In Stages: Dying, Death, Living After Death
By Chew Yi Wei
In August 1999, I was on the threshold of 18, slated to sit for my GCE 'A' Levels examinations at the end of that fateful year, when my mother was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. Bad news never comes easy. At that age, I was nothing less than vulnerable. Back then, the whole idea of cancer was foreign to me. If anything, I took it to be other people's reality, the stuff of formulaic melodramas I saw on television, a byword for death. When it befell my mother, on such a crucial year as 1999, I was gripped by a veritable sense of doom as well as a strange, unworldly sort of disbelief.
The late Susan Sontag, herself a sufferer of breast cancer, intellectualised away her mitotic malady with as much literary and semantic wit as she did mortified, mangled terror. Perhaps the desire to detach herself from her illness was about as necessary a treatment as chemotherapy was. She laments without any dreary-eyed desire to seek any form of sympathy or empathy from non-sufferers that metaphor has somehow come to distinguish and define how cancer as a disease is understood. "Nothing," she asserts, "is more punitive than to give disease a meaning The disease itself becomes a metaphor The disease becomes adjectival." As forms and figures of speech are wired into our cognitive realities, we are no longer able to distinguish between the language of disease and the disease of language. And this was exactly how I approached my mother's illness: unconsciously and moralistically. Her cancer became a war I had to fight and overcome. In order that I was successful at it, I made sure I was, first of all, armed with a self-exonerating morality, a morality which made me feel better, which would make apologies for all the hurtful things I had said and done to her before the doctor declared war against my mother's mammary malignancy.
There was a wardrobe that partitioned the bed, which she shared with my father, from her dressing table. In my early adolescent years leading up to her illness, I had used this fixture as a separation device we never got along swimmingly, my mother and I. Spatially, the wardrobe's position, its distance from her bed, and hence her being, became for me a safe buffer; I could not bear any sort of physical, much less emotional, intimacy with her. However, by force of circumstance upon her diagnosis, I decided there and then that I should step beyond that wardrobe, that self-imposed imaginary line I set for myself, so that I could be of better comfort to her, so that I would be able to alleviate my guilt of my hitherto shying away from her. Her room became a battlefield on which battle lines had to be re-drawn and withdrawn, and I was the lone soldier who had no choice but to charge beyond the line of defence I had once so tactically marked out for myself. Because her death seemed so imminent and so unforgiving in 1999, I put aside my defences and, in a way, settled on a truce with her.
Recovery led to complacency, however. When she got better between the years 2000 and 2006, I once again resurrected my imaginary line of defence; old enemy lines were recalled and the wardrobe once again separated her camp from mine. My metaphor-induced morality fizzled away as quickly as I was seized by it.
Time plays the waiting game with us in times of health and sickness. Sooner or later, the latter catches on, catches up an inevitability, a not-so-distant country that all of us will someday take residence. In the parlance of Sontag again, "Illness is a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick." Quite predictably then, her cancer suffered a relapse in 2006; it reconquered her body with mirth and malice, as if it were telling us that it gave her too long a deferment from death. She had to, in all measure, return to that cold but familiar country. Her journey was aided most swiftly by startling immunological changes: the cells first took her legs by planting polymorphous time bombs in each section of her spine. They pressed on her nerves, tightly, stubbornly. The pressure first caused her immense pain pain which only her body could understand then by some strange act of mercy, she lost all feeling in her legs. When we are in the kingdom of the sick, curses can grudgingly become special kinds of mercies rather ravaged nerves than raucous pain. Like any other battle on which cities are subjugated by unremitting armies, those lethal cells moved confidently to her vocal chord, insidiously and invidiously depriving her of her voice. What used to be a clear and resolute voice became a scratchy assembly of decibels. As the days passed, all she could do was to lie on her bed and call out to God, sometimes to heal her, sometimes to spare her, and eventually to take her. Her broken voice is now braided in my memory; I hear it everyday still, with the humming of the standing fan blowing directly at her, its wind intertwining with those cries to heaven.
She took her last breath on the morning of August 29, 2007, before the sun rose. It was a balmy Wednesday morning, around 7.45am, when I got the news. The room was still dark when I left the house at around 6.50am. The fan was humming its mechanised drone. My parents were still sound asleep. Everything seemed normal as I knew normality to be in the kingdom of the sick, so I left the house for work as I always did by wondering how the day would turn out, given that my mother had long been straddling the precarious and transitory world of the suffix, "-ying". She had been dying for a long time and it was only a matter of time that she would die. The night before had been a particularly difficult one. She could no longer sit on her own. Her body, like a rag doll, had to be propped up. Housing her diseased bones was her dry, shrivelled skin, awaiting expiry. After a futile attempt to feed her, we brushed her teeth and put her to bed. I kissed her and said goodnight. For the very last time.
In the incipient stages of discovery, diagnosis and shock, my mother's illness brought the family closer. My father, being his usual taciturn self, said nothing much to me, except that I should concentrate on my exams and not worry. He would, he had promised, handle the rest. My brother was more practical. Unlike me, he refused to indulge in my mother's illness. Instead, he wrote a letter his first and last to her, in all his 16-year-old sweetness, telling her to be strong and that he would always be there for her. I never knew about this letter till the day she passed away. How this happened was nothing short of fortuitous.
(The immediate wake of death postpones the rush of mourning with a host of administrative matters to handle. The dead need not deal with the mundane details of bills and wills; they leave behind the living duties to be executed forms to find and fill in, lawyers to call, and banks to visit. These things to close a life, officially, before the invisible throes of missing set in.)
My father had asked me to rummage through her documents so that we might find her phone bills and cancel her phone line. I forced myself to move beyond the wardrobe not that I had to avoid her anymore, even if I wanted to. I found it infinitely harder to walk towards an empty bed, without her. But I did anyway and ran my fingers along a line of pastel-coloured files, arranged back to back. I chose a green translucent one with folders attached to its spine; a printed image of some Precious Moments characters graced its cover (my mother found those little dole-eyed people to be endearing). As I flipped the folders randomly, I came across an A4-sized paper, with uncharacteristically neat handwriting. It was my brother's letter to her, dated August 1999. I sat down on her side of the bed and read it, the world fading into white, my mother's presence just a breath away. That was also the last time I ever moved beyond the wardrobe. I closed the file, without finding the bills.
To date, this memory remains with me and it affords me a smile each time I think about it. Somehow, as my brother grew into late adolescence and subsequently into early adulthood, he and my mother began to talk less and less, the distance between them becoming wider. I do not remember how or why their relationship ended up so perforated, so silent; I suppose people can sometimes grow apart without any explicable reason. But at least there was that irreplaceable, redemptive moment, however fleeting, between them a moment that my mother, in her privacy, could experience with a joy only she could fully understand.
The days that followed her death took some getting used to. When I got back home each afternoon, all I saw in the receding light of the dying day was an empty bed with a depression on its left side, her side, where she sat and slept in days of health and sickness. The curtain was hardly drawn since her passing, as there was no need to air the room for anyone anymore in the afternoons. Her personal effects were left untouched. The portable DVD player, which my father bought her just a few months before her passing so that she was able to watch her favourite Chinese drama serials, was now switched off. Her books, many of which were left unread books about health and healing, stood quietly upon her shelf. The plastic flowers remained alive, undead. A little passport-sized photo of my five-year old self, taken in black and white, now blanched, was left in her wallet. These objects betrayed a silence which never failed to shake my world each time I walked past her room. The smell of sickness lingered, despite death having outlived it.
Looking back on the asphyxiating silence of those afternoons, I am reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story of the untold trials of suburban characters. In the story, titled ironically 'The Lees of Happiness', the protagonist Roxanne possesses a disturbing tenacity of heart, a maddening dutifulness of spirit. Her husband, terminally ill for 11 years, has by the final year of his life ceased to display any remote sense of existence; yet, she strives on, cleaning him, feeding him, talking to him, till death do they part. He, being irredeemably incapacitated, can only look on expressionlessly at the hours wasting away, waiting unconsciously, perhaps to die. And when he dies, Roxanne like me is faced with a room, vacuous but reeking with ghosts. Fitzgerald is observant, but not attached. Like a camera lingering at the doorway, Fitzgerald says plainly and impassively: "Roxanne awoke at two, and realized that she was all alone in the house at last." A moment of waking that is tragic, liberating and banal.
We moved out of the house in March 2008. That afternoon, I found myself standing outside her room, stubbornly refusing to go in. It occurred to me then that I would never see it again. By this time, the room was cleared of everything, leaving nothing but the wardrobe and the ghosts of unresolved tensions. At 4.30pm, all that was present was the fading light of day stretched across the dusty parquet floor, filling the room with a mixture of sobriety and melancholy. The evening birds were slowly resuming their evensong and the afternoon crickets making their daily cacophony in the surrounding trees. As I looked into her room, I felt the weight of what used to be there; it never felt stronger. A part of me wanted, just for the very last time, to go into the room to catch or salvage at least something, a pocket of lost time, a bleached memory before the moment of no return, but alas, I chickened out. My mother's presence was too distressingly palpable. I missed her terribly but I could not face the tactility of all that was hers of her life, her dying and her death. I felt a surge of grief and relief when my father shouted for me, for the final time, that we should be going. "Coming!" I shouted and turned my back away from her room forever.
Jonathan Franzen wrote about a similar experience of his mother's death and his old house in St Louis, in his essay, 'Meet Me in St Louis'. He is an angst-ridden and impassioned one, Franzen. We share the same method of coping with loss. We run away from the things that remind us of what we no longer have. After his mother passed away, Franzen imagined her eating a plate of peas in all her "frugality and optimism", but he was unable to stay in the kitchen where all that took place. When his brother called for him to move, he ran from his past, like he would for his life in the face of danger. We run. We run. With many a shard of regret and denial.
Life, for the living, after the death of a loved one, is a long, arduous road a road of memory, missing, melancholy and mourning. It has been five years since my mother left but my life continues to be peppered with her presence: her voice I still hear, her face I still see. Time has not been able to efface the sadness shrouding her possessions. Each object leaves a quiet trace of footsteps steps the dead tread within the lives of the living in perpetual goodbye.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 4 Oct 2012