I was carried down to Singapore when I was two years old. I don’t remember a thing, of course. But imagine a mom of four, bringing all four kids in tow, of which one can barely toddle around, to a foreign land, settling all their school stuff, all their needs, preparing to cook for them, preparing to teach and educate them, in a world where information was hard to get. New school standards. Uniforms. Rules and regulations. Thankfully Singapore culture and Malaysian culture isn’t all that different.
Mum stayed with us in Singapore, while dad stayed on back home in Malaysia, to take care of the business. He visited on weekends, another big sacrifice in a time where travel was more straightforward (less checks, more shuttle flights, hello Malaysia-Singapore Restricted Passports), but still time intensive and somewhat tiring. But most of the time, she was on her own, taking care of four children’s needs. We returned back to spend time with dad during the holidays.
We moved from house to house every few years, as we were renters. What I remember most was the radio being on, most of the time playing a couple of cassette types with a mix of music from the 70’s. I still remember the chorus for “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” and the full lyrics for “Tell Laura I Love Her”. That was my first introduction to countries beyond Malaysia and Singapore. A television was our other source of entertainment, turned on for specific times such as dinner, or a special couple of hours on weekends, for special shows such as Square One (a mathematical TV show), and Chinese shows such as Journey to the West. All of us would cluster round the TV, sometimes sitting on the ground, while we ate. I remember one of our first pets, a little chick (yes, an actually yellow, fluffy, baby chicken), snatching my sister’s drumstick off her plate, and rushing to the chute at the rear of the house, and hiding under the chute to peck at its ill gotten gains. The chairs we ate off were that low off the ground.
But amongst all that, what stood out for me was that she never wanted to spend on herself. She was very good at saving, and she saved everything she could. Toys were a rare treat. When dad arrived, we ate at Yaohan at Parkway Parade, in the east of Singapore. Birthdays were always a reason to eat steak and western food, and it was always something to look forward to. But for herself, she sewed her own clothes from bales of flowery cloth, and she was always cooking our meals. When we did go to the stores, she would immerse herself in looking at clothes while I remember getting myself “lost” amongst the displays, feeling the fabric as I played hide and seek with myself. She seldom would actually buy anything. She wanted, but she denied herself.
I stayed in Singapore in the care of a guardian with some other foreign students, while my siblings had all graduated to move on to their universities and for work. What I remember most about that period was that when she came back to Singapore, to help me to move back to Malaysia to await my GCSE ‘A’ level results, she somehow cottoned on to the fact that I had met someone and fallen in love. She picked up the class photo I had lying around my computer, and asked me to point out who it was. She paved the way so that when my dad next called, he didn’t say yes or no, but angrily insisted that I promise not to let my grades suffer in university. And that was his tacit approval to say, ok you can have a girlfriend but you better don’t screw up.
When I got married, my wife knew, that she was not the only woman in my life that I loved dearly at that time. My mum was the first. And would remain so. But because of my wife, one day, out of the blue, I started a new habit with my mum, one that I would never come to regret.
I told her I loved her.
From then on, in any calls, when we met, or when we parted, we would say those words. I love you. I love you, mum. Mum would reply, I love you all, when we talked over the phone or over the video calls.
At one point, she told me that she missed us. We started a weekly video call soon after that. It eased her mind to see us, and she would speak to me privately about things as well during those calls.
Our relationship was never perfect. There is too much to squeeze into a eulogy, 40 over years of a relationship that went beyond words. She was never perfect. I’m trying to accept that I’m not entirely terrible.
Her transient ischemic attack (TIA) or mini stroke reminded me that I needed to spend more time with them. Thankfully, even before then, I’d made it a point to go back to Malaysia twice to three times a year, every year, with the grandkids. I even fought with the schools over Chinese New Year leave to go home. My boys don’t have perfect attendance rates for this reason. But I felt it was worth the sacrifice, and my wife agreed. And every return home was a big thing. We’d spend time together. I would hold her hand like I did when we were younger, or she would slip her arm through mine as we walked slowly through the malls. I never minded her slower speed after her stroke. It was enough to have her walk with me.
But then one day, I almost killed myself.
We hid the news from her for a few weeks. When my dad couldn’t resist telling her that she shouldn’t criticize me so much, she got really suspicious. We dragged it out for a week or two more, and then over a tear filled video call, I admitted that I was terribly unwell. That I hated myself. That I didn’t want them to struggle seeing me this way.
In the midst of my depression, my mum promised that she would not pressure me to heal. She wanted me to be happy. She was crying because she kept imagining that without a job, we would have no food on the table. She wanted me to promise to eat. I kept that promise. She struggled to be reassured that I was healing and okay. It was difficult for her to see me in my worst states, and sometimes, I wasn’t able to join in our weekly video calls. I struggled not to let her see me, and I struggled not to let her be affected by my sometimes irascible moods, uncontrollable. I couldn’t bring myself to smile for her, the biggest thing she wanted, and it made me hide even more, ashamed, angry, frustrated with myself for being such a failure, not able to give her that one small thing.
When she was diagnosed with cancer, my world stopped spinning for a bit. But she promised she’d fight. I promised her I’d fight too. So we fought together, though we were a country apart. But we spoke less and less as I fought the poison that had leeched into my mind, even as she fought the poison that had leeched into her body over the years.
And then I noticed that my dad was bringing her for blood transfusions and reporting that she was unable to eat. Her body started to look emaciated, and I struggled to accept the photos my dad was sending to the family chat. She was fading. Even if I could only mumble, I forced myself to turn up to video calls, no matter how I felt. And I finally forced myself past my mental fog to ask my sister for the truth.
They’d taken her off chemo a couple of weeks before. It was no longer working.
We had one last call over the weekend. She couldn’t get out of bed. Even then, just before the call ended, she told us, “I love you all.” Love you too, we replied.
Last Monday, on the morning of 5th of July, 2021, my dearest and only mother, the person who brought me into this world, the person who gave up so much for me and my siblings and my father to have an easier life in this world, drew her last breath.
She is no longer in pain.
I love you Ma. I hope one day, I can hold your hand again.