Finding The Happy

Looking for joy in all the right places


June 2013


Canberra changes at a glacial pace, compared to Singapore. In the two weeks since we returned, I’ve noticed a handful of tiny changes. The leather bench facing the indoor playground at Gungahlin now has cracks and a large hole in it. Belconnen Mall now charges extra for using your credit card to pay for parking. We have new next-door neighbours, and two-doors-down-from-us neighbours. Babar’s has changed its menu. FCUK seems to have closed down. David Jones is renovating.

Still, compared to Singapore, Canberra moves at a glacial pace.

The changes are not earth-shattering enough. There is no ripple. Time has stood still, and yet marched on without ceremony. It’s too normal, but it can’t be.

That three seconds between sleeping and waking? I spent three mornings in those limbo moments reminding myself to text my mother and let her know we’ve arrived home safe. And then the realisation hits that I can’t, because she’s dead. And also, her phone is sitting on our kitchen bench, because she is dead and I have her phone now. And then I’m truly awake, and my breathing changes for good.

There is a weight on my chest. It’s like imaginary emphysema, where all I can manage sometimes are shallow gasps because the rest of my energy is spent suppressing strong emotions and memories.

A friend recently told me how she and her family derive much comfort from symbolism. It’s like an after-death Hello. People close to me have spoken of dreams, of smells, of meaningful coincidence or synchronicity. It could be kind of animal, a number, a date, a dream.

But I struggle to dream of her. Or encounter anything symbolic or meaningful. I long to have a dream where she tells me she’s doing fabulously well. I long to have a dream of her at all. I wonder if all my daytime suppression has stupefied any sensitivity to her spirit. Because I don’t feel her near me. She seems very far away. It feels like she’s taken the world’s longest holiday cruise and is incommunicado for the rest of my lifetime. I miss her dreadfully.

Penny K and I talked about getting emotionally ambushed at times. It’s one thing when you’re preparing for Sunday worship or Mother’s group and you know you’re going to get lots of hugs and love about The Death. You steel yourself. You put armour around your heart, plate by plate. And then you venture in, and you come out the other side seemingly unscathed and upbeat. And you are, because the armour is on and you had braced yourself for each loving, emotional blow.

But it’s when you don’t expect things to hit you, that they hit hardest. A chat about pain. An old packet of tissues. A familiar turn of phrase. Dirty dishes. The trigger goes off so I’m scampering around in my mind, trying to shut down the leak. I have had moments where I am willfully suppressing memories so my mind is almost a blank, while treacherous tears are streaming down my face. The heart can definitely be divorced from the head. Your body can grieve even when your mind will not.

Today’s trigger was a song I had never heard before.

In all of this death business, I am struggling to be at peace with my God. I struggle to remain convinced that God is good ALL the time. That He is there in the hurting as a comforter, even though He might have allowed it in the first place. That He can allow it because He is God.

I want to be at peace with my God. I just don’t know how, because I am deeply wounded and it smarts and it aches, and the tears are always pricking the surface. Always. And then this song comes out from nowhere and reads like my subconscious.

God in my hoping
There in my dreaming
God in my watching
God in my waiting
God in my laughing
There in my weeping
God in my hurting
God in my healing

Be my everything
Be my everything
Be my everything
Be my everything


And I basically wept while driving the entire length of Northbourne Avenue, even though I had schooled my mind into a safe-driving blank. Because my body can grieve even when my mind will not.

Musical Mash-ups

Mash-up 1

Head… shoulders…
Knees uh toes…
My… faaaaair

       – Arddun, 11 June

Mash-up 2

Is raining
Is pour-wing
The old man
We all fall down.

       – Arddun, 18 June


Yes. Only a mother would think this blogworthy.

Our baby girl is 2!

It’s quite mind-boggling to us, her parents, that on this date 2 years ago, we welcomed our munchkin and she looked like this:

Arddun just born
Bright light! Bright light!

And her first mutual scrutiny of family ties with Tony looked like this:

Brand new Arddun with daddy
“I am your father” moment

And then last year, on her first birthday, she looked like this:

Arddun with the chickens
Duck and chickens

And then – whooshka! She turned 2, weighs a hefty 14.6kg, and stands about 90cm++. And she is more entertaining than ever.

Arddun and mummy with cheese
Taking the whole “say Cheese to the camera” thing a little too literally
Arddun and Tony ring a ringa rosies
What started out as a prayer for lunch soon turned in Ring-a-ring-a-roses.
Arddun in purple coat holding banana
Purple fashionista
Arddun at Big Kids table
Guest of Honour at the Big Kids table this evening
Waiting to blow out candles
Suddenly Shy during Happy Birthday song, after rehearsing about eleventeen times on the way over… (Also, sorry I chopped off her friends’ heads.) 
Arddun's second birthday cake
Happy Birthday, Irresistible You

Another suitcase in another hall

It still doesn’t look like it because of the amount of personal debris scattered across the house, but we leave for home tomorrow. And I thought I owed it – at least to myself – to summarise what this entire process has been like because I’m sure I’ll forget. I had intended to document my days in Singapore more regularly, but I found myself wilfully flunking this goal I had set because it became so much easier to watch Grey’s Anatomy at night. But I am getting ahead of myself.

We leave for Canberra late tomorrow, but I’m still not finished up here. The plan is to wait for the Grant of Probate from the court before returning to Singapore by the end of the year to consolidate everything else. Lord knows how neatly that’s going to happen, but I’m praying for very few dramas. Meanwhile, everyone keeps asking what I’m going to do about my mother’s flat. And even though I give a stock standard answer from the head, the truth is that I vacillate every day.

“Oh let’s rent the flat out for all eternity!”

“Let’s sell it to a good family, because I can’t bear to see this beautiful place trashed by a string of drifters who won’t care the way I do.”

“But if you sell it, you can never see it again. And they might hack up the original 1970 flooring.”

“But if I rent it out, it’s not like I can just waltz in whenever I feel nostalgic, can I.”

“Maybe I should find a buyer who will promise never to hack up the 1970 flooring.”

“Maybe I could rent this out to friends only.”


I mean, the floor isn’t the only thing I’m hung up on. That’s just one of the inner dialogues I had an hour ago. The truth is, as long as Tony, Arddun and I are living in this house, I’m far too close to the matter to make a real decision. So thank goodness I don’t have to make that decision today.

What else…

Tony and I spent most of our last two months taking turns to play parent to Arddun. Tony’s Big Boss was VERY kind to suggest and allow Tony to work remotely and part-time here instead of draining his long service leave, so I would try to take Arddun during most of the day time while he worked, and then we would swop over in the afternoon so I could pack in the evening and night. We were also very blessed to have my aunt and my cousin Andrea help out with Arddun as much as they could, so she spent many afternoons having the time of her life in their home while Tony worked in Andrea’s room and I stayed here to pack. Every Tuesday, sister Yuet Har came by and took Arddun out for the late morning till about 4pm. Sis. Siew Gek and Arddun had a few lovely afternoons together, too. All this gave me the time to pack and sort.

And packed and sorted I did.

All in all, I packed:

  • 10 humongous-ish boxes which were sent back to Canberra
  • About 6 boxes for my aunt’s family
  • 4 boxes of books and bible class craft for church
  • About 9 boxes for my mother’s fellow bible class teacher/disciplinarian and tutor extraordinaire, Wai Leng
  • About 9 boxes of kitchenware for a church family
  • About 40 boxes of Good Stuff that were given away to Salvation Army and Touch Ministries
  • About 15 boxes of things that were thrown away.
  • About 6 boxes of kitchenware to other church members

You have to understand that the packing, though gruelling, was actually the easier part of the process. The sorting was what did my head in. My mother’s room was an exercise in Sense and Sensibility. There were evenings when I would spend hours mulling over two drawers. Things that looked like absolute crap to everyone else were loaded with memories and meaning to my mother. A tiny card I had drawn for one of her birthdays. A badly-made jewellery box I had cobbled together from some cheap DIY kit from Oriental Emporium. (Remember those? Not if you were born in 1988.) My first paycheck. My first “Top Secret” rubber stamp and magnifying glass, from when I wanted to be a spy. Tons of “storybooks” I had written and illustrated from age 5 (I kid you not). In amidst of all my badly spelt love notes to my mother, one that read. “I hate you mommy. you stupid. you idot.”

(I was very sure to keep that one, because one day, Arddun will be sure to write one about me because I didn’t let her wear her favourite T-shirt to school 8 days in a row. Or some other huge betrayal in the eyes of a six-year-old.)

Each sentimental piece of plastic comes with the question of To Keep or Not To Keep. It’s easy enough when it’s about someone else (hence the 6 boxes for my aunt’s family.) It gets exponentially harder when it’s about my relationship with my mother.

And then I found her letters.

It felt like every single letter and card of importance to my mother had been filed and stored for posterity in that tiny room. I don’t know if you understand how small HDB flats can be in Singapore, but we don’t have built-in wardrobes and if you were to put in a Queen-sized bed, you might just be able to stuff a cupboard, a tall boy and a dresser in before you lose all floor. But in that room, my mother managed to keep almost every sermon and lesson note from church, and almost every card and letter from friends and family.

I spent about 5 hours sorting all her cards and letters in piles, and then the rest of my free evenings in May and this week slowly packing and mailing or giving those precious packages to my mother’s friends. I don’t know what the protocol is for cards and letters of the deceased, but I’ve decided to give them back rather than throw them away. Because if my mother treasured these friends enough to give their words precious real estate in her tiny room, then I treasure these friends enough to try to return their letters and show them just how much they had touched my mother’s life all these years.

It took me a whole month just to go through my mother’s room. I emerged at the end with my mind fully blown and my heart fully bursting. I now know, I now understand just how much I had meant to my mother, and how I could never have understood that love in its entirety until now, when I’m a mother myself.

I didn’t blog much at all, because I spent two months immersing myself in the life of another. It has been my long and luscious farewell to a soul I love as deeply as my own. Apart from God, I had been her greatest love. I had also been her harshest critic, as she had been mine. I wish to high heaven I didn’t do or say so many things to her out of anger and impatience, but I’m so relieved that I had loved her and showed her I loved her. She kept as many tangible pieces of evidence that I had. Even in death, she comforts me.

Grey’s Anatomy has turned out to be great for all its soap opera trashiness (a guilty pleasure), but also as catharsis. Every time I watch a patient quietly slip away, I relive our last moments together and then I absolutely lose it. I’ve found I need to absolutely lose it now and then. I have long stretches of Okay, but occasionally I just need to do a nutty so that I know I haven’t grown numb and uncaring. Because that’s the double edged sword about acceptance in grief. When you feel anywhere close to normal, it also feels like the worst kind of betrayal.

Arddun has grown into a girl. Her hair is soft and long, down her shoulders. Her skin is a little tanned but still pink. Her eyes are a little more knowing. Her dresses and shoes are all too short. She now jumps over steps with ease. She climbed a flight of stairs on her own when I wasn’t looking. She puts on her shoes. She tries to shower herself. She plays with her stuff toy Kitty like its her playmate.

She participates in bible classes and sings her heart out.

She cuts fries with a knife. She drinks Chinese soups by the bowls. She recites nursery rhymes and sometimes even raps them. Her favourite genre of music seems to be hip hop. She’s got moves.

She says, “Thanks”. Not so much Thank You or Ta. Thanks.

She sits on Big People chairs to eat her breakfast. She wipes her own face, teeth and hands after meals. She drinks directly from a cup. She holds your face gently in her hands when you accidentally nod off to sleep in the middle of story time, and start to snore.

We leave for Canberra tomorrow. Our new normal begins.

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