Heroine of the Day: Zasmani Shafiee
It was a shock, a visual statement that reverberated to the very core.
I walked towards the kitchen, passing by my mother's room along the way. At that moment, she decided to open the door to have a chat with me. I had triggered the proximity alarm she had armed, and though nobody in the house was quite asleep yet, it must have been something of an irritant, at least. I haven't mentioned the neighbours, yet; I doubt whether they themselves would be best pleased at alarms sounding like dead cats wailing in the middle of the night.
Of course, dead cats don't wail, but...I imagine it'll be unpleasant nevertheless. That wasn't the shock, however.
The shock was seeing shocks of whiteness in my mother's hair.
She had let her hair down for the night, and have already removed her tudung for the day. Ever since the day she had remarried, she had become more and more pious, and one of the things she did on a regular basis was to wear a tudung. At that moment, not only did I fail to recollect the last time I did see her hair, it was also a reminder that my mother, my dear, beloved mother...is aging.
Gracefully, beautifully...but aging nevertheless. You'd never would have guessed just by looking at her. Her body had remained as slim as ever, her face as kind for as long as I have remembered it so. Her wit and humour remained as sharp as ever; just a few hours ago, she told me a lame joke that even I wouldn't have been able to anticipated had I sat at the metaphorical joke typewriter and banged away for a thousand years. Her intellect is high, her mental strength is strong, everything about her is just the way it was ten years ago. We've gained a little bit, lost more than just a little bit, but everything else is the same.
Except for her hair.
It is a timely reminder. Age does a lot for us, but unfortunately, for me at least, it does something to the memory. Our memory retains mainly the memories that we want to keep, rather than an exact recollection of what had happened. Sometimes we forget things, and one of the things that I have forgotten is how far and how much we have grown apart. There's a lot of things that masked this. One of them is distance. Being halfway up the other side of the continent doesn't do much for appearances, and because of that, the memories I retained of people are those that I generally want to keep. Even here, however, the desire is shaped by an unconscious force, a part that I don't really control. I thought of adding 'not even me' to that particular statement, but it made me realise just how high-and-mighty I would sound like. I am not God, I am not even a reputable man of any sort just yet. I am merely a man, a fact that is always hammered home when I join a congregation for prayers. I am merely a man.
She, however, is more than just a woman. Beyond her family, she had worked long and hard at her career, and is the very definition of successful career woman, a pioneer in her chosen field of child psychiatry. Even today, there are no more than a few who choose this field as their vocation, a field of paramount importance in the development of our children. What's more, she worked at and for a public university hospital for years and years, when she could have been raking it in in private practice. Many others I know would have done that, but not my mother.
Until today, however, the most influential thing she has done for me and my siblings is her decision to take us, all of us, with her to England, where she continued her studies under the legendary Sir Michael Rutter, a man who I only remember as writing really, really expensive books. I had noticed the name before on her files and folders at the time, but it only hit me when I was assigned to scout a particular book of his for my mother at Waterstone. The book cost hundreds and hundreds of pounds, which may well be the standard for such academic books, but coming out of the background that I did (Hardy Boys and Stars Wars novels for me at the time), when the books I buy rarely reaches the higher end of a ten-pound note, it is shocking.
Shocking. There's that word again.
It was in England that she has now made me realised how lucky I am. I spent the majority of my formative years there, the time and period of anyone's life when we'd all start to look outside our own spheres of influence, outside our own family, and into the wider world of the society at hand. Entertainment, sports, politics, general ethics, religion...it was all here that I started to grow up for the first time. She would take us on trips across Europe, to Holland, France, Ireland, and Belgium (where we only passed by because we had to get to Holland). We drove up to Scotland not once, but twice, those eight-hour journeys made possible because of my mother. She was determined to give us, the family, her family, the kind of education and experiences that we didn't really have, the kind that she didn't have before, and it was all a brilliant and shape-shifting adventure that would live with us until this very day. Old videotapes of yesteryears would bear testament to this; for the record, I looked like the proverbial duckling, with big glasses and even bigger hair. "Eh, mate," one of the other students stopped me in one of the corridors at school, "you do know that the Jackson Five broke up, yeah?"
I get bullied a lot in school. Looking back, it's an experience that served to toughened me up in that one sense. It was a nightmare at the time, though. I used to get sent to the medical department a lot. The doctor's office at the time was located right next to the school's main reception. Due to their proximity, I became known, by way of my frequency, as Reception Boy. My mother would be my hero, coming to pick Reception Boy up from the reception after school hours. My later years would be spent playing with my Russian friend, Yaroslav. We'd be looking for pebbles, or empty cans of drinks, and kick them around as if they were football. By that stage, I no longer bring my football to school, because the naughty kids would take them away from me and kick them right up unto the roof of the gym. Wankers, the lot of them. I wonder what happened to them, sometimes. But when the bully boys come calling, my mother would be the one to be there for me, to soothe me and help to build up my confidence again.
It's not always repaid in kind, though. I remember a trip down to Bournemouth many summers and winters ago. My mother had been posted to a hospital in Norwich for a period of time, and the whole family decided to make a trip out of it. My father drove the van down to Norwich, to pick her up, and we'd make our way down to the beach. I, however, was disappointed. I had progressed quite far in Championship Manager 96/97, and I was rather unhappy to be divorced from my beloved Manchester United. Nowadays, I'd managed teams other than the big ones; I get a lot of satisfaction building up something new, rather than take over something established. I raised a little bit of a fuss...well, OK, more than just a bit. Here's one memory that won't be denied. My mother became pissed, and angry at me: "I wanted to take you to the beach, I want to take all of us here on a trip. I want all of us, as a family, to have a nice day out, and this is how you treat me." I was an asshole, and in some ways, still am. At that time, however, I just remained silent, very much aware of my own guilt and pettiness. She would take us all over, just for us.
She did a lot of things just for us. Even back then, her own marriage to my father had some cracks in it, though this is something I realised only after I look back with the benefit of hindsight. It is a crack she papered over because she had not wanted us to be affected by it. We were there for the ride, to be sure, but it was also an important period during which we still had to settle into the British way of life. For my part, it was equally important; I had essentially skipped a year of school (compared with the Malaysians, the British start their young's schooling a year early), and so there's a little bit to catch up with. Furthermore, it is the only year before I would transfer to secondary school, so I needed to be on top form. She wanted the best for me, and in her search for the best, we settled on Dulwich College, a rather prestigious private school. However, after taking the entrance exam, I knew immediately that I had failed it. She had dropped me off before the exam, and was waiting for me when I had finished it. I didn't have the heart to tell her how I felt I did, but she knew. She never held it against me, though. I suspect very few members of my family even remember that I tried to get in there, and it'll no doubt be nothing more than a hazy memory for her. Once again, the things we remember...
It's because all of this that I have a fear of failure. I suppose this is also influenced by my father, but ultimately, I never want to disappoint my parents. In my mother's case, the bond is somewhat stronger, both scientifically and also socially. In all my years, it seems somewhat inevitable that I have spent more of my life with my mother than I did with dad. My father being the successful filmmaker in his own right, he never seemed to be around at home as much. There was always a shoot, always a production going on. His most successful and well-known film still is Sayang Salmah. During the shoot, he was away for months at a time, coming back only on the weekends for a change of clothes. He'd spend a night at home before going back the very next day. To see him, I'd have to spend time with him on set. I'd have to go and visit the set to see my own father. It never really crossed my mind at the time as a negative thing, though. It just is. It just is that his life, his chosen life, or the one chosen for him, keeps him busy in that way. It just is that my mother would end up spending more time with me.
It is the choice we make in our life that defines us. For that part, it pains me at times that it is the choices I make (and those made for me) that has kept us apart for so long. I rarely see my mother these days, because we have such different lives. The family isn't what it used to be, and neither is my mother. Neither am I, for that matter. I have grown to be a rather forceful young man at the best of times. Strong-headed, stubborn...a bit like my parents, actually. I used to fight with my mother a lot. I had fought on a lot of things, tooth and nail, and even to this there, there is still that instinct to voice out something when she says something I disagree with. In time, I learned to tame this, somewhat, because I try hard to enjoy the times that I do spend with her. Life is short, time is precious, and whatever of both there is left should be enjoyed fully and earnestly. It is because of this realisation that I try to see as much of her as possible, because even though things change, even though I no longer live with her, even though she is now someone else's wife (I couldn't, just couldn't, see him as my father, just as my mother's husband), even though we are, for the most part, nothing more than just voices at the other end of the phone line, even though we have hurt each other deeply in some of the times when we did get together...the simple truth is that they hurt because we care for each other.
A friend of mine (well, a friend of an ex, actually), once posted on Facebook: Why does it hurt so much? I suppose she was talking about relationships, and even though I was never that close enough to her to get deep down into it, I still felt like saying something. So I did: "Because we care?" I pose it as a question, because there could very well be other reasons, but at the end of the day, it can be broken down as simply as possible to just that: because we care.
My mother and I...we've had a long and storied life together, a life that is no longer as close or as together as perhaps either of us would really want right now. We've hurt each other, but it hurts because we care. Going beyond that, the cuts cut deep because we love each other. I love her not just because of the love that she has given me, but to those around me; once in a while, she would try to help my friends as well if she could. She gave me life, she gave me love, she gave me all of the tools I would ever need to be successful in life. Could I have asked for more? I don't think so, for it is only one of the few hopes in life that I have grown up as a good enough person, as a strong enough man, as a loyal enough son, to not have disappointed her much.
These are merely simple words, but they express such complex and unimaginable emotions and feelings. For what it's worth, Ibu, I love you. I love you so much it sometimes makes me cry. I hope I have not disappointed you, for you have never, in all your wisdom, disappointed me. I cannot and could not in any possibility hope to pay you back in this lifetime the gratitude I feel for you.
For now at least, a simple "I love you" will have to do.
Happy Mother's Day, Ibu. I miss you even now.