How to take care of your mother

In memory of Wong Chai Kee

The most difficult thing about my father’s wake was being told ‘you must take care of your mother’. Over and over some well-meaning attendee would shuffle over, say the words and walk away. Coming from acquaintances or strangers, the move seemed Singaporean in the worst sense, like they were trying to meet ‘funeral wake KPIs’ of (i) show up (ii) walk past embalmed corpse (iii) offer grieving son advice to convey sympathy. I’d go so far as to say it was rude; the intimacy of sharing grief must be earned, not intruded upon.

My mother had a more charitable take on it. She would later argue, “They want to say something but they don’t know what to say. It’s an awkward situation, so they just say that. They mean well.” I wasn’t unconvinced but I was angry; angry that my father’s cancer was the kind he should have recovered from, angry that brothers and sisters with the gift of healing asked me to ‘claim the promises of God’ (promises that I personally don’t believe God had made), angry that verses like Philippians 4:19 forced me nevertheless to hope that my father would be healed in his – our – time of need. Even in anger, I knew the tactless saints were right: I have to take care of my mother.

I wrote this poem in response, as a way of instructing myself instead of communing with God. But when I wrote the line “and love so often tasting of pain”, I realised I was no longer thinking only about myself or my mother. I was thinking of Christ, of how his love was his pain. Here’s the poem.

To take care of your mother

Undo the woman before you—
go back beyond your youth
in fact go back into yourself,
pretend your unbirth
and her unpregnancy;
pretend the unbloom
of every bougain villea
in the family garden
and the unbloom of that first flower,
your father whom she found
half-grown and half-sated;
the first white workshirt
she scrubbed and poured softener over,
unwash that too;
unwash the lies and half-apologies
and the times you attempted
to use barbed words for reconciliation
until a thick stain spreads
to the utmost walls of the home
making it a blackbox
of broken dishes
and set-aside dreams,
of soft bolts of joy
and love so often tasting of pain;
make this blackbox of now, your life
—and meet her in her girlhood.

Looking at the poem again for the first time in months, I’m thinking : It is the remembrance of a person’s love that makes living with his death painful, but it is exactly such painful remembrance that enables us go on to show others the same love that the deceased once showed us.

The death of one form of love merely necessitates that love manifest itself in other ways. Call it post-hoc reasoning, but I believe this is why I wrote the poem above. I was being spoken to. Even now, as I write to you, I know the source that has prodded me towards all this. It says: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10 ESV)

‘To take care of your mother’ first appeared in Mascara Literary Review
© 2013 David Wong Hsien Ming

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