Life has been a whirlwind since 1 Jan 2015 rolled around.
On 31st Dec 2014, while Cowfu and Fang jie were at my place celebrating New Year, my Great-grandma, whom I call Laoma, was taken to Alexandra Hospital and hospitalized for fever. She was 104 at that time, just a few hours before 105, and at that age, even the smallest malady should be given attention. A fever is out of the ordinary, and she was brought promptly and warded. I didn’t think much of it.
Over the next few days, her fever raged. I didn’t visit her the first few days, thinking it was just a run-of-the-mill flu and fever, made dangerous only by her age. As the days went by, I got worried. She was not coming back. Her fever was getting worse.
I was in class on 5 January 2015, the first day of the school term, when Dad’s message reached me. Laoma condition was deteriorating, and she was still having fever. Doctor had decided not to conduct any more blood tests as it was of no help and it brings pain and bruises, especially when her skin was already so thin. She was also taken off some of her regular medication as these were of no use any more. We were told to prepare for the worst.
I panicked. I went down right after school that day, at 6.30PM – 7PM. I couldn’t afford to lose focus on either school or family. Plus, I had work. I was stretched thin. I tried my best to be on task for the rest of the school day, finished up my lessons, and flew down to Alexandra to be with her. I held her hand for a good three hours that day, watching her sleep, and when she was awake, she gripped my hand tightly, even though I believe she cannot see nor hear me any more.
I went home encouraged by a dip in her temperature that night. I was tired beyond words.
On 6 Jan, I went down again, after I’d completed half my day in school. The update on her condition was that Laoma was terminally ill, and nothing more could be done for her. She had 2-3 weeks left, and had already lost all sense of immunity and hunger. The doctor pre-empted us that she would be sleeping more and more as time progressed. Now the question was whether she would be cared for better at home or in the hospital. We voted hospital and so she stayed.
7 January morning, I was in school when the news came. Laoma was on an oxygen mask as she had trouble breathing. The doctor even called to inform that Laoma wasn’t doing well because her oxygen was low, heartbeat was fast, and blood pressure was dipping. I didn’t even think twice – I hightailed it there, commitments be damned.
When I got there, she was breathing hard. She struggled to draw breath and it was heartbreaking to see. She no longer smiled. She was no longer aware of who we were and what was going on. She was on the brink, and neither my mother, maid nor I could bear to leave her yet. I stayed by her side very long that day, holding her hand, wishing she would grip my hand tightly back. She did, still, but most of the time all she could do was try to catch her breath.
I left the hospital intending to go for an important meeting in school. I boarded the bus, but I couldn’t do it. I walked all the way back to Alexandra, crying the whole way.
I went back and shed buckets of tears at her side. I couldn’t help it. I was losing her and there was nothing I could do about it. I held her hands for a good 2-3 hours that night before being chased home on account of school the next day. As it turns out, I wouldn’t have to attend.
Mum was supposed to stay at her side till daybreak, when she would go to work. She was also chased home slightly past 2AM, encouraged by a temporary improvement in Laoma’s condition. In retrospect, they always say the deceased will have a sudden burst of energy and seem to “recover” a few hours before death. That is almost a sure sign of the inevitable. Dad picked Mum up and drove home. I was asleep by the time they reached home, exhausted by the running around and things I’d juggled for the past week.
Barely 10 minutes later, she was gone.
The news was delivered to me when I was woken by Mum in the morning, who’d obviously been crying. I took it in my stride, as I am prone to do. I simply shelved the emotion and went straight into preparing for the funeral.
All the dams were broken when she was brought into the funeral.
I’d never known her thoroughly or had a good conversation with her. Nor could I have, given her condition in the past 10 years. Instead, she was a constant presence in my house, and I came back to someone whom I knew would be there, rain or shine, smiling at me. As such, her reputation preceded her. I heard about her phenomenal strength and poise as a woman and matriarch of the house. I heard little anecdotes about her life, her discipline, and her habits. I was heartbroken in the end when she left. When I first saw her in the casket, she was more serene than I’d ever seen her, with a slight frown etched on her forehead, a warning that she had a volatile temper, yet she always has a compassionate, nurturing smile in my memory.
By the time I’d grown up enough to appreciate my grandparents, she was already unable to see, hear or speak. She had been afflicted with dementia, late onset but deteriorated quickly. She was prone to flying into fits of rage, kicking doors and searching the entire house just to look for me (the 3 year old me). She would fight with my maid in jest, my maid loving her just as her own grandmother. As for me, she would try to scratch my face when I came near or annoyed her. She would pull my nose, grip my hands hard, and chuckle at me. She used to be amused by children’s toys in her last days. She loved chocolate and lived an austere life. She had many grandchildren, up to five generations, but when she forgot everyone else she remembered my mother and I. Her love for me loomed larger than life.
Following the funeral, without having any time to recover from the grief, I was unceremoniously hurled into the project phase of polytechnic life. They say Year 2, Semester 2 is the hardest semester of your entire polytechnic life, and I’d be a fool to disagree. I’d never been so inundated with work. I slogged for 6 more weeks, never even had breathing time, let alone time to mourn. Right after projects came exams. And once I’d completed that, there was no break either. I was to begin my 1 month internship with 2359 Media, and I began the day I completed my exams.
Talk about crazy.
April 17 will mark the first 100 days since Laoma has gone. She was a staunch Buddhist, and her funeral drew me closer to Buddhism. There were prayers for her every week, and that helped me to get over the crushing loss slightly better. Part of the ritual was to wear plain clothing for 100 days as a mark of remembrance and respect. I’ve not touched my red clothing for close to 3 months, yet I find it makes the loss easier as well. There’s something about doing, even if it may only be for the sake of the living that makes the loss easier to cope with.
Even now, I still see shadows of her. I’ve always had an old folk in my house, my beloved maternal grandfather before her, and the house feels cold and chilly with just my mum, dad and I. I miss having old folks around, having them nag and hearing their laughter. I miss annoying them, prancing around being every bit the irritating, chirpy grandchild. The silence can sometimes be hard to bear. It’s not uncommon for me to hear the ringing of the bells that used to be on her wheelchair, or to hear her chuckle. I sometimes still think I see the shadow of her wheelchair as she slowly moves around the house. I still think I hear her call for her maid sometimes. It will take a long while before I can fully come to terms to the loss.
Then, news of Mr Lee’s illness came.
I never expected it. For such a formidable man, for him to succumb to illness seems almost audacious to imagine. Yet he is human. As I kept close to the news and saw how it got progressively worse, I knew it was coming. Yet on the morning of March 23, when my mother again delivered the news, I was broken yet again.
I dressed in black that day, and went somberly to work.
Over the past week of mourning, many anecdotes, speeches and videos of him have emerged. All of these, I think, bring the formidable man down to earth and lay him to rest.
There is not much I can say about him that has not already been said. I do not revere him as much for the power or success of his governance than I revere him for his character. He often had the guts to face up to hard truths, both to himself and to others. He delivered what he said he would. He was obsessed with Singapore and his family. He had an internal strength that many were attracted to. He spoke with aplomb, and had great oratorical prowess. He held firm to his convictions yet was never too subscribed to a particular idea or school of thought to be stuck there, stubborn. He managed to inspire confidence and hope in a people that had nothing to be confident or hope for. He managed to show people where he would bring them – a place that sometimes stretched beyond people’s greatest imaginations at that time. A metropolis when we were a mudflat? I’m sure he had his fair share of skeptics.
I think there is nothing more befitting I can offer him as a tribute other than my very first published poem, and definitely, my commitment to be a part of loving Singapore, and making sure it is governed by his core tenets of honest government, ownership of the country and constant progress.
He has inspired me in more ways than just politics, and he is a giant, someone to model after. All I can do now is stand a little taller on the shoulders of LKY and the Old Guards, and stretch to make our foundations stronger and aspirations bolder.
So as I joined the eight hour queue, as I thumbed through all the posts on Facebook and joined the outpouring of grief, as I paid my last respects to him by bowing at the head of the coffin, I was shown again the noble but sometimes elusive Singapore spirit. Where else will you see Singaporeans queue in stuffy conditions, stuck for hours, without so much as a single words of complaint or making a scene as we are oft prone to do? We had a common cause again, and I believe he would have been more than glad to see this.
I couldn’t help noticing some similarities in the way they passed. Both passed in the wee hours of the morning, when others were asleep. They say those who pass on before breakfast leave all the meals of the day to their descendants. They do really leave all the good for us. On the day of cremation, it poured for both of them. They say the heavier it rains, the more worries the deceased carries. Although I want them to go without worry, I know it is nigh impossible. It’s just a statement of their deep concern for those they love.
Goodbye, Laoma and Mr Lee. I have been in mourning colours for the good part of the year. I hope you both are in Heaven, enjoying the company of your soulmates and good health. I hope you both are watching over all that goes on here with a broad smile, boasting to your fellow inhabitants, “This is my family.” We will take care of ourselves the way you took care of us, and no less. It will take more than a while for me to grieve and heal from both of your passing, though.
My losses have been greater than I can say this year.