therapist. An Executive Member of the Scarborough Region and past President of her parish branch of the Catholic Women’s League (CWL), a global organization of Catholic women, Philoo is passionately involved in serving her community through global and local CWL projects and personal endeavours.


Philoo had her four and three year old daughters in tow when she landed in Toronto on a cold February day in l985. She had to leave them almost immediately with relatives, rushing to Regina to start work as an occupational therapist at Wascana Rehab – a large facility serving Southern Saskatchewan.


The immigration process started with a two-year wait for papers to be approved, after which she was given just 1-2 months to make her landing. Phone interviews with prospective employers had garnered her the job offer in Regina and she was to start work by March 5.


Philoo’s husband Terence had just departed from their native Mumbai for a job at sea, after two long years of being unemployed. He would follow her to Canada a couple of months later. For Philoo, the process of packing away her life in Mumbai and travelling to Canada with two preschoolers were to be the toughest two months of her life. But there were many more challenges ahead.


Once in Regina, Philoo quickly rented an apartment in anticipation of her family’s arrival. She regrets the wrong advice she received, choosing an inconveniently located apartment with scant bus service. For many months they had to depend on friends for a ride for grocery shopping. With Terence unemployed, it was a while before they could afford a car.


But one lives. And learns. Fortunately, Philoo got to know the other therapists at the hospital who gave her a bedroom set, bunk beds for the girls and other household items. They socialized with other Indian families and made some close friends in their two years in the city of Regina.


Philoo recalls the people of Regina being friendly to a newcomer. Two wonderful Irish colleagues threw her a baby shower for her third pregnancy, providing her with a stroller, crib and car-seat, and much needed baby supplies.


Not everyone was welcoming though. Two painful memories surface, memories that had all but been buried.  The first incident was when daughter Lysanne’s school teacher presumed that she did not know to speak or write English. Philoo made it a point to speak out against the prejudice to the school principal, who unfortunately did not show much of a response.


The other incident was of a kinesiologist at the rehab who never mixed with colored colleagues.  “I had never realized that this young lady was racist,” Philoo recounts. “Then one day when our break coincided, I found a table for us both. She just said, No thanks, that’s OK. That’s when an Indian colleague told me she never sat with colored people. I was so livid.” Philoo goes on to share how the young lady subsequently proudly showed off her brown tan after a vacation in Mexico. Philoo could not help commenting how strange it was that she’d desire to have brown skin, like her own.


Though there were many Indian doctors and professors in Regina, there were only eight Indian Christian families. Holidays were terribly lonely and the Menezes’ missed having family. Terence’s family would have been a great support but they were in Toronto. Luckily, the rehab fraternity had potluck gatherings every 2-3 months - great opportunities for often lonely family members to socialize.


With Terence unemployed for the next two years, Philoo was sole breadwinner. It was a very bleak time for Terence and sorely demanding on Philoo. How she missed India, and especially her Mum, with the birth of her third daughter! No one to tell her what foods were good to eat post-delivery. No massage for her and the baby. She did follow traditional practices she had used in India – swaddling her baby tightly to ensure a long cosy sleep and tying a cloth around the baby’s navel to keep the stomach bound to aid digestion. There was always a bottle of gripe water around to soothe baby’s tummy.


Philoo’s most vivid memory as a new mom in Regina was the night her infant Sabrina cried and cried. The baby was inconsolable, no matter what Philoo did. At her wit’s end, Philoo joined her wailing baby. “I cried and cried with her until we both fell asleep on the couch together,” reminisces Philoo.


As a working mother, having no physical help at all was a setback. “In India, I had help 24/7,” she recounts.  “I missed India so much – trying to nurse, prepare meals, change diapers. It was really awful.”


Ever the diligent housewife, Philoo could never leave home for work without ensuring the family was supplied with nutritious home-cooked meals. Weekends were spent catching up on laundry and cleaning. Things got pretty depressing sometimes. Philoo remembers how one friend finally berated her for turning down a weekend outing with friends. “You must take the opportunity and go out when the weather is good and you have a ride.” From that time on, Philoo made sure that come what may, they got out often to have a good time together as a family. Laundry and cleaning could wait.


Philoo does not remember any immigrant support services apart from a government subsidy for daycare for single-income households. Most of the help she got was from friends. As a working Mom she also had no time to take her kids to daytime playgroups at the library.


Family life looked up considerably when the family moved to Toronto. Contrary to popular wisdom, they did not purchase a detached home despite having four kids, but a modest three- bedroom apartment in Scarborough.


 “The thought of waking at up 4 am to shovel the driveway was inconceivable to me. And we did not really want the hassle of constant repairs and maintenance that is part of home ownership.”


In Toronto, Philoo continued her career as an OT at Hillcrest for 20 years. She built a fulfilling life for herself, serving her family and mentoring new immigrants and disadvantaged families that she came across.


Then in October 2008, the unthinkable happened. Philoo had a fall and fractured the humerus bone on her right arm. The injury turned out to be complex, affecting the two main nerves for the arm and hand as well as a few blood vessels. The surgeon did not proffer much hope for a recovery and advised her to start using her left hand for everyday tasks like eating, writing etc. Being an OT, Philoo could understand why the situation looked bleak. She was shattered.


Philoo’s injury forced her into dependence on her four daughters and husband Terence for simple everyday tasks like bathing and dressing up. Going to work to the job she loved would be impossible, of course. Philoo had to brace herself mentally for months of rehab and physiotherapy. She could no longer enjoy the pleasures of cooking and managing her home the way she wanted.


It would take 18 months for the nerves to heal. Then she discovered that she had hypertrophic bone growth – the bone had grown back too much on one side and not enough on the other. This would take surgery, a steel plate, and seven screws to fix. She also had rotator cuff injury on both shoulders and a thumb injury on her left hand.


Meanwhile, a true fighter, Philoo had decided she was not going to let the injury defeat her. Despite the surgeon’s advice not to expect recovery from the right arm, she concentrated really hard on it and used her OT knowledge to exercise it appropriately.


Today Philoo has recovered about 80% of the use of her arm.. She attributes it both to the prayers of her family and prayer group members and the effort she invested into its recovery. “My range of motion is come back 100 per cent but it’s the endurance that’s difficult. Because of the nerves, I get pain and tingling down the arm, and can’t lift more than 3 or 4 pounds for more than a few seconds.” Philoo explains as I gaze at the deep scar down her left arm.


Philoo says she has bad days when she drops almost everything she lifts, and good days when she drops nothing and scarcely remembers she had an injury. Now she can sit at the computer for 15-20 minutes at a time, compared to a mere 2 minutes earlier.


What’s remarkable is that Philoo has not let her injury hold her back from serving her community. The Menezes’ are always ready to lend a helping hand to anyone in distress. Philoo continues organizing Christmas parties for disadvantaged children, summer barbeques and pancake lunches, and the ever popular International Night extravaganzas where different ethnic groups in the parish prepare food and cultural entertainment for the diverse parish community.  On the social justice and advocacy front, the CWL continues to be a strong voice and fundraising body for missing Native Canadian women with orphaned children, aboriginal teenagers in Western Canada and clean water projects for native reserves in Northern Ontario.


As I prepare to leave Philoo, I feel inspired and energized. Philoo has a lot to be proud of. Not just as an Occupational Therapist or Mom to four hardworking and accomplished young women, but as an invaluable mentor, guide and friend to many newcomers and disadvantaged members in her community.

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