Friday, July 12, 2013

The Visible


I see this church every morning on my way to work. I recently learnt that it is the oldest Roman Catholic church in Singapore. The columns have supports, like someone old and frail who needs props to help him or her stand up. The paint is faded.  There are noble aged trees in the compound. All these things draw me to this church, but the supports were what I noticed first when I started to use this route. Every morning, for some reason, my fixation with these crutches persists and I stare at them as I walk past.  

One day, after I had my lunch, I went inside the church and sat down at one of the pews. There were not many people there. Most of them looked like retirees. A handful were office workers; they wore neat office attire and brightly-coloured lanyards around their necks. I gazed at the long stems of the ceiling fans, the figure of Jesus on the cross. Two church workers were preparing the altar for the lunchtime mass.


Bells tolled. It was one o’clock. The service was at one thirty. I did not stay for mass.


This morning I had a thought. I am like this church with its aged, propped-up columns, its bandaged facade. I am run down in many ways and like this church, my run-downness is naked, on display.
 
 
Inside the church the lunchtime mass goes on every day no matter how small the attendance. Inside me, the Holy Spirit dwells, nourishing my soul, so that:

even when I am not happy, I am joyous;

even when I am hungry, my stomach is already filled;

even though I am on crutches, I walk and I run.


I hope that I have not let Him down. In the entries of these three weeks, this is what I have been trying to do. 

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Invisible (III)

What were the signs?   

This happened a few times in the three days between Boon’s death and cremation. On the screen of the mobile I could see that there was a new text message. But when I tapped on the text messages icon, there was no new message to be seen. Was he trying to send me a message?

On one of those evenings, also between the day of his death and cremation, I was going through the photo library on my laptop. I was looking at a photograph of Boon when the application hung. The picture was taken at a coffeeshop where we used to eat kaya toast and mee pok. He wore a baseball cap and the grin on his face was very cheeky. I wrote in my journal that day: “You are worried that I will forget you? Don’t worry, my dear. I won’t.”

On the day after the cremation, I woke up and made a mental list of the things I had to do. There were a lot of things to sort out: financial and legal matters; the matters at his workplace. I had run out of black clothes, so I put the laundry into the washing machine first thing in the morning. And at the back of my mind the whole morning was the reminder-to-self to hang the clothes out to dry before going out.
 
As usual, I crammed far too many things to do in the few hours of a morning and I had to rush to shower to get ready to go out. When I stepped out of the shower, I saw that the door of the washing machine was open. This had never happened before.
 
There was something on the floor beneath the opened door. It was the black checkered top that I wore to the cremation. Boon liked it especially. In fact I did not use to wear it very often until after he saw me in it once and said that I looked good in it. I wore it to the cremation for this reason. And there it was on the floor. I picked it up.
 
“You’re still here,” I said aloud. I hung the blouse and all the other clothes. I was smiling because when I returned to the flat after the cremation, when I walked inside, I felt like a swimmer in a sea that had suddenly lost its current. The air seemed vacant. And the emptiness made me dejected. I felt abandoned. 

“It takes time for the departed to leave. It’s like shutting down a computer,” said the priest, “You have to close all the different windows, one by one, and then you can shut down the system.”

I was sitting in Father Yin's office at the church. I had gone to see him because I wanted to hear from him his account of what happened when he went to the ICU to pray with Boon on October 12. Before that afternoon, Boon had not moved for close to two days. Whilst the priest was praying for him, holding his hand, Boon moved his head from side to side.

The priest told me what he could remember from that day. “I saw him and I could tell that it was not good. So I held his hand and I prayed for him. I prayed for repentance and for forgiveness. I prayed for him to have peace of mind.”

When the priest asked me why I needed to know all this, I said I was planning to write about the whole experience. I had seen some things. There had been signs at home.

“Hmm. I am not surprised. But are you worried? Do the signs frighten you?” the priest asked.

“No,” I said. “I believe that these things cannot have happened without God’s sanction. They are either from God or God has allowed them to happen. I say this because I have drawn closer to God because of these things.”

“For a young person who had big plans to die so suddenly, the death comes as a shock.”

Yes, Boon had big plans. He had bought a beautiful apartment with a rooftop garden in the east and he was planning to move in in December, in time for Christmas. He had asked me to move in with him.

“Isn’t he already in heaven?” I asked. “Isn’t he with God? Why are there these signs?”
I took the priest’s advice and prayed for Boon and myself. I prayed for acceptance, I prayed for peace. I prayed for us to love God above all things.
 
What I know now is that death is not a point in time. It is not a moment. Death takes place over a period of time. For the chronically ill, the period of dying is drawn out. For the person who dies suddenly, death also does not occur only at the point when the body fails. It takes time for the soul to be reconciled to its new state. Like his mother and me, like his friends, his family, Boon’s soul had to come to terms with Boon’s death.

I was part of this process. And I thank God for the privilege. Though it was heartrending, I will still say that it was a privilege to witness his soul’s struggle to be alive and his reluctance to leave this world; it was a blessing to be guided to pray for him to look towards heaven. And what a privilege to pray for his soul to be reconciled to God's plan! To pray for Boon to set aside wholeheartedly and gladly all his cares and concerns for the earthly realm, all the ties that still clung to him, and to prepare himself for his journey home.

“We can no longer be together. You are gone; I am still here. But we are together in God. In the biggest scheme of things, the best possible thing has happened. That is all that matters. It really is.”

(to be continued)

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Unknowable


On the bus to work about a week ago, I was thinking about what I had written about the cloud of witnesses in the book of Hebrews and suddenly I recalled my experience of a cloud in an exhibition.


In 2007 I went to Antony Gormley’s solo exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London. There was an installation work called Blind Light. It was a huge glass cube placed in the centre of one of the galleries. On one of the walls beside the installation, there were photographs of foggy scenes, landscapes swathed in mist. Some of these were taken in woods, in the hills, in mountain areas; some of them were of houses with gardens, or anonymous-looking roads and garden sheds.


The viewer can enter the glass cube, as large as two conjoined living rooms of a HDB 3-room flat, through a narrow doorway. The walls of the cube are made of glass, but the viewers outside cannot see the people inside. There were small nozzles inside the cube that filled it with mist. The cube was also drenched in a brilliant white light.


Entering the cube, I was immediately seized by fear and the desire to make an about turn and quickly get out. I could not see anything, not even my hand held out in front of me until I brought it right up to my face, close enough to touch my nose. In fact, I did exit the cube after taking about seven or eight steps inside. I walked along its perimeter, putting my palm on to the glass at one point when I saw someone else’s hand on the other side. I followed this person’s hand for a bit and after that I went to look at the photographs on the wall. I was buying time, trying to work out if I really needed to go back inside the cube.


Eventually I did go back inside. I walked very slowly. When I was deep inside, I stretched out my arms. I did not touch anything. I remember thinking, this is like being inside a cloud. Later on I read a scholar’s description of it in one of the essays in the catalogue as a “captured cloud”. Inside the cube I could hear some talking, one or two nervous laughs, but mostly, there was silence. The air felt very moist. All the time I was worried that I would walk into someone or that someone would walk into me. Even though I knew the ground was level, I could not help but worry that I might trip and twist my ankle.


Is this what it is like to be disembodied? I wondered. Is this what it feels like to be in heaven? To be in a place that contains other persons, to be bound together in a place but to not see their individual faces and bodies? To be in this place that is filled with so much light that one cannot see?


In an interview in the catalogue Gormley says that for him the most important thing about the work is suggested by the title: “the idea that light itself can be the opposite of illuminating.” He was also interested in undermining assumptions of a room or architecture as being the “location of security and certainty”, that it is “supposed to protect you from the weather, from darkness, from uncertainty.” He created a room that was filled with light, a room with solid glass walls, but it would provide an experience of disorientation, an experience of “losing the bonds of certainty about where or who we are.”


I did not think about architecture whilst I was inside the cube. But I did think about losing my body, or to be more exact, losing my sense of where my body starts and where it ends. So much of what we know is determined by how we experience the world around us as sentient bodies. What is it like to be bereft of the body? How does the soul cope with its impending separation from the body when the body is dying? 

(to be continued)

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Trust


The casket was opened. Boon’s mother, aunts, and cousins placed flowers inside. Lilies, white roses, gerbera, chrysanthemum.  “You look like Ophelia,” I whispered. It was a brief moment of silliness before the tears came again. 


Mourning is the saying of goodbye again and again, accompanied by denial of the death that occasions the saying of goodbye. With cremation, the body is sent away to be destroyed; also sent away and destroyed is the possibility of this denial. 


I went outside to where friends huddled around white plastic covered tables.  “Come and help us please,” I said.


As the casket was being prepared for the final journey to Mandai Crematorium, I could not bear to watch any more. I turned towards the doorway of the parlour and I was going to walk out when I came face to face with a kindly bespectacled auntie with a thick head of grey wiry permed hair. 


On the morning of that last day of the wake I noticed a group of elderly folk, mainly women, whom I had not seen before. I assumed they were distant kin. I had seen this auntie among the group. There was another auntie standing behind her, her hair was short and dark and she was of a slighter build. She too I had seen arriving with the group.


“You have a lot of heart,” the grey-haired auntie said in Hokkien, holding my hands, “Are you Hokkien or Teochew?”


“Hokkien,” I said. “I can speak Hokkien.”


Both of them looked at me with gentle smiles on their faces. The one with the shorter and darker hair stepped forward and took hold of my hands.


I cannot remember what she said but it was something along the lines of “take care” in Mandarin.


When I turned to my left, there was another auntie who seemed to be waiting to speak to me.  Earlier on I had seen her and an elderly man arrive with the group of aunties, trailing behind them.  I remember being curious about who they were, noticing that they did not speak to anyone.


This auntie also had short dark hair.  She clasped my hands firmly and I expected her to ask me if I was Hokkien or Teochew, to have pretty much the same sort of exchange I had just had with the other two elderly women. My attention was drifting away.  I was there but I was also beginning to be absent.  


The auntie looked deep into my eyes. I was surprised by the intensity of her gaze. Her eyes were soft and kind and bright. She held my hands and said: “Trust that what the Lord has done for you and Boon is the best thing for both of you. Trust in God’s plan for you and Boon.”


In her eyes I saw pure compassion and perfect understanding. I felt like a child who had fallen by the road and this auntie was a passerby who helped me up and took care of me, dressing and soothing my wound as if she were my mother. 

Listening to her, hearing the word “trust”, I was shaken out of my numbness and pulled back from despair. I was struck by the intensity and warmth in her concern for me. I was also astonished because she spoke in English. Her English was excellent; she enunciated all the consonants. And there was something else, something that I could not identify at that time.

A day later, I realized what it was. The auntie sounded just like me. She spoke in a voice that sounded like mine. Her choice of words, her sentences, her syntax and tone – her speech seemed uncannily similar to my own.  


She called him Boon. Not his Chinese name Junwen or his Cantonese name Zhun Mun like the other old ladies. It wasn't his full name Choon Boon that she used. She called him Boon, the name he identified most closely with. 


“Who is this woman?” I wondered on that awful day. A little way behind her I spied the uncle who was with her in the morning. He saw me looking over at him and he smiled, nodding ever so slightly. I did not see them again later on when we were at the columbarium, even though I thought I saw them trailing behind the hearse.


The incident melted away as the hours of that terrible day swept us along, and throughout the journey from the funeral parlour to the columbarium it seemed that I could barely keep myself together, wishing that all this was not happening, wishing that Boon was still alive.


Were they angels? I believe they were.


 (to be continued)

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Monday, July 08, 2013

The Kindness of Strangers

Sorrow can’t be shared, my friend F said in a text message after he heard the news last October. Perhaps he meant also to say, I am sorry to hear about what has happened, but I don’t think I can honestly say that I know what it feels like to be in your shoes.
 

I was glad to hear from him nonetheless. He showed his concern when he sent me the text message, even if it was a message that spelt out his inability to share my sadness.
 

The sorrow is a piece of invisible shrapnel buried inside. There are outward signs the swollen, reddened eyes; the pallid dry skin; the tightness in the ribs. But only the soul knows its burden, the barren seed of sorrow it carries, barren because it has no leaves, no flowers, but rapacious roots that jut and dig into flesh and bone.

 
Most outward of all is the crying. Crying that leads to nausea and retching – this could be the body’s way of trying to expel the sorrow, first through tears, and then through a kind of hurling action. 

 
When Boon was in ICU, there were mornings when I woke up with words of prayer spilling from my lips. After he died, these eruptions were replaced by fits of wordless weeping. I did not note down the date or day when I stopped waking up in this way.
 

On October 24, a week after the funeral, it was late at night and I was lying in bed crying. I felt that the pain I was in was unbearable. I fumbled for my journal and pen, and started to scribble. “Today started badly . . .” The entry ended with the sentence: “The pain is sometimes unbearable.” I had to put down the pen because I was sobbing  and coughing convulsively. My mobile rang. It was a friend. "Eh, what are you doing?" Hearing her voice calmed me down. We chatted for a short while, and after the call ended, I opened a book of devotional writings for women that I had started to read, one chapter a day. Two dear friends JC and KY gave me this book when they came to the hospital to pray for Boon.
 

The first paragraph went: “God is not wasting the pain in your life. He never wastes a wound. He’s healing you at this very moment and using that pain to show you a dream bigger than you realise. But you need to trust Him. When you trust, you allow room for hope.”
 

Not believing my eyes, I went on reading: “When we are in the deep, deep valley, we must hold on to the assurance that God stands firm and strong behind us. Nothing we experience will be wasted. It will all be used for our good – to make us stronger, to make us walk closer to Him, to give us a more loving heart. In our greatest pain we need to lean heavily on God.”
 

Most of the chapters in the book are about the everyday struggles of Christian women who juggle career and family responsibilities, ordinary women with ordinary problems. That chapter about pain pulled me back from the brink of despair, from losing all sight of hope. The reminder that I had the protection of God’s grace and mercy, was the reminder that I needed to hear. My soul was grief-stricken, but it was no longer wretched. Before October 6, the devil had me in his claws. After October 6 came the worst days of my life. It may sound incredible, but they were also the best days of my life. Jesus had not given up on me. After all my years of backsliding, Jesus was still calling my name. If those had not been the worst days of my life, I might not have answered.

 
Sorrow cannot be shared. But a kind word, a gesture of compassion, a text message or a call, however brief or self-deprecating, can offer comfort. In her book The Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion mentions the “instinctive wisdom” of a friend who brought her a bowl of congee every day for the first few weeks after her husband died suddenly from a heart attack: “Congee I could eat. Congee was all I could eat.”
 

I was also blessed with such matter-of-fact kindness from friends and strangers, people who had heard about the situation from friends or people who knew Boon and had heard about me from him but had not yet met me. Someone I didn’t know, an acquaintance of Boon’s, sent me a Whatsapp message every morning, starting from the third day. The mornings were terrible because I would wake up and realise that he was still in ICU and that there had been no call from the nurses during the night. I slept with the mobile switched on and placed next to my pillow, hoping that the nurses would call me in the middle of the night to say he had woken up. The Whatsapp messages from the stranger, now a dear friend, were a God-send. There was sometimes a Bible verse in the message, but most of the time, the message just said, “Good morning, Wei Wei!” They were the equivalent of the congee Didion’s friend brought her.

 
There was the PA of one of my bosses whom I had to call because I could not return to the office for a meeting. I left a voice message on her phone. When she returned my call, I was sitting in the corridor, paralyzed by fear and anxiety. I had never met her before, in fact, we had never spoken before. But she said very comforting words and promised to pray for Boon. A few days later I received a CD and card from her.
 

Sorrow cannot be shared. But God does know our pain, reading our souls like open books, seeing all the cuts and bruises, all the coldness and brokenness our hearts have suffered. And He does not tell us to be strong, because He knows that we are not strong. He sends words that are more than mere words. He sends us friends and strangers who become friends.
 
(to be continued)

 

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Friday, July 05, 2013

The Invisible (II)

When the invisible realm becomes visible, what should we do with what we have seen, when our powers of vision and understanding are imperfect and limited?


On the morning of October 16, 2012, the second day of the wake, an old friend AL drove me back to my flat at Jalan Batu at around two. I needed a lie-down very badly. There was a service later that evening. Many of Boon’s colleagues and ex-colleagues came to the wake to pay their respects during the lunch hour. The news had spread. He was very well-liked. There were a lot of people, and it was all rather overwhelming. Apart from me, one of Boon’s aunts (Auntie C), his mother and half-brother were at the parlour. I texted AL in the morning and was relieved when she said she could come and help out.


At the flat I asked AL if she wanted to rest too. She lay on Boon’s side of the bed, and both of us fell asleep. I had a strange dream where Boon was mad at me because I did not ask AL to change into a fresh set of clothes before she lay down on the bed. I did not see his face; he was a dark shadowy form and I saw him standing at the doorway of the flat, facing the corridor outside, and then he left in a huff. But in less than 2 minutes, he came back. I did not see him coming back inside, but I could sense that he did come back and that he was no longer upset. At this point I woke up.


Through half-open eyes still heavy with sleep, I looked at AL whose eyes were closed. I shook her arm.


“AL, AL, I had a dream about Boon. He came back here and he got really upset with me cos I let you sleep on the bed in your outside clothes. But he wasn’t mad for long.”


“Umm,” AL muttered.


I turned to the other side. Through the doorway of the bedroom, I could see the living room. I closed my eyes and napped for about ten or fifteen minutes more.


I saw a startlingly similar image to that of my dream two days later. We were at Mandai. It was the day after Boon’s cremation, October 18, 2012. A plastic box containing parts of bones and other brittle chalky bits was on the table. Beside it lay a hand hammer, chisel, and a point. We stood around the table, in a semi-circle; Auntie C, Boon’s mother, his half-brother, one of his uncles, and me. There was a man there from the stonemason. The undertaker had arranged for this man to be the one to conduct the ceremony of placing Boon’s ashes into the urn.


Someone made a comment about the bones being large. The stonemason man said this showed the person was not old. He then turned to Boon’s mother and said to her in Mandarin that after death, we become spirits. He took an iPad out and thrust it under Boon’s mother’s nose, saying, see this, see with your own eyes. It was video footage from security cameras in the crematorium, he said.


Even as I noticed the resemblance between the shadowy form that appeared on the screen of the iPad and what I saw in my dream a few days ago, I was enraged and appalled by what this man was doing and saying. I don’t know why but my reaction was to pray aloud at that very moment. In my journal entry about this incident, an entry that was also a letter addressed to Boon, I wrote:


“You have to make your way to God’s light, where you shall reside for eternity. This is why I was enraged by the stonemason’s conduct at the crematorium yesterday morning. The Holy Spirit rebuked him through me, through a prayer that states clearly that all of us who believe in the Lord God will return to Him after our earthly bodies are no longer inhabitable and that our spirits will be at home in heaven, not loitering around in crematorium spaces or anywhere on this earth.


For this reason the Holy Spirit instructed me to pray aloud, to pray this understanding for all [who were present in that room] to hear, to know without even the slightest shred of doubt, that your spirit, you, Boon, you are back in our Lord Father’s arms, peaceful, happier than you have ever been even when we were at our happiest together, because you are saved.


For this same reason I should take heart. I should stop looking over my shoulders. Looking in mirrors. Looking and searching for your presence in this flat. You have left. But you know what, I know you are watching over me . . .”
 
 

(to be continued) 

 

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The Invisible (I)

Between 1996 and 2000 I lived in an Edwardian terrace house in Cambridge. The front door opened to a small vestibule where coats and hats could be hung by the side. There was a door between the vestibule and the hallway. Down the hallway there was another door. This one opened on to the kitchen.

The moment I stepped into the kitchen with its stripped pine floorboards and the windows at the back that looked out on to the garden, I fell in love with the house. I could see myself cooking in that kitchen.
 

It was the summer of 1999. I was sitting in the kitchen one night, chatting with a friend G. It was about ten o’clock. I shared the house with two other women who were also postgraduate students. Both of them were not at home that evening. M usually came home late from the Physical Chemistry laboratory unless it was Wimbledon or cricket season, and F had gone back to London to see her father and brother.
 

Cambridge is a quiet town, except at pub closing hours in the town centre or during the time of the May balls. My street was especially tranquil.
 

Apart from G’s voice and mine, there were no other sounds. We were talking animatedly about something or other when suddenly there was the sound of a cough in the hallway. The door to the kitchen was closed. G looked at me and I looked at him.
 

“Did you just cough?” he asked. The look on his face showed that he knew as well as I did that it was a stupid question. I shook my head slowly.


“Has M come back?” he asked.
 

“I don’t think so,” I said. “We would have heard her coming in if she had come back.” M tended to stomp up the stairs.
 

“That was definitely a cough, right?” he said.
 

Yes, it was a cough, and neither of us had coughed.  
 

I was worried that there might be a burglar in the house. I wanted to look in the other rooms, including the ones upstairs, and I asked G to accompany me.  First we had to open the door to the hallway. There was no one in the hallway. Next we went to the front. The front parlour (which I used as my study) was dark, so I turned on the lights. It was empty. We opened the door to the vestibule, and then I examined the front door before opening it. The latch was not broken. We went upstairs and I went into every room, turning on the light, looking in the corners. Nothing seemed to be amiss.
 

We went back to the kitchen. G picked up his bicycle lights and said he had to head home. He asked me if I was going to be alright on my own until M came back. I was surprised he did not offer to keep me company until M’s return, but I said I was fine and he could go ahead. Perhaps that was the point at which I realized that G was not as cool and self-possessed as he tried to be. It is quite a different thing, critiquing ghost stories at literary graduate student seminars and finding yourself playing a cameo role in one.  


Looking back now, I suspect G probably wanted to cycle back to his house as fast as his legs could pedal. Funnily enough I did not feel frightened once I was sure the house had not been broken into. My sense of reassurance came from my love and yes, you could say, my trust of the house. I had always been comfortable in that house, it had the aura of a good and happy place, a nice vibe.
 

I remember thinking, if there was a spirit, he or she was a benign spirit. “You can stay here,” I said to the spirit in my head, “I guess you have been here for a long time. But please don’t cause any trouble. I have to finish my PhD.”
 

I told M about the incident. She said she too had heard sounds of someone coming into the house whilst she was in the kitchen and when she checked later, she realized she was alone. We agreed not to say anything to F because we thought she might freak out. We also did not think there was any harm in not telling her. She was very close to submitting her thesis and we did not want her to lose her focus.
 

A month or so later, on a late Sunday afternoon, it crossed my mind that I had the deeds of the house going back all the way to its first owner. If I look through them, I would be able to see the names of the people who used to live here, I remember thinking. I took out the small bundle of papers and untied the thin ribbon secured around them.
 

I was sitting on the carpeted floor of my study, close to the fireplace, and the golden light and warmth of the afternoon streamed in through the bay windows. I allowed my eyes to move slowly over the names. On some of the papers, the occupation of the person was listed. It was upon a pair of names that I paused, a brother and his sister, both of whom lived in the house for a good part of their adulthood, and as I gazed at the woman’s name, I remember thinking, this is the one.
 

I have a good memory but I don’t remember their names and their occupation. I don’t remember the dates either. This is probably the effect of an intention, either my own, or God’s. 
 

I tied up the bundle carefully and put it away. When the house was sold a few months before I left Cambridge, I asked the solicitor if I could keep the title deeds. He said yes, probably thinking I was being sentimental. I gave it quite some thought, perhaps I was being sentimental, and perhaps I wanted a memento. But in the end, something in my bones told me not to take them with me.
 

I did not know her. It is quite a different matter to encounter in this supernatural fashion someone you love and knew as a breathing bodily person. Someone you miss. I know I am not alone in having such experiences. Why do they occur? What do they signify?
 

(to be continued)

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Change

On November 8, 2012, I wrote about October 17, the day of the cremation:


The coach was parked along the curb outside the entrance to the Church Of Our Lady of Lourdes. The coffin had already been loaded into the hearse. On the coach I sat next to SF, a friend since art school days at Stamford Court in 2007. She had taken leave to be with me. The rain got heavier.


From Ophir Road the coach turned into Kallang Road. The shophouses and trees that flanked the right side of the road reminded me of dinners at Arab Street. Boon liked Middle Eastern cuisine. He was fond of figs and kebabs.


“Why are they still standing?” I asked SF. I was staring at the trees through the rain-streaked glass of the coach windows.


“They will be pulled down one day,” SF said with a sigh, thinking that I was referring to the shophouses. So much of the Singapore she and I grew up in has disappeared. How can we not be influenced by this ideology of the ever-new, the tabula rasa (coined by Rem Koolhaas for our island city of constant change)? Our sense of time is shaped by how our society deals with old things. Demolish them and replace them with shiny new things. Nothing is irreplaceable.   


But I was looking through a different frame that day. Why was everything outside still intact? Why did the trees stand tall, their trunks sturdy, unshaken? Why were their branches still outstretched? Why were the leaves still attached to the branches? Why were the shophouses still standing? Why did they not crumble? Why was everything still the same?


The roads we used to drive on, the places we used to eat at, the buildings we used to drive past, the plants along the Nicoll Highway, the trees at the Armenian Street car park, the trees at the car park behind Timbre and Substation – they are the same. Meanwhile I can no longer say "we" and mean Boon and I in any futural sense.


How could I return to Tiong Bahru where Boon’s old flat used to be, the neighbourhood of his childhood, those familiar streets where we walked my dogs? I will never be able to face those places again, the fruit stall, the Yong Tau Foo stall, the steamboat place in the corner kopitiam. They would all still be the same.


“Where's $4?” the uncle at the Yong Tau Foo stall asked Boon in Mandarin when Boon went to the stall without me. When Boon told me this, both of us laughed and laughed at the thought of me being called $4. (I always had the $4 bowl, Boon the $5.)


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Today is July 4, 2013. Eight months have passed. And this is what I write today:


Never say never. On February 14 this year, at lunch time, I took a bus to Tiong Bahru. A few weeks ago I would not have been able to drive past Great World City without breaking down. On the bus I read a text message from an acquaintance asking me if I was doing okay. I texted a standard reply. I’m ok, how are you? My mind was partly on something the counselor said at one of the sessions. Going back to places where Boon and I used to hang out, this is part of the process of coming to terms with his death.


It started to rain heavily. I did not eat at the Yong Tau Foo stall, I ate at a curry rice stall that I had not patronised before, drank a cup of teh si siu dai, took a bus back to the office.


I did not want to fall sick again, having consumed enough antibiotics to wipe out several colonies of germs in January, so I concentrated on not getting wet. I was so absorbed by my efforts to stay dry that I did not think about anything else.  It was still pouring when I left Tiong Bahru.


And this is how life carries you with it. This is the mechanism of carrying on, the cogs and wheels of me, me, me, I, I, I. It rains heavily and we focus on not getting wet. No time or energy to philosophize, to be “emo” (this is still such a peculiar word to me).


On April 11, I went back to Tiong Bahru for lunch again. This time I was not alone. SS, one of the editors in my team, was with me. We had Yong Tau Foo. After that we went for a short walk around the neighbourhood. We were very pleased to see our titles in a children’s book shop. I bought a book and a goodbye card for a friend and former colleague who was heading back to the States with his partner and baby girl. There was a bit of drizzle but the skies cleared in no time at all and the sun was out when SS and I headed back to the office in a cab.  


(to be continued)

 

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