A Tale of One Heart

We all have our own stories to tell.

I am blessed because I am one of God’s children. And I can always look back and quickly recall a remarkable story about His providential care over my life. I believe that God has ordained everything, even the minute details of my life, before the foundations of the world. The scripture says, “But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered . . . And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will.” (Luke 12:7; 21:18) Which brings me to share a recent experience that once again proved His sovereignty over my life. 

I have had heart palpitations (for the first time) sometime in January of this year and I immediately called my GP to book an appointment. She then referred me for an ECG at a local hospital and after it appeared that I have some type of heart ailment, I was referred to another local hospital for more tests. It became clear after having Echo and other tests that it’s something more serious, so I was referred to Royal Brompton, UK’s Heart Hospital, and was seen by a cardiologist who then ordered for a repeat Echo, scan, and all other tests done previously at St. Charles and Westminster.

Screenshot from heart.org

On the 4th of May, it was confirmed that I have ASD (Secundum), a congenital heart defect. I’ve had it all my life and for some reasons the Lord kept it hidden. Dr Turner, the cardiologist assigned to look at my case, explained that it’s normal for people with ASD to have their condition undetected; some would only discover it in their 50s, or sometimes in their 60s, or even 70s. And in my case, the only symptom is palpitations but it appears that the hole in between my left and right atrium is big; that the right atrium is significantly enlarged therefore it’s more likely I would have to go through an open heart rather than a minor surgery. She went on to explain that if the defect remain untreated, it will shorten my life span from heart failure, or high blood pressure, or pulmonary hypertension. Jared and I felt like a ton of brick was dropped in our heads and we left the hospital with the prospect of myself having to go through an open heart surgery. Dr Turner also explained that the large unrepaired ASD may sometimes lead to heart failure during pregnancy or after giving birth; that had I gotten pregnant, there is a risk of stroke during pregnancy, or even death simply because child-bearing/child-birth is too taxing on the heart. It was such a huge revelation and likewise an encouragement to finally understand the reason why the Lord hasn’t given us children. What seemed like a curse back then (with the failure to produce an increase through the ICSI-fertility treatments we’ve had), is actually a blessing! I realised that God was indeed protecting us by withholding the very thing Jared and I so desperately wanted – a child! This passage came to mind as Dr Turner was talking to us, “He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11 (KJV)

We immediately shared the diagnosis with both sides of the family; some of Jared’s family asked questions like, ‘when was the last time I had a heart test’, or ‘if my parents or anyone in my family had known about my heart defect’. And of course, they expressed some of their concerns and assured us of their prayers and support. Just told them I didn’t know, neither my parents nor anyone in my family did have any idea about it. And because I hadn’t checked my medical records prior, all I could say to them was, “I had some test done in Japan in early or mid-90s and in the Philippines probably in 97-98 but I wasn’t too sure.” But after checking all my records the following day, it appeared that a couple of heart test was done along with genetic and stress test at St. Mary’s Hospital back in 2007 and all the results came out clear (it was done prior to one of the ICSI treatments we’ve had). I felt like kicking myself for not having an annual heart check up but then I realised it was all providential. I never thought I got a heart defect because I’ve always been very been active, and healthy (or so I thought), and I run 2-3x a week, do cycling, weight lifting, pilates and all of that. Also, it’s worth mentioning that I was under a tremendous amount of stress when I had my first palpitations in January but my heart ailment came to light through that challenging circumstance. The perfect scripture verse for this is Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”

A few weeks after the first meeting with Dr Turner, I was informed that the team of cardiologists (between 10-15 of them) at Royal Brompton Hospital have had the chance to review my case and they all agreed that my heart defect can be corrected by a minor and not an open heart surgery. Then I had another meeting with a consultant, Dr. Kempny, after it was confirmed that the operation will take place on August 8. He explained everything (with an image of the heart with ASD on his desktop); that in my case the hole was very small for many years therefore I was free of any symptoms and the defect didn’t appear in ECG or any heart test results done earlier on. But the ageing process caused the hole to increase in size and the right ventricle is now significantly enlarged. He showed us a sample of the device, and explained the process of the operation — a TOE (transesophageal echocardiogram) will be conducted first, then through an incision in the groin the device will be inserted to the heart, and it will be opened and released to fill the hole in between the left and right atrium.

That’s me holding the sample of the device (made of nickel and titanium) that’s used for the ‘Transcatherer ASD closure.’ I was terrified when I heard that there’s a risk for this disc to be dislodged within an hour after surgery. If it did, it would end up either in the right ventricle, or worst yet, in the lungs.

After the meeting with Dr. Kempny, I became aware of the risks involved; that there is a small chance that the surgical team might found the hole too big for this procedure, so they’ll just wake me up and send me home. After which an open heart surgery will be scheduled at a later date. He also explained that one of the risks is that, after the device is placed, it may dislodge because the heart tissues around the hole is floppy (which happens 2 in 100 cases). If this happens they have to try to retrieve the device, but it may be difficult to withdraw it fully back into the sheath. In which case an open heart operation is required to remove the device, and the hole would be closed at the same time by the normal surgical method. And that was my biggest concern simply because the prospect of going through an open heart surgery is simply terrifying. But I fervently prayed that God will provide the best cardiologist to perform the surgery and that there will be no complications. And thank God, He has indeed answered my prayers!

With Dr Michael Rigby before the surgery.

So on the 7th of August I was admitted to Royal Brompton Hospital; they did run all types of pre-assessment tests and then Dr.Rigby came to see me. Jared and I had a wonderful time chatting with him and he answered all of our questions. He’s such a very gentle, caring, kind and sweet man. He told us that he’s one of the pioneers in this procedure (and been doing it since 1991), and that after looking at my medical records he doesn’t think there will be any complications. I asked him if he had any patient who had a stroke during the surgery and he said that he never had any. The reason I asked was simply because I remember Dr Kempny mentioned about a risk of stroke during surgery. Dr. Rigby explained that he would not proceed with the operation if he thinks the device will cause any complications.

Anyhow, I was prepared for the worst but continued to trust the Lord to grant healing mercies. And God has certainly used Dr Rigby to bring a sense of peace, trust and security before the surgical procedure. After he left the room Jared said, “What a very nice man; such a gentle soul and his countenance, the way he talks reminds me so much of Vic!” (Vic is a good friend of ours who died a couple of months ago) Surprisingly, Jared thought the very same thing I had in mind while talking with Dr. Rigby — he really did remind us of Vic.

Jared left the hospital that night when visiting hours ended, and it was quite strange being alone, confined in a hospital bed for the very first time! I’ve never had a surgery nor have been confined in a hospital until that day. I hardly get sick and never even had been to the A&E to see a DR except when I had to accompany someone who needs an immediate medical attention. Therefore it was rather unusual to find myself in a hospital bed, and I had a hard time going to sleep that night. Providentially, when I opened Youtube to watch something (I often watch a documentary to put myself to sleep), the very first video that appeared was that of Bro Ronald Lawrence. I’ve put it on, closed my eyes and listened to his sermon on ‘Compassion.’ I have to admit it did put me to sleep but when I woke up, the passage that Bro. Lawrence quoted was on top of my head. I listened to the sermon all over again and finished it before I tried to get more sleep.

Before I share what happened on the day of the surgery, let me just say that I’ve always been conscious of my mortality because of my experience of losing some of my loved ones early on in life (from aged 9-15 I’ve lost my grandparents on both sides of the family; my father, and one of my childhood best friends and neighbour, Adela). Anyhow, from the day I received my diagnosis on May 3rd till the day of my surgery on August 8th, it sure did occur to me so many times on different occasions that the operation might not be successful but I had peace about it. I’ve put my trust in the Lord, the giver of life — the One who upholds everything. But at the same time, not knowing what tomorrow brings, I convinced Jared that we both needed to update our ‘last will.’ And for several weeks prior to my surgery I’ve made handwritten letters to my siblings, nephews, nieces, other people close to my heart. And I’ve also had all my heirloom pieces labeled with clear instructions to Jared and my sister on what they need to do. (You may be asking, “what? you did all of that?” 🙂 ) Yes, I sure did! Really, I’m just very practical and thought it’s wise to prepare myself and get Jared to also be prepared for the worst. So during our afternoon walks at the park Jared and I would discuss these things — my wishes, every details like funeral arrangement, instructions on getting re-married, everything. Nothing was left unsaid. Both Jared and I would sometimes discuss these things over the years but before my surgery, I wanted to make everything clear and didn’t want him to be guessing on anything I want done (same with Jared, he made known to me many years ago what his wishes are in case he predeceased me). Likewise, I sent a very long message (via Messenger) to my siblings just to prepare them for the worst. I didn’t want anyone asking, “what did Elna want?”

I spent countless hours writing letters, sorting out documents, personal belongings and everything. And while going through some of my heirloom pieces, there were moments when I was overcome with emotions. Loads of memories came flooding through my mind like when I saw the set of earrings my mother wore on her 75th birthday party. There were tears of joy and sadness being reminded of loved ones who had gone before me, and at the same time, for those I was going to leave behind. I told Jared I realised even back in my early teens when I lost my father that one of the reasons people are afraid of death is because this is the only world we had known and are familiar with so a journey into the unknown can be a frightening thought. As for myself, I told him that even with the assurance of eternal life and all of God’s promises, the ‘after life’ is a rather daunting thought to ponder on but I got no fears about it. The Lord has simply given me peace about it all. But for others, especially to those who do not have Christ in their lives and have no assurance of eternal life, death must be a pretty scary thing to consider.

You know how people say that those who are dying have premonitions about it? Well, it did cross my mind on several occasions and when I was overwhelmed with self-defeating thoughts while preparing for the surgery, I was always reminded of Psalm 23. I often told Jared that having witnessed both my mom and dad took their last breath had given me confidence to say that death and dying might be a lonely journey to take because he (or no one) can usher me into the next life, but it is not something I am afraid of (I’ve shared my deepest thoughts about death and dying in this post years ago).

Even after I received the diagnosis I already claimed that the Lord will bring healing and restore my health but I went into OR all prepared for the worst. Jared and I both said everything there is to say to each other before I went into surgery. Told him that when they put me to sleep on the operating table, I may find myself waking up in the bosom of Jesus, and I am ready for it. That I am prepared to give an account of my life on earth when I finally meet my Creator. And Jared has shown so much strength through it all even though he had a tough time dealing with the prospect of losing me. He has devoted much of his time, energy and other resources not just before, but more so now after surgery, in making sure I am well taken care of.

With Dr Rigby and Lucy after the surgery. Of all the nurses at the Paul Wood Ward, Lucy had been the most helpful. God did put me in just the right place at just the right time with just the right doctor and nurse to provide for a specific need.

So on August 8th at around 11AM I went into surgery that lasted for an hour and forty five minutes, and I woke up at the recovery room thanking God that I was alive. All I remember before I dozed off was the anaesthesiologist telling me that in less than 10 seconds I’ll be asleep. As the nurse put the oxygen mask on me, I said a prayer and with a humble heart and a face turned toward the Throne of Grace there was peace and joy deep within as I dozed off for the surgical procedure.

About four hours after surgery, another cardiologist (forgot her name) came to do a scan of my heart and it was a relief to know that everything was fine. The following day while speaking with one of the ladies who had the same surgery I had, I realised that the Lord has certainly protected me. Sophie, one of the patients I met the day before (only 40 years old but already gone through 3 open heart surgery, and had the same procedure I had) told me that she found out there’s a leakage in the device and she may have to go through another surgery. I came to a realisation when I saw the scar on her chest that it could very well have happened to me — that if my heart condition had been discovered earlier on, I’d have had an open heart surgery like she did. Or if the disc had dislodged, or leakage, or had I gotten pregnant after all the ICSI treatments we’ve had, it may very well have cost my life. So many thoughts came flooding through my mind after I spoke with Sophie but through it all one thing was certain — that God is truly wise, and He knows what He is doing. I praise God that I’ve meet Sophie and other patients who got the same heart defect I got; that He spoke to me through their circumstance. And it made me realise and truly appreciate the fact that everything happens for a reason. God has not only provided one of the best heart hospitals in the world, but also one of top cardiac surgeons and the best team of doctors to perform my surgery. I realised that God orchestrated it all.

Before I was discharged I’ve gone through several test and it was confirmed that the surgery was successful. That the device is in the right place, the blood is pumping as normal but the right atrium is still significantly enlarged as expected. But Dr Rigby explained that the heart will remodel itself — the disc will eventually be covered by the heart tissues; the heart will get back to its normal size, and the other tiny hole will close itself. But even if it didn’t, he said, it’s normal for some people to even have up to 5 tiny holes in the heart that won’t cause any problem. Hearing all of these from Dr. Rigby was quite comforting and reassuring. 

I had a heart monitor after the surgery till shortly before I was discharged from the hospital. L-R top to bottom: Jared took this photo after surgery with all the different device connected to my body; the nurse did put a mark on both of my feet; apparently in case something happens during surgery the doctors can easily find my pulse; the incision where the device went through; best photo after surgery haha; my right hand w the heart monitor, and lastly, the wires connected to the heart monitor and removed from my chest before I went home. Oh and we forgot to take pics of the food I had; didn’t eat any of the food served at the hospital because Jared ordered my meals from nearby restaurants.

God has been so gracious in giving me a new lease of life, and I truly feel like a brand new self (I guess it’s the consciousness that my heart has been fixed). Having a disc in my heart doesn’t make much any difference right now other than being conscious that I’ve got this foreign object in my heart. I am on a blood thinner medication for the next six months to prevent any risk of blood clot. It is humbling, really, His Word, the reassuring voice of God deep within me. It lifts me up. I found myself praising and worshiping Him on the way to the OR and while being prepped for the surgery, instead of wallowing in the pit of fear or self-defeating thoughts. And even with the prospect of dying during the operation, I had peace about it all.

I wanna share this scripture verse that I pondered on before the surgery: Lamentations 3:22-23 “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.” This is the text quoted by Bro. Lawrence on a sermon I listened to the night before the surgery and the one I carried with me to the OR.

 Also, the hymn “Sovereign Ruler of the Skies” (by the English Baptist pastor and hymn writer John Ryland, 1753–1825) was in my heart as I was being wheeled into OR. The hymn, particularly these words, truly spoke to my soul:

He that formed me in the womb, He shall guide me to the tomb; All my times shall ever be, Ordered by His wise decree.

Indeed, our time is in His hands. God works in wonderful, mysterious ways. And it’s true that He uses the circumstances in our lives to draw us ever closer to Him.

My heart is overflowing with joy and gratitude.

I pray and hope that my story will encourage and bless others. 

Some of the cards I made and sent out to Dr Rigby, Lucy, and others. Many more to be done this week. So grateful to my family and friends for their love — all their kind thoughts, prayers and support.

Note: Cover photo is a handmade card by a very dear friend of mine, Arlene Custock, my prayer partner. It arrived a couple of days after my surgery.

Hever Castle

All over Britain there are ancient castles, royal palaces, stately homes and charming cottages that adorn the landscape. Hever Castle isn’t as massive and grand as the other castles but it has a very colourful history. Not only was it Anne Boleyn’s childhood home but also later became the English country home of Anne of Cleves. Anne was the second wife of Henry VIII and Queen of England from 1533 to 1536. Her marriage to Henry VIII, her execution by beheading, made her a key figure in the history of English Reformation.

Hever Castle aerial view (havercastle.co.uk)

A Norman baron named William de Hever, came to England during the Conquest is believed to be the first owner of Hever Castle. He became Sheriff of Kent in 1272, the first year of Edward I’s reign. The castle came into Boleyn family when it was bought by Geoffrey Boleyn in 1462. Geoffrey became Lord Mayor of London in 1457; his son William Boleyn who inherited the Castle on the death of his father in 1463 passed it on to his son, Thomas, Anne Boleyn’s father.

The house has a lot of beautiful medieval wood and stone carvings such as this.

Thomas Boleyn married Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the 2nd Duke of Norfolk and had three children: Mary, Anne (second wife of Henry VIII) and George. Upon Anne’s return from France in 1522 she joined the Queen of England, Catherine of Aragon’s household as one of her Lady-in-Waiting. But she continued to visit Hever Castle regularly. In fact, seven of Henry VIII’s surviving love letters to Anne were sent while she was residing at Hever in 1528. After Anne’s execution in 1536, her father Thomas continued to live at Hever until his death in 1539, leaving his elderly mother Margaret.  Then Thomas Boleyn’s brother, James, then inherited the Castle and sold it for £200 (£100,000 in today’s money) to the crown by indenture on 31st December 1540.

The King’s Chamber. The room where a visiting royal would spend the night.

Ownership of the Castle passed on to Anne of Cleves, fourth wife of King Henry VIII, after King Henry VIII divorced her in 1540 . It is not known how much time she spent at the Castle but she owned the property until her death in 1557. There is a surviving letter written by Anne of Cleves to her stel-daughter Mary Tudor in 1554 signed ‘from my poore house of Hever’.

Ann of Cleves panel on display at the castle.

This medieval castle is pretty enchanting, and the 125 acres garden with a man made lake is quite picturesque and ‘Instagram-worthy.’ 🙂

The lake

The “Astor Wing” (the buildings connected to the castle as seen on the aerial view photo) was built by the wealthy American William Astor who bought the castle in 1903 and spent £10M on a 5-yr restoration project. He brought the derelict castle to bring it back to its former glory and donated a lot of money to charitable institutions in Britain. He was made a peer, styled as “1st Viscount Astor” for his contribution to war charities. The current 4th Viscount Astor is former PM David Cameron’s wife, Samantha Cameron’s, step-father.

Summer is the best time to visit Hever Castle. It is such beautiful place; visitors are allowed to have picnic in the gardens and the surrounding grounds. It’s just an hour by train from central London and it’s a great place to visit for any history buff. 🙂 I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

PM Churchill was a good friend of the Astor Family and was a frequent visitor to the Castle.
Anne Boleyn’s Book of Prayer
Prayer room with intricate wood carvings.
The Medieval ‘toilet’ 🙂
One of the steps that leads to the first floor.
Rose Garden
The formal dining hall with a 16th century tapestry.
Manicured lawn
With my good friend, Kristine
Kristine and I did a lot of walking to explore the property. They have a golf course too.

Royal Albert Hall

I had the privilege of visiting The Royal Albert Hall for a private tour and saw the backstage, the lounge for the Royal Family, the Royal Box and other parts of the Hall usually off limits to the public. 

The Royal Albert Hall was built between 1867 and 1871 and was officially opened on 29 March 1871 with the presence of Queen Victoria, who was overcome with emotion as she was reminded of her late husband, Prince Albert, who had died a decade earlier, never having seen the Hall named in his honour. 

After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, plans of commemorating him a hall on the present site came up. The Prince had suggested as early as 1853 that the Royal Academy of Music might like to build a music hall on the south side of Cromwell Road.  But it remained an idea and never even came to a planning stage until after the Prince’s death.

The Hall was originally designed with a capacity for 8,000 people. But historically, since its opening in 1871 it has a few times accommodated as many as 12,000 people. Under the present day safety restrictions, the maximum permitted capacity is now down to only 5,544 including standing in the Gallery.

I’ve been here many times prior and it was quite eerie and strange to see the hall practically empty.

The bust of Victoria and Albert are on display in one of the walls.

The hallway on the 2nd floor.

This set of steps lead to the Royal Box.

Lounge or reception where members of the royal family would wait before they proceed to the Royal Box.

Royal Albert Memorial as seen from one of the massive windows on the 2nd floor.

Prince Albert’s bust and Albert Memorial.

The details of the stone works and other ornamentation all over the building are quite impressive. Loads of initials, ‘RAH’ – Royal Albert Hall – or ‘VR’ – Victoria Regina or ‘VA’ – Victoria and Albert are seen everywhere.

The Royal Albert Hall is a very historic and magnificent edifice and it certainly is one of my favourite buildings in London.

I’ve been here for different musical events over the years but my all-time favourite has always been the Handel Messiah and Christmas Carols.
My friend Kristine and I at the Carols by Candlelight on December 2017.
Jared took this photo of myself sometime in 2015.
After watching The Messiah with Jared a few years ago.
Taken after the tour at the very top floor where the sound, lighting, recording facilities, etc., are located.

Prince Albert Memorial

The Prince Albert Memorial is a monument, essentially a ciborium, erected in honour of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s Consort. His death only at age 42, not only shocked the nation but also devastated the Queen. The monument is one of the great works of the Victorian renowned architect George Gilbert Scott in 1863-72.

Prince Albert holding the catalogue of the Great Exhibition, held in Hyde Park in 1851, which he inspired and helped to organise.

The cast-bronze statue of the late prince sits on a plinth upon a larger pedestal, which also has marble figure groups of the four continents and a frieze of great artists, figures representing manufacture, commerce, agriculture and engineering.

From the centre rises a massive spire, containing a smaller niche with gilt bronze statues of the Christian virtues. Through two more tiers of plinths with bronze angels, the spire is finally topped with a cross.

There’s four massive marble figures representing Europe, Asia, Africa and America that stand at each corner of the memorial as shown in the following four photos.

The monument is inside Kensington Gardens right across the street from Royal Albert Hall. 

Taken on a spring morning, 2019.

It’s beguiling even from a distance.

If you happen to visit London, and wanna stroll around Kensington Palace and Gardens, it’s worth seeing this monument. And of course, Royal Albert Hall is just across the street, another iconic building in the city that’s worth visiting. If interested to read more about Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, here’s a link to an old blog post.

Featured Image: royalparks

From ‘Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’ to ‘House of Windsor’

Today, 17th of July, marks 102 years since King George V, frightened by the depth of anti-German sentiment at the height of the Great War, created the “House of Windsor”. The king cleverly anglicised the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha dynasty to the steely British name, taking their name and legacy from the castle that had been built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century. George V was dutiful, diligent, and discreet, while essentially conservative (never had a mistress and remained faithful and devoted to his wife), he had been prepared to depart from tradition when his Kingdom’s survival demanded it. George V did this in creating the new House and in his role in the Great War. His first born, Edward VIII’s brief reign (only 326 days — thanks to Wallis Simpson) was fraught with scandal, but George VI picked up the shattered pieces left by his brother, and did well most especially during the Second World War.

Four Generations of British Sovereigns. Queen Victoria, King Edward VII, King George V, King Edward VIII (Image: Pinterest)

Sadly, his daughter Queen Elizabeth II has seen not just the demise of the Empire but also the continuous spiritual and moral decline of the country. She not only modernised her family but also her reign. When the Queen’s consort, Prince Philip, sought to have his paternity recognised in their children’s names, her grandmother, Queen Mary, was horrified and went to Churchill for advice. Philip apparently wanted the ‘House of Edinburgh’ (since it did reflect the Dukedom invested in him by George VI) which is indeed an odd choice for a descendant of the ‘House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg’. The royal family and the Churchill government did not grant The Duke’s wishes; and while the current members of the royal family recognise their paternity ‘Mountbatten-Windsor’ whenever they use a surname, the House remains solidly a “Windsor.”

King George V and Queen Mary with their children (Image: NPG)

Incredibly today also marks the 72nd birthday of the Duchess of Cornwall, the woman who the House of Windsor thought would destroy it. But, at least in the eyes of her husband, Prince Charles, she’s the perfect partner. Gyles Brandreth says in his book Charles and Camilla that ‘Camilla and her family without question, belonged to the upper class.’ Her mother Rosalind was the daughter of 3rd Baron Ashcombe, a descendant of Tom Cubbitt, the English master builder of the Victorian era, notable for developing many of the historic streets and squares, while her mother, Sonia, was the daughter of Alice Keppel, the famous ‘La Favorita’ (favourite mistress) of King Edward VII. Other historians also consider Camilla of remarkable resemblance with her great-grandmother, Alice Keppel. It was said that not only her looks but her manner and habits is very much like Alice Keppel. And interestingly, Tina Brown claims, in her book ‘The Diana Chronicles’ that, and I quote: “If you slapped an Edwardian-style picture hat on the head of Camilla Parker Bowles you would be struck by her resemblance to Prince Charles’s adored nanny, Mabel Anderson.”

Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles aka The Duchess of Cornwall

With the current state of the British monarchy (and the country that sadly has gone to the 🐕 🐩 🐶), perhaps King George V’s rolling over in his grave.😂  Or may be on his deathbed he did warn his descendants, “You better straighten yourselves out, or I’d raise from the dead and die all over again if I had to!”😂 

(Featured Image of King George V and Queen Mary: NPG)

St Stephen’s Tavern

Standing next to Westminster tube station and right across the street from The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, St Stephen’s Tavern is a traditional pub that originally opened in 1875. It has been frequented by many  renowned personalities including prime ministers such as Winston Churchill, Stanley Baldwin and Harold Macmillan and even today it is one of the watering holes of some famous British politicians.

The pub still retains its original division bell which rings to warn the British lawmakers that there are only a few minutes to vote.
I like old buildings and as soon as I entered the door I immediately noticed the Victorian wooden carvings on the walls and the ceiling.
Photographs and newspaper clippings adorn the walls of the building.
From the ground floor, there’s a set of stairs that leads you to the 1st floor (2nd floor to the Americans), and on both sides of the wall there’s all types of framed old magazines/newspaper articles, photographs, caricatures, etc., that will make any political history buff to stop and have a look.

It’s on a Grade II Listed building with ornate wooden carved high ceiling and other fittings from the original Victorian structure. (According to English Heritage, “A building is listed when it is of special architectural or historic interest considered to be of national importance and therefore worth protecting.”)

The pub retains many of the original fixtures and fittings.

Unarguably, it is one the best pubs to visit in London for those interested in political history. It’s mentioned in one of Winston Churchill’s biography books and it’s been on my list of ‘historic places to visit’ in the city for over a decade. I’ve only visited once to take these photos with a visiting friend from Manila, and it was packed with tourists and possibly with some of the British government’s elite, too.

The End of an Era

With the recent death of a dear friend, I find myself groping for specific things to remember about him. Everything seems so recent and so mundane that I feel it is trivial to even try to capture his life in a few sentences, or paragraphs, because I believe every life deserves a book. 

But before I talk about Vic, let me just say that I am privileged that my life in London allows me to cross paths with so many people from all walks of life and for that, I am eternally grateful to the Lord because I know it’s all part of His providential ordering of my own life. I’ve lived here for over nineteen years now and many of the people I meet here have left their home country for greener pastures in London. I get a glimpse of an expat’s life and what it takes to live a life of extreme sacrifice by leaving their family back home and to make a difference in the lives of people at their workplace.

Many of my friends here only stay in London for a few years and they return to their home country or move to their next posting — that’s just the nature of living in one of the world’s financial capital.  It’s always sad when a friend leaves for whatever reason. Sadly, five days ago a very dear friend of ours, Vic Casim, left us — not to retire in NY but to meet his Creator. It took us all by surprise; his health had deteriorated very rapidly after he was confined at the hospital for a series of blood test. The last time Jared and I were with him at his flat in December of last year, he jokingly said that he’ll move to Manila once we’ve settled ourselves in the Philippines. I know he mentioned many times before that he couldn’t see himself retiring in Manila, or even in New York where his sister and other family members live.

Last week as I was trying to put together some of Vic’s photographs, I was reminded that on his 80th birthday I’ve posted on social media (both Instagram and Facebook) a tribute for him, (I’ve reposted it again in April), and the words I’ve written encapsulates in one paragraph how I will always remember him. Here’s the screenshot of that old post:

I’m glad I saved this because I often delete my old Facebook posts. Vic reposted this and I’m still trying to find the screenshots of the comments his friends left. I remember he was so delighted and even phoned me to say that Senator Gibo Teodoro had left a nice comment.

My friendship with Vic transcends politics, fashion, royal news, current events and London/Manila high society nattering. He and I often talk about spiritual things and he’s very open to discuss with me these things. Since Lou and Bobby Ramos left London in 2011, he endeared himself more to Jared and me. When Jared’s schedule allowed him to join us for any gathering at Vic’s flat, we’d always be the last people to leave. He always asked us to stay until everyone’s gone; our conversation would then naturally drift into spiritual matters and he loved to talk about it for hours on end. And even when Jared isn’t able to join us, he’d pick me up from Vic’s flat after an evening get-together with friends (because he didn’t want me traveling on my own at night). And Vic would always insist that he joins us for coffee and chit-chat and very often it would just be the three of us talking until he is ready to let us go.

Vic will be sorely missed not just by his family and friends but by his former colleagues and business contacts in London, NY and Manila. He established a permanent presence in the Filipino community here and his death left a void that none of the Filipino expats in London can fill. He’s such a colourful character and his debonair touch made an indelible impression on those he came in contact with. He often told me every time we talk about spiritual things that he’d rather die in his sleep and didn’t want to be confined in bed for long and be a burden to anyone. God has clearly granted his desire. He didn’t suffer long. I praise and thank the Lord for that.

I know that in the midst of grief, we are still in life. And my joy continues knowing that our time is in God’s hands. He is in full control of all things. But with all that, my thoughts are with his sister right now.  Tita Lourdes lost her husband a few years back and now her one and only sibling is also gone. I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like for her losing two of the most important men in her life but I know that with her seemingly stoic personality, she will continue to enjoy life with her kids and grandkids.

I’d like to share some memories I have of Vic since I’ve known him, from 2000 up to date.

Vic and Ambassador Cesar Bautista, summer 2000. The Bautistas were very fond of him; Mrs Bautista would often invite him over for meals at their house, or have their chef, Mang Sendong, bring home-cooked meals to his flat.
He loved Princess Diana. He talked about seeing her in the neighbourhood. We walked around Kensington Palace on her death anniversary in 2007 and I took a photo of him with the large photo of the late princess.
Last year he was too tired to get out of the house and walk around KP. The last time he and I walked around the park was when he asked me to record a video of himself for Ben Chan’s birthday. Miguel Pastor asked him to give a surprise message and I spent the afternoon with him filming in front of the palace. I edited it and sent to Miguel while having a nice chat over tea at the Orangery.
Vic’s birthday in 2007 with Lou and Bobby Ramos after the Chan-Lim family left. They’re taking a break from karaoke. 🙂 Vic’s got so many friends but they don’t merge. (His memorial service on Saturday will be the first time it will happen.) When he hosted three different ‘Sayounara Party’ (between 2014-16 because he thought he’d go back to NY for good), it was a small gathering and he only selected a few of his friends in different circles and had them over to his flat. I was blessed to have been invited in all three of them, the last one was in October 2016 and I remember feeling so sad that he was retiring in NY.
Lou, Vic, Cherie, Bremley (Vic’s friend from his Columbia University Alumni circle) and me, December 2008.
From R-L: Cherie, Lou, Bobby, Vic, Candy and me, after breakfast at Giraffe High St Kensington sometime in 2010 or 2011. Lou and Bobby stayed with him during this visit and he was very happy to have them in town for a few days.
Vic’s full of life, fun-loving and always cheerful!
Vic invited me, Kristine and Michelle for a Sunday lunch at his flat sometime in August 2018. I recall being late and had to run from church right after talking to our visitors. I recall bringing with me ube ensaymada for our dessert.
To celebrate Vic’s and Cherie’s birthday, we had a brunch at Baglioni Hotel, end of April or early May 2016. (Thank you so much once again for the special treat, Cherie!)
I made him a chocolate mini-cake, and of course, the fondant icing has to be green — his favourite colour! 🙂 Cherie also got a mini-floral design pink cake that day (Baglioni Hotel, April or May 2016).
This image of him singing one of his favourite songs, “Besame Mucho” sticks with me.
Vic had attended our church on numerous occasions — Sunday and special events especially the Christmas Cantata. Before he’d fly to NY for Christmas holiday he’d come and join us for the Cantata/Christmas candle light worship service. This photo with one of my church mates, Adiben Ferando, at the fellowship hall, December 2017 was taken just a few days before he flew to the states and that was the last time he spent Christmas with his family in NY.
At the IFS/LFW — International Fashion Showcase, London Fashion Week, Feb 2014. He loved fashion and one of the projects he started was the Philippines’ participation in the International Fashion Showcase — Filipino designers were invited to present their collections at the London Fashion Week. I’d always get an invite from the Phil. Trade Office to attend the opening party of these events — thanks to Vic! It was very special because I’d attend these events with the most famous ‘Tito’ (uncle) in the Filipino community in London. 🙂
Vic’s birthday at Michelle’s flat, April 2019. (Michelle Sanchez is the current Commercial Attache at the Phil. Trade Office in London). I now look back and regret that I didn’t get to bake a special cake for his last birthday. Although I planned on baking that Saturday morning, I received the news from my cardiologist the day before that I may have to undergo an open heart surgery. And with that heavy burden, I decided to just have a store-bought cake. During the meal he was telling us some stories about all the blood tests he had back in Feb-March and that the doctors didn’t find anything wrong.
After Lou and other Filipino diplomat friends left London, Cherie and I continued to get together with him on a regular basis. But with Cherie being gone travelling with George around the world after he retired, we’d get-together as often as everyone’s schedule would allow it. From 2016 sometimes Marlie and Gina (Consing-McAdams) would join us too. Vic would often refer to the group as the ‘foodie gang’ because we all love to eat haha! This photo was taken after we had lunch at Melissa Hemsley’s Pop Up restaurant in Mayfair, December 2017. Photo courtesy of Gina.
Vic’s birthday in 2015 with Cherie and her daughter Ileana at Papaya Tree, then a newly opened Thai restaurant in Queensway which he wanted to try.
Vic invited me to the Christmas get-together of former Phil. Trade Office staff in December 2016. I never worked at the Philippine Embassy nor did I have contact with international business people outside of the fashion industry where I used to work. Very often he graciously invited me to attend lunches, or dinners, or other events he hosted for different groups. I would only decline the invite when I’m providentially hindered. This is one of those occasions when I was able to join him and his ‘Trade Office’ gang.
This photo with Joanna Ampil was taken may be 3 years ago. Vic invited me to his flat for tea one time, and surprisingly Joanna Ampil was staying with him for a week or two while her flat was being prepared before the opening of a WestEnd musical show she was on.
Jo and I became friends on Facebook since that first meeting but I’ve never contacted her until last week. I remember Vic mentioned during our last brunch with Cherie that Jo’s supposed to stay with him for a few days in July. That prompted me to send her a message last week. Sadly, Jo can’t be here for Vic’s memorial service but she sent a recording of a song she did for his funeral. Apparently, he asked her to do this for him. (Btw, I never posted this photo before and I’m sure if Vic’s still around and read this blog, he’d asked me to post it on Facebook with a reminder, “Please don’t forget to tag me, Elna.”)
Our church’s young people had a picnic one summer and some of the parents like Bobby and Lou Ramos joined us (their kids John and JR were part of our young people’s group). We also invited Vic and he told me he had a lot of fun.
A cousin of mine, Lynn, and her daughter, Kathleen, hosted an afternoon tea for my birthday back in January 2016, and they also invited Vic. Lynn’s husband, Philip Syliangco, and Vic both occupied the same position as Vice-President of Solid Bank Philippines, though at different era. It was a point of conversation when Philip was around because they both know the same people in the Philippine banking industry.
Vic, Lynn, Kathleen, Charlene and Philip, London 2015. (I was with them and took this photo)
In early December 2017, Adiben, and I bumped into Vic at a bus stop in Kensington while we were on our way to Mayfair. We invited him to join us and he was happy to do it and ended up spending the day with us. We had lunch (Adiben’s treat — thank you again Sis!); walked around New Bond Street to see the Christmas lights and then we went to Claridges to see the ‘upside down tree’. Funnily enough, he told me to check his FB post the following day with a photo of himself by the tree with a caption, “with my secret date at the Claridges . . .” and some of his friends asked who he was with. He was laughing over the phoned and said, “I’m just going to ignore them and let them guess who I was with!” So typical of Vic! LOL
The last time both Jared and I were at his flat was shortly before New Year. Vic insisted on having a photo taken and Jared doesn’t really like anyone taking a photo of himself but he happily posed for this. Vic did put the orchids on my hands and said, “You gave this to me. It has to be included in the picture.” I laughed when he said that. Jared and I both look rough in this photo haha!
For Vic’s birthday three years ago, I got him a chocolate cake from Pâtisserie Valerie.
At the International Fashion Showcase 2017 with Ambassador Lagdameo and two other Phil. Embassy officers.
Vic invited me to the International Fashion Showcase, London Fashion Week 2015. We posed for a photo with Filipino designer Amina Aranaz.
Even after Lou left London, we’d often get-together when Cherie’s in town and sometimes we’d show up at the Phil Trade Office with ‘StickNBowl’ take away lunch. He loved roast pork/crispy pork rice and hot & sour soup. This photo was one of those countless days . . . I look at this photo and feel so sad!
One day Vic organised a brunch at the newly opened restaurant on Kensington High St. I have no recollection of the restaurant’s name (2016 or 2017) but it’s obviously in the dead of winter because we were, except for Cherie, all wrapped up from the neck down to the ankle haha! Gina, a very busy lady, was able to join us then!
At Michelle’s first flat (on her first year as the Phil. Commercial Attache in London), she hosted a dinner and I brought a cake for Vic’s birthday. Notice the candle on top — number 40! I always chuckle when I’m around him and hear someone asks about his age, he’d usually say with a big laugh, ‘Secret!’ 🙂
My girl friends Precy, Kristine, Marj, Dynah, and Michelle organised a dinner to celebrate my birthday this year and Vic was able to join us too. (Sorry Aimee you missed it!)
When former Phil. Ambassador to South Africa, Mario de Leon, and wife, Eleanor, visited London in December of last year, Vic hosted a dinner for them and invited me as well. Mabel, Eleanor’s sister, was with us, and she took this lovely photo of us before they left. Jared came to pick me up that night, and Vic insisted Jared should come in and stay for a few minutes for coffee and chit-chat but as always, we couldn’t leave until he was ready to let us go. We ended up chatting with him for a couple of hours.
He also hosted Emma Sarne’s ‘Sayounara Party’ sometime in December of last year.
Late night dinner at Côte Brasserie with Lou and Bobby Ramos after an event at the Phil. Embassy, March 2008.
Those who know Vic very well can attest that he had a good sense of humour, and he’d even make fun of himself. When he’s around people that he’s comfortable with, and he didn’t have to put on a mask, he can be quite funny. He’s hilarious when he tried to mimic people. I remember one time he shared a story about a Filipino actress he met in London and when I asked if she’s beautiful in person, he replied with his lips puckered, “No. Mukha syang isda!” (She looks like a fish.) LOL! And I asked why, his response was, “because she obviously had silicone lip fillers and botox-filled face.” 
Vic, Gina, Marlie, Cherie and I had tea at The Berkeley Hotel to celebrate my birthday last year. When Vic phoned me to ask what I think about the Berkeley fashionista themed afternoon tea for my birthday, I simply said, ‘Yes, of course! I wouldn’t say no to a ‘tea invite’ especially on my birthday haha.
Cherie and I had brunch with Vic before she flew to Greece last month, 1st or 2nd week of May 2019, at his favourite local restaurant, Côte Brasserie. Who would have ever thought that that was the last time Cherie and I would share a meal with him? The T-shirt he had on was from the recent Van Gogh Exhibition at The Tate.
While trying to find on his Facebook wall my tribute post on his 80th birthday (couldn’t find it because I often delete old posts) this is what I found: “The young ones (once)” and it made me laugh! The caption “Vic’s Angels — Cherie, Lou & Elna” encapsulates the type of friendship he had with the three of us — he can be himself when he’s around us so the conversation isn’t just about shallow things like current events or Philippine politics. As you can see, this photo was taken back in 2011 and Vic reposted it in March of last year.
It was very sweet of him to post this on Facebook. I did a screenshot when I saw it a few days ago while checking his wall posts.
I was invited to the dinner that Vic’s sister hosted at Romulo Cafe to celebrate his life on 21st of June 2019, the very same day he passed away. From L-R, yours truly, Jaime Teodoro, Chris Joseph, Rowena Romulo, Morgan German (Vic’s grandniece), Peggy German-Mccandless (Vic’s niece); Camille Rolland, Cathie de Leon, Dra. Lourdes Casim-German (Vic’s sister), and Nikki Prieto-Teodoro. We had a wonderful time talking about Vic and just before we left the restaurant we all said, “See you at the hospital tomorrow!” We all thought we’d see him again the next day. None of us thought that when we said goodbye to him before we left the hospital earlier in the day that it was the final goodbye. He passed on just over an hour after we finished dinner. Thank you so much once again for the dinner, Tita Lourdes!
Kristine and I were scheduled to meet up for brunch the next day, Saturday 22 June, and we decided to go to Côte Brasserie. It’s practically an extension of Vic’s kitchen and he’d eaten here innumerable times. When I arrived, Kristine was already seated at a table near the window but providentially Vic’s favourite table was vacant. So I asked the duty manager if we could take that instead but she said we can’t because it’s for four people. I then mentioned that it’s ‘Vincent’s favourite table’ and she said, ‘Of course!’ And then I said, “Sadly, he passed away last night!” The staff who heard what I said were shocked and in tears, “what happened?” they asked as we walked to the table . . . I simply said that he’s been ill. “But we just saw him not too long ago!” they exclaimed. I told them it was a brief illness, barely three weeks, and he didn’t suffer too long. Silvia, the duty manager, told me that she and the other staff would love to attend Vic’s memorial service so she gave me her mobile number. (I spoke with Silvia the other day and she confirmed her attendance on Saturday.)
Tine and I had a lovely time sharing stories about Vic. I ordered Egg Royal, the same one he had six weeks prior when Cherie and I had brunch with him at Côte. When Silvia brought the bill, she said, “We’ve given you a discount, the exact same discount we always gave to Vincent.” I was deeply touched! I thanked her and the other staff for all their help and services to Vic over the years, and for extending the same courtesy to Kristine and me. The yellow clutch (from Miss Selfridge) was a gift Vic had given me on my birthday in 2015.
After brunch, Kristine and I decided to walk around Vic’s old stomping ground and we naturally ended up at Kensington Court. I wanted to say hi to Noel, the porter of the building, who had been of great help to Vic. I wasn’t expecting him to open the door for us but he graciously did, and we had a little chat with him. I thanked him for all of his help and services to Vic over the years. He responded, “mamimiss ko talaga sya…ang bait na tao non!” (I’ll really miss him. He’s such a very kind man.) We posed for a photo one last time before we said goodbye to Noel. And as we walked out of the building, I said to Kristine, “This is the last time you and I will be in this flat. It’s the end of an era!”
Jo would have loved to sing this live at Vic’s memorial service on Saturday. I’ve forwarded to Rowena Romulo the audio that Jo sent me early this week and hopefully, it will be played either at the church or at the crematorium.

Van Gogh and Britain Exhibition

Tate Britain has a new exhibition with the largest collection of Van Gogh paintings in the country in nearly a decade. It’s in two part; the first looks at Van Gogh Experience in London, the art and literature and its role in his journey as an artist. The second explores the impact of his art and life in British artists up to the 1950s.

Van Gogh’s letter and sketchbooks

Van Gogh came to England at the age of 20 and lived in the country for nearly three years between 1873 and 1876. He worked in Covent Garden as an art dealer and at the time the city was so much larger than the size of any place that he had lived or known.

Some of Van Gogh’s personal collection, these prints were probably what he sold at the gallery and were popular in Victorian England

London presented him with a striking new reality; the city’s advanced technology, the transport, and it was already powered by electricity and the industrial revolution was at its zenith. England has a young Queen and a young royal family, the city was quite impressive, it was like the superpower and the center of the world. And for Van Gogh it was indeed the place to be. He admired Charles Dickens and was greatly influenced by the social reform agenda he promoted in all his writings. He wrote his family and friends, “My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens described.” He truly immersed himself in English culture, enjoyed walking its streets, rowing at River Thames, strolling around Kensington Gardens, and enjoyed other English pastimes. He wrote his sister in 1875 and said, “How I love London!”

Wheatfield, 1888

The traditions of Victorian England also inspired Van Gogh. He enjoyed the modern ideas of Christmas — Christmas trees, gifts, and dinners — all of these came into trend during the Victorian period. (Few years ago I blogged about this tradition that Prince Albert and Queen Victoria started and now part of the British culture – here’s the link .) There was a novelty to it all that truly appealed to Van Gogh. 

Yellow Landscape, 1892

It is a pretty fascinating exhibit of more than fifty of his most famous works that were brought together from around the world including ShoesStarry Night over the RhôneL’Arlésienne, and two works he made while a patient at the Saint-Paul Asylum, At Eternity’s Gate and Prisoners Exercising.

Starry Night over the RhôneL’Arlésienne

The very rarely lent Sunflowers from London’s National Gallery is also included in the exhibition. Of all his works I’ve seen, this photo below is my favourite and it’s part of the collection presented at Tate Britain

Entrance to Voyer d’Argenson Park at Asnieres, Paris 1887
Entrance to Voyer d’Argenson Park at Asnieres, Paris 1887

Van Gogh gained inspiration from the surroundings, the art and culture of Victorian England, and his time in Britain was a life-changing experience for him that it greatly influenced the art he would begin making four years later.

Sunflowers, 1888

Many British artists have been influenced by Van Gogh and he remains popular even to this very day. A number of British artists like Harold Gilman ensured Van Gogh left a legacy in Britain. His use of bold colours and expressive brushwork were copied; the most popular was the sunflower painting and has been interpreted in various forms by British artists of every generation and fills the museums and galleries throughout the country.

A Pair of Shoes, 1886
Self portrait, 1888

As brilliant as Van Gogh was as an artist, sadly, he lived a very unhappy life and was in turmoil for years. He clearly tried to find something to satisfy himself — art, religion, whatever it was that he thought would fill the void in his heart. Sadly, he didn’t find an answer. He took it upon himself to end his life at age 37.

Worn Out, 1881

A question was asked in one of Tate Britain’s podcast as advertised when I visited the gallery, “Is there a link between mental health and creativity? Do artists have to suffer for their art’?” I haven’t listened to it because I know it’s full of atheistic and Cultural Marxist agenda. People would say something like, “Oh, he had mental health issues that’s why he killed himself!” That’s true he clearly had mental health issues but that’s just a manifestation of a much deeper problem. Many historians claim Van Gogh was a Christian based on his two year tenure as a preacher from age 25-27. Personally, I don’t believe he was a Christian. Even if he preached and became a pastor in a small Congregationalist church in Borinageto, a poor mining village in southwestern Belgium, it didn’t mean he was a Christian in a true sense of the word. In fact, he left the church after a couple of years and never got himself involved in any church activity until his death. His artworks in the later years of his life depicts a grim reality of how he felt inside — a dark manifestation of his spiritual condition. Indeed a true child of God even if he’s afflicted with mental or other type of illness, still look to God, and put his trust and hope in God. As for Van Gogh, he was obviously hopeless — an evidence, a true manifestation of someone who is not a true Christian, or a child of God.

Regardless of his tragic life, he’s unarguably one of the most talented artists the world ever had. I’d highly recommend this exhibition to any art enthusiasts. These art collection may never be brought together in England again. Exhibition ends on the 11th of August; don’t forget to book your tickets online to avoid the long queue, or simply get a friend who’s a member of Tate Britain to get you in. 🙂

The Gift of Friendship

Have you ever meet someone and you found out from the very first time of chatting with the person that you have so much in common? The Bible talks not just about God and His relationship with His people but also about relationships among God’s people. The most famous friendship recorded in the scriptures has to be that of David and Jonathan. Only God can orchestrate a friendship between a shepherd boy, who later became a king of Israel, and a prince, the reigning king’s son, and for that relationship to develop into what’s best described as “their souls are knit together” (knit can simply be explained as two or more pieces of thread woven together to form one piece of fabric, or garment).  And the most remarkable about their friendship is that Jonathan not only showed genuine affection and generosity to David, but he did it all before the Lord. And this is exactly how I feel about Arlene, a new friend that the Lord has recently brought into my life. She gives so much of herself, her time and other resources to me, and I know to so many others, and she does it all, not just for the recipients themselves, but ultimately for the Lord. Interestingly, God has used Instagram to bring it all to pass.

Let me share with you a beautiful story . . . three months ago I opened an Instagram public account for the sole purpose of joining the calligraphy community. Since then my Copperplate skills have greatly improved, and that was my goal.  And to top it off, I’ve meet some incredible people but if there’s one person that truly left an indelible impression on me from the first time we met and started chatting, it’s Arlene Custock. Our conversation from the beginning isn’t just about calligraphy but it’s more personal — family, job, and spiritual things. Indeed, we just hit it off from the time we started chatting on Instagram private messaging (we moved to WhatsApp shortly after). On the same week, that is, barely a couple of weeks after I opened my account, I received a card and a handwritten letter from Arlene, to my great surprise.

Arlene’s handmade card and letter are now on a frame sitting on my desk. Reading this letter for the first time brought tears to my eyes, and every time I see this, I am reminded of God’s goodness.

I was flabbergasted, to say the least! And what deeply touched me was the realisation that I am a total stranger, Arlene didn’t know me from Adam, and she’s a very busy lady (she manages her family business, and has a husband, kids and grandkids to take care of), yet she went through all of the trouble taking the time in putting pen to paper, running to the post office, and all of that, just for me, a poor girl across the atlantic. For the last three months since I’ve known her, she genuinely showed me how much her words mean, and that first letter was a great proof — an incredibly meaningful gesture.

And that was just the beginning of several letters and cards sent (I’ve only sent her a card/letter twice, I know I can’t keep up with her haha), and of course, of several parcels/gifts she sent my way!

Arlene is such a very sweet and generous lady. I am deeply humbled and truly honoured to be a recipient of God’s blessings through her.

These books, ‘An Elegant Hand’ and ‘The Art of Cursive Penmanship’, from Arlene (direct from Amazon US, no less!) along with her beautifully penned letters greatly influence me in my desire to learn Spencerian. And yes, for four weeks now I’ve been taking Spencerian online class from Nina Tran, thanks to my kind benefactor — no other than Arlene herself!

Every time I get a mail from Arlene, I feel almost giddy like a little child and Jared always say to me, “My dear, you’re so cute like a nine year old girl who is excited to open her gifts on Christmas morning! Just your reaction getting mails from Arlene makes me very happy!”

I don’t take it for granted that God has gifted me with a new friend. He has given me Arlene — a sister in Christ and a true friend, much like a big sister who is wiser than I am. Arlene took me under her wings; she sends me books, emails me exemplars of Copperplate and Spencerian old masters, gives me advice on how I can make some progress in my calligraphy journey, and she gives so much more. It’s not just the physical/material things but it’s the intangible, the spiritual things that she shares. Indeed, she has been a great source of encouragement and inspiration.

Who knows when I’ll have the opportunity to meet Arlene face to face. It occurred to me, when Arlene mentioned that we’re like David and Jonathan, or ‘two peas in the Jesus pod’, and that we might not meet in person this side of heaven. But as Christians, Arlene and I both have the assurance that one day, we’ll meet in paradise, and we’ll be walking together while chatting away in a street of pure gold, as clear as transparent glass . . . in a place that God has prepared for us where there’ll be no more pain or suffering, and we’ll be rejoicing and worshipping Our Creator. We sometimes talk about our physical frailties, and we’ll no longer talk about any of it in the presence of the Lord. But I wonder if we’ll remember about calligraphy and continue to talk about learning Spencerian, Copperplate and all of that . . . who knows? But regardless of what it will be like, the prospect of meeting up in the New Jerusalem is with ever-greater delight and the most joyous realisation of all.  

I do pray and hope though that someday the Lord will allow us to meet up in person; sit down together for tea and chat for hours on end. 🙂 In the meantime, Arlene and I can enjoy chatting over WhatsApp, and revel in the opportunity of sharing a special friendship the way He has planned for us at this time.

Let me share two scripture verses that comes to mind whenever I think of Arlene.

 “That is, that I may be comforted together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me.” (Romans 1:12, KJV)

A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24, KJV)

Victoria: the queen who gave her name to an era

Today marks the bicentenary of the birth of Queen Victoria.  She was born at Kensington Palace and lived there until her accession, on that historic morning, the 20th of June 1837, when she was informed of the death of her uncle, King William IV.  Up until that day, aged 18, she shared a bedroom with her extremely protective mother and was never out of her mother’s, or her nanny’s sight. But something significant happened on that fateful morning, she went to see the Prime Minister and her privy council on her own without her mother. Then she  moved out of her mother’s bedroom into another room at Kensington Palace and only her governess was given access to her bedroom, a privilege denied to her mother. Even after she married Prince Albert and moved to Buckingham Palace, Lehzen became her private secretary and had access to her bedroom. Again, it was a privilege she never gave to her mother. In fact, she never allowed her mother to live at Buckingham Palace but had bought her a house in London where she lived until her death.

The young Victoria with her mother, Victoria, The Duchess of Kent

It’s safe to say that if there’s one person that had the greatest influence on Victoria’s life, it was her governess, Baroness Louise Lehzen. She was born in Hanover; her father was a Lutheran pastor and her mother was also a daughter of a pastor.  No doubt Lehzen’s Christian upbringing made a strong impact on Victoria.  She came to England as governess to Princess Féodore, Victoria’s half-sister. In 1824 Lehzen was appointed governess to the young princess Victoria, and remained as Victoria’s friend, ally and constant companion. Lehzen was strongly protective of Victoria and encouraged Victoria to become knowledgeable, strong, and independent from her mother’s and her mother’s private secretary, John Conroy’s influence. Her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and Conroy tried to control Victoria and even tried to forced her to sign a document that would make Conroy a regent in case Victoria inherits the throne before she turns 18.  Lehzen advised Victoria against it and she dedicated her life to ensure that if Victoria became Queen, she would be intelligent and strong-minded.  After the queen married Prince Albert, Lehzen became her secretary in private matters. Lehzen was often criticised by many historians for her influence over Victoria but I believe that if there’s one person who truly had only Victoria’s interests at heart, that would be Baroness Lehzen.  Victoria wrote in her diary about Lehzen, “she’s the most affectionate, devoted, attached and disinterested friend I have.”

Baroness Louise Lehzen (Image: Historic Royal Palaces)

Lehzen not only imparted to the princess Christian values but also a love of history. She also provided the love and affection which Victoria never received from her own mother.  The princess was taught to control her temper and to admit her mistakes to all she had wronged, regardless of rank.  Though she encouraged the princess from a young age to keep a journal, she never kept one herself, thinking it inappropriate to her position as a royal servant.  “She was very strict.”, Victoria later wrote in her diary.  The queen had great respect and seemed in awe of Lehzen, but with that the greatest affection as her diary revealed. Even in old age, Queen Victoria often talked about her governess and made mentioned of her in her diary.  The queen provided Lehzen a handsome pension, visited her in Hanover several times, sent her a wheelchair when she was infirmed, and after Lehzen’s death, the queen even erected a memorial in her honour. No doubt, Baroness Lehzen was indeed the greatest single influence in the formative period of the character of the princess.  Lehzen was her confidant, best friend and ally. God has providentially worked it out that Lehzen became an instrument in imparting Christian virtues to the princess, and it must be to her credit, and ultimately to God, for handing over to the nation a queen that embraced Christian values.  God has indeed accomplished His purpose in the life of Queen Victoria. 

The young princess Victoria (Image: HRP)
Queen Victoria captured smiling during her Diamond Jubilee celebration. (Image: Pinterest)

She lived a truly unique life. Under her rule, Britain doubled its size making it the largest imperial power in the world. It controlled more than 14 million square miles of territory (23% of the world’s surface) and approximately 460 million people at its peak. It has an international trade that dwarfed all others, and produced thirty percent of the world’s total industrial output. Its navy dominated the oceans and its empire expanded on a simple principle that trade follows the flag. It was described as being the “Empire on which the sun never sets.”  

There are innumerable books written about Queen Victoria and I’ve read more than a dozen biographies written by both British and foreign historians.  I’ve also read a lot of social history books on the Victorian era simply because it truly is my favourite period in British history. What’s remarkable about this age is the fact that religion pervaded the social as well as the political life to an extent that’s unimaginable today.  The British people embraced Christian values; that’s not to say that majority of the people were Christians but rather, people were extremely religious; were thirsting for faith and are continually seeking it. The Russian theologian Alexis Khomiakov was amazed at how silent the streets of London were on a Sunday. He wrote in his book, Russia and the English Church, (London, 1895): “Germany has in reality no religion at all but the idolatry of science; France has no serious longings for truth, and little sincerity; England with its modest science and its serious love of religious truth might [seem] to give some hopes…” Remarkably, it was also an age of major scientific discovery and progress, and the rise of Darwin’s Origin of Species to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and other new ideologies that undermined faith in the truth of the Bible.

Taken yesterday during my morning walk at Kensington Gardens

Kensington Palace has a permanent exhibit on Queen Victoria’s life, and to celebrate the bicentenary of her birth there’s a special exhibit called Discover the Real Victoria. It opens today and I can’t wait to visit. I’m sure the exhibit will yield more fascinating and fresh insights into the life of Queen Victoria.

Five years ago I made a comparison of the current queen and her great-great-grandmother in this post.