Monday, May 14, 2007

Remembering Mother

Yesterday was Mother's Day in Singapore (and America and the rest of the world). UK's 'Mothering Sunday' follows the (Anglican) Church calendar and comes a few weeks before Easter.

Tomorrow would be eight years since my mother died.

I'd been married eight months. I had just completed a first draft of my PhD thesis, writing a chapter in two weeks, about nine hours every day, Monday to Friday.

I planned to visit her in Singapore in June, but when news came that she was unwell and had been in Intensive Care again, we decided that I'd fly back a month earlier.

While I was in Singapore she got well enough to leave the hospital, but only for a couple of days, if that.

I soon had to order a private ambulance to rush her back to the university hospital where all her records were. Dialing emergency service would mean her being taken to the nearest hospital on the wrong side of the island and that was no good to her.

I spent most days by her side, reading my drafts of conference papers, or notes that I had made from when I was able to sneak off to the university library when she was able to sleep.

She was in so much pain that the drugs had become useless. She kept asking her consultant to 'give me something so I could go'.

We planned and strategized what we needed to do when she left the hospital. We would need to move her to another sibling's abode, and hire a maid to look after her full-time. She would have needed to undergo 'water dialysis' to clear her kidneys.

Those of us children who are Christian were also concerned for her spiritual well-being. We shared our faith, read the Bible and prayed with her. But she was very fearful. Very fearful that the God we believe in would not forgive her for what she had done.

But what had she done that was so sinful that she thought an all-forgiving God would not forgive?

She had two back-street abortions. There was a famous Chinese dispenser of Chinese medicine (we tend to call such people 'quacks') to whom all women with unwanted pregnancies went to. He dispensed Chinese herbs for a small fee and the women were rid of their foetuses.

Just like that.

Anyway, after having four babies in little over four years, my mum was in no fit state either physically or mentally to have another baby. There were no family planning methods other than these Chinese herbs.

We talked and we talked whenever she had the energy to talk. Why, she asked, could she not just die when she was in so much pain?

I said, "God will not let you go until you have made peace with Him."

I left her unusually early one evening to meet with some friends for some dinner. Mum was in constant pain and could not rest for more than a few minutes at a time.

I was at the hospital early in the morning again, to help her eat, if necessary. I had the biggest surprise to find her fast asleep. I'd not seen her asleep so peacefully, so deeply, for a very long time.

I couldn't wake her for breakfast. So I left her and found my way to the university library to do some more reading to beef up my thesis.

I remember meeting an old friend and we chatted. She asked, "Why don't you come back to teach. Part-time tutors are paid $x an hour now."

She asked about my mum and I said she was fast asleep at the hospital.

Lunch-time, I headed back to the ward.

Eh? There was an empty space where her bed had stood.

O no! Had she gone into Intensive Care again?

I checked at the Nurse Station. The junior nurse informed a senior nurse that I was the daughter of the patient at bed so-and-so. The senior nurse quickly finished whatever she was doing and took me to a private room and sat down with me. I knew it was not good news.

"Your mum had a massive heart attack soon after you left. We did all we could, but we could not save her. Your brother and sister were here but they could not reach you. "

She told me where the body was lying further down the corridor. I walked gingerly towards the room, opened the door ever so slightly, peeked in to see that she was lying with a very peaceful look on her face, and shut the door.

"Don't you want to spend more time there?" asked the nurse.

"No. She's not in pain any more."

I managed to track down my sister and brother-in-law on the public phone (I didn't have a mobile phone) and we met up at the hospital cafe. It transpired that my brother-in-law had gone to the library, begged the staff there to try to locate me (there are at least five floors in the library). They kindly obliged but they failed to find me.

I had a bite to eat. Sister-in-law joined us and told me how she was there soon after it happened. The three doctors on duty tried to resuscitate her. After several minutes they emerged from behind the curtains, sweating profusely. But Mum was gone.

Then life became a complete whirl as we dispensed jobs to different siblings: organizing the casket and booking a funeral parlour, putting an announcement in the newspapers (I was charged with wording it), collecting the death certificate, deciding on what the funeral 'dress code' would be for the family (do we wear sack-cloth or not?), notifying all the important uncles and aunties, collecting younger children from school, etc, etc. Elder Brother had in fact already made a headstart.

Funerals have to take place very quickly due to the hot and humid weather in Singapore. Even though the body would be embalmed, there was always an urgency. We had to make the decision of whether my husband should fly in from London. We decided against it.

We were very busy for the next couple of days. There were literally hundreds of friends, colleagues and relatives at the wake for three nights. Even former neighbours and people she went on tour with came by after they saw the announcement in the papers. Attending funeral wakes is a social obligation that we learned to discharge from a very young age.

For me it was nice being able to meet up with cousins I had not seen for ages. Then there were concerns over whether feuding factions in the family would behave. (They did, out of respect for Mum).

For the sake of the non-Christian siblings in the family, we agreed to a funeral with Chinese religious rituals. Yet deep down in my heart I wish to believe that my mum did make peace with God before she died.

How else could I explain her having such a peaceful and deep sleep when I left her that morning when she could not doze for more than 20 minutes at any time during all the two weeks that I was by her side?

It does not matter now. The important thing is we each had our chance to do our best for the mother that we loved while she was alive.

I am very thankful that God had given me a mother who, despite her many shortcomings, gave me the wonderful support that she did throughout my life, and not least of all, teaching me that the practical ways in living a 'green' and eco-friendly lifestyle.

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