I was sad to miss a US trip, but glad that allowed me to be closer to mum
Earlier this week, I was supposed to fly to the United States to give a presentation at a medical conference in Denver, Colorado. This was the first time I would be so far away from home and travelling on my own.
My mum was anxious about the trip and made me pack two weeks prior, back when some of the clothes I wanted to take were still in the wash.
“Mum, I have things in order,” I reassured her.
“You always do things at the last minute,” she said, clearly recalling the occasions where I had dashed out of the house in a hurry to reach the hospital in time for morning rounds.
“I’m going to be okay, mum,” I said, holding up both my hands in protest. “Your daughter is old enough to know what she’s doing.”
“Hey, I promise to call when I land safely, okay?” I said, and watched her features soften.
Less than eight hours to flight time, the email came. The flight from Singapore to Denver was unexpectedly cancelled by United Airlines.
After hours of communication with the agent through the airline’s website, waiting for minutes on end for the bubble of three dots to manifest into a comprehensible solution, it was clear there was little option other than to forgo the trip — the next available flight would reach the destination two and a half days later, which would be too late.
It was a painful truth to bear and one of great disappointment, but I told myself it was a small loss in the grand scheme of things.
I felt like I was in a daze in the days afterwards.
My mind kept on surfacing images of me living out my best life in Denver: Walking down the streets of downtown Denver, enjoying ice-cream from the famed Little Man Ice Cream shop, touring the museums and art galleries in Golden Triangle Creative District, or eating dinner in Larimer Square as I watched the sun set.
Curiously, it was also during this week that I started spending more time with my mum than I usually would, now that the conference was virtual and I could tune into the recordings afterwards.
I accompanied her on daily walks in the evenings and we caught up on quality time — time that I could seldom devote out of my busy term schedule of clinical rotations and back-to-back project and research meetings.
On those walks, I noticed ever more acutely how I now towered over her small frame.
“Have I grown taller again?” I asked, as we passed by the glass windows of the kindergarten beneath the block and glanced at our reflections.
“Either that, or I’ve shrunk,” she conceded with a gleam in her eyes, as we paused for a while and stood side-by-side opposite our reflections.
My mum stated it like a fact, with neither longing nor regret, but I felt a wince as I thought back to all those years ago, when I was still a child reaching up to grasp her shoulders.
I took another look at my mum’s ponytail — once a dense bush caught aglow by the rays of the afternoon sun, but now significantly whittled down to half its size, with its white roots peaking.
I concentrated on the time that had lapsed — what I had done as a daughter in the past few years.
Filial piety always catches you by surprise, oftentimes too late. I am familiar with the guilt of squandered time thinly veiled in the guise of belated grief in the children visiting their elderly parents at hospitals. I didn’t want to be a case in point.
On one of our evening strolls, my mum said to me: “When I was young, I could never appreciate orchestra music — I always found it too old, too sombre, too overpowering – there were just too many things to take in all at once.
“It has taken me ages, but now that I’m able to calm my mind and sit with the music, I am starting to hear the layers —the interweaving melodies and occasional clash of cleffs. I am able to follow the music to its end.”
At her invitation, I started listening to baroque music again, much like the pieces she used to play from the living room when I was a young child, trying to imbue Vivaldi and Handel into me as we struggled with my progress in piano lessons.
Back then she had a whole collection of music CDs — their reflective metallic layer beaming back bands of rainbow-coloured light — now diminished to a distant memory, a relic of the past.
We no longer have the same music player stationed in the living room floating out Four Seasons or Pachelbel’s Canon.
Instead, I typed “baroque classics” into Spotify when I got home, and sat for a while with the playlist, listening to unaccompanied cello suites until everything else was still around me.
“Something is always harder to appreciate if it takes more effort to understand. But it is the effort that gives an object its substance,” my mum said, and I reflected on the many things I had given up on as a child through the years, or threatened to give up on and very likely would have, if not for her firm hand and stern gaze.
I had never been very resilient as a child, from fumbling to tie the perfect bun in the mirror and lagging behind the other girls at the barre, then telling my mum I wasn’t going back to ballet.
When I transitioned from electrical keyboard to piano and found the keys too rigid for my fingers, I wanted to quit. When my swimming instructor hollered at me for not tying my pyjamas into a float quickly enough during water trapping, I wanted out.
Thankfully, as a result of my mum’s insistence, I am now able to play most pieces on the piano, and can probably make it to the water’s edge alive if you were to throw me into the sea.
However, there were also things I gave up along the way that she let me quit — such as ballet, for which I never received formal training and now definitely regret, as well as my short-lived forays into theatre and debating.
But through all these experiences, I learnt that it takes experience to discern nuance, and even then, it takes you time to comprehend it.
Now that I have a semi-break from clinicals, I’ve been spending most of my days at home, helping with additional household chores and eating the meals my mum lovingly prepares for lunch — the fragrance of jasmine rice fills the air, mixed with the steam of stir-fried vegetables and double-boiled soup.
“You’d be missing home and Singaporean food if you were in the States now,” my mother said, jabbing the air with her chopsticks. I smiled and said nothing, as I scooped silk gourd and fried eggs into my bowl.
I’m glad I had the chance to stay and celebrate Mother’s Day with her again this year.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Faye Ng Yu Ci is a fourth-year student at Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore.