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Finding The Happy

Looking for joy in all the right places

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daughter

An anniversary

One year ago, I woke up to find a text from my mother, telling me that she had to cancel her flight to Canberra because she was experiencing acute pains around her diaphragm.

Unknown to both of us then, it was the beginning of the death setting in.

I’ve been dreaming about her a lot this week. She’s always alive, healthy, strong. Sometimes, she had already gone through the death and we sit and talk about present things and present times, and I’m filling her in about what we’re doing about her house, and what’s been happening since we last caught up. In my dream last night, she had just gotten out of the communal shower at a church camp while I was waiting for her in our room, so I could get my turn. She was telling someone I know about how she had survived her cancer, and how she had never experienced such pain as she did until it reached her hips and legs. In that dream, I had the foreknowledge that she was about to get her second round, and she was going to die from it – but she didn’t know that yet.

I miss her from the deepest core of my being.

Flipsides

This morning, I got reminded that in 2½ weeks, I’ll be back in Singapore.

It was a good kick up the backside (although that was hardly what the reminder was about!) because it helped me distill exactly what my priorities need to be. I need to prepare the house for my in-laws’ arrival, which includes updating my Arddun childcare notes. I need to get a bunch of appointments and decisions made. I need to put my freelance work on hold. I need to stop trying to achieve every single Tupperware sales target put in front of me.

Did I tell you? I’m a Tupperware Demonstrator now. It’s turning out to be quite a bit of fun, and I’m liking how I get to swan off to party and mingle with grown women. It is also a time suck, at least at this beginning stage. I’m learning all the time and while selling Tupperware isn’t rocket science, it’s been over a decade since I last had a sales job. The temptation is to throw myself entirely into this new business but again, I have to remind myself constantly what my priorities are. All this, while half day-dreaming about what it would be like to be a Tupperware manager just so I can name my own team. (Shortlist so far: Silicon Velle.)

There’s a more sobering side to my return, of course. I’ve had a few cloud-like thoughts wafting through the brain cavity all morning, so I’ll try and pin them down here.

I’ve been thinking about what it’s like to never forget someone. And I’ve been thinking about what it’s like to remember them. Until my cousin’s sudden death a few years ago, and then my mother’s death this year, I never knew there was a difference. But the truth is, while I will never forget my mother; while the stark fact of her death has been branded into my soul and the burnt bit is still healing, it takes a huge amount of effort for me to remember her.

And that’s because remembering takes courage. It takes time. It takes up oodles of emotional memory, and you’re left panting after. I have a photo of her sitting on the buffet in the middle of the house, and you cannot miss it. And I can have whole conversations with her while Arddun is asleep and I’m doing the housework. But once I find my mind flashing back to the past and remembering what once was… I find myself pulling the plug. Making the images vanish. Because it is just so easy to sit there and feel paralysed with sorrow. And I don’t want to be paralysed, because I need to move.

“Give me unction in my gumption, let me function function function…”

In 2½ weeks, I’ll be back in Singapore. I’ll be sleeping in my mother’s bed. I’ll be bidding the rooms good-bye. Because this time will really be the last time. I love my husband truly, madly, deeply… but my mother and this house had always been my unconscious safety net. “What if Tony got hit by a bus… what if he goes all Rod Stewart on me one day and leaves me for a 20yo twinkie…”

My love for my husband is a choice. Every day, I wake up and choose to be with him. They say you don’t get to choose your relatives – NOT TRUE. Because out of all the men in the world, I chose Tony to be my family. I chose him to be my closest peer and kin. I continue to choose him daily.

My love for my mother is biological. It isn’t a choice – it is in my veins and permeates my soul, because I am of her. I think that with all mothers and daughters, the depth of love is variable – you get out as much as what each of you put in. But the starting point of that love and bond is biological.

Severing my ties with my family home is going to be one of the hardest things I’ll have to do this second half of the year. (The first, of course, was saying goodbye to my mother.) Going back to Singapore means having to Remember. God give me strength, because I’m sorta quaking at the prospect already.

 

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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