Grief is a familiar feeling for me.
Coming from a large extended family, I get to experience it numerous times. My first recollection of grief was when my grandma passed away in 1978 when I had to join the Chinese mourning rituals with the rest of my family – and Dad not shaving for the set period of time as a sign of mourning.
As a grown-up, it hit me when my younger brother unexpectedly passed away in 2008, followed by Papa in 2011, and my eldest sister in 2015. Now, Mama has joined them. I remember describing grief like a dark cloak that shadows the environment. It’s like a slow onslaught of a bubbling syrup – it covers everything. It’s around midday and I’m still yet to take a shower. I can understand to a lesser degree of the grief experienced by a spouse and if they don’t want to face reality. It seems pointless to get on with the day when you just want to curl up and cocoon yourself against the reality.
If you ask me whether I was close with Mama. … I had to pause for a moment there … even describing Mama in past tense brings a realisation that my experience with Mama had come to a full stop. I can’t say that I was incredibly close to her. Perhaps it’s because I share many similar traits with her. It’s like two similar personalities that have come to respect each other. She knew that I was as argumentative, as principled, and as opinionated as her.
Mama could be tender and caring, but deep inside, she was a strong woman, very resourceful, very stubborn. Papa was more of the thinker and the planner. Mama was the one who would not bat an eyelid to climb up to the platform on top of our shophouse and slaughter one of the chicken, if we had guests to the house for Chinese New Year and the likes. It was Mama who would go up to the roof and check for any broken rooftiles if it leaked during the rain. I heard from my siblings that Mama would bake cakes and sew matching outfit for them when they were young. By the time I was born, that tradition was no longer maintained. Besides, how could you expect her to take care of the household – I am number seven of eight children.
The concept that women are weaker or less capable is alien to me, thanks to Mama. I have no problem reporting to strong women if they are good and capable leaders – also thanks to her.
There are so many things that I can attribute to her. Although Mama wasn’t the most affectionate mother, inside the strategic, stubborn persona lied a nature loving person. It was Mama who would feed and practically adopt stray cats who would visit our shophouse. I followed suit. Despite her protestation that I shouldn’t be too close to stray cats, she probably realised that I was a softie as she was. Mama also loved gardening – on the platform above our shophouse, besides the chicken coop, she also had many potted plants there – she was extremely proud of the Queen of the Night cactus plant when it flowered. The numerous visits to Bunning’s to buy plants is a testament of her genes in me.
If somebody sees the competitive streak in me, I can also say that it’s thanks to Mama. I inherit Papa’s perfectionism, but it’s Mama who instilled in me the need to fight and be better. I remember the things that she used to tell me, when I told her that I didn’t feel like going to school – because I was ‘sick’. She would say, “Think of what you’d miss while the others would learn.”
The period nearing her departure, my siblings often remarked that Mama was stressed about something. I can probably understand that. She had a very active mind, ever the schemer. She couldn’t help worrying about us – about me. Her failed eyesight and her lack of mobility only compounded her frustration.
I won’t paint a picture of a perfect mother, because that’s not Mama. She was perfect for our family, and she complemented Papa so well.
It’s time she enjoys her rest. Sleep well, Mama.