SG50: Love and loss

Growing up amidst the loss of my grandmother, my best friend, and my youth.

Singapore is 50 and I am half her age; she has grown up and certainly, this year, so have I. We have both grieved, and in the recesses of that grief we have also come to understand love.

Singapore lost our first prime minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew this year, in the early hours of 23 March, and of course I learnt of it on social media, because where else does news break for a twenty-something these days?

I didn’t cry immediately. Dean and I paid our respects on the first night his body laid in state. I had such a bad cold, and a fever just barely suppressed by a good dosage of Panadol Flumax, but we went anyway. We joined the queue past midnight, waited just over two hours, which was short considering the crowds that would build up in the days to come. On that first day there was still time to file slowly past his body, time for old ladies before us to bow three times in reverence, time to say a silent prayer for the man.

When it was over we were so tired that we parked the car along Dairy Farm Road and took a power nap before work, with the doors wide open for ventilation. We awoke to the the gentle light of morning, in that brief space before humidity descends upon the day, and I thought – only in Singapore could we be safe enough to do that. Only in the Singapore Lee Kuan Yew built.

I left for a holiday in Japan that weekend, when the country was still in mourning, and Navy ships were preparing for the sail past they would do during the state funeral.

In Tokyo, I was so unexpectedly homesick. Every morning I would wake up in my ten-bed hostel dorm, scroll through my Facebook feed punctuated with tributes to our founding father, and black ribbons that replaced profile pictures. I’d fight a losing battle against tears and think how absurd it was to feel such loss for a man I never knew.

Then I’d get up and spend the day with foreigners, most of whom had no inkling that for those few days, my country grieved as one. I struggled to explain Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy to those who did, how we grieved not out of love but respect. Yes, he (and his contemporaries) lay the foundation for our economic progress, sound policies, and clean governance. No, we’re not a nanny state. He didn’t make Singapore everything that we are today, but he gave us a running start and made it possible for us to do the rest.

*

Funerals of the everyman are smaller in scale, but no less in grief.

I lost my own grandmother three months later, in mid June. It was the first time someone close to me had passed on. We saw it coming because a lung infection put her in the intensive care unit for over a week before she eventually succumbed.

The platitude about death being a relief, because at least so-and-so is no longer suffering – I had heard it before and I can now say first hand, that much is true. We were relieved because we no longer had to watch my 94-year-old grandmother struggle to breathe into an oxygen bag, thin and wizened in a hospital bed that looked too large for her shrunken frame.

We no longer had to watch her face crumple in fear when we had to leave, and my father would no longer sit bolt upright every time the phone rang, while Mother and I would wait, strung taut, for either bad news or the status quo, because it was clear by then that Ahma wasn’t going to get better.

This was what I didn’t know: No matter how much you can anticipate the death of a loved one, nothing prepares you for the realisation that they are gone, and you’ll never get to speak with them, talk to them, see them again in this life.

*

Two and a half months after losing Daniel, on more days than not, this is my reality. There are so many things I wish to tell him – all the ways my life has changed since I left the RSN in September, all the new projects I’m pursuing now. Writing, freelancing, travelling. I know he would have been proud of me. He told me that over Whatsapp, the night before he went to hospital for the last time and everything changed.

Sometimes I phrase questions in my head, advice about things I would have asked, and find that I’d know his answer already. It’s like that sensible voice in your head that you can always hear but don’t always listen to, that tells you things like Don’t take another shot of vodka, or Don’t go home with him, or Let’s not order that extra starter, we won’t be able to finish it.

Maybe that’s all I have of Daniel now, all the ways he lives in me, after all the ways we shaped each other growing up.

I fear that one day I will lose the ability to have these conversations with Daniel, one-sided as they may be. That one day as I grow older, I’ll have questions the almost-25-year-old him wouldn’t have been able to answer. Next year I will turn 26, while time has stopped for him, and it will be the first time we aren’t the same age, going through fairly similar milestones in life. I fear that one day I won’t be able to conjure up Daniel in my head, and have him appear. Some days I can summon no positive sentiment, only the despair and permanence of loss.

I am still seeking that elusive state of okay. Such a careless word, spelt with just two letters, or the rounding of an index finger to touch the thumb. Such an easy, versatile sentiment. Okay is a shrug, a decent performance, a passable outcome. But how I yearn, now, for that state of being. To even define what it means, to know how it feels in the end state. Is that where grieving stops, and dare I wish I will think of Daniel and be filled not with longing for impossible things like the chance to tell him about my life again, but with peace and joy at all the things that happened in his? And does being okay mean that one day, in a future so far away I cannot fathom it now, that I will stop missing my best friend?

*

When I was fourteen, I remember wanting to look older because sneaking into NC-16 (or M-18) movies was a coveted accomplishment reserved for the cool kids. That year one of my math tutors told me, there’s something about age that can’t be faked. I asked her what it was, thinking that if I knew, I could try to replicate it. But she struggled to give me an answer. “It’s an innocence lost, and it only comes with age,” she finally managed to explain, and that was the best I could get out of her.

I think I understand now. Time reverses the silly ideals of youth, and these days I get a secret thrill when people ask if I’m a student. I still try to sneak into tourist attractions overseas with my long-expired university matriculation card, and often I succeed.

But I look at photographs taken this year, and there is something time takes away and doesn’t return. My features are still the same – same round apple cheeks perpetually flushed pink, eyebrows I thread religiously, a smile straightened by braces, eye bags that haven’t left since I started full-time work. And yet I look different from photos just a couple of years ago, both in formal graduation shots and iPhone selfies. It could be weight gain, or the loss of innocence. (Maybe both.)

Now I know how it feels to lose someone I love, and it is impossible for the world to look the same.

During the five days of Daniel’s wake, we would hug tightly when anyone had to leave – proper hugs, tight and reassuring, as though we were trying to grasp on to what was real, living, tangible.

I still try to grasp on to these things. I look at my friends, my family and think how transient they are, how transient I am. I love as hard and as deeply as I can, and for now it makes the present easier. I’m trying not to let this loss define me, I’m still trying to heal, and I know I will be different when I get there – young enough to live hard, but never as young as I was before SG50 happened.

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