Past tense

I lost my aunt today.

She was a joy to visit and call, because she was always full of optimism, full of joy and she was the most understanding and supportive aunt.

She had been battling her illness for a while, which makes grieving a little easier. But the use of past tense is unnerving. I do think she is in a better place now.

H, bless his heart, let me talk on and on about her while he’s away and exhausted from the day. But she was the best aunt.

I remember telling her about H, when he hadn’t met the family yet. She would come excitedly into my room, giggle and ask me to show her a picture of him. Then dizzy with excitement, she would tell me her impression of him – all of which were naturally positive comments.

She would ask a few questions about him as a person and about his family. Then she would quickly say that it’s important to know that one is a good person, and would be a good partner. And from my answers, she knew that I had found the right partner.

When I was moving to Germany, she told me not to worry, and that my parents just want me to be happy, and simply advised me to call home regularly.

When I moved to Germany, she asked if the environment was great, if I got used to the weather, if work was hard to find.

When I found a job, she was happy to hear that I had settled in. She had already started losing weight and energy by then, but she would tell me that hearing from me made her day.

When we visited in April, she was low on energy but she refused to let us leave. She happily told stories, waited for them to be translated for H, waited for me to translate H’s answers. We had planned to stay for an hour, but we stayed for hours more.

When it got so much worse a few weeks ago, I made her a video of me just saying hi from the bathroom stall at work. She insisted on her son taking a video and sending it back. She didn’t have the energy anymore to sit up or hold a phone. Her eyes were barely open, and she looked completely different. But in the short video, she managed to squeeze in the fact that she was delighted to see me and hear from me.

I’m extremely far away from home, and I won’t make it to the funeral. But I hope she knows that I’ll miss her very much.

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Learn How to Die to Learn How to Live

Early this year, I lost my grandma. I was not meant to be taken aback when she had to go because she had a full struggle and I saw her progressively get worse.

Just two years before, she was the most active 80plus lady I knew. She was alert enough to hear all my stories, to figure out how we can see each other via the computer screen while I was abroad. She knew to ask all the right questions – whether I was eating well, whether I was keeping warm.

When I came back, she kept interested in my pictures. She gave me much more freedom than she used to. But she was still a force to be reckoned with. She was the life of every party. And she was a disciplinarian. She would discipline us behind the scenes, but rave about us to all relatives, neighbours and strangers – true Asian style and more.

One day she had a bad fall, and everything just got worse thereon. She wasn’t as mobile, she wasn’t as strong. She couldn’t find the strength to move around on her own anymore. She couldn’t go to the market or to make us delicious meals. Her memory got worse.

Then she had the second fall, and she started talking about death like she knew it was knocking at her door. We refused to listen, we forced physiotherapy on her, we made her eat more than she could (which was nothing at all).

And so when she couldn’t get out of bed, and she was constantly ill and eventually hospitalized for a long time, we knew her time was coming. We were warned to be mentally prepared. But when she left at a ripe 90 years old, I was shocked anyway. My heart dropped anyway. My tears ran anyway.

Despite that, despite all her suffering, she tried to impart words of wisdom whenever she was alert enough to. She told me that I have to be careful when selecting a partner. She told me to be good to my parents. She told me to work hard. And she seemed like she knew she was leaving, and had come to terms with it.

I think somewhere along the way while I was grappling with her passing, I was recommended to read Tuesdays with Morrie. I took four months to start. And it’s an amazing book.

While it wasn’t really about how to deal with the passing of a loved one, it makes one reflect on whether we’re living life the way we want to. It really strikes a chord.

Below is my favourite excerpt, from when Mitch was asking Morrie (who was diagnosed with ALS) about the idea of dying:

Did you think much about death before you got sick, I asked.

“No.” Morrie smiled. “I was like everyone else. I once told a friend of mine, in a moment of exuberance, ‘I’m gonna be the healthiest old man you ever met!’ ”

How old were you?

“In my sixties.”

So you were optimistic.

“Why not? Like I said, no one really believes they’re going to die.”

But everyone knows someone who has died, I said. Why is it so hard to think about dying?

“Because,” Morrie continued, “most of us all walk around as if we’re sleepwalking. We really don’t experience the world fully, because we’re half-asleep, doing things we automatically think we have to do.”

And facing death changes all that?

“Oh, yes. You strip away all that stuff that and you focus on the essentials. When you realize you are going to die, you see everything much differently.

He sighed, “Learn how to die, and you learn how to live.”

the weekend read

If tomorrow never comes

Since the catastrophe, I’ve been thinking a lot about life.

Especially as Singaporeans, sometimes we drown ourselves in work and lose sight of what we’re working for. What do these grades mean? How do these things I’m doing now help myself? Am I over-planning for my future?

And sometimes my answer is I don’t know, I don’t know, and a major yes – which scares me.

If tomorrow never comes, I’m gonna be incredibly sad that I didn’t live life to the fullest. If (knock on wood) anything happens to us, I haven’t told everyone I love them. I haven’t done a lot of things I’d like to do with this life I’m blessed with.

I think (generalizing) as Singaporeans, we think too far ahead. We scrimp and save for that far away rainy day (crucial but to what extent?). We focus on academics for that good job. We find that good job for that secure future.

Take the Japanese for example. They were living their lives one moment, and the next, their lives fall apart. Their roofs fall apart. They’re carrying pictures to search through rubbles for their loved ones. They’re trying to stay alive with their rations in this cold weather.

The uncomfortable question follows: What if we never reach the far away end we planned for? What if tomorrow never comes?