Finding The Happy

Looking for joy in all the right places


April 2013

Aspirations on yellowing paper

I am finally sorting through my mother’s things in earnest. Yesterday, I woke up with a keen sense of wanting to get things done, and the feeling didn’t pass by this morning. After a very slow start to the morning (try rushing a toddler, while still respecting her limitations and independence), I almost bulldozed husband and child out the door, before settling down to fill up boxes.

I’ve only stopped because of this poem scribbled on a slip of paper. My mother, I am learning through this packing process, kept a lot of journals and prayer diaries. She didn’t blog and didn’t do the whole Dear Diary… but God was her diary, her sounding board, her fount of wisdom. Really.

For those of you who think I write well, for those of you who keep urging me to write a book, I just want you to know that this ability to put thoughts on paper came from somewhere. In this last week, I’ve only just really come to understand how much I’ve always been my mother’s daughter.


I found this poem that she had scribbled on a scrap of paper about 25 years old (can tell from the letterhead), and even though she didn’t compose this one, it could just as easily have come from her heart.

A Real Christian

A real Christian is an odd number anyway.

He feels supreme love for One whom he has never seen,

talks familiarly every day to Someone he cannot see,

expects to go to heaven on the virtue of Another,

empties himself in order to be full,

admits he is wrong so that he can be declared right,

goes down in order to get up

is strongest when he is weakest,

richest when he is poorest and

happiest when he feels worst.

He dies so he can live,

forsakes in order to have,

gives away so he can keep,

sees the invisible, hears the inaudible and knows that which passes knowledge.

~ A.W. Tozer

To cap off the day

Arddun and I had a lovely today. Poor Tony had a semi-frustrating one working from home, but Arddun and I ended up having a most enjoyable afternoon out with Andrea — my cousin and Arddun’s second cousin, who is also known in these parts as “AN-DEEEE!”

Two pairs of sandals, a satisfying sushi lunch, and a decadent truffle-fries afternoon tea with Gail later, we all arrived home (sans Gail) with my aunt in tow. Maybe it was the mental break I’d gotten from today’s outing. Maybe it was how, flanked by two dear women who are connected to my mother and I by familial blood and by the blood of Jesus, I felt encouraged and emboldened.  Or maybe it was the sandals. But we took 3 little steps this evening, together.

  1. We emptied my mother’s shoe cabinet.
  2. We destroyed my mother’s pain medications. Every last pill, smashed and pounded. Liquid morphine, no more. The ghosts of past excruciation, exorcised.
  3. We put on her hats.

My mother had Cancer Hats. She had always been a bit of a hat-wearer when she played tourist, but she also received a few new hats when she started her chemotherapy and lost her hair. And so we gave them a new lease of life this evening…

Velle, Andrea and Ah-yee wearing mum's Cancer Hats

… and then passed them on to my aunt, with much love.

Arddun, the ant’s pants

I haven’t given a summary of Arddun’s development in ages, but she has grown up so quickly lately, that I thought I’d try and capture what she’s like now.

Arddun has always changed from week to week, but her mental and physically developments in the last month have left Tony and I a little short of breath as we try to catch up. Since my return to Canberra from my week-long stay in Singapore on 9 March, Arddun has started speaking in short sentences, and has become a wonderful mimic. (Today’s new sentence was a rather demanding, “Come here, Daddy!” Which we corrected for tone, but secretly thrilled over.)

Things are starting to truly spark in the brain – she’s connecting words with concepts and meaning faster than ever, and now counts to 14. She recognises numbers and some letters, is able to follow simple instructions quite flawlessly (“Press 9”, when choosing which button to press in the elevator), picks up new songs within 2 tries, and even thinks she can juggle.


She is also besotted with Peppa Pig videos (I mean, besotted). And she drives the neighbours downstairs nuts, because she is still in love with Big Girl’s shoes… except she doesn’t understand the concept of our floor = someone else’s ceiling. And 8am being too early to wear heels.

Arddun in Big People shoes

More stylo shots:

Arddun with neck rest
Neck rest self-portrait in the Flemish style, ala Nina Katchadourian
Arddun wearing hat
Hello, dolly

Arddun looking like Alias

I have told some of you in person that God’s timing – both in the macro and micro sense – has just been astounding. Arddun, all toddling innocence and joyful, boundless energy, has been a wonderful way to channel my energies and brighten my days. As I mother Arddun, I miss my mother… but in having yet one more thing in common with that amazing woman who birthed me, I feel closer to her all the more.

Photos mostly by Arddun’s proud second cousin and original fashionista, Aunty Andy.

Less gray, more colour

So yes, I’ve been meaning to post pictures of what we’ve been up to, aside from me feeling all moochy about my mother’s departure. I haven’t been the best photographer lately, but I am surrounded by people who love taking photos and videos of Arddun and who quite happily send them to me straight after, so I plan to put them up so that you can literally have a snapshot of our days here.

Waiting to get on Scoot plane
Waiting to get on the plane. Which was late. As usual.
Arddun at the wake
Clockwise from top left: 1. Drawing is a great way to while the time at a wake. 2. Playing with THE noisiest toy EVER, next to Grandma Singapore. 3. Waiting for other friends to arrive. 4. In earnest with Poppy, who came to visit with Nanna.
Mum's fridge magnets
Fridge magnet wisdom from my mother’s kitchen


High flyers

Some tourist in our capsule had claimed that the Singapore Flyer was the tallest ferris-wheel thingamy at the time it was built, surpassing the height of London’s Big Eye. Of course, she also went on to claim that the Esplanade was purpose-built to look like a durian. (It wasn’t. It was basically designed by a Kiwi who forgot that we are an equatorial island, and they had to retrofit the spikes to mitigate greenhouse effect and to possibly save it from looking like a pair of housefly-eyes.)

Needless to say, I’m not convinced that this tourist had all her trivia lined up. But the Flyer was indeed tall, and we were treated to a marvelous view of Marina Bay and all its shiny, man-made wonders.

Yes, Tony and I decided to play Tourist for one afternoon.

The Singapore Flyer isn’t cheap. I think I calculated something like a dollar a minute, with a free minute thrown in. And it’s slow – so it’s not like a fun ferris wheel in an amusement park, and you don’t get to lose your lunch on the way down. I also think I was the only Singaporean in our capsule – not that I wasn’t practically a tourist myself.

But we enjoyed ourselves, on the whole. This, despite that fact that on Minute 9 of 30, we caught a whiff of something wholly natural and suss and realised that our sweet, young daughter had done a massive poo.

In an air-conditioned capsule. With no toilets, barred exits, and no easy or surreptitious means of nappy-disposal.

Still. We managed to enjoy ourselves, and Arddun was given enough space to roam. Heh heh.

Hibberds on Singapore Flyer
Top row: Tony and Arddun, the TRUE tourists in our little group; the view of the back of the F1 grid at the starting point. Middle row: Getting higher, and you can just make out a couple of dragon-boat teams training in the water; Arddun, softly singing to them. (“Row, row, row your boat…”) Bottom row: Arddun, poster-perfect tourist; our little family!

Can’t feel at home

We’ve been back for almost 3 weeks now, and I think we’re finally settling into some kind of routine. Arddun now sleeps at 8-ish, if we’re lucky. She no longer sleeps in a cot, since she figured out how to climb out of the portacot and my old bedroom is too squashy to try and fit in a traditional wooden one. She now sleeps on the rollaway bed in my old bedroom — the one lots of my friends used to crash on when they stayed overnight. One night, she got her leg stuck under the gap between her bed and the top bunk where Tony was sleeping. One morning, we found her curled up in the tiny alcove under my old desk, between the rollaway bed and the wall. But for the most part, Arddun has learnt to sleep in a Big Girl bed and to wake up cheerful.

We still live out of our suitcases, most of which are sitting on the living room floor. We still put things back where my mum used to leave things. It still feels like her house, but we feel less like visitors now and more like housesitters.

There are things I’ve rediscovered about Singapore. Charming things, like how complete strangers – especially young children – would stare open-mouthed at Arddun when both of us walk by with Arddun in the stroller. A couple might even come over to peer right in at her, and then to look at me as if to figure out how a mother who looks like me managed to spawn a little girl who looks like her. One lady had asked my aunt if I had dyed Arddun’s hair that colour. She was serious, too.

I’ve always found it amusing how Australians love to truncate words and names. “Afternoon” becomes “Arvo”, “Uncoordinated” becomes “Unco”, and even “Anthony” becomes “Tony”, which then gets shortened to “Tone”. Singaporeans are similarly fond of mangling English – except they tend to leave whole words out. So I was rather taken aback one afternoon when the supermarket cashier looked deep into my eyes and asked,

“You got Passion?”

“Excuse me?”

“Do you have… the Passion?”

“I… suppose…”

Turned out, it was some sort of consortium discount card called Passion. And as it turned out, I didn’t have one. But for a moment there, I thought this cashier had gotten all Life of Pi on me.

I say all this, because it’s been a long time since I’ve felt like a half-breed the way I do now. My memories of Singapore – the version I grew up with – are fading with alarming celerity, especially now when we’re spending so much time in my old neighbourhood. Singapore has always moved at breakneck speed, but the consequence is that whole generations of landmarks and experiences get wiped away in the name of progress. The view from my mother’s window is now marred by 2 gobsmackingly tall and ugly high-rise buildings that had sprung up like thick, proud weeds in the last two years and without my permission. The cool evening breeze no longer blows through the kitchen window. My old playground no longer has sand. The food centre is too clean. The wet market is now a quarter of its size as air-conditioned, pre-packaged Westernised supermarkets continue to woo shoppers. It no longer has live chickens, so I can’t watch them get slaughtered at the back, then de-feathered, beheaded, and clingwrapped for a waiting customer.

That had always been my favourite part of shopping at the wet market. My first real classroom on life and death.

I am a native, I am still Singaporean, but I am almost a stranger to my homeland. I could never communicate well in Mandarin, but I am so noticeably half-foreign now, that storekeepers give up and speak to me in their broken English to save us all some time. My version of Singapore is still stuck in the 80s and 90s, mostly. The version today is so skewed towards the CHINESE-Chinese now, that I feel marginalised (along with my Indian, Malay and Eurasian friends, so at least I have company.)

I’m rambling a bit here, but the heart of the matter lies with my mother’s house. This flat, which belonged to my maternal grandmother, then to my aunt and my mother, then to my mother, will sooner or later belong to me. And as we live this half-life here, playing custodian and tourist all at once, I am desperately trying to soak up all these memories.

What it feels like to lie on our cold 1970 green-speckled faux-marble floor. What it sounds like, when the neighbours upstairs throw a big bag of rubbish down the chute. The creak of my old bed, when it rubs against the wardrobe. The whirr of the fans in the noon day heat.

The smell of a hot bowl of Ipoh Hor Fun, the crunch of deep-fried bread bits in a bowl of Lor Mee. The strains of Chinese opera from the neighbour’s radio, the sight of water everywhere when my other OCD neighbour washes the lift landing.

The slow, rhythmic thump of the karang guni man’s trolley as he makes his way down each flight of stairs. Karang guni… beh poh zhua….

Rubber slippers, slapping against the stairs as children gallop down… oil and smoke billowing from the exhaust as you walk past the coffee shop…

Hand-painted markings on the cobbled pavement, where you can barely make out the words “Cat-feeding point”. I love that someone remembered the hyphen.

Gertie on the 14th floor, steaming ikan kurau for the neighbourhood felines… the idle chatter of retired, gossipy neighbours draped on chairs at the void deck… the exchange of quick, small smiles when your eyes catch theirs.

It sounds like I’m trying to make my good-byes, and I probably am. I don’t know what we’re going to do with this house yet, even though I have a couple of ideas. I grew up in this tiny little flat with its two little bedrooms and its big, big heart, as did my aunt and my mother. It has always been my home away from home. But I strongly suspect that when it comes time to pack away my mother’s things… when it comes time to empty the cupboards and strip the mattresses and un-Blutack little posters and sayings from these dearly beloved walls, it will no longer be my home away from home.

Because my home away from home was my ma. And she is not here.

(Just. Unreal.)

The thought of putting away my mother’s worldly belongings still squeezes the heart. But the head knows and understands, and waits for the day when the hands are steady.

Two minutes before it rains

Two minutes before it rains, when the black night sky turns red and thick, and the air is pungent with humidity and expectation… When the breeze kicks up and cools your neck, and you wonder why Singapore couldn’t have whole days made of These Two Minutes…

I had a good evening, spent in the company of family and loved ones. Ended the evening writing Thank You cards. Currently blogging while greeting the new day with commiserations and laughs with a sister in Christ. I know it’s logic as old as the hills, but tonight I was reminded that thanking people is a fantastic way to count my blessings.

I sat with my family tonight, as we recapped my mother’s journey with cancer. As we recapped our collective journey with this illness that took her body and made her spirit. In many ways, this is a stormy time in our lives. The boat has been rocked, our equilibrium is lost. There is a missing member of our crew. We had dinner together, and I missed her keenly. We wrote cards, and we all missed her keenly. It’s a bizarre thing to faintly expect my mother to walk through the front door so we can tell her all about our eventful fortnight and how we all threw this wake and funeral together, and how Arddun was dancing to Janet Seidel beside her coffin.

Oh the irony.

And yet, I had a good evening. We missed her together, we remembered her together, and we remembered the people who also loved her and continue to love us. My world has been rocked and I’m in a storm. And maybe tomorrow, I’ll feel bleah and grr. But tonight, I’ve been given my Two Minutes. And the reassurance that God is good.

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