Victor Olav had waited almost three months to be interviewed by passport authorities in the Philippines in order to be issues with his first ever passport. He had never been abroad before, not counting his first 13 days in 1991.
Now that he planned a trip to Norway, the country in which he had been born, he needed a passport.
“I’ll update you as soon as I have my passport,” he writes to us on 9 August.
But the complications soon begin to accumulate:
“I’m missing a document that proves I entered my home country legally when I was two weeks old,” he informs us.
His application is rejected by passport authorities in Manila.
He returns home feeling despondent, but his mother steps in to help.
“Luckily Mum has found the tickets from our flight from Norway to the Philippines via Frankfurt on 21 October 1991.”
That’s sure to be good enough, he thinks.
But it’s not.
On 12 August, it seems that his dream might be crushed.
Upset by events, he writes to us:
The authorities ask Victor Olav about the paperwork his mother had used to legally bring him into the country given that he didn’t have a passport at the time.
He has no birth certificate or baptismal certificate from the Philippines.
Something he’d thought would be a mere formality – getting himself a passport – had turned into a nightmare.
This was the beginning of a difficult, month-long voyage into the complexities of the diplomatic services in both Norway and the Philippines, all for a boy found in a plastic carrier bag in a Norwegian churchyard. His attempts to secure himself an identity, the formal paperwork to ensure he was ready to travel as a Filipino citizen, had run aground.
Victor Olav sends an enormous quantity of information to embassy officials and other stakeholders in the diplomatic services. He writes eloquent, formal accounts of his life and fate, of his challenges in obtaining a passport and of his imminent trip to Norway. He calls and calls, all whilst we, along with the priest who baptised him all those years ago, try to open a few diplomatic doors for him.
On a beautiful day towards the end of August, we receive news.
“I’ve had an email from the office of the executive director for the passport division in Manila. It seems as if I now have a formal invitation. I’m going to their offices tomorrow. This is really good news. Yessss!”
The next day:
“Good news! My application to be issued with a Philippine passport has been processed. I can collect it on 6 September. I never believed that my dream of visiting my birthplace would be fulfilled. This is almost too good to be true.”
“I’m just so excited, I can’t believe it’s really happening! I was so down, I’d lost hope. Now all I can think about is Norway.”
The visa process follows, which takes a further week. But then:
“Finally! I’ve got my visa!
Yesssss! I’ve passed the final hurdles!
It’s really, really happening!
Norway, here I come!”
On 13 September, Victor Olav writes that he’s counting down the days. He’s so excited he can barely sleep.
“Two days left! I can hardly wait!”
He’s already started packing, he tells us. He asks what autumn is like in Oslo. Will a t-shirt be warm enough?
His mother and one of his brothers accompany him to the airport in Manila, hugging him before sending him on his way.
One of his sisters writes to us unexpectedly on Facebook:
“I wanted to thank you personally for helping my brother Olav to visit the place he was born. Please take good care of him. This is the first time he’s left the country. God bless!”
And then, from Oslo Gardermoen airport on Friday 16 September:
“I’m here! I’m so excited! Just waiting for my luggage.”
He exits the arrivals hall, smiling bashfully. Victor Olav is back on Norwegian soil, 25 years later.
It’s been more than two years since we first met him in a café in Manila.
“That was a long journey! But I loved it.”
He filmed his final approach into Oslo from the plane window, he tells us.
It’s not long before we’re sitting on the train and heading into the city centre.
“Everything can start now,” Victor Olav says.
Claes Tande, the priest who baptised Victor Olav in October 1991, wants him to come to St. Joseph’s Church on his first evening in the country. Situated just beside St. Olav’s Cathedral, St. Joseph’s holds a Catholic mass for Philippine residents in Oslo on Fridays.
The church fills up. Victor Olav sings psalms he’s familiar with, kneeling and folding his hands, whispering a prayer of thanks.
Towards the end of the service, something happens. The Filipino priest conducting mass speaks briefly in Tagalog. We don’t understand what he says, but we react when we hear his name.
“Victor Olav? Victor Olav, are you here?”
As the priest calls his name, he holds up a piece of paper, something that appears to be a document.
The entire congregation sits in silence.
“Yes?” he replies quietly from one of the back rows, cautiously raising a hand.
“This is your baptismal certificate. We’ve had it here for 25 years, until this point in time, when you’ve returned to us. Father Tande, you’d like to say a few words, I think?”
“That’s right,” a man replies in English.
A figure stands up from where he sits in one of the rows in the middle of the congregation. It’s Claes Tande, the man who baptised Victor Olav just 50 metres down the road on the 19 October 1991.
He turns to the congregation.
“Here’s a story for you. 24 years and 300 days or so ago, a woman from Laguna gave birth to a son in Oslo. He was baptised in St. Olav’s Cathedral and was named Victor Olav. At 13 days old, he was taken to the Philippines by his mother. Today he’s come back to us for the very first time since his baptism. Let’s welcome him here this evening. Victor Olav.”
The whole congregation turns to face him. Victor Olav smiles shyly.
Everyone breaks out in applause, the whole of St Joseph’s Church clapping for him – au pairs, nurses and diplomats, each and every one of them applauding Victor Olav. The prodigal son.
They don’t know the whole story; very few people do.
After mass, Father Tande and the Filipino priest approach him.
“It’s so fantastic to see you again,” Tande begins, taking Victor Olav’s hand firmly in his.
“I’ve got a gift for you. Yes, in addition to the baptismal certificate.”
He pulls something out of his bag. A pocket-size book with ‘St. Olav’ written on the front.
“Thank you so much, Father Tande. This means so much to me,” Victor Olav says.
A number of au pairs – as his mother had once been herself – smile to him during drinks and nibbles.
“If I stand next to you, maybe I’ll become famous too,” one comments, giggling as she stands next to him in the queue for food.
We drive to the top of Oslo, towards Ekeberg, to show him the view out over the city. In the car on the way there, he says:
“That was crazy, what happened in church. It’s caused so many problems over the years that I’ve been missing official documents to prove who I am. For my first 16 years, I was essentially an illegal resident of the Philippines, my own country. But at least I have a baptismal certificate now.”
Up there, way up high over the city, he lifts up his phone camera and photographs himself with his birthplace as a backdrop.
We ask him:
“What do you think, now that you’re back in the city you were born in?”
“Well, that I could have died here.”
Victor Olav looks out over Oslo, immortalising the city in photographic form, before saying:
“It’s an unbelievable story. It’s been a rollercoaster ride for my mum and I, in terms of emotions. But everything is good now. We’re trying not to make a big thing of it.”
He opens up a little more to us. He tells us that his mother has tried to tell him parts of the story several times throughout his life, when he thinks about it.
“‘No, it can’t be true,’ I thought to myself. I didn’t believe her.”
His mother has a shoebox with various things from Oslo inside it, he tells us. A few documents, some pictures and newspaper clippings, and their tickets to the Philippines.
“I remember my mother showing me these documents and newspaper clippings. I could read my name, Victor Olav, but I didn’t understand anything else. I remember now that my mother told me a few things. When I got to see the newspaper clippings as a child, I thought: ‘Maybe it’s true after all.’ But I guess it just didn’t sink in. It was incomprehensible to me,” Victor Olav tells us, standing and looking out over the city of Oslo.
“I don’t think my mother ever tried to hide this story, or to keep it secret from me. It’s possible that I didn’t want to know. But now I understand things a little better.”
Perhaps he’ll understand even better in the morning, when he’s due to meet Tor Schou Nilsen at the churchyard where he was found.
“So, Tor remembers me?”
“Oh yes! Of course.”
“THIS IS MY STORY”
“I could have died. But I survived”
He digs a little deeper.
“Tor was a groundsman working for the church, wasn’t he?”
“No, he was just a passer-by, a car salesman who was at the churchyard to tend to the grave of two family members. Then he heard the cries. Your cries. That’s when he found you in the plastic carrier bag.”
Victor Olav is surprised. He’d been under the impression that he knew almost everything there was to know, that he was fully aware of the various events that had unfolded on those October days in 1991. The fact that he was found in a churchyard, outdoors, that his life had been in danger. 29°C. A miracle baby. But one detail had been missing. One piece of information.
“In a plastic carrier bag?!” he exclaims, half-laughing and half-shouting in the restaurant where we sit.
“I was found in a plastic carrier bag, you say? I’d always imagined that it was a blanket or a handbag, for some reason.”
He asks if it had been snowing in Oslo on the morning he lay on the ground before being found.
“No, but it was definitely cold.”
“I could have frozen to death,” he says.
“So, what did Tor do? He was the one to take me to hospital, wasn’t he?”
“There were a few others involved.”
We tell him about the exhaustive efforts to save him that left so many trying to catch their breath in the aftermath, about the 33 minutes from the moment he was found to the moment he lay in an incubator in the neonatal care unit at the hospital.
“I never thought that there was more than one person involved in saving me, but now I hear you mention all of these people. My mother only ever mentioned Tor.”
“There’s nothing to suggest that she knew about the others. Perhaps she believed that it was Tor alone who had saved you.”
“Are you sure that I was born on 8 October? Not on 7 October, for instance?”
“Well, the doctors say that you were between two and four hours old when you were found. Nobody believed that you’d been lying in the churchyard overnight.”
“No, it would have been a shame if I’d been celebrating my birthday on the wrong day for 24 years,” he remarks with a smile.
The following day, just before we’re due to make our way to the churchyard to meet the man who found him in the plastic bag, Olav tells us that he’s nervous.
“But I’m so curious to hear my story. Because I don’t know any of the details. And the best person to tell me is the person who found me in the churchyard.”
“What’s your story as far as you know it?”
“I was born here in Oslo when my mother worked here. She abandoned me in the churchyard because she thought that I was dead. She thought I wasn’t breathing, that I was stillborn. She didn’t have the means to give me a proper funeral. She anticipated that someone would do it on her behalf, hold a burial for me. But then Tor found me, and he asked a few people for help. I stayed in the hospital whilst the police and authorities tried to locate my parents. They were looking for an Asian mother. I think the lead was a receipt from a bag shop and there was a woman living with my mother who had written the cheque used to pay for the bag. That’s how they found my mother. And then, after a few legal complications, I was reunited with my mother after nine or ten days.”
He also knows the following, he tells us:
“I could have died, but I survived. In spite of the fact that I was left all alone, and in spite of the fact that it was October, and cold. What really surprises me is that I came out of all of this alive, after lying in the churchyard all that time.”
Photographer Lars Eivind Bones is due to pick us up around the back of Palace Park to take Victor Olav the final few kilometres to the churchyard where he was abandoned in a plastic carrier bag.
Bones was working as a photographer for Dagbladet in the churchyard and hospital on that day in 1991. As chance would have it, he was sent out to cover this assignment, too.
“The weather wasn’t as nice then as it is today,” the photographer comments.
“Oh no?” Victor Olav replies.
“It was cold. Really cold. There was frost on the grass.”
We continue driving, up Kirkeveien, along Ullevålsveien, the same way the ambulance transported him on 8 October 1991 at 12:01.“This is a perfect example for anyone who believes in chance.”
Up the final slope towards the church.
He strolls in through the gate a few steps ahead of us. Victor Olav sits down on the grass in the churchyard, the same grass on which he had been left 24 years, 11 months and just a few days ago. His breathing is shallow. We are waiting for just one man. Tor Schou Nilsen.
Victor Olav says very little. He falls silent, withdrawing into himself as he sits on the ground in the lotus position and gazes out across the graveyard. He takes a photograph of the churchyard with his mobile phone.
Tor has arrived, the photographer tells him. He’s standing on the other side of the churchyard, down by Blindernveien, at the spot where he found Victor Olav, the newborn baby.
Victor Olav crosses the rustling carpet of autumn leaves, making his way down the footpath and towards the site.
The walk down from the church feels like an incredibly long way.
“Should I keep going?” he asks.
“Yes. It’s not far now.”
“Hello!” Olav calls when the two of them are three metres or so from one another.
“Hello!” Tor replies, laughing as he offers an outstretched hand.
“It feels so strange meeting you like this. You were a little bit smaller when I saw you last.”
“I’m sure I was small, yes! I was a baby, after all.”
“Like this,” Tor says in Norwegian, indicating the baby’s size with his hands.
“You were only this size.”
Tor is still holding firmly onto Olav’s hand as he places his other hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“So you found me around here?” Olav asks.
Tor turns around, getting his bearings.
“That’s right. It must have been just here. It was sheer luck, you know, that I heard you at all.”
Tor asks Olav to follow him, then walks 20 metres down into the churchyard, towards the grave of his parents-in-law, the same one he had been visiting that morning.
“I was standing here when I heard the cries. I was sure it was birds. It never struck me that someone might need help. I walked up there slowly to take a look, and the sounds grew louder and louder.”
Tor leads Olav up into the churchyard, between the headstones, telling him that the sound led him to a plastic carrier bag.
“The bag was lying on the ground just here. I bent down and untied the handles before opening it up. That’s when I saw him. Well, you. You were blue.”
Tor glances nervously over at him when he says the words. His voice breaks ever so slightly, and he wipes a tear from his eye.
“Blue? Was I blue?” Olav asks him.
“Yes, blue all over. Cold. Very cold,” Tor replies. “It didn’t really suit you, that blue shade. No, it was awful. And remember,” Tor continues, “a plastic carrier bag doesn’t do much to keep out the cold, either. It was ice cold.”
“And the grass was frosty?” Olav asks.
“Oh yes, it was much colder than it is today.”
A MEETING IN THE GRAVEYARD
“Good thing that you were so curious about the bird sounds. Otherwise I’ll be dead”
Olav looks up at him. Tor holds his hands around 48 centimetres apart for a few moments to demonstrate just how small Olav had been.
“You couldn’t have been any more than a few hours old. You were born by a block just down there,” he says, pointing.
“There used to be a shrub here,” Tor remembers.
“You were lying just here, behind it.”
“So my mother left the bag inside the shrub?”
“Not inside. Just beside it. The plastic bag was visible.”
Olav asks about everything. He wants to know every single detail, to draw up as accurate an image of events as possible.
“It was lucky that you were curious back then, about that bird,” Olav says, smiling.
“Can you imagine…” Tor replies,
“…finding a newborn baby in a plastic carrier bag? I was shaken. You don’t want to believe your eyes. I must have looked quite odd when I opened up that bag. I was in shock. But yes. I needed people with qualifications, people who could save lives. It wasn’t something I could do alone. I needed help.”
“You knew that you were short on time?” Olav asks.
“Short on time? Oh yes. I ran like the wind up towards the church!”
Tor points at the footpath.
“If I’d arrived just a quarter of an hour later, you wouldn’t have survived. You’d have frozen to death.”
“So, if you hadn’t been curious about the sound of that bird…”
…I’d have died?
Tor whispers, turning to us.
“Is his mother still alive?”
Olav works out what Tor is asking us about.
“She is, I still live with her. We’re well. She’s almost 56 now.”
There are two rubbish bins here. A compost bin is marked for plants and earth, spruce twigs, withered flowers, grass, dead earth and brown leaves.
The other bin is intended for “flowerpots, glass, lanterns, wreaths, paper and plastic bags. Regards, the graveyard committee.”
“It was very strange to come here and tend to the grave for the first time after it had happened. I spent the whole time glancing up there,” Tor says.
His eyes are wet with tears.
“It was strange to go over it all again in my mind’s eye. I could picture the entire thing, just like I can now.”
Tor turns to face him once again.
“I must have a picture with you. A memory for the rest of my life.”
Olav takes his phone out of his pocket, too.
“Would you mind taking a photo of us?”
As they stand together, Tor says:
“This is a perfect example for anyone who believes in chance.”
“That’s very true… that I would be lying here, of all places,” Olav says, pointing at the tufts of grass in the graveyard, “and all whilst you were standing just there, by your relatives’ grave.”
Tor leads him through the churchyard, holding a fatherly arm around him.
“Where are we going now?” Olav asks.
“Up to the church where I ran to fetch help.”
Tor doesn’t want to let go of Olav, his right arm planted firmly around the boy’s shoulder as they wander up from the churchyard where Tor had found him 24 years and 11 months earlier.
Victor Olav mentions that there is something he wants to say.
“Firstly, I want to thank you, Tor, for being curious about the sound that you heard. I want to thank you for being attentive, and for reacting. And more than that, I want to thank you for being so resourceful, and kind enough to fetch help – you thought that you might harm me by lifting me up or touching me, so I wanted to commend you for working so well with the others here, helping to make sure I made it to the hospital and survived.”
“You know, it was all sheer luck. If that grave had been any further up the graveyard, I wouldn’t have heard anything. If I hadn’t been there at precisely that time, you wouldn’t have lived. You’d have frozen to death. There wasn’t anyone else but me here.”
“But you must have been a strong newborn to have managed to make such a loud noise,” Tor says.
“If I hadn’t been crying that loud, wouldn’t you have heard me?”
“I don’t know, Olav.”
“No. There’s a fine line between life and death, isn’t there?” Olav says quietly.
Victor Olav tells Tor that he’s completed his studies and works in accountancy in the Philippines.
Tor apologises that his English is limited, but he does his best.
“It’s warm in the Philippines now?”
“Yes, it’s warm. Warmer there than here. It’s a tropical country, so I’m not used to this Norwegian weather,” Olav replies, smiling.
Things fall silent for a few seconds as they walk through the churchyard.
“A nice place here…” Tor says.
“Yes, it’s beautiful,” Victor Olav replies.
They reach the rear of the church, where the office is located.
“So, this is where you came to call for help?”
“That’s right. There were no mobile phones back then, so I had to ask them to call the police and emergency services and to follow me back down, back to you.”
Tor shows him the small side road to Ullevålsveien, where Døviken drove as Berit Pihl Johansen held the baby in the passenger seat, making their way to the doctor.
“Aha. So that was why they took that exit there, and not the main one over there, because it was quicker to get to the doctor that way?” Olav asks.
It was also this route that his mother had taken to the churchyard, we tell him, carrying the plastic bag in her arms.
It’s time for Tor to say his farewells. As he readies himself to leave, he suddenly gives Victor Olav a hug.
“I wish you the very best. And a safe trip back to the Philippines!”
Then Tor heads home, back the way he came on 8 October 1991.
Afterwards, in the churchyard, Victor Olav sits in the grass by the headstones. He takes a moment for himself to let everything sink in, then says:
“It’s strange to think that I’ve been here before,” he says. “But it’s good to be here. Just to see the churchyard. It feels like closure. Even though I don’t have any memories from here, I still have a feeling. A strong one.”
In his work as an accountant, he’s learned to be sceptical, he tells us.
“But now I’ve heard it directly from people who were actually here, people who can tell me what happened. It makes me feel at peace. I’ve heard a more conclusive version of events now.”
He tells us that he feels a deep-seated gratitude to everyone who fought to ensure that he, a foreign baby, might survive.
“It feels like a closure”
We drive the final few hundred metres to the place he was born. We saunter over the grass to the spot where his mother’s labour began, outside Ullevålsalléen 5B.
We carry on walking towards the building, where his mother had made her way up the stairs and into the bathroom.
Where she had believed him to be stillborn.
Victor Olav glances up.
“Was it the top floor?”
Children laugh and play outside here now. They run around a climbing frame that must have been in place for at least 25 years.
He asks for more details about the legal implications of the case. He wants to get to the bottom of many different aspects of events.
“Why did it take nine or ten days for my mother to be given custody of her own child, of me?”
We explain that the investigation took some time, that there were a lot of legal assessments and technicalities.
We tell him about the paragraph in Norwegian law that protects mothers who commit crimes against their own children in the 24 hours after the child’s birth, given the potentially diminished mental health of a mother in the first few hours after giving birth.
“That only applies if the child hasn’t been harmed or died as a result of any actions the mother has taken, isn’t that right? So, what would have happened if I had been harmed? Or if I’d been found dead? Would my mother have been prosecuted?”
“The case would have been very different if that were true,” we reply.
“And what would have happened if the police hadn’t dropped the charges against my mother?” he asks.
“Then you’d probably have stayed here in Norway, perhaps even grown up here.”
“OK, no more questions,” he says, laughing gently.
We continue towards Ullevål Hospital and the old, abandoned neonatal unit, where he arrived in an ambulance suffering critical hypothermia at a temperature of 29°C, with breathing difficulties as a result.
He walks around the deserted, rusty old hospital building, where thousands of children have been saved, and where four nurses and two doctors worked intensively to keep him alive. It was inside this building that he had eventually been reunited with his mother.
“A lot of important work was done here. Many lives were saved,” Olav says quietly.
We tell him about where the ambulance arrived, how it stopped in front of the door just there and the paramedic carried him inside wrapped in a blanket, after which Langslet, the senior consultant, placed him in an incubator to help with his breathing.
No life-saving activities take place here now. Nothing remains but an empty shell of a building. He walks around by himself, then comes back and asks:
“Could you take a picture of me here too?”
Another exciting thing happens during Victor Olav’s stay in Norway. The boy who was found at a temperature of 29°C in a plastic bag in a churchyard in Oslo almost 25 years ago is set to go out running in the streets of Oslo. Victor Olav started running around two years ago. He loves getting out and about, he tells us. It’s one of the reasons that he chose this week for his Oslo visit. He was keen to time it with the Oslo Marathon.
If he hadn’t experienced a 21-hour flight so recently, he would have tackled the half-marathon. As things stand, he opts for the 10-kilometre race.
He attaches his starting number to his chest. It’s just about keeping going, he says, pushing through the pain, putting up with it as you run, forcing it out of your head, just running, moving onwards. He’ll start slow, he says, find his own rhythm and tempo, just listen to the music playing through his headphones. Try to forget the discomfort.
“5, 4, 3, 2, 1, go!” the speaker announces over Rådhusplassen.
Victor Olav is one of thousands among the crowd.
He takes a left, along Rådhusplassen, then right onto Akershusstranda, with Akershus Fortress towering over him, past Solsiden restaurant and the Home Front Museum, down to the harbour, all the way out to Vippetangen, where he follows the stream of runners, thousands of them, left, then left again, in towards the city and Kongens gate, over Myntgata, over Bankplassen. Victor Olav notices that he’s having breathing difficulties. He’s struggling with the Oslo air. It’s hard to believe, given that he’s used to the air in Manila, but he’s not accustomed to it here. It is as if his lungs are no longer getting enough oxygen. As if everything is much heavier.
He first noticed it when he started running. It’s different, this cold Oslo air.
He runs to the right on Rådhusgata, then across Kirkegata and straight on, then to the left again by Grev Wedels plass, all the way to Langkaia, he can see the Opera building now, to the right, down to Bjørvika, down towards Tomtekaia, Bispekaia, along the water’s edge, Sørenga to the right, all the way down Kongshavnveien, followed by the liberating turn that reveals the runners are returning to Oslo city centre once again, just five kilometres away, and his breathing is improving now, but then there’s his new shoes to contend with, he hasn’t worn them in quite yet. He pushes on, running the same stretch towards the city once again, to Skippergata, almost there, Victor Olav has completed 7 kilometres, onto Rådhusgata and Prinsens gate, the bustle of people all around as he runs onto the parade street of Karl Johan, thousands crowding around, cheering on their nearest and dearest, calling out names he doesn’t recognise, but he feels as if they’re lifting him up too, nobody calling for him – but then we are, we shout “Come on, Victor Olav, come on!”, and he smiles shyly back at us, past TV2, Moods of Norway, Lufthansa Airlines and United Colors of Benetton, and there, up to the right, just there, he runs past Steffen, the bag shop that the plastic carrier bag had come from, the bag with the bloody receipt inside it, the bag that had led to his mother, and he can see the palace now, he’s almost there.
He's not thinking about how he's running, just about enjoying the run, about completing it, tiring himself out.
Victor Olav runs down the final slope before the ground flattens out for the last few metres, onto Rådhusplassen and the home stretch.
It’s just about achieving his goals. The medal is all he can think about now. The Oslo Marathon medal.
He’s still aware that his breathing is laboured, but it’s been an incredible experience. He thinks only of each individual footstep, getting through it, through the pain, one foot in front of the other, across the asphalt.
He crosses Rådhusplassen and runs the final few metres. He crosses the finishing line, 17.59.59 on the clock. The date is 17 September 2016.
Victor Olav, found inside a plastic carrier bag in an Oslo churchyard at a temperature of just 29°C, has just completed the shortest distance of the Oslo Marathon.
He carries on running for a few metres, as if high on the experience. A woman greets him, hanging a medal around his neck.
“It’s beautiful,” he says.
We call Berit Pihl Johansen. We hadn’t told her about Victor Olav’s Oslo trip prior to his arrival, but he’d like to see her now, now that he knows how important she was in the efforts to keep him alive.
“Hello, Berit speaking,” she replies.
“You remember Victor Olav? The boy… in the plastic carrier bag? He’s here in Oslo. He wants to say hello, to thank you. If it’s convenient.”
Berit Pihl Johansen puts everything she’s doing to one side, and half an hour later she’s walking over the grass in the churchyard, looking anxious but smiling.
The first thing she does is to embrace him.
“It’s so good to see you!” Berit says.
“I feel the same way! So, you’re the woman who carried me to the car and took me to the doctor? Really?”
“That’s right…” Berit replies, unable to take her eyes off him.
“I held you in my arms, you still had the plastic bag around you, around your body, to make sure you wouldn’t get too cold. I thought you’d be kept warmer in the plastic.”
She tells him everything as she remembers it. How she carried him in the bag, clutched him against her chest, carried him across the graveyard and up the hill towards the church, holding him as tightly as she could, supporting his neck and head with one hand. Minutes later, as she was holding him in her lap like the newborn that he was, still in the bloody plastic bag, she thought, “don’t let him suffocate”, and she opened up the bag a little more, she tells him, to help him to breathe. He lay there naked, his skin against the plastic, and she wrapped her coat around the bag to warm the ice-cold baby a little more.
She wondered all the while if he’d die in her arms, his head and upper body resting against her forearm. She felt the weight of a baby, his arms and feet outside the plastic. She ran up the steps to the doctor. The palm of her hand, she remembers it, the way it covered his body almost entirely.
That was the last time that she’d seen him.
Now she’s standing her with her arms around him once again. A 25-year-old young man wearing a hooded sweatshirt over a t-shirt, just a few hundred metres from where they had last met.
“I’ve thought about you,” she says.
He tells her about his job, his life.
“And you live with your mother?” she asks him.
“Yes, I still live with her in Manila.”
“It must have been very hard for her, what happened here in Oslo. I was glad to hear you two had been reunited. ‘That’s something,’ I thought to myself.”
“I’m glad about that too,” he replies, smiling. “I want to thank you for what you did for me in 1991.”
“I only did what I had to. Thank you for allowing me to meet you,” Berit says.
“Can you take a picture of us?” Olav asks.
They stand together, holding onto one another.
“Good luck in life. Send my best to your mother,” Berit says.
In the days that follow, Victor Olav visits the Viking Ship Museum, where he says we should “pay homage to those who take care of the Viking ships and cultural artefacts”. We go out onto the water by Lindøya and Bleikøya, out to the islands and rocks in a sailing vessel, and all with Oslo, the city of his birth, just behind him. He stands at the front of the vessel on the approach to the city hall, day-dreaming at the prow with the wind in the face; he takes hundreds of photographs, travelling further out, deep into the fjord, and then back to Oslo once again, where he sees the guards at the palace before testing the ski simulator at Holmenkollen, asking about all manner of aspects of Norwegian society, economy, history, geography, cultural differences, pronunciation and politics, the same thirst for knowledge as a small child possesses. He walks to the window, calling home to one of his sisters, enthusiastically reporting on his run, his journey, Norway.
“Everything is so different here. Everything. I’ve heard a lot more about Mum and I. And do you know what,” he cries into the telephone, laughing, “the prices of apartments here are crazy! The wages, too.”
Quite by chance, this week’s Sunday night news programme features an extensive piece from a graveyard in the north of Manila, where not only the dead lie buried, but where 11000 citizens also live. Their only possession is a grave, the final resting place of a mother or father. Here, among the gravestones, they live out their days.
It is a mother and her young son who end the piece, a pair who cannot afford to eat every day, just two of those living there among the dead. “It’s hard for a mother not to give the next generation a better chance in life than she’s had for herself.”
The nun in Oslo had heard that he might be coming, but almost hadn’t dared believe the news before seeing him with her own eyes.
She embraces him impulsively in the street just outside St. Olav’s Cathedral.
Sister Anne Bente Hadland; a nun, and one of his godmothers.
“Unbelievable! I was talking about you just two days ago. I prayed for you. I’ve prayed for you all through your life, just as I do for all of my godchildren. I think I might have prayed more for you than for the others. And is your mother well?” the nun asks him.
“Yes, we live together. She’s working and doing well.”
He tells her that he works for an international auditing firm.
“Knowing that you’re well means so much to me.”
She tells him that the Catholic congregation collected baby clothes for him.
“We were asked to take your mother in at Katarinahjemmet, our convent. I spoke with her a great deal when she stayed with us. At the hospital, too. We wanted to make things as easy as possible for her. Your mother had experienced something so extreme with those accusations, not to mention her fear that she’d never get you back.
Sister Anne Bente suddenly remembers something: it had been she and Father Tande who had driven Victor Olav and his mother from the hospital to Fornebu airport.
His mother had been nervous, sister Anne Bente tells him. She had been afraid that her travel documents wouldn’t be considered satisfactory. The nun had helped her with her bags as his mother had carried him.
“We were able to see them through security. It wasn’t assumed that it would all go smoothly.”
“That was the last I saw of him. Until today, that is.”
It is the annual day of culture outside St. Olav’s Cathedral. At one stand, the nuns offer Victor Olav rømmegrøt, a Norwegian porridge made with sour cream, and fenalår, cured leg of mutton. Victor Olav eats out of politeness and the nuns giggle.
“You won’t find any fenalår restaurants in Manila,” the priest remarks.
Someone approaches from the right. She’s heard the rumours of Victor Olav’s return.
“HOW ARE YOU??” she cries.
“I’m very well, thank you,” Olav says, smiling back at the woman.
“I’m your other godmother. My name is Ingebjørg. It’s fantastic to see you! So very wonderful,” Ingebjørg Thorp tells him.
She looks astonished to see him.
“You wouldn’t believe how often I’ve thought about you. I’ve always wondered what happened to you. I was the one who suggested the name Olav to your mother.”
One of the other nuns has a large camera. She arranges Tande, sister Anne Bente, Ingebjørg and Victor Olav in a row. The prodigal son. The group is positioned in the same spot as 25 years ago, gathered around the baptismal font.
There are just a few hours left before he needs to return to Manila.
“Where is Benedict de Vibe, the lawyer who helped my mother?” Victor Olav asks as we stroll through the streets of Oslo.
“Without him, I’d never have been reunited with her.”
We head into the lift in a building on CJ Hambros Plass. Victor Olav’s arrival comes as a huge surprise 25 years later. We arrive unannounced, but we’ve checked that de Vibe is there.
He meets us at the office entrance, where he stands motionless.
“Hi, I’m Olav,” the young man at the door says.
“No!” de Vibe cries out loud.
“Is it really you?”
“25 years have passed. I thought it was time to come back. It’s my last day in Oslo. It’s lucky that I found you, given that you’re my godfather.”
De Vibe’s legal colleagues look bewildered, smiling at the scene that unfolds before them.
“I’m this boy’s godfather! I’ll tell you all about it later on,” he explains.
“Come on into the office. My God, this is wonderful!”
“Did you know I have some photos of you from your baptism?”
“Yes,” Victor Olav replies, smiling.
“I’ve seen them all.”
“My mother only remembered Tor, who was the man who found me, and you. My mother actually said before I left, ‘You must give my heartfelt thanks to Benedict de Vibe.’”
“She still talks about you.”
“And I remember her. I remember everything, very well.”
“So, you remember the details even though 25 years have passed?” Olav asks, smiling.
“Yes, it was such a special case. You don’t come across many cases like that in the course of your life. It’s the first and only case that I can say, hand on heart, that I’ll never see the likes of again.”
“It’s lucky that the accusations against my mother were dropped, then, and that everything ended well. I’m alive, in spite of everything,” Olav says.
De Vibe laughs. It’s clear to see that he’s excited and moved.
“Not just alive. It looks as if you’re doing well for yourself. Are things going well for you?”
“They are, thank you.”
Olav sums up his life.
“And what a story you’ve got to tell!”
“I didn’t know the whole story, but now I do. The circle has been closed,” Olav tells him, smiling.
De Vibe follows him to the lift, holding tightly onto him.
“Are you married, by the way? Do you have children?”
“No, not yet,” Victor Olav replies, smiling.
“Plenty of time for that,” de Vibe says, embracing him once more and kissing his cheek, unwilling to let him go. Godfather de Vibe.
“Come to Manila, we’d be very happy to have you,” Olav tells him.
Victor Olav dreams of travelling to Singapore or Dubai, taking more exams; he dreams about scaling several mountains, about working for foreign accounting firms, large companies. Anything is possible now, Victor Olav says. Absolutely anything, after this. It’s just like his favourite quotation on Facebook states:
“I don’t need luck. I am blessed.”
It’s about finding something meaningful in life, Victor Olav says, otherwise you’re stuck right up until your retirement; you have to be dedicated to something, not just in it for the money. It’s the small things, the small discoveries, he says, that make life worth living.
They are etched into his heart, each and every one of them, like the old car salesman from Røa, Tor Schou Nilsen, who couldn’t ignore the sound he heard, the same sound he’d thought to be a bird.
Equally etched into his heart are floor polisher Arne Larsen of West parkettsliperi, and parish clerk Berit Pihl Johansen, who believed he had only seconds left to live when she picked him up from the cold grass of the churchyard. There is also Erland Døviken, who accelerated swiftly to save a life. And there in Olav’s heart, Jan Anker-Nilssen can also be found, the man who rubbed his palms against the boy’s back and chest to warm the little body that measured just 29°C. Paediatrician Asbjørn Langslet is also there, a man who was “a guardian angel for so many” and who would eventually, 23 years later, pass away in a nursing home in Oslo. In Victor Olav’s heart, Hilde Follestad can also be found, the newly-trained nurse who carefully carried him into the hospital, who just wanted to be there for the baby to compensate for what he had lost. Equally present are Father Tande, Benedict de Vibe, and crime scene investigator Rykhus, the man who had found the bloody receipt inside the same plastic bag in which Victor Olav had been placed, not to mention the policeman, Lennart Kyrdalen, who had eventually made his way to the apartment where his mother was to be found, at Ullevålsveien 5B.
What would have happened if they hadn’t been there, if the chain had been broken, the chain of coincidence and good deeds for an unknown boy and his mother?
Nobody will ever know.
Victor Olav strolls down Karl Johans gate, Oslo’s main street. There is one last thing he has to do, he tells us.
He makes his way into one of the souvenir shops located down towards the train station. It’s compulsory for a Filipino abroad to bring home a souvenir or a small gift.
“Pasalubong,” he says. “It’s traditional.”
It would be insulting to return with nothing, he tells us, laughing.
He has a list in his mind of 32 people he loves, he says.
Victor Olav picks out 18 fridge magnets and 12 keyrings adorned with pleasant Norwegian motifs.
He takes a good look around the shop.
He tells us that he also wants to buy two slightly larger gifts.
He just needs to find the most suitable things.
Eventually he makes up his mind.
“This is for my mother,” he says, showing us the gift. It’s formed in the shape of a heart, on which it says:
«I love Norway»
On 8 October 1991, his mother had placed him inside a plastic carrier bag and laid him on the frosty grass in a churchyard in Norway, believing, in her state of postpartum psychosis, that he was dead.
On his last day in Oslo, Victor Olav tells us:
“I could have died, but I survived.”
And a year later, he was clutching at a table leg in San Pablo, Laguna, slowly rising upwards and standing, eyes wide, as he took his first steps across the room. His mother felt proud, stroking his back until he fell asleep. As he grew bigger, he wanted to be a nurse, but his mother felt that his prospects would be better as an auditor. It’s like that in the Philippines, Victor Olav says, you obey your parents’ wishes. But she was right, he tells us. The boy who was reunited with his mother thanks to a receipt in a plastic carrier bag secured himself a good job as an auditor.
That’s the thing about my mum, Victor Olav says, you might be able to get away from her, but she’ll always be there for you, she’d always give her life for you.
He’ll never be alone.
He arrives back in Manila a few days later, where he turns 25.
He uploads a photo at 10 seconds past midnight. It’s a picture from Oslo, the first ever taken of him.
“Happy birthday!” he writes underneath in Norwegian, a greeting to himself.