When I lost my mother in 2011, I didn't cry.
At least not in the way that you would expect a daughter to. I was in shock mostly. But I was also exhausted from trying to keep the rest of my life from falling apart when my entire family was being dragged around in the mud. We had our hands tied and the whole world was whizzing by in a blur. By the time cancer was done with us, we were spent, walking around misty-eyed and going through our day like zombies.
Months before my mother was diagnosed with cancer, she made a surprise visit to Singapore. When I moved to this city in 2008, I just graduated from university. My mom was the one who knew I would leave the nest. She just wasn’t expecting me to do it so soon. What she thought would take me two years, I did in two months. And it took me two years since I left before I got to see her again.
Whenever I think about it now, on that time she visited me, I have a nagging feeling that she knew or that something had compelled her to come. Because it was the last time I saw her smiling and healthy. It was the last image of her as the mother I knew and loved.
The thing about cancer is that it comes like a thief in the night. As soon as we found out about it, her entire health deteriorated. By the time I saw her again, after a mad flurry to get flight tickets home, she looked like a skeleton. All the meat in her bones were gone. She looked like a shell of her former self. It broke my heart and I never got to put it back together again.
My mom had two sides of her. She was one of the funniest people I know. She had a contagious laughter. She was smart, sassy, and she dressed to kill. My mom wasn’t perfect but she was perfect for us. I loved her cooking even though half the time she burnt it, added too much water, or just got the whole recipe wrong.
But my mother can also be the scariest person I know. She could raise her eyebrow or open her eyes wider and it would shut me up when I was being naughty. I knew not to get in her way when she was stressed. She would count all my faults and find a way to raise them again at the slightest misconduct. My mom dictated the energy of the house and it would sway along with her moods.
And the past few weeks, when my mood lifts and dips, I’m reminded of her. Some days I feel like I’m becoming her.
Just a few days ago, I was looking at the mole on my right cheek. It’s a mark that I share with her. This was her own personal stamp on me. But a year before she passed away, she had hers removed.
When I was sitting with my mom on what would be her last night, I noticed that her mole was gone. I knew this because she had told me over the phone and again when she visited me in Singapore. It was weird at first. I always felt that that mole was a physical representation of our connection.
I think parents and their children have a special bond that gets forged in times of replete sadness and distress. During these times, we awaken to the humanity of our parents and we need to step up and do a role reversal. For my mom and I, there are two instances I can remember vividly where I had to act like the adult so I can pick up her pieces.
One was that time she and my dad were at the ends of their marriage. They were trying to sort themselves out but it wasn’t working. They were toxic to each other and it left everything crushed in their wake. One night, I heard my mother crying and I wanted to console her. I told her, “Mom, I know it hurts and it’s scary and you’re trying to keep the family together. But it’s okay if you want to let dad go. Do this for you both. We’ll find a way to manage. Just because you both don’t love each other anymore, doesn’t mean we will. You’re our parents, that’ll never change.” Them separating was the best thing that ever happened to our family because we found the space we needed to heal instead of always clashing against one another because of our egos.
And the other time was that last night I had with my mother. I was caressing her hair as the respirator machine wheezed in the background, pumping oxygen into her dying lungs. I could see in the moonlight that her whole body was struggling to keep her alive and so I whispered in the dark, “Mom, I know it hurts and it’s scary and you’re trying to keep the family together. But it’s okay if you want to let go. Do this for you. We’ll find a way to manage. Just because you’ve left, doesn’t mean we’ll forget. You’re our mom, we love you, and that’ll never change.” The next morning, she was gone.
While I didn’t cry that day, I haven’t stopped crying since.