To have loved and lost...

As we look to year 2016 in anticipation of new beginnings, we should also look back to reflect on the high and low points in the past year.

A handwritten message from great-grandson, Jackson,
at the demise of our late grandmother at age 103
If I was to describe my past year, I would probably say that for me, it was an emotional year.  While I was busy work-wise and had the opportunity to travel a fair bit, I found that the sad bits outweighed the fun moments.

I don’t know about you, but with maturity and advancing years, material things cease to be important while relationships take on a greater significance.  For instance, when our former schoolmates reconnected again, we experienced a familiarity tinged with a preciousness that cannot be duplicated by other friendships.  Maybe it was our shared growing-up experiences that wove an inexplicable bond that can never be replicated by work mates or even spouses!

At one stage of our lives, we were busy establishing our careers, finding life-partners and raising a family.  When the children left to further their studies, a new chapter emerged.  Suddenly we were ready to reconnect with old friends again and through email networks and social media, long-lost former classmates found each other!

Paper lantern for grandmother's funeral
painted with her grand old age of 103
Then we started receiving wedding invitations to the children’s weddings and their father or mother’s grand-birthday celebrations.  It’s a Chinese tradition for families to honour their elders by celebrating their 80th or 90th birthdays and in our case, our grandmother’s 100th birthday, in a grand way!

I can still remember Elizabeth smugly telling us that she was a GM.  At first, most of us thought that she was a General Manager in her job.  Then it dawned on us that she was announcing the arrival of her first grandchild and that her status has been changed to that of GM, the short-form for Grandmother!

These days, we are receiving photos and updates on cute cucu or grandchildren, and even invites to full-moon celebrations to welcome the newest additions to the family.

I know it’s just the cycle of life because when there are births, there will also be deaths.  More and more often now, I find that our former schoolmates and I are meeting up at funeral wakes and in the past year, we lost a number of people due to old age and illness, ranging from prominent people like a former Singapore statesman, our Johor prince to family members and friends.

Our grandmother's wake was held at parlour No. 9
It started on March 9, when I received the sad news that a former colleague, R. Letchumanan, passed away while he was working out in the gym.  It was so sudden that even today some friends remain unaware of his passing.  I recently received an email from a reader who told me they in Pasir Gudang in the 1980’s, asking for his contact info to reconnect with him again.  This compelled me to inform Letchumanan’s widow and we talked about the fragility of life and how time flies because the first anniversary of his passing was just around the corner.

In Johor Baru, the city state’s nearest neighbour, we felt the outpouring of emotion at the demise of former Singapore prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, on March 23 at age 91.  To honour his illustrious career and contributions to the nation and region, I joined a throng of people who went to express our sympathies by signing the condolence book at the Singapore-Consulate office in JB.

Aunt Polly holding up
grandma's vintage cheong-sam
Then I grieved with former classmate, Irene, whose 98-year old dad passed away peacefully on May 4.  I know it is difficult to deal with the loss especially when she was caring for him in the past few years. 

Not long after that, our 103-year old grandmother, took a turn for the worse and she passed away peacefully on July 2.  Her health had been deteriorating since the start of the year and after a long and eventful life, she was due for a well-deserved rest but I couldn’t help missing her.  Yet I went through a nasty emotional upheaval not only at the loss of gran but through silly conflicts that arose from other’s foolish pride.

Months after grandma's will was read and executed, aunts Polly and Sylvia came over with a vintage cheong-sam that belonged to grandma.  I was pleasantly surprised and deeply touched when they presented it to me as a memento!

In a matter of weeks since the passing of grandma, Aunty Liew, my prayer partner, confidante and spiritual mentor, lost her battle to cancer and passed away peacefully on July 28.  I was probably the only one who (boldly!) addressed her by her given name, Lilian, because of my former role in the bible study that let me call members by name.  Next to her family, I probably missed her most acutely this past Christmas.

The note that Aunty Liew wrote me at Christmas 2014
Aunty and I shared a special bond and at Christmas, she would have a small gift for me and she was always ready with an ang pau for me at Chinese New Year.  Each time I look at her beautiful handwriting on the note she pasted on her gift to me last year [I’m still keeping it on my poster wall!], I miss her.

In late August, the health of grandma’s younger brother, grand-uncle Mak, deteriorated quickly and he passed away peacefully on September 28, at age 92.  It was just about two months since grandma’s demise and I felt a strange sense of déjà vu when we were at the Tiong Hua Funeral Parlour again for grand-uncle’s wake which was held at the same parlour No. 9!

The twin Mak grandsons, giving their eulogy
at the passing of their grand-father
The family gave their beloved father and grandfather a grand send-off but the most significant moment for me, was at the crematorium when the twin grandsons gave their eulogy.  Reading from prepared scripts, the boys took turns to pay tribute to their grandfather with amusing recollections of their experiences with him, their outings and hobbies they shared with him.

When former classmate, Jennifer’s mother passed away peacefully on October 8, I grieved with her.  They are not only family friends and neighbours who live on the next road in the same residential area but her sisters and mine were also former classmates.  Very often the postman would erroneously drop their letters into our mailbox and vise-versa because we both live at No. 7 on two parallel roads!

I felt that familiar sense of déjà vu again when I was at her mother’s wake which was also held at that very same parlour No. 9 in the Tiong Hua Funeral Parlour.  Just over a week later, we received the sad news that another relative in the Mak family, who was my brother’s classmate in St Joseph’s School, lost his battle to cancer on October 17.  While I was heading to the wake, I wondered if it was going to be at parlour No. 9 again – but it was at parlour No. 1.

December 2015 would probably be best remembered for the large number of people whom we know, who passed on in this month.

I remember looking at my blog on December 3, and noticing a sudden rise in the reading of my post on JARO’s Lim Kee Jin Wing and felt a sad suspicion that something had happened.  I knew that Datuk Dr Lim Kee Jin was ailing and the next morning, I received confirmation that he had passed away peacefully at age 92.

The cortege of Datuk Dr Lim Kee Jin made
a brief stop at JARO 
My dad was reading the newspapers as usual that morning and when he saw the obituary, dad reminisced about his experiences with Datuk Lim whom he worked with in the then Johor Baru General Hospital.  I knew that dad, who is 93, was deeply affected by the passing of friends and family members who were around his age.

The very next day, December 4, the nation grieved with the Johor royal family at the demise of Tunku Jalil who lost his valiant battle with cancer at the tender age of 25.  There was something so heart-rending about parents having to bury their child/children and I mourned with our sultan and his permaisuri, not just by wearing somber colours but also in thought and prayer for their peace and comfort through their bereavement.

As the rakyat grieved with the Johor royal family, a sad pall hung over the city in the official mourning period for Tunku Jalil.  Numerous Facebook posts on this topic kept moving me to tears, to the point where I had to deliberately skip reading them.

The send-off for Datuk Lim and Tunku Jalil took place on the same day, December 6, and I remember how the weather turned grey and cloudy at mid-morning.  Then I learnt that the Lim family had arranged for the cortege to make a stop at JARO en route to the crematorium, for the JARO team to pay their last respects to him.

By the time the cortege arrived at the porch of the Lim Kee Jin wing at JARO, rain was pelting down – a somber reflection of the prevailing mood – and wetting the flags that were hung at half-mast.  It was a simple but meaningful gesture for a senior staff to place a bouquet on the casket on behalf ofa JARO before the team members took turns to express their condolences to Datin and her family.

The cortege for Ms Amy Wong in front of the
Church of Immaculate Conception, JB
On December 8, I woke up to the sad news that retired teacher, Ms Amy Wong, passed away peacefully that morning.  JB Convent alumni familiar with Ms Wong, were posting messages rapidly and very soon social media was abuzz about her passing at age 86.

The very next day, December 9, another piece of sad news was posted on social media to announce the demise of another school friend, Ilam Leong, who lost her battle to cancer.  That night, a friend who read another obituary in a newspaper, shared the info that Ruby Watt, a lady who used to join our bible study, also passed away the same day!

We have been deluged with sad news on the passing of so many near and dear to us and we were not even half-way through December yet! 

I was grateful for the respite in the following days when there was no more sad news.  On December 17, I was writing at my desk when my thoughts were interrupted by the sound of someone calling my name.  I paused to listen and when I recognised our neighbour’s voice, I quickly headed out to find out what she wanted.

When she saw me, she could hardly speak for the choking tears.  I saw some of her relatives starting a fire outside the gate and furniture was being moved out from their sitting room to the porch.  At once I knew that something was wrong.  When she had composed herself, she told me that her younger brother had passed away in hospital that morning due to complications arising from diabetes. 

As immediate neighbours, we were aware of his condition but since he was adamant about refusing limb amputation, not even his sisters could persuade him to do it to preserve his life.  So we grieved and stood with them as they performed the Hindu rites at the send-off, complete with traditional drumming, before the cremation.

Dying is very much part of living but as I attended so many wakes and funerals, it was quite impossible not to be touched by the sorrow of the grieving families.  So I echo the words of British poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson who wrote: ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, to find comfort in fondly remembering loved ones who have left us.  Our lives are certainly in God’s hands and we just keep trusting Him as we make more memories with our loved ones while they are still with us.

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely piece of writing. Here's to making and collecting good memories in 2016