Between the passing of Lee Kuan Yew on Monday and the anniversary of my mother’s death today, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about who my heroes are.
Lee Kuan Yew was the man who made a great nation rise like a phoenix from the ashes of separation from Malaysia, and the kthxbai desertion from the Brits. My mother was the woman who rose far, far above her circumstances. And made it her life’s work to build us a deeply loving home.
And while I’m thankful to LKY, I’m indebted to my mother most of all. Because what good are four walls and a roof over one’s head, if there is no love therein?
Very disjointed thoughts, filled with themes that collide on occasion. I thought a little about what I wanted to blog about her today. I thought a lot about what I want my children to know about her. What I want them to remember before I forget.
Like the way her eyes crinkled when she smiled. And how perfect her teeth were. She never wore braces — wouldn’t have been able to afford them even if she had needed them, which she didn’t. I remember visiting a dentist at the National University Hospital and how the dean of the University’s dental faculty – also a brother in Christ – was so impressed by the fact that my mother, about my current age then, didn’t have any fillings in her teeth. He ended up getting photos done of her teeth to frame up, or use as teaching aids. I can’t quite remember. But she had perfect teeth, and a beautiful smile that she gave away generously.
I loved that smile. I yearned for her approval. No matter how hard I rebelled on and off, I know how much I always craved her approval. Even despite my best efforts.
Mothers and daughters.
My mother was still in her twenties when she faced the reality of living the rest of her life as a young, divorced mother. Singapore still isn’t a welfare state, and back then there was definitely nothing in place like Centrelink for young, struggling mothers. So it took a special kind of courage to decide to go it alone. I remember going to the old church building during the weekdays and playing with Pac Man on an Apple computer with the green screen while I waited dutifully. We were there, because my mother was seeking counsel. It was a decision that took years in the making, even while my parents stayed separate. Ultimately, I think she made the decision because it was obvious my father wasn’t serious about his vows, and my safety and security were paramount to her.
It’s why I feel particularly protective of her whenever I hear a sermon or a bible study about divorce. Sometimes, she would wonder aloud if she had made the righteous decision. It was the right decision, perhaps… but was it righteous in the sight of God? That tormented her sometimes. I wish it didn’t. My father walked away from his responsibilities, and then brought trouble back — repeatedly. She protected us. To this day, it makes me furious when I hear anything that could have made her feel guilty about her divorce because it was one of the most heroic actions she took for us.
I know she would have loved to meet Atticus. She would have made him laugh so hard, just as she did with Arddun that age. She just had that way with Arddun. I look at Atticus as I soak in his babyness, and I miss my mother because she can’t. Not in the flesh anyway.
I was just saying to Tony last night how I still can’t believe that my mother was cremated. There is something just so final about burning a body – even more so than burying it, perhaps. And yet, I remember holding her bones and letting them go in the sea. It remains the most painful thing I’ve ever had to do. The heart physically squeezing as it breaks. The finality of it.
I still shop and mentally pick out things she would’ve liked. Bought a bag yesterday that she would have adored, and I would have probably given to her as a present. It was pure leather and had blue in it, of course it did. My children, your Grandma Singapore was almost obsessed with the colour blue. It’s why when she finally renovated her kitchen, it was like walking into Sea World. Blue upon blue. We called it the fishtank and laughed gently at her. But she loved her little kitchen. And then she stuck sea animals on the blue glass cabinet, because she loved us for laughing.
Blue never used to be my favourite colour. But I love it now, because when I carry a bit of blue, I take with me a bit of your grandmother.
It’s been two years. And I still wish fervently that I’d round a corner, only to find you standing there. Arms outstretched for a hug. Grinning.
After a long afternoon out yesterday, Arddun and I were drowsing on the couch before her dinner time – she, in the crook of my right arm snuggled under the covers and quietly monologuing to herself while I did a quick surf on WordPress’s Freshly Pressed listings.
It was a harmless enough exercise – flicked through a couple of writer’s blogs, and then came across a post entitled Dear Mom. It was a long one. And for about 95% of it, I was okay. It was personal, it was honest, it was intimate, and it talked about things I didn’t always understand without context.
But then I came across this paragraph –
I feel you especially profoundly today, our shared birthday. I am now 36. You would have turned 57 today, if only you hadn’t stopped breathing at 52.
And then something inside me broke. Tears spilled. And before I knew it, I was crying in front of my toddler.
I think I’d always made a subconscious effort not to grieve in front of Arddun so as not to alarm her unnecessarily. I had been a bit of a sobbing wreck when we did the walk behind the hearse, but had pulled myself together by the time of the cremation and the funeral service. I hadn’t cried at the eulogy. I think all of us in the family were determined to give my mother that hearty farewell, that celebration of life, that true homecoming feeling. And when I did cave in to the heartrending pain, it was usually in the dead of night, right in the gray between wake and sleep, where man and child were deep in slumber and I was by myself for that while. And I got pretty good at crying silently, mouth curled in a silent scream.
Grieving can be such a private thing, which is an ironic thing to say since I’ve now gone and blogged about the process. But back to my original point – I think I’d always determined not to let Arddun see me cry. At least, not at this age. So it was really quite alarming yesterday when I read that paragraph and the dam broke and I was utterly unprepared.
She noticed the shift in the air immediately, and sat up. She stared at my tears, which were pouring out my eyes faster than I could wipe them. I contemplated running out of the room, but there was the logistical challenge of removing myself quickly (shifty pelvis, big belly, lumberous frame). I was also now conflicted: should my daughter learn that grown up girls cry too, and that it’s not a thing to be ashamed of?
“Are you okay?” she asked eventually, evenly. Her eyes were big, and I made myself look straight into them. They were searching mine in return, trying to comprehend. I was glad to see she wasn’t freaked out, just genuinely curious and understandably concerned.
“Why are you crying, Mummy?”
“Because I was thinking of Grandma. I miss Grandma.”
She tried to sit on my lap, which is rapidly shrinking as the days pass us by, so she soon gave up and got off the couch entirely. Then she walked over to the other couch and pulled a tissue out of the box. She handed it to me wordlessly.
“Thank you,” I smiled. The smile was still watery, but at least I was now distracted.
She crawled back into the couch and resettled herself in the crook of my right arm. And then she placed her tiny left hand over my right. And just left it there, in companionable silence. And the richness of that – the realisation that my girl has empathy in spades, and such an instinct for comforting others. The warmth of that solidarity, if I could call it that. The sudden, visceral yearning for a camera so I could take a snapshot of that little hand over mine.
I fumbled around for my mobile. And as if reading my mind, she asked me to take a bunch of selfies.
And so we did. And gradually the ache dulled, and the calm returned, and with it the smiles.
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 received 3 Christmas letters this year, and it got me thinking that the Christmas letter is a dying art form that will be missed a decade down the road and will see some kind of a revival through an app, no doubt. But it also reminded me that I haven’t done any sort of Family Summary in recent years. We all gasp and groan about how quickly time flies, and every November hits us rudely that Christmas / New Year / Chinese New Year is “just around the corner”. I don’t know if it’s age or mundanity that prevents me from remembering what I did last week, let alone what I did in January this year. And yet I remember how I used to savour dates and moments as a teen – relived the special ones over and over through dear-diary entries and long phone conversations and letters to friends secretly penned during Math classes. I remembered everything in minutiae, with excruciating detail. I swore to myself that I’d never forget. And indeed some of those moments are still scorched into the lining of my brain, images vivid as when I was thirteen.
I say all this, because I don’t want to forget this year.
I first came across the concept of Brutiful from Momastery, who probably got it from a Death Metal band that apparently first coined the portmanteau. Brutiful – this exquisite, tortured mix of the brutal and the beautiful that makes you want to cry for too many reasons, and so you do.
Well, Life this year has been Brutiful.
The centrepiece, of course, has been my mother’s death – except it wasn’t just the death we survived, but the dying. My cousin Andrea had asked me very recently how I was holding up, and we both agreed that there is a distinction between Okay and Happy. I’m okay. I cannot say I’ve been happy. I am coping. I have been surviving. But I’m not quite sure about thriving.
I’ve certainly been moving as fast as I can to get the practicalities sorted – the house packed, sorted and cleared… the estate lawyered up and managed… the thank-yous written, the friends hugged and comforted. The giant upheaval of jumping into the unknown and foisting a mini-migration on my family, only to move back 3 months later and do the reverse. The logistics of shipping back 10 moving boxes into a house already full, and unpacking all over again.
The idea was to start the healing process by ripping off the bandaid quickly. I come from very pragmatic stock. But I had not been prepared for the internal injuries that come about from actually watching a beloved die.
I don’t know why it hadn’t dawned on me before, but watching any death take over a life is traumatic. I know my mother didn’t get bludgeoned to death by an axe murderer or hit by a bus before my eyes, but the moment of her death touched the very core of me and something in there shrivelled up and died with her in that moment. For months now, I’ve found every memory of my mother very painful – all the good bits, all the neutral bits, all the horrible bits. Just simultaneous excruciation for the mind and the heart that is constantly there. I cannot stop thinking about her. She is in everything I do and see and touch. But I am constantly shaking my thoughts – and sometimes, literally my head – because it hurts like nothing I’ve ever felt before.
I’ve realised that I’m still traumatised. It’s not a dramatic thing, this trauma. But I just can’t separate the moment of her dying from everything else about her. Sometimes, I can’t even breathe.
In other news…
I managed to injure our brand new car twice in a matter of weeks at the beginning of the year. Once in January, when a random Real Estate sign on a picket flew across the road during 70kmh winds and hit my side door while I was driving, and then a few weeks later when I backed into a sign post because I couldn’t hear the reverse warning beeps over my music collection of Screaming White Females.
I had to have my root canal redone by an endodontist, and then stop treatment halfway to race back to Singapore to be with my mother, and then resume the second half of my treatment when we returned in June. And then get a tooth cap done by a family friend – and Queensland’s smiliest, chattiest dentist – when we visited Tony’s parents shortly after.
We visited Tony’s folks in Brisbane, where Arddun got to meet her cousin for the very first time. And then we went to Fiji for a family holiday, where we stayed at the Sheraton and ended up surrounded by Australians anyway.
I spent, in total, 4 months of the year in Singapore over 3 visits – three months with Tony and Arddun when we mini-migrated there in March to be with my mother before she died, two weeks with just me an Liz to sort out her estate, and a precious week where I travelled alone to be with my mother just a fortnight before she died.
We’ve dealt with The Big C twice in our family this year – my mother’s ovarian cancer is the obvious one, but my aunt – her sister – discovered her breast cancer this year as well. And so it’s been an exhausting year for her twice over, and us watching as she goes through her gruelling treatment without her best friend by her side. It’s also meant a lot of visits to GPs and ultrasound clinics for me, as I start the process of attaining genetic counselling. I’ve also seen the inside of my ovaries three times this year. And no, I’m not pregnant.
Number of times people have asked when I’m going to get knocked up again: 54. That’s more than once a week, people.
I had extended my maternity leave, and then told work that I’d like a change of scenery so they created a new job for me, and then I accepted the job… only to quit the week I was supposed to start because we decided to drop everything to be with my mother . And they were absolutely lovely and loving about me inadvertently stuffing them around like that. Just crazy-understanding and well wishes all around.
Tony changed job scope, and then Australia changed government, so all his work eventually had to ground to caretaker mode, and now everything’s different. Because that’s life in the public service – or at least, that’s the way it is when there’s a changing of the guard.
I started selling Tupperware – partly to get out of the house and wear heels, partly to feel like I can earn some extra cash, partly because I’d like to organise my kitchen pantry with free stuff. But in the meantime, I’ve managed to reconnect with people I haven’t properly spoken to in years, and meet new people from very different walks of life. And I’m now running out of space in the guest room – my one remaining bastion of clear floor with no clutter – because it’s filled with Tupperware.
The day before my third trip to Singapore, I realised the carpet in our walk-in robe was damp. About 7 tradesmen later, we learnt that our shower tap in the ensuite had been secretly leaking into our walls so it got all soggy, and then the shower recesses in both bathrooms were probably also leaking water, and then the insurance company won’t cover any of it because they don’t cover shower recess leaks even though the majority of the damage was caused by the shower taps, and… and… 10 weeks on, we have a gigantic hole in our wall, and a fight with the insurance company whose disputes department has the response time and energy of a drugged sloth.
Arddun started dance classes for the first time, and loves it so much that we’re doing it again next year.
Thanks to sleeping arrangements in Singapore, she’s learnt how to sleep by herself on her own bed – even if that means rolling off it in the middle of the night, and then groggily climbing back in.
She’s drunk orange and apple juice for the first time, and so now she’s demanding that it’s a staple in her diet even though I’m fighting it because water is so much more important. She brushes her own teeth with REAL grown-up toothpaste that requires her to spit after vigorously and randomly rummaging mouth with brush, and that has a picture of The Wiggles on the tube.
She now also loves skirts, partly because it reminds her of dance classes, but mostly because it’s the one article of clothing she can put on herself without getting it too wrong. She likes dressing herself, and is getting better at it all the time.
Arddun also got to see her Poppy and Nanna a whopping THREE TIMES this year – once in Singapore for Grandma’s homecoming, once in Brisbane, and once when they came over to stay in Canberra so I could fly to Singapore with Liz to settle the Singapore estate.
As for our holiday season this year, we took a quiet day trip to Malua Bay, and Arddun got to spend some time “at the sandpit”. We had to teach her that this giant sandpit is better known as A Beach. Her very first time at one!
We also spent a day at Camp Challenge – Arddun’s very first Australian church camp, and our first time in a decade.
And then we had dinner at Tony’s colleague’s home this evening, where Arddun got introduced to the joys of Atari gaming without needing to shell out a roll of 20-cent coins.
I’ll be honest: this year SUCKED the BIG TIME. Part of the back of my throat feels perpetually contorted from swallowed tears, like I just snarfed a bag of Super Lemons. It has been exhausting. It has been stressful. Parts of it has even been hateful. I want to say there are lovely bits, because it’s true. I want to say that I’ve been surrounded by some of the best quality people Life has to offer, because that is also definitely true. But I would do this year over in a heartbeat, if it means I can spend more time with my mother.
My cousin Shawn, who has grown to become a young man wise beyond his years (and mine), put it most eloquently and maturely when he said,
As i reflect upon the year, i’m thankful for all the pain and uncertainties in 2013, for they remind me that i’m still human and i can still continue to hope and trust in a perfect God who holds my tomorrow.
I couldn’t have said it better. And I probably should. So I’ll leave it as that for now, and bid you a Happy New Year.
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.