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Sorrow entered our lives in October of 1972 when Mother was admitted into the
General Hospital. It was totally out of the blue – one minute she was fine and
the next thing I knew, I received a call from the hospital to inform me that
she had been hospitalized. Fortunately, Rick was home on leave so we
immediately paid her a visit. She appeared rather weak but otherwise seemed to
be ok. The doctor told us that x-rays had shown a “shadow” on one of her lungs
and he had decided to keep her in hospital to carry out further tests.
During our visit, Mother asked for my assistance to help her to use the
bathroom. I thought it was rather strange and so off-topic when she remarked
that she was glad I had married Rick as she would otherwise not have enjoyed
the grapes that I had brought for her! Upon reflection, I realized it was her
way of telling me that she approved of my marriage after all. As it turned out,
those were the final words of any significance that she uttered. We left soon
after with a promise to return the next morning after breakfast.
The next morning, Rick and I returned to the hospital and met up with Brother.
We were shocked beyond belief to learn that Mother had lapsed into a coma. The
doctor discussed with us the pros and cons of an operation to try and save her
life but we could not bring ourselves to sign our approval based on Mother’s
life-long insistence against going under a surgeon’s knife. She had always
insisted that she wanted to return to her Maker, as she had arrived into this
world – intact. As I sat by her bedside and held her hand, I wondered if she
would be able to hear any spoken words… I desperately thought of telling her
a lie – that I had fallen pregnant – to try to give her the will to live but
thought the better of it, for fear of negative repercussion upon her recovery.
We left the hospital soon after with plans to check on her condition the next
At 6 o’clock on the morning of October 9th (the first day of the fasting month
of Ramadan), we were awakened by a telephone call. Rick answered the call and
was informed that Mother had passed away peacefully just minutes before! We
were in total disbelief – I reacted by remaining unusually and surprisingly
calm and didn’t shed a tear – more like a robot than human, actually. I guess
it was God’s way of helping me cope with reality on that day. As Muslims, we
believe that death is a departure from the life of this world, but not the end
of a person’s existence. Rather, eternal life is to come, and we pray for God’s
mercy to be with the departed, in hopes that they may find peace and happiness
in the life to come. Grief at the loss of a loved one is normal and it’s okay
to cry but loudly wailing and screaming our grief is frowned upon. We are
instead encouraged to strive for patience and to remember that God is the One
who gives life and takes it away. According to Islam, the soul leaves the body
at the point of death and that the body does not belong to the individual but
to God. They also believe that unless the body is buried within 24 hours of
death, (preferably before sundown on the day of death), the soul will not be
able to progress to heaven. If I had gone to pieces right away, Brother would
have to shoulder everything on his own. As it turned out, Rick and I were able
to work together with Brother to speedily organize Mother’s funeral.
Brother went to Rahimah’s home with the sad news and she immediately changed
into white clothing (Muslim mourning colour) and accompanied him to meet up
with us at the mortuary. Rick and I contacted as many of Mother’s siblings and
relatives as possible and we all congregated at the Bidadari Muslim Cemetery
where Mother’s body was transported for the ritual ablution (cleansing) that
afternoon. I was the only family member present for the ritual as only children
and Muslim relatives of the same sex as the deceased may attend. To this day,
the scent of the bath soap used will evoke memories of that very sad day.
After the ritual cleansing, Mother’s body was wrapped in a “kain kafan”
(seamless white shroud), sprinkled with sweet smelling atar oil and powdered
sandalwood and transported to the burial site. Her body was then laid to rest
with her cheek touching the earth, on her right side, with her face turned
toward Mecca. Only after she was buried and prayers said did the fact hit home.
I was in the car with Rick and as we drove off from the cemetery gate, I turned
to him and whispered, “I am now an orphan.” Then the tears began to flow…
When I look at the above photo (taken the year before she passed away), I see
not a photo of a gambling addict but a courageous woman who had survived not
only the Japanese occupation of Singapore in WW2, but also the many challenges
that Life had thrown her way. I remember her account of a horrible time in her
life when her husband was taken away by the Japanesse for giving cigarettes to
the PoWs at Changi Prison and how she was left not knowing if she would ever
see him again. In order to protect herself from being raped by the Japanese
occupiers, she entered a marriage of convenience with an Indian Muslim friend.
She went further by purposely dirtying her face to detract from her beautiful
Chinese features. This was done because back then, the Japanese occupiers
regarded the local Chinese (especially the Straits-born Chinese) as the allies
of the British and therefore, the enemies of Japan. As a “Malay woman with an
Indian husband”, she bravely sought and found employment as a seamstress with
the Imperial Japanese Army just to qualify for the meagre food rations to feed
herself, her mother and young son (my brother). After the war and the return of
her real husband, she patiently put up with his philandering ways, survived
several miscarriages, adopted and ‘lost’ 6 baby girls and finally realized her
dream of having a daughter by adopting me. When she was left a widow in 1953,
she did not hesitate to work tirelessly as an “amah” (housemaid) to
care for Brother and me.
I did not notice how thin she was until I recently compared old photographs – I
realized now that the years of hardship and the various ailments she had endured
in her life-time (diabetes, goiter and possibly cancer toward the end of her
life) had taken their toll. I bitterly regret the fact that I never did thank
her for adopting and raising me to the best of her ability, never did tell her
that I loved her and I wasn’t given a chance to say a final goodbye.