Mom’s Smile

Found a pic of my mom smiling today.  That’s rare.  She usually looks wistful, stoic, maybe a bit weary.  I don’t know if that was just how she was, or whether she was ill without yet knowing it.

I know that just before she found out she had cancer, she had travelled back to China on a boat to reconnect with her parents.  They had given her up for adoption because they couldn’t afford to raise her.  Her dad was a lecturer or professor at a time in that country when it pretty much meant a life of poverty.  My mom did not get much of an education but I’m told she was a natural academic and had been offered a teaching job even though she lacked qualifications.  She had to turn it down as she was raising a family.

Her adoptive parents brought her to Malaysia when she was a young girl, and, now in her forties, she had hoped to be reunited with her natural parents.  She travelled alone on that long voyage, and lugged 20kg bags of dried foods with her as gifts.  I’m told her dad was overjoyed to see her, but her mom had rejected her.  She came back to Malaysia, broken-hearted.  Shortly thereafter she was diagnosed with the cancer that ultimately killed her.

The Funeral

All my parents’ martial arts friends were there.  A large group dominated by housewives my dad taught Tai Chi to.  There were one or two who remained life-long family friends, but I never cared for the majority of them.  Even at that young age, I saw them as a bunch of privileged, mean and gossipy women with too much time on their hands.

A few of them were sitting together at the wake (a 3-day-long event, per Chinese custom) at the funeral home, and were talking about my mom.  They talked about how her organs were still functional, even though she was dead, and started listing examples.  That her ears could still hear but that she couldn’t respond to all the chatter.  That horrified me, the thought that my mom was lying nearby, trapped in her body.  They saw me listening in, and beckoned me over.  One of them said, ‘Do you understand what’s happened’?  And another responded – ‘no, she has no idea; she’s too young to understand death’.  That made me really mad.  I hated those women.

I was pretty sure they hated me back.  I knew they thought I was ugly, whereas my older sister was beautiful and my younger sister, absolutely the cutest little thing around.  I was born with darker skin than my siblings – not an asset in that cultural setting, and I had the largest head of my ten siblings and satellite dishes for ears.

Once, during a Tai Chi class at the Lake Gardens, one of them called me over and demanded – ‘do you know what your name is?’.  For the record, it’s Min Nyok, which means Bright Jade.  Most of my circle of young friends had ‘Mei’ in their name in some sort of combination.  ‘Min’=bright, ‘Mei’=pretty.  I pronounced it ‘Mei Yoke’, which, in fact, was what most kids on my apartment floor called me.

She replied with some agitation, ‘you’re not Mei Yoke, you’re ‘Min Nyok’.  I knew what she was trying to imply – I’m not pretty.  I really, really disliked my dad’s group of housewife students.

We had to dress in funeral garb made of sackcloth.  My mom’s coffin was enormous – like those traditional Chinese ones you see in period movies.  And we had to sleep at the foot of the coffin until the day of the funeral, to keep her company.

We were told by the priest that my mom’s spirit would be wandering until the seventh day, after which she would come to a river and there would be a boat waiting for her.  We had to call out to her to ‘cross the river’ to complete her journey.  There were chants during the night, and incense.

I remember my eldest sister arriving for the wake, I think, in a cab.  She ran crying into my dad’s arms.  She’d flown in from Australia where she’d been studying nursing.  She’d left for her studies before I had any memory of her, and she was to return to Sydney shortly thereafter, so I never really knew her.

We were to wear no red clothes for 100 days after the funeral, as red in Chinese signifies happiness.  We also had to wear patches on our sleeves to indicate that we were bereaved.

A day or two after the funeral, I returned to school – I was still in Kindergarten.  I had to wear the patch.  I cried the first day back, silently.  Nobody asked, but I guess the patch would’ve told the story of why I had been off school.

The Hospital

I remember clearly the day my mom had to pack her bags to be admitted to the hospital.  At 5 or 6 years of age, my understanding of the difference between illness and death was that if you were ill, you went to the hospital, stayed for awhile, then you came back.  If you died, it meant you went, but never returned.

We were waiting together at the elevator at the 11th floor of the Templer Flats in Seremban, where we lived.  And I asked her – ‘are you coming back, mom?’  She replied, ‘of course I’m coming back’.  That was a relief to me.

My mom never came back.

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