As I let go of her hand, I knew that was probably the last time I would get to see her alive.
But I had to leave. Not because I was already late for my appointment, but because I feared I would break down into a sloshy mess if I hung around any longer.
I tried to make light of the situation by telling her to take care of herself, before retracting my statement to say that my cousins will do just that instead, seeing how they were so dutifully massaging her legs. Mama didn’t laugh. A part of me wondered if she was thinking the exact same thing – that that would be the last time she’d see me.
But I had to leave.
Life has to go on. As painful as it may seem at times.
It has been a month since Mama left. The wound is still surprisingly raw.
Mama passed away peacefully on August 19 after a 2-year fight with stomach cancer, about two months after I returned to Shanghai from Singapore following the SEA Games assignment. She had almost the entire family by her side when she left. This was the second time I wasn’t around when my grandparents crossed over to the other side. The first time was aeons ago when I was still serving in the Army.
I still remember how I was called up by my platoon commander during a break in outfield training. Exhausted and drenched in an uncomfortable mixture of rain and perspiration, I dragged myself over to be told that I had a phone call. It was my mother. My grandfather had passed away. My sadistic course commander did not agree to let me off to attend the funeral.
Of course I managed to see the good man off in the end. My mother can be quite a handful to deal with when she’s enraged, and god knows what she threatened the major with.
Perhaps it was an issue of adolescence; perhaps it was an issue of just blanking out during National Service; perhaps it was due to fact that Gong Gong’s death was somewhat expected but at the same time sudden, because it hardly affected me. I did not shed a tear when I saw him for the last time at the wake. I did not cry when his coffin entered the furnace (it somewhat amuses me when people wail at inexplicable decibel levels when this happens). It all seemed to happen so fast.
This time was different.
I had seen Mama undergo a successful operation to remove part of her stomach. I had heard her saying, “I’m always a happy person!”after said operation. I had seen her smiling after that victory and triumphantly indulging in her favourite foods thereafter. I had witnessed her celebrating during her 77th birthday and blowing out the candles. I had seen her excruciating despair after a second operation when the cancer cells tormented other parts of her body. I heard her defiantly insist that she will not undergo a third operation nor go to a hospice because she wants to die at home.
Mama is my hero. Not just because of her courage in the face of adversity. But because she knows so clearly what she wants amid a chaos that would normally render most people mindless.
I had put off starting on my book, one that has to do with the deaths of my most loved ones, because of Mama’s condition. I knew I would be able to write something beautiful in tribute of her in this book, but I knew I could only do so when she died. Such was the irony.
I have become fascinated with the topic of death ever since Mama got cancer. Some friends I know fear death as if it’s something that doesn’t happen to most people. Other think it’s too morbid a topic to touch on.
But regardless of what people say or suggest, this will be what I write about. In tribute to Mama’s single mindedness. In pursuit of what I truly believe in. And with the belief that embracing death is one of the ways to lead a fulfilling life.
Thank you for raising me, Mama. The first chapter’s dedicated to you.