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Finding The Happy

Looking for joy in all the right places

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grieving

Disconnect

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.

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.

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.

When morning has broken

I find the mornings the hardest.

When everyone else is up and the day is humming along… when there are things to do, dinners to attend, meals to prepare, instructions to give, the day moves along. The mind is given focus and the memory, reprieve. The part of the brain that deals with anguish is muted.

When everyone else is up and the day is humming, I can almost fool myself into thinking that my mother is still alive. Sure, we’re living in her house and sure, I’m sleeping on her bed. But it could feel like all those other times we’d returned to Singapore and crashed at her place while she stayed over at my aunt’s. When everyone else is up and the day is humming, when the day darkens to night, I can almost fool myself into believing that my mother is out with friends somewhere and she’s returning home late. Care team meeting, perhaps. Some church function we had chosen not to attend.

But when the morning comes around and I am alone in her bed, in her room… when I wake up to the knowledge that this is one more day where my mother will not wake up in this earthly realm, I feel like someone has socked me in the gut. I keel over and weep.

I know they mean well, but I don’t understand some of the things people have chosen to say to me. It might be the cool observation that I don’t seem as affected as other family members and therefore can’t possibly hurt as much. It might be the advice one dispenses about how I should go about settling my mother’s affairs. I cannot tell you the number of times people outside of my family have asked what I will do with my mother’s house and her maid’s contract, before telling me what they think I should do.

But, I want to say, my mother is still in her coffin. But, I want to remind, today’s my mother’s funeral. But, I want to scream, I have only just released her ashes in the sea on Monday.

Please cut me some slack.

Is nothing sacred anymore? When did the contents of my mother’s will become fodder for general speculation? When did it stop being vulgar to ask? Or am I so young and stupid that I cannot figure out what our next steps should be?

I move at the pace that I move because I am winded and in a fog. Do not ask me when and how I’d like to pack my mother’s things. Do not be so hasty to remove all physical traces of my mother’s life from the walls that have seen and heard how she had brought me up. I cannot bear to move anything. Her white box with cream brocade still sits on the tallboy, chockful of pain meds. Her bottle of liquid morphine stands and winks at me. Her clothes are still hanging behind the door. The top right drawer of cosmetics still smells beautiful and delicate. Her reading glasses are still in her handbag.

Do not ask me to touch anything. Do not ask me to erase her.

I find the mornings hardest. And the evenings. And the nights. But I find the judging and the advice the most brutal of all.

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