Think about the strongest person you know. They are fearless, invincible. They could stop a meteor, hurtling down from the sky to destroy humanity, in its tracks with a biting stare. Make it take a u-turn and spin back out to where it came from and let that be that. We all know someone like this.
For me, it’s my mother. A woman so resilient and proud, like the lion symbolic of her Leo star sign. She is a woman without shame, bringing back packs of strawberries to the shop fifteen minutes after buying them if there’s even a hint of a bruise on them. She’s a woman who’s honesty can make you cry. She’s a woman who’s held down her station in the battlefield of motherhood, sacrificing everything she’s ever had for her family, since the age of 25. I am in awe of her.
But how do these people we know, seemingly built of steel, get to this level of strength? Or were they simply hand-selected to wear skin thicker than most of us? The truth is that these people, beneath it all, have been vulnerable at some points. The truth is that they aren’t invincible. They have fears, they have doubts. But it’s the experience living with those things swirling around inside them that’s shaped them, that’s given them the durability they wear like a coat.
My mom came from a working-class family and was one of 8 children. She isn’t fond of dogs. For years I just thought she flat-out didn’t like them (and who doesn’t like dogs?) but I later found out that she was chased by a big dog when she was very young, and even now she’s still a little wary of them. However, cats are her thing. She sleeps with them.
When she was 17, she and her sister took a chance and a bus trip to Singapore from her hometown Malacca, Malaysia and lived and worked there, despite having never left Malaysia before, despite not knowing where life would take them, despite being poor, despite the roaches, despite their visas expiring six months into their stay (“You could get away with it back then” she’s said to me countless times). They lived here on and off for a few years and eventually settled, she met my dad and the rest is history.
And this morning she told me she’s been dumped abruptly by boys she loved very much. All of those things made her into who she is now. Experience shapes a person – good and bad. You can choose to learn and grow from it, or you can squander it. She did the former. I always just thought she was like this all her life. But she wasn’t, she built her own armour from what life gave her – never asking for better parts – and she went headfirst into every battle that knocked on her door. And not that not crying equals strength, but I have only ever seen her cry once. I’ve only seen fear flicker through her eyes once – and that was when my grandmother passed.
When I look at photos of her from when she was my age, she looks as innocent as I think I do now. Full of insecurities and guarding. A very tender and vulnerable heart. I never thought to connect the dots, to look a little more closely at the pictures, mapping out the changes she’s made to survive. And now that I have, I have a renewed respect for her.
We’ve never been ultra-close. Never had the mother-daughter relationship I always craved, that I saw in films and with my friends and their mothers. All my life I’ve passed it off as rejection, that she actually didn’t like me. That I annoyed her. That I disappointed her. We’d clash, we’d spit like crackling embers. We’ve hurt each other with what we’ve said. And it was only when I was talking to N last month about Obvious Child, talking about how you think the mom is such a bitch, but in the end you realise she actually just cares so much and worries for her daughter, that the light bulb – gathering dust over my head, waiting waiting waiting for the penny to finally drop – lit up.
My perspective did a little flip, like the one successful pancake you get at the very end of the batter after all the burnt and sloppy ones.
She just cares. We’ve never been close because, assuming she’d shut me out, I never let her in. I built the wall jumping to conclusions, thinking myself unworthy of another person’s love. And as a firm non-believer in the phrase “it’s too late”, I’m really eager to scrap this wall, to hack at it with my bare hands. To let her in and ask her so many things, like how she dealt with the things she did and when she realised she stopped caring about what other people think of her and more stories about how she lived in a tiny shophouse with my aunt in Jalan Besar and then to Kiong Saik Road, starting off as a seamstress with minimum pay, and show her the photographs and to tell her how inspiring she really is and how she much she means to me.
I’ve entered a very appreciatory period of my life where I’m raining in gratitude for everyone who is a part of life in some form or another.