Monday, April 14, 2014

The best gift, by far

The thing about life-changing moments is that you don't know that they would be life-changing until they have passed. It is when you look back, you are hit with the realization that you are now a different person.

Photo by my sister Catherine Yong

When I was seventeen, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. When she told me that she had cancer, I cried. And she was the one who comforted me.

On my eighteenth birthday, she received her third dose of chemotherapy. She protected us by locking herself in the bedroom. She did not want her daughters to see her in such a state. Years later, she would tell me how awful these treatments were. How sick she felt. How she would crawl to the bathroom when she needed to vomit. How she fought to stay alive, for us.

Suffering is the part of heroism that we are less keen to talk about. We want to remember the triumphs, the celebrations. But heroes suffer.

Our home was dark and quiet during those months. Ma was the one who switched on the lights when the sun went down. If she saw us reading in the dark, she would say, "Don't ruin your eyes, always read with the lights on." When she was sick, no one else thought to flip on the lights. That is until we got tired of groping in the dark.

One evening, I walked into the living room and found a fairly common sight. Pa was sitting next to Ma. Ma had taken off her scarf. He was stroking her bald head. During the day, she wore her scarf with so much dignity and courage. In Malaysia, covering one's head carried a religious meaning — it was a mark of the Muslim woman. If strangers stared (and they did, a lot, because Ma did not look quite like a Muslim), Ma would graciously explain that she was a Christian, fighting cancer.

Anyway, I walked into the living room that evening not knowing that my life would be changed, that this picture of my father caressing my mother's bald head would stay with me for years to come. It held so much of what I knew about them, about their one-ness. When I came to the States for college, this picture of them, sitting together, comforted me during my darkest nights. When Hans asked me to marry him, I thought to myself, can we be happy, like that?

Of all the gifts that my parents gave to me, the best gift, by far, was the gift of their love for one another. I don't recall a lot of chocolates or roses, though I am sure there were some. I do recall, however, specific examples of how they changed and grew and sacrificed their own interests for the sake of the other person.

My dad loved my mom. He took her out for walks everyday. They watched the sunset. They held hands. They talked. They laughed, a lot. And Pa caressed Ma's head when she was bald. "To keep her warm," he would explain. But I knew it was because he loved her.


Juba said...

<3 I love this Irene. Happy Mother's Day in advance to your beautiful strong Mother and yourself. :)

E! said...

so. many. (happy) tears.

Joefrerick Ating said...

Thank you for sharing your story. You mother and father are a great blessing to us in Sabah.

I have shared the photo because it is the best photo of them that ever taken so far, I think that I need to share it to others. God bless you!

Andrew said...

Wonderfully touching story. Thanks for sharing.

Doria Tai said...

Thanks for sharing, yes indeed, it takes years to build a household of faith and love like yours, across generations, ocean and land.

Serenely said...

I remember that dark time your whole family was going through. It was difficult as a friend seeing what you were all battling from the outside. I couldn't find the right words say and I probably didn't even the emotional capacity at that time to fathom everything that was happening. But I watched your mum emerge through and carry on just as strong if not stronger than she was before.