Sound and Pristine Health
By Eugene Ong
My mother sits sullenly in the back of the taxi, fearing for the stilted conversations to come at our family's reunion dinner, fearing for the chap chye she must ingest, but most of all, I think, fearing for the relapse of her breast cancer. Anodyne chit-chat and wasted time frustrate her endlessly. Idle talk is not valued in my family. "The earliest possible taxi – so I can come back early," she states, staring out the car window. My father acquiesces to her, and though it is his family we are visiting, he doesn't make a sound.
"So, the doctor has cleared your ECG blood test?" I venture, breaking the silence among the three of us. My hope: that my careful modulation of tone mollifies her, reminds her that we've turned some dark page and there's something to look forward to this new year.
"Yes." It's unsuccessful. She turns to my father and says that we must endure waves of relatives oblivious to bad food, and of eating from Styrofoam plates instead of proper cutlery. It's a cardinal sin to her. She's almost 70, waning by the years, and wants nothing more than to retreat home. She'll spend all her energy restoring the apartment to a pristine soundness, as if housekeeping will mend her frazzled state of mind, and then curl up asleep in her room. "It's a chore," she protests. "Obligatory to go."
"You're my mother," I say. "What can I do to help?"
Some things remain constant on the Lunar New year at Cactus Road, such as the moon that beams down on this curious street of old semi-detached houses built in the 1980s, though they have nothing to do with succulent desert plants, and my aunt Cheng Hoon, who greets us with her cats when three of us alight. She wobbles because of mild osteoporosis yet her enthusiasm is boundless. Illness has always plagued my extended family. "Hi, Evelyn and Willy! Hi, Andrew, Happy New Year!" It's dusk and so she doesn't see the thunderclouds on my mother's face, nor does she know of the book she's stashed in her sling bag. The Lost City of Z – for entertainment. In case of emergencies.
"Don't mind the cats, Eve," Cheng Hoon warns, but she grimaces when one of them brushes against her leg at the dinner table. As the eldest, my father's sister is irrepressible every Lunar New Year. She orchestrates these yearly events, from the phone calls to the food now placed before my mother's silent stare. There's sushi from Cold Storage, popiah, roasted pork belly, bak kwa and my cousin Jim's own concoction of Chinese curry he's inordinately proud of. We taste it politely, though my mother would really prefer julienned bamboo shoots and turnip poached in bisque, somewhere far away from this cacophony. She hates that abalone tins are opened and poured indiscriminately into the mixed vegetable stew. In her mind, there's no finesse to this. My cousins and relatives are as varied as the dishes before us – lawyers turned pole-dancers, property agents turned thespians and croupiers who married foreign brides.
"What car do you drive now, Andrew?" they ask.
"Just an entry-level car. The base model from Hyundai. But we decided to cab here today."
"You still teaching, or are you lecturing?"
"Teaching!" And yes, I'm all good, I always say. I ignore whatever subtext can be read into this and check on my mother. It's fair to say she views some relatives as semi-tolerable intruders on her precious time, and she looks at her watch constantly. They talk about money, ways to make more money but reach the same homespun agreement – "Look at Michael Schumacher. So much money, but in a coma still. Tragic. Health is wealth."
They nod sagaciously together. "Without health, you can't do anything."
My mother spaces out at the table. Because she was almost comatose after her chemotherapy sessions, my father and I used to seat her on our rosewood chair and fire-lift her up the stairs. Even the dark-orange handles broke off eventually, its chalk white internals splintering into many pieces. She looked weakly at the scrape marks on the floor tiling before crawling into bed the next 24 hours, always whispering that she needed to rest, just to rest. For now, reunion is more about answering questions plus what you're willing to tell people you haven't seen in a while.
My cousin Jim breaks my reverie when he starts talking about Jasmine, my niece. It's obvious he cares about her even though she's biologically not his daughter. We turn to look at her. She's been diffident and awkward since she was 10, and this year, she's perpetually clinging to a paperback of Harry Potter.
"How did she do in her PSLE?" my mother asks.
"Thank God she got all A's, even for mother tongue." Jim launches into a buzzing jeremiad on the ills of modern education. He's dressed sloppily for Chinese New Year. Apparently, his concerns haven't been sartorial. "I am the one who's running up and down, helping her with her Mathematics assignments. I tutor myself with all the latest methods so that she can pass!"
"It's definitely not easy," I remark. "You've lost some weight, Jim. Too much dedication."
"She's a late bloomer," my mother interrupts. "In any case Jasmine, your grades don't define you at all." I let myself imagine that she's teaching again, though she's exhausted herself, imparted too much to her charges before the vocation gave out on her. She looks small but statuesque when she says this, but everybody listens to her on such matters. It's a good start.
For the traditional tossing of the lo hei for good fortune, my relatives form a tight circle around the dinner table. Jim makes Jasmine say the first auspicious phrases for each corresponding ingredient. For the raw fish, "年年有余" (nián nián yǒu yú), and for the sprinkling of lime, a more unusual phrase, "大吉大利" (dà jí dà lì). I'm grateful for the levity of this wild affair as the remaining auspicious phrases are read aloud. They're like a complicated incantation. I project them telepathically onto the small frame of my mother, who's barely able to insert her chopsticks in. Auntie Cheng Hoon laughs, she's animated in how high she tosses the ingredients.
"I've joined this theatre group for seniors," she proclaims. "We're acting in Romeo and Juliet."
"Seriously? At your age?"
"It's a remake for the silver generation." She shows us the flyer. It looks cheesy but doggedly earnest.
"So who exactly are you playing? Surely not Juliet?" my uncle chuckles.
"Romeo, wherefore art thou? I say Romeo! Can you hear me??"
"No, No, Lady Montague." I recall that she's a minor character and my aunt reassures me that she's happy with her limited role. She's simply keeping herself active, memorising lines and walking in front of bright lights. I promise her that I'll watch the performance, though I'm mildly horrified at the prospect of seniors speaking Shakespeare. "Really admirable, Auntie Cheng Hoon."
My mother smiles at the exchange and responds to the heap of more food placed on her plate.
"Everything okay?" I ask. "Are you up for staying longer?"
"Yes," she replies before engaging one of my relatives about her new house.
We're still waiting for a few relatives to come, but Auntie Gwen finally arrives. She's about my mother's age, pale and stick-thin. She looks like Emily in Corpse Bride. Half of her face has practically melted. It's brain surgery, but there were complications. Degenerative muscle collapse on the right side of her face. She could only pray that her body recovered. She hugs my mum, and then she hugs me. "I'm okay." Her right eye is bright, but she physically holds up one eyelid to engage us. "I'm okay," she says again. It takes a while to comprehend how her face has lost clarity. My mother focuses all her attention on poor Auntie Gwen. Heads bowed, they confide in the gentle way that women rent by illness do, and there's nothing like shared travail that cements a bond. "The doctor's prognosis is good. Don't worry about me." When they finish talking, she approaches me and hands me a red envelope.
"For good luck, Andrew," she whispers. Her vocal cords are also ravaged.
"Oh, I couldn't, Auntie Gwen." I stand up respectfully, half a head taller than this woman who is comically saluting me with two fingers on her eyebrow, this appalling woman who has touched my mother by the sheer fact of being here.
"For good luck. In everything you do."
"Thank you." I find myself laying some stress on my mother's upbringing in the way I respond.
"But for next year, please, please I would like to cancel the red-packet subscription!" I cross my forearms in a no-go gesture and put on my most self-sufficient expression. Her left eye twinkles and both women laugh.
"Take care Auntie Gwen. I'm sure you'll get better."
Meanwhile, my relatives and their children are running amok in the living room. They do some Beijing Opera pantomime of Jackie Chan, who has been entertaining my extended family on television screens since 1993. It's loud and raucous though it's nearly midnight. Cheng Hoon's three fat cats are being chased up and down the stairs, while the neighbours are playing with electronic firecrackers outside. Some things are constant, though there are once in a blue moon, occasional differences. My father pours some wine into my mother's Styrofoam cup, that she drinks out from.
The Grab car that picks us up later is a boneshaker of a Toyota, but it's fitted with those aftermarket air-conditioning compressors. A relief for slightly flushed passengers. "Drive safe and take care!" Our driver is as chatty as my relatives and it feels as if reunion dinner has segued effortlessly into this interior.
"Happy New Year to you all!" He's a beaming 52-year-old man and starts sharing the mechanics of how the car-hailing ecosystem works in Singapore.
"He earns more than you, Andrew!" There's that talk about money again.
"I have six children," he holds up both hands to count. "Boy. Girl. Boy. Boy. Girl. Girl."
"You're such a brave man," my mother exclaims.
"I married when I was 20. That's why. I love kids."
"When I was younger, the government would say stop at two, otherwise there would be penalties!"
"Oh for me, I don't think so much! Some more, my wife and I are bored at night." We all laugh at this.
"So where do you go home to after all these jobs?" I steal a glance at the odometer, and it reads a whopping 185,000km. Still not enough to reach the moon but half-way there.
"Back to my eldest's place. He has two children, and my youngest is only a few years older than my granddaughter."
"Okay. I can't figure that out. That's just amazing," but I actually do want to say Amaze-balls.
I catch a glance of my mother through the rear-view mirror, and she's gazing at the dirty-gold moon that's perched low in the sky. Full moon, I observe to myself, though I wonder why there are names like the Sea of Tranquillity given to its varied surfaces. She's comfortably reclining on the peeling leather of the back seat, and I think she has been restored, at least partially to a sound and pristine health. My mind drifts to dinner, the weaponised good-luck salad we tossed, and my aunts playing 400-year-old characters on stage. They're reminders that life subsists. Even though. We're all quiet for the last stretch of the journey, grateful for this stranger who takes us home in what feels like a coda, or codetta – the tail-end of a musical section. "You're such a brave man," my mother says again when we three alight. "You're such a nice man."
I gently support her spine, pushing her forward as she ambles up the stairs. She'll apply some evening primrose oil on her face after her bath and retire for the night. I ask whether she's enjoyed reunion dinner, thinking that she'd dismiss it with "what else can be said about reunions?", or something like that.
"I liked it," she surprises me. "I liked it."QLRS Vol. 18 No. 2 Apr 2019