Feature image: Taken in Dubai, 2008
She Who Made Me
If my journey could teach you anything…
When I first had inspiration for this series profiling everyday women who embody and walk in their own rhythm, with their own style and who own the substance that makes them who they are, I always knew that my mother was top of the list. This is a little tribute to her and therefore I felt nervous and delayed putting it out as I wanted to get it right and say all that I wanted to share.
She who made me was a hell of woman. She passed away 8 years ago, her anniversary being New Year’s Day, and to be quite honest, writing so openly about something and someone so close to my heart is not at all comfortable for me. However I strongly know that we can learn and aid each other in our journeys, and though I in no means claim any monopoly or expertise on grief, I do hope that my firsthand experience can help anyone who may be going through something of similar gravity. I am very much someone who believes in pushing myself out of my comfort zone, which has resulted in some hilarious, crazy decisions and pursuits (one being moving to Singapore and all the struggles and joy that came with that) and I live in the ‘why not? ‘ mode of being rather than the why.
This year one of my personal resolutions is to live more authentically and be more open in my vulnerabilities, as scary as that is for someone who is by nature extremely private about the things that I really care about. In this day and age, it is difficult to keep things sacred, however, the past few months I have felt convicted to share a little about this amazing woman, her life and some of the many, many lessons she taught me, which are still ongoing in my day-to-day. In ‘The Sisterhood’ book (which I know I talk about a LOT, but it’s one of those books which has really evolved my thinking) Bobbie speaks about having friends and people in your life that cause you to push yourself beyond your personal containment lines; I am grateful to have such friends, and most grateful to my Wonderful Counsellor, who prompts and nudges me from within regarding my convictions. I was pondering why in particular I felt so prompted at this 8 year mark to share a little, and then I funnily realised that in Chinese culture, the number 8 is THE number! It is the number of good fortune, prosperity and carries a whole host of wonderful (and superstitious) attributes. Anyway at this moment, it seems an auspicious and ordained time to share:
She who made me, made me in every sense of the word. She was extremely vital, and she birthed myself and my three brothers (it is crazy to think about that sometimes, that each of our lives came through a living, breathing woman). That is something I particularly struggled with in the earlier days of grief, being able to remember and recall my mum as her healthy, strong self, rather than the destruction and physical deterioration of the entire body that cancer brings about. It took me many years to be able to envisage my mum separate from her illness, and I do still dream about her in her latter states of being even now.
A little background about this wonderful woman: she was born and grew up in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia in the mid 50s to Chinese parents. The Chinese population in Malaysia is vast, however historically there are a lot of racial and civil disputes in the country, and therefore her parents enabled her to move to the UK (Malaysia was a Commonwealth country) when she was still a teenager to live with her older siblings who were in tertiary education here at the time. It was extremely unsafe for Chinese people living in Malaysia at that point, and as the youngest of eight siblings, her parents thought it best to keep her away from the rioting and killings that were taking place. From what my mum told me, being a young Chinese girl in London, with a “strange” name and little knowledge of English norms in the 60s, was not the one. Racial bullying was prevalent and London wasn’t as diverse as it is now. She was an immigrant in every sense of the word, and that shaped her and our experiences growing up. She adopted a more British-sounding name for her teen and young adult years in London, Rowena, though hilariously I have never met someone called Rowena over my lifetime as of yet! I am glad that by the time myself and my brothers were in the picture, she walked in her given name and the glorious juxtaposition of that alongside a very Irish surname.
Mum as captured by dad in Egypt
She met my father when they were both working in the London Stock Exchange and she told me that she had known him for a while before they ever went out on their first date. She recalled that one of the reasons he stuck in her mind was that he often wore a – in her words – “really annoying” skinny, red belt which drove her a bit mad (my mum was quite the fashionista back in the day) and therefore made a lasting impression on her before they even spoke. They dated for approximately five years and travelled the world during that time, choosing to get married later than most couples of their generation. My dad has told me that she gave him, a London-born and bred boy, a thorough cultural education in all things Chinese, starting with his first ever dim sum in Chinatown on one of their first dates.
I was very much raised by a Chinese tiger mother, with every stereotype that that may embody. We are first generation kids, and she expected nothing short of the best from us (though this is something recently I have been learning to be kinder to myself about, but that’s a whole other story in itself). She forged me, tempered me to have steely resolve and rebuked me no end. One of the things I didn’t think about until recent years is that though I am the only girl amongst three brothers, I was never treated any differently when it came to what was expected of me in life and never made to feel less than. To be honest, I think most of the time they were so used to raising boys, that I was treated as very much “one of the boys”.
She made our moral fibre, our cultural framework, she ensured our standards were high and informed our opinions. She was very much involved in our formation not only physically, but emotionally, intellectually, culturally and spiritually. One thing in particular I have learnt since her passing is that grief can be crippling but it can also be propelling. What has kept me afloat in times of overwhelming pain is the knowledge that for myself and my brothers to give, bring and do anything but our best in every endeavour and encounter we have on this earth would be a severe detriment to her. And that most importantly her legacy is embodied in us. She taught us perseverance, embodied strength and she never indulged us. In short, she never stood for our bulls*&t!
There were most definitely arguments, tears and many a teenage and toddler tantrum. But it does all fade to insignificance when you realise what was significant, I pray that we learn to value those eternal things more than the ephemeral that we so often laud: “what is seen is temporary, what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). Can we please pause on that for a second? Bar a plastic bag, almost everything on this earth begins to quickly decay without maintenance. I remember when I travelled to Madagascar, seeing the dilapidated buildings gone to ruin and a remnant of the French colonisation and having a stark realisation that even once magnificent, supposedly glorious things all fade to ruin on the scale of eternity and without maintenance in the passage of our time on this earth.
She was formidable in the truest sense of the word, most of my friends who met her would testify that she was not someone to be messed with, and may have personally witnessed her wrath on a few occasions lol! I inherited her fire, slightly diluted, and we both share a fiercely stubborn streak, so as you can imagine, our relationship was at times ablaze, but always full of love. As I’ve grown up, I realise that in many ways we are very similar, hence why we sometimes clashed magnificently, as my brothers will gladly testify. It is good to remember and talk about those you’ve lost with people who knew them as intimately as you. It keeps their memory alive and prevents you from over-sentimentalising someone, forgetting the bad times, which to be honest are just as important, formative and occasionally hilarious as the good times. None of us are perfect, but it is our imperfections that make us 3D, human and relatable.
What I’ve learnt about death is that the clichés are so true, we bring nothing into this world and we take nothing out; her physical body is long gone but her presence is still very real. Maybe it sounds strange but I still literally, not figuratively, feel the palpable force of her love surrounding and buoying me at all times. Her love is so, so great. One tangible thing I remember is that she would always come and check on us sleeping in our rooms, way into our teenage years. Occasionally I would wake up to find her fussing over my PJs and I remember asking her why she always checked on us in the night. She told me that she couldn’t sleep well herself without knowing that all her babies were okay, I thought to myself how beautiful and poignant that was. That love unseen, that devotion, it actually surpasses and outlives your physical body.
I had a great conversation with my dear friend Saskia via Skype last year, and I remember she spoke directly to my soul. She basically said to me that for me as a woman, I am getting to know my mother even after her passing on a peer-to-peer level, as I live out many of the same rites of passage, beauties and struggles that come with being a female in this world. In many ways I had felt that over the years but had never heard it verbalised back to me before, and speaking with one of my mum’s close friends in Malaysia and her sisters over the last eight years has given colour and added depth to her life, having some knowledge of the years which we didn’t share has been a crucial part of me coming to terms with her passing. For many, getting to know your parents on a really human level only really begins in your late teens into adulthood, and for my mum and me those years were only just beginning when she was diagnosed. Having conversations with those who knew her growing up in a childhood, teen years and young adulthood has formed a unique kind of therapy for me as I get to know her more personally, through the eyes of others and can empathise and relate to their tales of heartbreak, friendship and the overarching theme of love that threaded through her life. Generational reality is something I’ve become very aware of, and in many ways we abide in our parents, and they in us. “David asked God for a permanent place for worship. But Solomon built it” (Acts 7:47). To me this passage speaks volumes about how our parents lives are sown in living sacrifice and we reap the fruit of them. This verse comes from the New Testament, and yet talks about the intertwined lives of the Old Testament that were still informing the present hundreds of years later, King David was Solomon’s father and his prayers were literally being built into reality by his son. The hope and promise in that astounds me.
I will never pretend that the heartbreak doesn’t still exist, as quite honestly when you lose the person whose very blood runs through your veins (can we pause and think on that crazy reality for a second please?!), colouration inks your eyes and melanin in your skin deepens every time you catch the sun, you quickly realise that they are inherently within you. There are occasional surreal moments when I think on it too long, and the realisation still floors me, that I will never again see her in this life. Yet how beautiful is the knowledge that we can create and allow to be bestowed “a crown of beauty instead of ashes” (Isaiah 61:3) and that our lives are beyond ourselves. One perfect analogy for me is that of the Japanese philosophy of Kintsugi, where when pottery is broken, they join it again by soldering gold in the cracks. They see the cracks as part of the history of the object rather than something to be disguised, gilding it with gold rather than concealing it or seeing it as unworthy of repair. How beautiful are those who place gold in the cracks of brokenness?
One reality I want to briefly touch upon is that in grief you mourn for the future memories as well as those you have. Incredible author PP Wong, who also happens to be the first ever British Chinese novelist to be published in the UK (shocking as it was in 2014!) wrote it so aptly in her (highly recommended) book “The Life of a Banana”:
“Then, I think of the future memories that should have been. Memories that I will never have. Things that should have happened but didn’t.
Mama explaining to me about my first period, Mama looking proud at my graduation, Mama smiling at my wedding, Mama crying and holding my first child.”
– The Life of A Banana, by PP Wong
For me, that last line kills me a little, my mum would always joke fondly about how she couldn’t wait to meet her grandkids and spoil them, she had such a heart for children, hence why my mad parents decided to have four of us (!) and I knew how much joy that would bring her and how much I now mourn her presence and wisdom for potential unborn children, nieces and nephews. We need to mourn those future things as well as the past in order to start to reap beauty from the ashes, I share this with you all not to depress but to elevate. To comfort anyone who may be in mourning but to also gently encourage those who are in a season of rejoicing. Please darling readers, I urge you to see past the cliché and genuinely live in your present happiness whilst not forgetting the eternal fruit. Don’t live half-heartedly, if you love and value someone, say it and more importantly show it. Life is extremely short, in fact, I realised recently that by next year, I’ll have lived half my mother’s lifetime. It’s a sobering realisation as it puts things in perspective. Her presence still informs me so deeply in her absence. I think especially as so-called “young people” my generation can undervalue those around them, and there is a false sense of us feeling immortal. Let’s place proper value on life both present and eternal, treasure those around you, put your phone down and talk to your best friend/significant other across the dinner table. Tell that person that’s been on your mind how you feel, pick up the phone and call that relative. Seriously now, let’s not think about what we lack but invest and take the time to treasure what we have. Our time on this earth is finite and temporal things are not guaranteed, yet it is possible to live in the tension between the right here, right now and being aware of the magnitude of history, generation and eternity that we operate within. 2017 for me will be a year of living more authentically than ever before. I’m quite happy to be known as someone who loved too much even if at times, it’s not reciprocated, but not content to be known as one who didn’t give wholeheartedly. Love outlasts us all, sows seeds for the next generation and on the scale of eternity, is the only thing that actually markedly makes a positive difference.
In living memory of my mother, I invite those who wish to donate to the incredible place which housed her and us in the last days of her life here. A place filled with so much warmth, generosity and joy despite the sadness of all that takes place there. I’m forever indebted to the incredible staff and volunteers of the North London Hopsice, your smiles and humour brought light to our darkest days.
Always in love,