I have tremendous shoes to fill.
This week has been a haze, as you can imagine. One of deep sorrow mingled with relief, pride and joy. There’s a perpetual lump in my throat that won’t go away quite yet, but the heart feels lighter with every memory relived, every funny story retold, every testimony of my mother’s character and spirit.
I remember a woman with the warmest, softest arms. Whose embrace felt secure and impenetrable, like a fortress. Whose eyes almost disappeared when she smiled. And she smiled often.
I remember travelling with her when she tutored other children. Reading the entire Ladybug series as I sat and waited for each session to end. I remember how they weren’t just students to her, but children she truly cared for. How she would keep the lonely ones company by playing board games with them after tutoring them. I remember how she brought some of them to vacation bible school. How she would scold them as though they were her own, because she honestly hoped that they would fulfil their potential. There was one time my husband Tony burst out laughing, because he heard my mother accuse one of her sleepy students for having scrambled eggs for brains.
I remember innumerous shopping trips and catching the last bus home. I remember sitting on the MRT for the first time from Orchard station to Toa Payoh, just for fun. It was the soft launch of the MRT system, and it was Christmas Eve. I remember standing at the bus stop after, when it had just passed midnight and all of Orchard Road stopped to honk their cars and cheer. The perks of having a single, unconventional mother.
I remember long walks to far-flung hawker centres for midnight feasts. The best conversations seemed to evolve long past dinner, when tummies are filled and moods are mellow. She was my confidante, my sounding board, my spiritual adviser. She was a fabulous listener. Even in my last trip in early March when I came alone, we talked well into the night when pain would not be stilled any other way. I am so, so thankful to God that I had that week with her. When we could just be mother and daughter. When we could just talk as we once did.
Some of you might know how Life had a way of dealing my mother hard, sour lemons. And yet time and time again, she had proved resourceful and determined to defy the odds with God’s help. She had a tough childhood, which was shortly followed by a marriage that brought much heartbreak and challenges. You have to realise that by the time she was my age, she had been divorced for a few years and was a single mother of a 12 year old at a time when Singapore didn’t understand how to support non-traditional family structures.
I remember a particularly difficult time when the electricity had been cut off because we couldn’t pay the bills. I think I was still very young, probably 7 or 8 years old. I’m a mother now, and I can only imagine the horror and the irrational guilt that must have been coursing through my mother’s veins at the time, to have a young child and to realise that you couldn’t even turn the lights on. I only realised all of this years later, because she – superwoman and fiercely protective mother that she was – shielded me from all of it. There wasn’t a day I didn’t feel secure or wonder when the next meal was coming in. We lit candles, we played with lanterns, she made it fun and masked her fears. I sensed that she felt completely inadequate feeding me prata and Maggi Noodles when our meal budget started to get meagre, but to me – that was a special treat because I looooved prata and Maggi Noodles. Even in the midst of semi-poverty, I never felt impoverished because she fed my soul with love and God. Even in the midst of semi-poverty, my mum always found something a little extra to help out a neighbour in need.
A few of you have recently described my mother as a swan, and I think it’s spot on – regal and elegant above water, but paddling like the dickens underneath. I don’t think my mother could ever have been accused of being lazy. But the bigger life lesson for me is how a difficult past should never be used as a crutch to explain future choices. My mother was a maestro at changing the course and never letting bad habits and traditions perpetuate themselves, just because “that was all she knew”. And for that, I have been the greatest beneficiary.
I used to get rather weary about the comment that I looked so much like my mother. Every time a butcher or a taxi driver or a single father of a student wanted to flirt with my mother, they would invariably say that they thought I was her sister because she looked far too young and pretty to be a mother of this tall, gawky kid. It was great for her I suppose, but like any woman growing into her own, I yearned to be seen as a separate person and not as a joined entity.
Now I realise what a humbling compliment that has been all along. And that I would be truly blessed and privileged if I could grow to become half the woman she was.
She remains one of two of the strongest women I know. My aunt and my mother, like a curious blend of crystal and leather, are an incredible mix of strength and vulnerability. In life, and in dying, my mother has shown me what real women can be made of. That you can be in absolute agony, but still wear a smile for others because you love them and are sincerely interested in their lives. That your heart can be trembling in the face of the unknown, but you can still have a faith that runs deep and wide. That paradoxes can exist because we are women and God has made us complex creatures. That there is nothing weak about a woman who cries in pain, because it’s how she recovers that really matters.
I want to thank the hundreds of you who have prayed and ministered to her. Who had come by the dozens to give her Brands Essence of Chicken and feed her soup for the soul. Who have gently massaged her. Held her hand as her heart was in her mouth. Made her laugh even in the midst of such terrifying uncertainty. Opened your heart to her, and brought her right in. Been that bit of Jesus for her.
Rejoice with me, even in this time of heartbreak, because my mother is home. My mother is finally comfortable. My mother has fought the good fight. She has finished the race. And I yearn for the day when we meet again so I can tell her how much I love her.