I find her death anniversaries the hardest of all.
Not so much because of the sadness — that has baked itself on my soul and all the adages are true: you’re never the same after a significant loss. Even when you’re happy.
It’s not even so much the wistfulness. Of laughing at something the kids say and then wishing in almost the same breath that she got to hear this for herself. That she got to know them. Watch them become people. Figure out which bits are ours, which bits are theirs, which bits are all their own.
I baulk at every anniversary. It’s been 10 years and there’s no ritual. I lit a candle one year. I made her signature claypot garlic prawn dish several other times. I posted on Facebook. Wore her clothes. Looked through photos. Sang a song. Sometimes I even have a good sob. Usually very short, not very indulgent. More on that some day.
I blog. Some posts don’t make it out in the wild. Maybe this won’t either.
I think fleetingly about making a grand gesture every anniversary and every anniversary, I choke because it all sounds too trite, too banal, too surface. And then I think it has to be trite and banal and surface because writing what I really feel could come across a little too dark, almost histrionic.
10 is something, isn’t it. It’s a whole decade. Some sort of milestone that involves an element. I just looked it up: tin or aluminium. Hardly sexy elements. Very everyday and supposed to symbolise resilience because they don’t rust. Funny. I thought tin rusted all time, but apparently they don’t rust — they oxidise. Which is the semantic equivalent of saying someone ‘graduated to glory’ instead of just ‘died’.
I’ll tell you what, though. This death — her death, my mother’s death — shadows my everyday.
I don’t think she’s ever really left my side.
And maybe that’s why the grand gesture for every anniversary eludes me. I remember her every day. And I remember she’s dead every day. Every day is an anniversary.
10 things I miss about her (in no particular order)
- Her smell
I don’t know what it is anymore. But the top drawer of her dresser was a veritable pot pourri of Clinique, Estee Lauder, roses, musk, that weird sweet glue from ang-paos because that’s where she kept the emergency money, and she. And there ain’t no perfumery on earth that smells as comforting as that.
- Her smile
Fun fact: she had such great teeth, the Dean of Dentistry at the national university hospital in Singapore actually took photos because they were in such good nick for her age. So hey, teeth model!
And she loved funny people. And she loved to laugh. And I miss making her laugh.
- Her ears
She was a damn great listener. I try to be that for my daughter but I quite suck at it. There are days where I wish she were here to hear. To sit with my precocious tween and give her another set of arms and another set of ears.
- Her love of shopping
It’s so funny to think how I’m shooing our kids to bed by 8pm because her diaries betrayed how bloody late she used to keep me up. I was her little shopping buddy even at the tender age of 3 or whatever. We’d go out, walk the length of Orchard Road, meander through Metro Galleries Lafayette and if she had enough money, we’d take a taxi home. I’d fall asleep on her lap, her hard patent-leather handbag as my pillow. Shopping was our shared love even when we were broke. Especially when we were broke. It’s ironic I live in Canberra now because it’s a retail desert compared to the mecca that is Singapore. It don’t matter. I window-shop with Arddun now because it’s what I understand and what I do best and what I remember. It’s my shorthand for love, my legacy, my heritage. “Your mother is a shopper. Your mother’s mother was a shopper. Your mother’s mother’s mother was also a shopper. You come from a long line of women who like cheap clothes that look expensive.”
- Her love of games
She used to tutor a boy 3-4 years older than me — Christopher — also single child with a single mother. Latchkey kid. Home alone after school every day in a Tanglin Halt 2-bedroom flat that managed to be even tinier than our home. I used to read his books while she tutored him. And then she made it a point to stay on half an hour longer, giving him her time and those wonderful ears. They’d play UNO or Boggle, because he was lonely and the boy could talk. When I got old enough, I’d join in, my flat butt numb and sore and flatter from sitting on cold terrazzo tiles for two hours while inhaling his Ladybird book collection like a reading fiend.
Card games and board games were how we passed the time. After dinner chit chat over Uno, then Boggle as I got older, then Chua Dai Di. Long games into the night, the TV stuck on some romcom or other. She wasn’t a mother that knew how to play make-belief with me. She couldn’t bake. Couldn’t help with my homework past primary school. But we shopped and we played games and talked long into the night. She’d templated how I play with my children now.
- Her loyalty
It only dawned on me much later on in life that there are mothers who aren’t loyal to their kids. And this, despite the immediate baggage my mother inherited from her own childhood. But her fierce love and loyalty shielded me from the worst ravages of not-much-money and the world’s prejudices when it comes to women — particularly women rendered Little by circumstance. We didn’t have much, but I had the happy confidence of the richest of them because I was loved hard and felt secure in her love always. This is probably the thing I miss the most: knowing that no matter what happened, I could count on her to always have my back. That her loyalty could outlast my marriage, even my own children. She would love me most and best, even in her most flawed ways. It is through her that I first glimpsed El Shaddai. God loves like a mother. I just didn’t understand at the time. I do now.
- Her love of blue
She bought me a blue handbag. Her clothes were a sea of greens and blues. Her bedsheets were blue. My bedsheets were blue. My bedroom furniture was pine and blue. She loved blue so much, she completely overdid it when she finally renovated her kitchen. EVERYTHING in that little kitchen was blue. We called it the fish tank. It looked a lot like the Queenstown MRT station c.1998, right down to the tiles. It was, frankly, bordering on awful. But she was sooo chuffed she finally got a new kitchen, we didn’t have the heart to tease her too hard. I fly that blue flag pretty high now. It’s still my new favourite colour. My 10-year-old favourite colour.
- Her friendships
For an introvert, she sure made a lot of friends. And they sure loved her and mourned her loss.
To be clear, I don’t begrudge anyone who is conventionally successful. But to watch as so many people came from near and far to mourn this tiny, humble woman when she died… to know she touched that many people with her time, her care, her checking in, her greeting cards for all occasions, her authenticity. There was no artifice about her: what you saw was really what you got. She was unthreatening and silly and fun and REAL.
(Unless you were a bratty child or manchild, then you’d probably get a tongue-lashing. But it’d always be a fair tongue-lashing.)
She died so rich. She taught me a lot about what it means to live well. What success should look like. What’s ephemera and what’s real and worth holding on to.
- Her courage
It ain’t easy being a cycle-breaker. It takes a lot of self-awareness and even more self-reflection. It comes from a place of unfathomable love and the determination to swallow lifetimes of hurt so the next generation can finally heal. I’m not in counselling, but even my paltry understanding of trauma sobers me when I realise how much it must have taken my mother to carve a path she never walked before. I mean, we all do it with each generation. But to do so carrying so many monkeys on her back… I am eternally grateful.
She didn’t just break one cycle — she broke quite a few. Watching her pick us up again after an implosion? Watching her piece our lives back together into something stronger and better? Such a priceless lesson in resilience and grace. Such a timeless lesson in knowing when to cut losses. Such a masterclass in cherishing one’s own worth.
- Her faith
We were always, I suspect, reading from a slightly different hymnal. I came to faith differently from her. I was born into it. She stumbled into an oasis. Our lenses are different, but the saviour is the same.
I don’t know if she was ever scared. But I know she was God’s right to the end. In these last five years of questioning everything I’d ever been taught to think about God and Jesus and the bible, my faith has deepened but now looks different from hers. Our linchpins hold together different parts of a very complex puzzle. Our faiths are both child-like. She trusted God implicitly. I keep asking why and how things work.
As much as my faith no longer looks like my mother’s… as much as I think I’ve taken the red pill and can no longer really turn back… her life of faith was steadying and sure. I miss her because I long to tell her what I’ve been going through. What I’m still going through. What I’m learning. I’m certain that as uncomfortable as she would’ve been, she would have listened. And tried so hard to understand.