Dealing with death

Death is not a favourite topic in anything – be it in conversations, blogs, columns or commentaries. I for one, am only willing to talk about it if one is staring right in front of my face, and I have to deal with it with as much acceptance and dignity as I can. That has happened several times in my life, but only 3 of the deaths were impactful to me and manage to drown me in an emotional abyss so deep, that my psyche automatically reaches out to leap – maybe just because by nature I am a bubbly person – not wanting to sink into sadness or unacceptance of what God has ordained.

The 3 deaths were that of my father, my cousin and a classmate. I lost Abah to a bout of stroke when I was 10. I had fond memories of him, one of my favourites being the one when he carried me over his shoulder just so I would not wet my newly-white canvas shoes over a puddle of water when sending me to kindergarten class. I remember how he would chide my sister and my elder cousins for scolding me when I was naughty, because I was his golden girl. I used to sleep with Abah and Mak on their bed, right up till I was 9. I recall how I would I wake up in the middle of the night, feeling humid and hot, and Abah would lovingly reach out for a file of old newspapers and fan me with it. We didn’t have a fan then. I really appreciate what little memories I have of him, and so when he passed on – I was sad and thought I would be lonely. I vividly remember the day of his funeral, when my 10-year old mind wandered off as I stared out of the window – thinking how I would miss my Abah so much that I would go to his grave and dig it up. Well, I didn’t. I was blessed with so many people around me I hardly feel alone. I grew up very loved by everyone, and until today – I thank God for all that.

The second death that I had to face head on was that of my cousin.I was 22 then – young, adventourous and finding love. I was in the midst of a heartbreak and decided to run away from it all, during the 2nd-year semester break in September 1994.I had told a campus mate that I wanted to have some peace and fun in New Zealand, which I love for its scenic beauty, and my favourite elder cousin Kak Wati would be my partner in crime.

On that fateful day, Kak Wati, myself and an old friend drove along Burkes Pass in NZ in a rented car, and it was a beautiful, gorgeous day. There were rolling mountains and deep valleys and we were soaking in the mood with music, chatter and jokes in the car. The crash was not forthcoming.

The car tumbled and was overturned. I lost Kak Wati at that very instant, and even as I write it now, I am still shaken by the memory of that incident. I could not understand then why my life was spared, how I only had a scratch and a small rib fracture, while Kak Wati’s 30 yeard old life then was taken away, in a flash. I dealt with her death well, but I cannot allow myself to remember the incident without knowing there will be a flood of anxiety creeping in me, like it does now. On a recent trip to LA, my nieces and nephew asked me about how ‘Cik Wati’ died, and I could not even finish my story with them. Ayad, my 16 year-old nephew, thanked me for what little information I shared about it, even though I was choking with anxiety half way. I appreciated that, and was secretly proud of his sensitivity.

The third, which was one of the most painful – was that of LL, a classmate whom I remember to be one of the funniest, happy-go-lucky girl in TKGS then. She was in NCC, and was popular, and when we all parted ways after our O levels in 1988, I lost contact with her .

Ten years later, I was in the car on the causeway heading back to Singapore. A g/f called me and said there is an obituary in the papers and it was that of LL’s. I could not believe that she has died, until I reached home and saw the picture on the obituary myself. Then we were all only 27. The next day, I had planned to go to her wake with the other girls after work, and we started coordinating car pools.

Just as I was packing up to go, I had this strange curiosity to ask a colleague, Chin Hon, who was covering crime stories in the newsroom then, to check with the police on the cause of her death. I dont know what I was doing, it was as if some strange energy just pushed me to do it. As a crime reporter, he would have access to information from the police not often allowed to be published in the papers, what we would call as off-the-record. I had an inkling that I am heading for an off-the-record piece of information.

As I waited patiently at my desk, an internal message flashed on my computer screen from Chin Hon. ‘Zuzan, you may want to come over’. That one line was enough to make me feel as if the world has stopped spinning. I knew it was not positive. Chin Hon didnt have the heart to tell me what I was about to know over the internal message. LL had jumped to her death, 7 mths pregnant.

I was very confused dealing with her death. I did not know how to position the LL I knew – a bubbly, church-going person, to the one who decided to take her own life away. I chickened out from the funeral, as my anxiety was escalating. I did not want to deal with the reality that someone I know personally and has slept in my house for a sleepover has committed suicide. Until today, I dont talk much about her or her death. This was the beginning of how I know I do not deal with sudden deaths well.This blog entry is also one of the few times I choose to talk about her death.

Yesterday, a friend told me over MSN that a former colleague in ST died in a car crash in Sydney, 2 mths ago. I don’t know him as well as the person who informed me, but I remember he had jammed with us once or twice. Thomas Lee was a very decent guy, mild mannerred and was sort of a pioneer for some of us who decided to leave news and go to tech business journalism, which I did for 2 years.

I was thinking of Thomas a lot last night. This morning, on my long drive back from downtown I thought of him again. Thomas was 36, and apparently was very happy with his new life in Sydney and doing very well. I felt sad, shocked and confused in the same tumbling way I felt about Abah’s, Kak Wati and LL’s. The puzzle is – I don’t even know Thomas that well.

Here in Canada, there is a culture of putting up crosses and flowers where accidents occur – those that have taken lives away. The crosses and flowers are usually put up by the victims’ loved ones as a remembrance for the victim/s. Along the highways where we drive on daily, there are at least 5 that I noticed. Each time I look at them, that same creepy anxiety filled me. I am indeed reminded of the fragility of life.

I understand now that I do not deal with sudden deaths well. I am blessed that I am even thinking about it,planning how to deal with it better and be more accepting, because I know of many, who do not even want to think of death as a reality. I am not sure what would be better, thinking about it or deal with it when it comes.

The latter, obviously, did not work well with me.

Borderly Behaviour

Its funny how the US seems so far away when I was a child but now a mere 45 minutes away by car.

We did a roundabout trip to Washington State today so that I can re-enter Canada and close the last of a string of procedures to obtain my permanent residency, and the drive was so short (45 minutes in humoungous Canada IS short!). Once we entered, we drove to Burger King, had a box of fries and then came out from another border checkpoint from a parallel street we came in from. It was hilarious for a Singaporean like me who grew up braving the tail-less Johor-Singapore causeway. There was hardly any queue.

I have always found that checkpoint officers, whether they are in the airport of super-economies or 3rd world countries are totally versatile in their mood swings. Hit them on the wrong day, when the sun is not shining so bright on them – and you WILL get it. I had a certain neighbourly officer threw my passport at me before, the moment he realised that I worked in his country. Another country insisted I filled up an entry form written in Persian. Wearing the hijab and almost always travelling alone, I am so used to being asked more questions than the average Joe post 911, and I have mastered to answer all their security questions with a smile. Hey, these guys are just doing their jobs. The best you can do is to make it a pleasant day for them too. But I have also had the luck meeting another checkpoint officer who offered me a piece of kuih the moment I reached his counter, because the Maghrib’s azan just sounded and it was Ramadan. There was also one who wrote phone numbers of who to call and who to contact if I get into trouble in his country. There was also one who notices my wedding ring and asked about it. Thank God he did not ask about my shoes, cause I hardly travel in fancy ones.

Today the Canadian officers won my heart hands down. I am certain I am not feeling all sentimental just because today is my official permanent residence day, but they were so warm and inviting (all 3 of them!) that you feel that Makcik Limah has just invited you to your home to have a cup of tea and eat goreng pisang. You know, THAT kind of warmth.

As we drove off, I looked around the area and noticed it has the prettiest lawns and along it, some pretty nice quaint houses too. The border where I re-entered was flanked by a river as well, and everything amongst the elements were saying Welcome back to Canada. I did not have the same feeling when I entered Washington State – the officers were stern-faced, the surroundings were industrial and the houses, err…not so pretty.

Now what’s with this Canada is pretty and inviting and the US is just hip and funky country, but ain’t somewhere-I-wanna-live feeling all about? Is it ominous that I get 2 differing treatments barely 20 minutes from each other from the 2 countries?

I know how Canadians feel about Americans generally. This, could be my investiture.

Oh dizzy!

I didn’t know that it was going to be 99. Yes, 99 documentaries in 10 days. I had thought that it was going to be quite a headache to select the ’20’ documentaries I had thought would be screened at the Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto this May ( but noooooo….it had to be 99. Now I am dizzy.

I have been diligently trawling through each and every one of the synopsis to shortlist which screenings I would like to go. Hasben is supposed to make his selection too, but I am not sure if he has the patience to trawl the 99 synopses like I did. Well, I didn’t.

After synopsis 67 I realised that there were quite a sizeable number of docus on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. I felt a lil bit fed-up, perhaps the after-effects of watching the 4-hour long Route 181 documentary twice, it finally crept on me that so many ‘little voices’ were trying to speak up about the border issues. All the docus listed on the conflict were about friendships, love, struggle and everything else anti-thetic to the violence, aggression and hostility we are all so accustomed to about the two neighbours. So I ask myself, why on earth did I like this genre. There’s so much responsibility in it! As if, driving safely was not a big enough responsibility on long, winding and oh-so-tempting-to-speed Canadian highways here.

So after an afternoon of tiresome self-reflection (that perhaps I should ditch non-fiction content and go for crafting fictional characters instead to relieve me of ‘some’ amount of responsibility..hah!), I was delightfully cheered up when Hasben came back and said, ‘Its going to snow tomorrow!’. Yes, in the middle of spring, when it has been sunny and warm, with all the tulips, daffodils and cherry blossoms in full bloom, the SNOW decided to fall. Welcome to Canada.

I had a brief moment of silence in respect of the bugs and the bees who now have to find shelter against the crystals falling on their heads, but a large part of the Singaporean me was leaping for joy. When I first arrived in Canada back in 2003, it was snowing. That was the beginning of winter, and I was told that I was lucky – because Vancouver only gets 5 or so days of snow a year as compared to freezing Toronto. So to get a snow day in Spring in BC is considered heaven. And so I relish and…err…waited with baited breath for the first powder to fall.

It was a loooonnng wait. I had a tosai with the extended in-laws and later fried chicken in the car while waiting for it. Hasben tried to console me and said,”Maybe it will fall in the middle of the night?”. I nearly opted for a camp-out on our driveway, just so I can watch the snow fall in Spring, when he said that.

I never saw it. I was grumpy and grouchy and so very frustrated that the snow did not happen. When we drove along the highway the next morning, we both realised that the mountains had a slight white dusting on the tree tops, which only meant that the snow did fall but only on the mountains the night before. And so my flaky, mindless snow-chasing mission popped.

Looks like it is back to the remaining 32 or so documentary synopses to read.
Now I am back to being dizzy again. Good thing someone gave me a koyok pack as a send-off gift.

Gym Jamboree

So yesterday was the day that I declared, if I can be walloping bowls of hot tom yam and lasagna in the same week, I am definitely cold-free.

I decided to stop embarassing myself by saying a meek ‘byeee’.. everytime my MIL and SIL hit the gym, totally guilt-free.I figure it would do me good to be huffing and puffing again, something I have not done since I was last in Canada back in Sep 2004.

So I cheeerfully announced to MIL and SIL that I am following them to the gym yesterday, much to the excitement of everyone. MIL reminded me to take it slow with cardio, and not stressed myself with the machines while SIL was almost hyperventilating talking about the ice-skating rink she wants to show me at the gym. BIL was at the Ruskin house too, and he was trying to promote walking near his house instead. DH was at work, so he skipped the exercise promo.

We (me and SIL) went to the gym earlier than usual, and that means we have 2 hours to workout before MIL can pick us up at 7.30 pm. She goes to a different gym, about 5 mins away – because she wants to go for their Monday spinning class with Brad.I dont know who Brad is, but he must be hot because MIL has to book him a day before just to get in his class. His class is apparently super-popular. He must be the super-motivating type of instructor. It ain’t easy leading a group of 20 to keep cycling up that hill, when the bike didnt even move and when you look around, you are still within the 4 walls of the gym hall. Spinning is scary for me, man- Brad or Brad-less.

After an hour of on the treadmill and the climber and a few arms-n-back machines later, I was tired, and so was SIL. We were hungry, and we had a hard time fighting our hunger pangs while sitting at the cafe near the gym.

We gave in. Yes, me, again. As if Tom Yam versus Vancouver Canucks was not a lesson for me just a few days ago, I gave in to a plate of ‘small’ fries. Hey it was hard ok? There was this annoying kid who was eating plates of those at the table next to ours ! SIL was strong though, she only took 2 pieces of the fries. I was embarassed – a 16-year old beat me in resistance. Damn.

We looked at the time and we had 30 minutes left before MIL finished her session with Brad, so we walked out of the gym, cross the softball field and braved pelting raindrops on my bandana-ed head. SIL said – “Come kakak, let’s eat gelato!”. I wanted to say no, but hey, this was her weak moment too – so I have to be there for family, yes?

I had a cup of of the creamy, lip-smacking coffee gelato. SIL’s was even yummier – a very thick and gorgeous cup of chocolate gelato. As I slurped spoonfuls of the gelato into my mouth, I could hear a little voice in my head humming…”Loserrrrr….loserrrrr…”. God, it was painful to have yourself call you a loser.

Heck it, I exercised ok – so I deserve a lil’ treat.