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Finding The Happy

Looking for joy in all the right places

Month

March 2013

Eulogy of a grateful daughter

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.

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A new dawn

My mother slipped quietly away last evening. I was there with her to watch her last breath, along with my cousins Shawn and Andrea – the three children she brought up over the course of her short, fruitful life. I watched as the pain etched in her face like a scar finally disappeared.

She was 55 years old. She was young, she was beautiful, and apart from the aggressive cancer that seemed determined to consume her, she was healthy.

Outside the room was a throng of people; a rich blend of family and friends, old and new. Ward 43 was used to the constant stream of visitors by then. They noted how she never had any shortage of willing and helping hands. They noticed how they came, how they practically set up shop and kept vigil. Her doctor told me it was obvious how she had touched many.

Amidst the hurt that strangles, amidst the searing loss so hot, it temporarily blinds memories, I am deeply proud that strangers can wonder aloud about the kind of woman my mother had been. That a life so honest and humble could also speak so loudly. My mother loved life and loved people.

I’ve been sitting in her bedroom since a little before dawn, and it’s here that I’m learning how grief can be disconnected from the part of the brain that summons memories. This bedroom is a heartbreaking blend of sepia-toned memories and her excruciating final months. I shared a bed with her in this room. My toy boxes were in this room. Long talks into the wee hours of the morning were in this room. Shouting matches were in this room. Forgiveness was in this room. And in the final weeks, a lot of pain was suffered in this room.

Right now, knowing that she will not walk into this room again hurts more than I can ever hope to put into words. I miss my mummy terribly. Thanks for listening.

The Schlep

I have Gail to thank for bringing back Schlep into my everyday vocab. It’s a great word, schlep. Here’s Google’s take on what it means:

schlep

/SHlep/

Verb
Haul or carry (something heavy or awkward).
Noun
A tedious or difficult journey.
Synonyms
lug

Arddun and I spend most days together out of the house, and have done so since she was a month old. I even have calluses to prove it now – all that schlepping about with her in a pram and a tonne of bags hanging off the sides. Except tomorrow, we’re doing it to cross a continent and a bit of sea so that we can tell Grandma Singapore that we love her and we hate that she hurts.

Yes, my girl and I are about to fly to Singapore together again. We leave tomorrow afternoon and arrive in Singapore 3 hours past Arddun’s bedtime. And because we’re going over for 6 months, we will be hauling:

  • 1 x Ladybug Skiphop backpack
  • 1 x stroller
  • 1 x handbag (birthday present from mum)
  • 1 x cabin bag on wheels
  • 2 x big-ass luggage bags

I’m hoping it’ll go more smoothly than it sounds right now.

You might remember my previous Flight to Remember. Rest assured that this time, I come prepared with a change of clothes and a buffet of assorted wipes, both dry and moist. Also, about 50 scented plastic bags and enough disposable nappies to wallpaper a small moon.

Watch this space, and wish me a most uneventful journey, please. xx

 

To fall by degrees

There’s a scene in the second season of Downton Abbey, where William has just been brought in from the war front and we, the viewers, learn that he cannot recover. He is dying. His father rushes in, and just when the doctor is about to tell him that his son will not live, Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess steps in and cuts the doctor off smoothly.

“You see,” she goes on to explain to the doctor, “Sometimes, we must let the blow fall by degrees. Give him time to find the strength to face it.”

All through my trip in Singapore, I have been falling by degrees.

It’s not so much that the doctors have started using words like, “comfort” and “quality of life” to describe my mother’s options. It’s not even that Death waits patiently around a bend that is yet to be revealed. It’s watching the woman I love most suffer horribly. It’s sitting in front of her, but not even touching her because every hair on her body screams in agony when a wave hits hard. It is knowing that no other human can help her right now. That it is not in anyone’s power to stop this invisible, arduous torture of this woman I love so profoundly, so biologically.

I have told a couple of you that my faith is shaken by this. I still know there is a God, but I wonder about His compassion. I come back to the fact that His ways are not my ways, and I yell at myself to remember that God is good. Always. Even when it’s absolutely horrible, I remind myself, He is always good. They say.

Sometimes, I see the blessings he gives us. But lately, I struggle to feel Him near me. I have to beat back this crushing wave of cynicism that rises within me every time I think about that Footsteps In The Sand poem. Where are you now, Lord? Because if you’re carrying us through this nightmare, I’m really not feeling it. I’m not seeing it. My mother is suffering more each day.  Are you actually carrying her, or is that just a pretty poem?

I’ve been told that my understanding of suffering is wrong, and that I have to adjust my relationship to it. That suffering isn’t something bad to be avoided, but is needed for teaching and learning. Sounds philosophically lofty. Probably even biblical. But if you give me a self-help book to read right now, I will boil it for soup and feed it to your dog.

Because I am not ready. And I feel betrayed. Because my mother hurts.

I lie most days now, without meaning to. Every time a check-out chick asks me how I’m doing, I say “good thanks” out of reflex because I don’t want to scare the poor woman with what I really think. I should be in Singapore right now, but it’s not so straightforward. We’re moving back with the aim to live in Singapore for 6 months, but 3 April doesn’t feel anywhere NEAR quick enough. I am listless every day. I need to be there, but my family needs me here and I have to be responsible and tie things up properly before I uproot everyone and everything. I want to leave tomorrow, but I can’t. I wanted to leave yesterday, but I couldn’t either. Every moment in Australia now feels like a choice between selfish desire and my mother’s mental health – even though intellectually, I know it’s not so black and white. But my every pore is screaming to get out of Australia now.

I want a lot of things. Most of the answers lately have been “no” or “not yet”.

It will get better. I am acting like a child now, I know.

Pray that my mother feels God’s protection, and not just know it.

How to be sad together

Over the year, I’ve thought quite a bit about the concept of comfort – how we gain comfort in times of sorrow and suffering, how we endeavour to comfort others going through pain and strife, and how we think God gives comfort to His children.

It’s not an easy one to figure out.

My mother is going through pain on many levels at the moment. There’s the actual cancer, and with it, the loss of many freedoms coupled closely with the fear of not knowing what the near future will bring and whether she can be healed. There’s the pain of distance, where many loved ones are on hand to help, but her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter live in another continent. And there’s physical pain – an unrelenting ebb and flow of sharp and dull pain that keeps her awake and takes over many senses in the worst of times. Where no position feels comfortable and time stretches on like a torture rack.

For someone rather given to wordiness and expression, I find myself in foreign territory – that of not knowing what to say. I know what I don’t want to say. But then there’s an entire spectrum of should-I-shouldn’t-I that gives me a severe case of analysis paralysis. Most things sound lame in my head. Most lines sound so throwaway and careless. So plastic and hollow. Platitudes and clichés, Well-intentioned, heartfelt banalities. On the cerebral, we understand the exchange of them to be a very poor cousin to all the non-verbals we want to express.

Like how we love you so very much, and how we’re so very sorry you’re afflicted in this way. Like how we wish so much that we can take this cup away from you.

Even then, such words are uttered out of helplessness. When we comfort, what we usually, desperately want to achieve is resolution. We want to proffer a solution. We want to fix the hurt. We want to swoop in and play the saviour.

It is the last bit, especially, that turns the act of comforting on its head because it’s so easy to make it about us, instead of making it about the one in pain.

It becomes, “I need to give tangible, practical help.” It becomes, “I need this to go away so that we can all feel better.” It becomes, “Let me show you how clever I am.”

And so it starts. The self-help books. The advice we heard from 2 to 8 degrees of separation. The best-kept secrets for long health and wellness. Eat this, Drink that. Don’t eat this. Don’t drink that. There’s a man in Nantucket with a miracle cure. There’s a woman who was so self-disciplined that she followed this diet to a tee and cured herself of cancer.

Cured herself of cancer?

It might seem to come from a place of love, but the intention is very much focused on the physical – even when we don’t know what we’re talking about. I find myself doing it. I’m here, and I find myself offering “helpful suggestions” because I’ve run out of ideas and I want to fill these pain-filled silences with something practicable and meaningful.

So I suggest things on pain management, because my blessedly short 4-hour labour with Arddun was my last closest experience with agony. Except I still don’t know what I’m talking about, because it’s such a cardboard cut-out version of the relentless, debilitating pain my mother is going through on a per-minute basis.

That’s when the help changes from being edifying to anything but,

In observing others and myself, I’ve found that there can be a tipping point. Where demonstrating concern – only on our terms – achieves the opposite result of very much discouraging and insulting the recipient. Like offering a bandaid to an amputee.

I know that everyone reads love differently, but I’d wager all the money in my pockets with all the money in yours that most of us wouldn’t rank unsolicited advice as the first and chief means of comfort. And yet, even knowing this, all of us are so prone to dishing it out to others as a reflex. I have heard myself spouting a few bits of nonsense every now and then in the 12 hours since I landed, and sometimes I want to smack myself.

But we do it anyway. Perhaps because it gives us something useful to do. Perhaps because it’s an old, bad habit that has never been corrected. Perhaps because it doesn’t require as much emotional engagement as sitting down with someone, holding their hand and fighting back the tears because neither of you can really stop this.

I am at a loss most of the time. But I’m learning how to communicate with my mother again. It sounds bizarre because she is my longest and closest friend, but this sickness has introduced a whole new vocabulary and dynamic to work around. I’m trying to work out how she receives comfort. How she interprets support and love. I’m trying to work out what edifies her, and what doesn’t. In other words, I’m trying to shut up when it don’t help.

Here are a few things I’ve gleaned so far (and again, this isn’t perfect):

  • There is no miracle cure. There is no magic bullet. It’s not about neutralising acids or balancing ying and yang better.To my mother, God is the ultimate healer. No one else.
  • Sometimes, all she needs is a hug and a sincere prayer.
  • She needs sleep. The pain keeps her awake and stops her from eating. It clips her wings and takes away her independence. Pray about that instead.

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