By Patrick Sagaram
That afternoon your son returns home, footsteps scrapping along the corridor, keys rattling, a tentative pull of the gate, its hinges squeaking his arrival. He steps inside, sees you and stands with his head hung, eyes not meeting yours, one hand stretched out clutching papers, stapled together. On the top right hand corner, the numbers '58' are scratched out in explosive red ink. You snatch it from him, the papers quivering in your hand like a living thing.
Demand an explanation. He stutters, stammers through his excuses. You begin to get impatient. Crossing your arms, you interrupt and ask, Why so careless? We've practised this before, haven't we? Remind him of what you said in the beginning of this year when you sat him down and explained what a 250 aggregate score would mean for him next year.
Point him to his room to wash up, change and have lunch. As he slouches off, raise your voice at him to hurry. Later you glare at him as he picks at his piece of broccoli, impaling it with his fork, pushing it slowly into his mouth, chewing with closed eyes, hating it. You signal annoyance by making clucking noises with your tongue. Your hands are shaking by now.
Once he finishes eating, sit with him at the dining table and make him correct the entire paper. As he works, shoulders hunched with sweat stringing down his temples, you catch a glimpse at the drawing on the fridge, the one he made for you on Mothers' Day, years ago. The one with you looking like the colour of mould, your arms and legs poking out like sticks with the words: I love mommy in snaking capital letters. Stare at it, thinking of how much you hate it now.
When your husband returns home from work, you turn the evening into an argument. Start by expressing concern about how your son's grades keep slipping. Last time he scored 65, you say. Now, this. I'm really worried.
Your husband sinks on the sofa with the newspaper, yawning. Like before, he says things like, he didn't fail did he? and tests are so difficult these days. Your husband is clueless as usual. He sees everything in an uncomplicated way. You don't. You know what the competition is like out there. You know the fear when friends and relatives start asking questions, start comparing. And you know when you're nearing the end of your rope. So you don't mean it when the words: For God's sake, please stop making excuses for him shoots out of your mouth.
There, you've launched the opening salvo. Your husband eyeballs you, thinking of a retort. But then you see his shoulders droop, indicating he isn't in any mood to get into it with you. I'm not making excuses, he says, folding the newspapers and chucking it aside. He gets up, saying, I'm going for a walk.
Turn and walk away so you don't have to watch him close the gate. Deep down you know you didn't mean what you said. Hear the metal gate rattle and the lock snap. It isn't loud but just enough to suggest frustration. His footsteps fade down the staircase like all those times after these sorts of arguments with you. Arguments you win by enraging him.
Defend your actions by believing that your husband is always taking the boy's side. Always thinking slip-ups are okay. As you go to the kitchen to prepare dinner, you spot your son peeping through the inch-wide gap of his room door. He bends his gaze from you, closing it.
The deal was supposed to be the both of you in this together. Of late it seems as if your husband keeps making you look like the villain instead. Sure, your son is the one who listens to you, makes you little thank you cards, and proudly shows off the trophies he'd won. But from your husband, he gets all the jokes, all the laughs, all the fun.
How dare he, you think.
The next day make him dismantle the Mavic which you bought for him. A reward for being one of the top students in class. A reward, you hoped would serve as incentive. Now it appears to be just another distraction along with his mobile phone. After he packs the thing back into its box, pushing it away in the storeroom next to a pile of old newspapers, you confiscate his phone. He protests, saying this and that but you've made up your mind. Ignore that crumpled look on his face and stick your hand out and say, Give it to me. Now. He obeys, but not before covering his face and crying, quietly. Tell him to stop. Tell him these are consequences. It's all, you say, for your own good.
You can't seem to figure out what's going on with him these days. He was reading picture books by himself before he turned three. Started piano lessons by the time he entered kindergarten. Gave a recital in school during the minister's visit. There was a photo of him in the papers. You had it framed and placed on your nightstand. It traded places for your wedding portrait.
Remember the time he went through a fact-finding, 'I'm Sure You Didn't Know' phase?
Mummy I'm sure you didn't know that, he'd announce and share an interesting fact with you: Koala bears aren't bears. They're marsupials. Hummingbirds weigh less than a penny. Rattlesnakes give birth to their young.
Your son, nine years old.
All your parenting books indicated his behavior to signs of giftedness. In fact he made the GEP after being placed within the top one percent of his cohort in the tests. It meant changing schools, making new friends, fitting in all over again. Of course it's tough, nobody said it wasn't. But consider the possibilities, opportunities.
Your husband was dead against the idea. What for? he asked throwing up his hands in the air. Isn't it stressful as it is? The two of you had one big fight over this while your son sat reading from an encyclopaedia. That's one fight you wished you'd fought till the end.
You look up and your son is on the sofa, immobile, adrift in a daydream. He has put on weight since his last birthday. He gets it from his father, you think angrily. That indolence. You look at your son with disgust.
Find new ways to find fault with your husband. Even if the Mavic was your idea, your husband keeps taking him to the park to fly that silly thing. With your husband it's all fun and games. Just like that time you bought the chemistry set only to have your husband throw out the instructions, mix the chemicals around haphazardly in test tubes and beakers, causing a mini-explosion and a nasty odour that hung around for days. You were so angry but the two of them couldn't stop laughing about the whole thing.
Since he started making trips with your son to the library, your boy has been obsessed with picture books on jets. His latest interest is the ones where they show the cross section of the aircraft and explain how everything inside worked. He gets through three to four books a week, instead of assessment books you bought at Popular. All his free time is spent sketching those planes from memory. His room is filled with drawings of jets taking flight, engines aglow.
Just the other day when you were cleaning his room, you kept thinking what's the point of all this when you husband walked in holding one of the drawings saying, He's quite talented, isn't he?
From now onwards, you said, angling the dustpan to sweep bits of eraser shavings off the floor, I'm taking him to the library.
Why? Is there a problem with me taking him?
You shook your head, leaned the broom against the wall. If I take him, you said, maybe he'll learn something.
That's not fair, he said, rolling the piece of paper in his hands into a tube. Cutting his eyes at you, he said, You never appreciate how smart he is.
After your husband walks away, you look up at the ceiling and stare. A practised move to keep the tears from falling.
You have a few regrets of your own. Despite early successes in Cedar and VJC, you dropped out of University after six months, a disappointment to your father who was still grieving over your mother's death the year before. Nights you'd find him sitting alone in his room, sobbing into a towel. You struggled but managed to find your footing in insurance, got married at 26 and became a mother two years later. You thought you could do it all and there were times you talked yourself into believing you could. But there was also another part, which considered the possibility of failure. Of biting off more than you can chew. You can't be good at everything. But you can choose to be the kind of mother you want to be. So you gave up all aspirations, deciding once and for all that your son comes first.
Schedule an appointment with your son's teacher. Ask questions regarding your son's behaviour, attitude, etc. Raise concerns of Attention Deficit Disorder. At some point you mention that he was a prospective GEP student so you're puzzled to see his grades slip.
The teacher will agree with you, saying you're right; your son appears distracted in class, stares out of the window or spaces out during lessons. His hands get cramped and he feels tired after a page of writing although when asked, he answers questions correctly. What he enjoys, the teacher says, is doodling away in his little notebook.
I'm concerned about that, you say. Especially about that.
The teachers here make sure he's kept on task, she reassures you with a wave, so there's nothing to be worried about. Give him time. He's a bright boy.
I've heard this all before, you think. A teacher's standard response to I don't know what's wrong with your son so I'll just make something up to get you off my back. As she talks, you study her face thinking she can't be more than 25 or 26. She's wearing a pair of oversized eyeglasses and her hair is choppy with side swept bangs reminding you of those trendy pop stars on TV. You listen, smile and try not to lose your patience. You smile in a way you do at someone you wish would just, please stop talking.
She goes on making small movements with her mouth. You give up. Let your eyes wander outside at the nearest window where clusters of flats bunch together as clouds circle the sky like grey brains. For a moment you picture your hands encircling her neck like a noose as you throw her over the parapet and watch her fall, arms flailing. You only snap out of it when she stops, clasps her hands and leans towards you as though to let everything she said sink in. Mrs Wong, the teacher asks, is there anything else?
Do an online search for tuition centers and see the words: 'Your Child's Tomorrow Starts Today', 'Outstanding Reputation' and 'Dedicated & Finest Teachers'. Click on many links as possible to learn what types of programmes are offered. Make a list. Read reviews posted on parenting forums online and strike off from your list the ones with a high turnover rate of tutors or those lacking in rigour in their assignments. Seek recommendations from other parents in your son's school. You've managed to resist the idea but now you cannot afford to take any more chances.
Start making calls to the centers on your list. Your questions are so exhaustive, you hear the exasperation in the voice of the person on the other line.
Look at this, your husband is saying holding the newspaper in front of your face as the two of you sit reading in bed. Seven in ten parents surveyed don't think tuition did anything for their grades. Ignore him. Continue to ignore him when he says, These parents all so insecure. Get fed up and snap, I'm not going to stand by and do nothing. Your husband will shake his head and bury his face in the newspaper. Turn away from him and continue pouring over the brochure from Learning Alchemy. Continue reading late into the night after your husband turns off the light on his side of the nightstand and goes to sleep without saying goodnight.
So you've found a tutor? Good.
Next, draw up a schedule and stick it on the fridge over the drawing of you. You need to put a structure in place so he is kept occupied and doesn't get a chance to waste any time.
Sit with him in the kitchen as he huddles over his books and notes, scribbling away. Should your tailbone hurt and your legs get tired, stand and hover over his shoulder.
If he copies numbers incorrectly, forgets decimal points or gives answers that aren't to the point, show your displeasure by blowing a burst of air into your fringe. Ask why he isn't paying close attention to grammatical structures. Get irritated when he struggles to find clues buried in the text. Say, Can't you see? It's right there in front of you.
Return to Popular and fill another basket full of assessment books.
Blame yourself for not finding out sooner. If only, you say.
On the day of his first paper, you want to find some words of encouragement but all you do is smooth his hair and run your thumb along the parting of his hairline.
You watch as he shoulders his bag, waves a fragile hand at you.
You don't notice the loss of appetite, withdrawal into his room nor the insomnia. You didn't think much about the sudden bedwetting. When the teacher called to inform you that he had flung a water bottle at a classmate, you put it down to boys being boys.
You don't suspect anything wrong when your husband mentioned that when he took him to the park to fly the drone, he spent most of the time staring at the sky.
The morning it happened he had locked himself in his room. When he didn't respond, your impatience turned to panic as you kept hitting the door until your knuckles turned white. When your husband finally opened it using the spare key, your son wasn't inside and the windows were thrown wide open. You stood there in your nightdress, one hand cupped over your mouth.
You don't remember much about the funeral except the miniature casket, the floral arrangements and the chants of Buddhist monks. The only the thing you remember is your husband leaning on your shoulder the entire time as you held his hand. By the end of the ceremony your shoulder was wet and your hand got numb.
Afterwards, friends and relatives followed you home. People gathered around, offering comforting words. You felt their hands patting your shoulder, rubbing your back. You shouldn't be by yourself, they all said like they knew what they were talking about. All you wanted was to be left alone, wrapped in grief and misery that cannot be measured.
By the end of the following year, your husband will leave you. He will be unflinching when he puts his signature on the papers because despite trying everything – couple's therapy, medication and even prayer – your husband will weep every time you get close to him.
So much of him in you, he will say, holding your hand, eyes bloodshot. He had whispered this to you before, these same words, on the night your boy was born. But now you know it's different. Now he needs to be angry with someone. Now he needs someone to blame.
Days after the funeral, you stand in your son's room in the powdered light of the evening. There are sketches of aeroplanes everywhere. Your eye catches one he'd left lying on the desk. It strikes you as something different because of the way he used colours, the way he placed one lone jet above the other two, streaking past the sun that seems to you like a keyhole to some hellish inferno. You stare at it for a long time, until your eyes burn and your world funnels into emptiness. You're afraid if you close your eyes, it'll be gone.QLRS Vol. 18 No. 1 Jan 2019