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  • Writer's picturekwankew

Farewell to Ah Yee

My sister Eng texted me, “Mom is very sick.”

The previous evening, I had just said goodbye to her, my brother, Boon, and his wife, Janet, after we visited Sedona and the Grand Canyons, savoring the red-rock beauty and the Grand Dame of the canyons. We had not seen one another for a number of years. The day I heard that my mother was very ill, I was to start on my own, an eight-day road trip into the Dakotas.

I canceled my plan and scrambled for a flight home to Boston to take stock of what I should do next.

Almost all my siblings and my mother lived in Malaysia. COVID has necessitated all visitors to Malaysia to download an app “MySejahtera” to register for a traveler card with proof of full COVID vaccination in order to travel. I had to get a negative COVID PCR test in less than 24 hours before I could board a flight back to Malaysia.

After a 34-hour of travel and a long layover in Isstanbul, I arrived in Penang, utterly exhausted, and discombobulated with the time change. Eng arrived a few hours before Boon, Janet, and me and was able to visit my mother in the hospital. I prayed that my mother would linger long enough for me to see her one last time, 24 hours later.

Because of COVID, Lam Wah Ee Hospital only allowed visitors once a day from 5 to 8 pm, and only one person at a time. My mother had twelve children and with their spouses and their children, my mother’s grandchildren, we had to budget our time so each and every one of us could spend some time with her.

Twenty-four hours later, I saw my mother, haggard and frail, a shadow of her old self, shrouded in a pale green hospital gown covered with white towels. A face mask covered her half-open mouth. A couple of days ago, I was told, she still responded to voices, especially voices of my siblings who were frequent visitors.

When I first saw her, her eyes were closed and she did not open them even as I called her. Over the twenty minutes I spent with her, she did open her eyes for a short spell, and upon my calling her name, she squeezed my right hand rhythmically. I would like to think that she knew I had flown home halfway around the world to say goodbye to her one last time, her burung layang-layang, swallow, who flew the coup many years ago to pursue a different life than her own. More than fifty years ago, I received a full scholarship from Wellesley College which gave me the freedom to choose how I should lead my life; it was as though I was given a pair of wings to exercise self-determination.

My mother had suffered from dementia for almost twenty years. At the beginning of her illness, she still recognized me when I returned to visit but over the last few years, during my infrequent visits home, I had found her memory of me fading and she no longer remembered me. Even my siblings who lived in physical proximity to her suffered a similar fate.

My adopted brother, Ah Wee, and my sister, Liang, took care of her at home with the help of a maid. During all these years of tender and meticulous care, she never once developed a bed sore. Once she was hospitalized for a setback, it took her no time at all to have a skin breakdown.

My mother passed away in the early morning of the fifth day of my visit. In the early morning, the hospital called to say she was in distress. We rushed to the hospital. After some cajoling, we were able to see her three to four persons at a time.

When it was my turn, she was gasping for breath, she was not hooked up to a cardiac monitor. Her blood pressure and her oxygenation were low. She was not responsive. I did not linger long so the other siblings could have their turn.

We all converged by her bedside when it became obvious that she was drawing her last breath. Her breathing had long pauses punctuated by a guttural one. At long last, she stopped breathing. She was just a week shy of her 96th birthday.

My younger brother, Beng, arranged for a wake the next evening. Many of her friends came. We had a service with Gerald, my youngest sister’s husband reading a eulogy written by Jonathan, one of my mother’s grandsons who was in the UK. My brother, Boon and I delivered ours amidst the loud clanging of cymbals and a noisy Chinese opera, the send-off organized by the relatives of a neighboring funeral parlor. It was not a peaceful or contemplative wake.

My Eulogy of Ah Yee, My Mother

Tonight, we are celebrating my mother’s legacy, long life, and oftentimes, a difficult and challenging one, fraught with hardship but through it all, she came through for us with her resourcefulness.

She was married at the age of seventeen and had a fruitful and busy life with many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

We called her Ah Yee because my father’s adopted children before we were born called her by that name and it was more a term of endearment to us than any other name.

When we were growing up, despite hardship and extreme poverty, my mother was very resourceful in finding the means to feed us, she ate the least amount so that we all could have a bigger share. Always self-sacrificing, she denied herself many pleasures so we could enjoy whatever little we could afford.

I would not be standing here today if my mother did not enroll me in primary school. I was kept at home by her when it was time to start primary school to help her take care of her growing brood of children. When she heard that it was mandatory to have all children enrolled in primary school, afraid that she was breaking the law, she took me to enroll but by that time I was a year too late. The principal denied me admission. By chance she ran into my father’s friend, a trustee of the Kong Ming Primary School, he helped her to get me into school.

Even through her busy time, she always managed to sew our school uniforms. She made sure they were cleaned and ironed, and our socks and shoes were lily-white.

She should be very proud that she had raised us all to be good citizens, to be kind and compassionate human beings.

I want to thank my siblings, especially Liang, who selflessly spent a great deal of her life taking meticulous care of her for almost the last twenty years.

My book, The Girl who Taught Herself to Fly, a memoir of my early life, will be out later this year. In it, I recounted how I wanted to be able to be free and pursue a life of self-determination, guided by God.

For my mother, she had no such luxury. Her life was bounded by caring of her children, she was not free to explore her own destiny.

I dedicate this book to my mother, Ah Yee.

May she rest in peace.

The next day was her funeral service. It was short and sweet. The heat and humidity of the tropic were fierce. After the service, we trailed the hearse to the crematorium and placed flowers on the coffin, saying our final farewell.

That afternoon, I flew off to the US after taking a COVID test.

I believe my mother waited for us to come home to say goodbye to her one last time. She also brought us all home to have a very fine get-together with all my siblings and their loved ones. We had memorable fellowship, and good food till we meet again.

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