Lately, I’ve been more self-conscious of how different my interactions with both children are; how I automatically give grace and room for mistakes with Atticus, and yet how much tougher I seem to be on Arddun because she is older “and therefore should know better”. And yes sometimes, she ought to know better.
But sometimes, she’s not even 5 yet. She’s not. She’s very tall for her age, her dresses are for six-year-olds, and she definitely knows her own mind on many things. But she’s not even 5 yet.
After 3 years, 10 months and 6 days, I finally relented yesterday and got Arddun’s hair cut.
And only because it had become a real handful to un-knot after every shampoo.
There’s a scene in I Don’t Know How She Does It, when Sarah Jessica Parker’s character finds out that she missed her son’s first haircut because of her busy corporate life. The hot nanny had gone and done it, displaying great initiative but inducing secret muffled Mommy sobs in the process.
It has taken me a long, looong time to come to terms with cutting Arddun’s Rapunzelesque tresses which, at last measurement, hung slightly below her waist. At first, I had been nervous about sharp scissors near an active toddler’s face, but as time passed and her ability to sit still and obey instructions increased, I realised how attached I had gotten to her mane… mostly because I had attached so much sentimentality to it. It had been something we had left alone, intact, since birth and which had since become her trademark. In the early months and after a decent length, her hair signalled to the world that she is a girl in a way that no number of feminine baby clothes did. Her hair texture told the world she came from my body, but its beautiful brown with occasional strands of gold whispered of her uniquely mixed heritage.
Most of all, there had been something so unspoiled about it. Her Original Baby Hair, untouched all this time. To me, anyway.
So it was a little Coming Of Age moment, when Arddun and I entered the hair salon together yesterday to get her hair shaped and trimmed.
We had practised not moving during the haircut, but none of us at the salon had quite expected Arddun to sit so still, nor to look that solemn throughout the affair. We sat next to each other in companionable silence, listening to the snip-snips, obeying gentle instructions.
And then she was done! I heard a “you can show your Mummy now!”, whereupon I turned to my left and looked at my little girl. Except she had suddenly grown up.
But then she goes and does this. Just so we remember that she is still a funny little girl at heart.
Growing up, I pretended to be princesses, and I pretended to be villians. My favourite was playing Maleficent, waaaay before Angelina Jolie thought to make that fairy tale character all misunderstood and quasi-raped. And because we couldn’t afford a She-ra Princess of Power sword, I decided to get very good at yo-yos, and become Yo-Ra. In my head, I could wield mine like nanchucks, and lasso the baddies in with effortless ease while still wearing a very short white dress and riding a unicorn. I remembered entering the kitchen dramatically and announcing my augmented superhero identity. “I am Yo-Ra!” I cried, and tried — but failed — to Walk the Dog with my blue 20-cents yo-yo. My mum stopped stir-frying, threw her head back, and about died laughing.
Growing up, I don’t think my mother gave a fig about what were politically correct games for little girls to play. She had her own rules about what constituted ladylike behaviour — standing on the ping pong table in the void deck of our apartment building, for instance, was strictly prohibited. It also warranted some pretty unladylike mummy-bellowing from the 9th floor if I were caught doing so. (That happened twice.)
But loving pink? Wearing golden tiaras and swanning around in my magnificent royal robes (read: blanket trailing on the ground, pegged around my neck)? Pretending to be Cinderella, then her stepmother, then Sleeping Beauty? Imagining myself as mother, teacher, bride? I don’t think gender stereotypes bothered my mother. I don’t think she even thought to “save” me from them. And I certainly don’t think she minded my wanting to be a princess.
So why have I been struggling with princesses when it comes to MY daughter? Why do I feel this strange warmth of satisfaction burst within when Arddun chooses green, red or blue over pink? Why do I feel almost exultant when she asks to watch Cars? Play with trains? Become a Robot? Work in an “office”? And why did I feel this weird guilt, like I’m letting down Team Feminista, when she wants to go full Princess?
Notice I said “did”.
That’s right, I am (still) making my peace. It is a process. Most days are good, some days I really struggle. Because in the countless articles that harp about how Disney manipulates our daughters and how marketing Princess as a brand has become a multi-billion dollar cash cow, I had gotten anxious and guilty. And then I lost sight of real feminism. The pendulum can swing both ways; in my secret denouncement of the Silly Frilly, I had ironically subjugated girlish behaviour. In scorning the commerce of vanity among the young, I had ironically become proud. Worst of all, I had turned “girly-girl” into a dirty phrase, and prescibed and projected rather “masculine” behaviours on my daughter in the hopes that she’d… what, exactly? Not be such a girl?
I had also lost sight of the most important things – the focus on the insides. Because beautiful insides are what matter most. I’ve read articles that snort about how some Disney’s Princesses prescribe “meek” behaviours to our daughters. Kindness. Gentleness. Goodness. Servitude. These princesses, they argue, are nothing more than paeans of passivity. These princesses are weak. Simple-minded. Lacking in ambition.
Except it takes courage and character to exhibit kindness, goodness and gentleness. Especially when it concerns loving the enemy — that just takes some kind of special stubbornness woven tight in a loving lion heart. There is nothing humiliating about hands that are willing to serve either. In fact, the only thing I protest along with these pseudo-feminists about the messages Princesses send, is the disservice we do the boys. I think we do our sons no real favours when we emphasise kindness in princesses and inadvertently portray kindness as the sole domain of the woman.
We need more heroics. We therefore need more princesses. And I’m growing one.
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 of the perks of being a part-time SAHM before Arddun goes to preschool is the time we get to just hang out together and try things.
We were going to surprise Tony with cookies when he returned home from work this week (He’s working longer and longer hours, and has to deal with interesting staff. Not his favourite two things.) Decided to try out a new recipe from a book I’d bought cheap from Borders years ago (American measurements, with metric translations). Was supposed to be brown sugar cookies with a drizzle of lemony icing.
Wasn’t too sure about the recipe halfway through but because I’m no baking diva, and we were having too much fun, I pressed on.
Sadly, when we pulled the trays out 12 minutes later, everything was le splat. Just too much butter, methinks. And waaay too salty.
I was pretty disappointed. But Arddun just walked over, looked at the trays, said “Oh dear, Mummy!” and then patted me gently on the back. “Oh well. It’s okay. Nevermind. You alright?”
Prompting me to question who had the more adult response, really. What a crack up!
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.
Today’s my mum’s birthday. If she were still alive, she would have turned 56.
I was half dreading this day, because I knew I was going to feel quite mixed up about it. There’s an awful jumble of feelings that come from remembering a dead loved one’s birthday. There’s that sense of wrongness which builds up to the day, and chiefly comes from not doing the usual things. Not hunting down the perfect gift, not wrapping it. Not battling the queue at the post office to send it. Not finding the card. Not texting her in the morning. Not calling her on Skype at the day’s end to find out how she celebrated.
Not being able to jump on the plane and then sidle up to her pew on Sunday to surprise her.
Then there’s the wrongness that comes from remembering someone’s birthday when they’ve passed. She hasn’t turned 56; her body stopped at 55 years, 6 months and 17 days. So what naturally follows is that gut-wrenching, heartrending sense of loss and missing. The kind you’ve been working at mastering and suppressing for the last few months so you can function – and even be happy – without dissolving into a mooching mess.
There was a guy recorded in the bible who had been blind from birth, which means he had probably been reduced to begging because that’s what happens when you don’t have Disability Care in the days of Jesus. And the question naturally followed: why? Was he born blind because of his parents’ sin? What was the whole point of depriving a person of sight and a livelihood from the start? Or the middle, for that matter. What is the whole point of dragging a woman through a very tough childhood and marriage, only to strike her with cancer when she’s finally breathing easier? Why?
And Jesus basically said that the whole point was so that God could be given the glory. A person, blind until adulthood for the sole and magnificent purpose of Jesus walking pass to heal him. Except I sure wish He were here in the flesh today, and that he chose to heal my mother.
What was the point of giving her life, only to take it away at 55? Was it so that God may be glorified through her example in death? Or was it so that others like me could be brought more into repentance?
I remember reading someone’s blog, and the whole blog was about this family who has a daughter with a condition that would almost certainly guarantee her death by age 4. When you know you have that sort of timeline, you don’t mess about as a parent. The doctrines about sleep training, the guilt about breastfeeding vs formula, the philosophies about discipline, the race to each baby milestone completely melts away when you realise that Nothing Is That Important as making sure that child knows she is loved, and that you’re all making great memories together. That blogger’s house was a complete mess some days but as the child got sicker, all they did as a family sometimes was to eat takeaway and watch cartoons with her. It flew in the face of every good parenting handbook out there, and yet I think it was perfect and natural parenting for their sick daughter at the time.
I wish I had known about my mother’s timeline, because I wish I had understood which battles to fight and which battles to merrily concede defeat because they weren’t worth picking up the axe for in the first place. I wish I had not fussed at the fringes, but understood which were the more important things. I wish I had dropped everything and run to her sooner. Hindsight can be such a bitter thing.
There’s the alarm clock, chirping in the distance. Yet another reminder that time marches on. Oh how I miss you, my mother, my confidante, my home away from home.
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