It was close to midnight. I was jet-lagged, groggy with a scratchy throat and runny nose. I eased off the pressure and slowed my stokes on her swollen legs and said,
“Ok Maria, I’ll stop here. I better get some rest.”
“I want you to continue!” She said brows furrowed, olive green eyes resolute, in a tone I had come to know well.
Her sinewy shrivelled form rose up from the bed, a tube running out of her nose pumping out the contents of her stomach because her digestive system was blocked by a tumour on top of her small intestines. After two and a half years of chemotherapy and radiation, they said there was nothing more they could do for her. She was now in a hospice in South Holland.
I wiped my nose on my sleeve and continued as she lay back and closed her eyes. How could I deny her the touch she hungered for? She had days, weeks at the most.
I remember as a child, when Maria visited us in Singapore, how she sat on my bed in the early hours of the morning, eyes barely open braiding my hair in a French braid for school because I told her I liked it that way. We danced side by side in our teens and twenties, in jazz ballet classes, at salsa nights and performed a well-rehearsed routine to Pebbles’ ‘Mercedes Girl’ at a family Christmas party. After she qualified and started working as a nurse she regaled us with stories of patients who walked into the emergency rooms in the middle of the night with unusual objects either attached to or inside of them. The staff and patients loved her. They called her Miss Singapore because of her pulsating presence and stunning Eurasian looks inherited from her mother, my Aunty Mavis.
As we got older Maria’s tone hardened and eyes narrowed as she communicated her struggles and disappointments. She had thrown herself so fully into life not holding back and become bitter when others did not give to her in the same way. She was never able to recharge enough from her late night shifts and the extra hours she took on chasing a security and assurance that never come from having more money.
A few years ago when she was visiting Singapore, Maria asked me to take her shopping on my day off. Even though I was tired I agreed, hoping we could bond and rekindle our closeness. On the bus into the city she blasted into me,
“You don’t know how good you have had it. Do you know how hard it was for me growing up…” She continued on, “…and well you’ve led a La-di-da life haven’t you?”
Fresh from a break up that made me feel raw and vulnerable, I ruptured loudly and said to her, with tears streaming down my face, “You have no idea what it was like for me growing up!”
“Oh sorry have I said something wrong?” She said, softer.
This was the Maria I knew, genuinely confused by my outburst.
But her constant envy and judgement made me feel like she did not truly see or love me. As a result, I did not feel safe enough emotionally to have a heart-to-heart with her. I stayed closed and we stayed estranged.
At the hospice, knowing her time was limited and only having a few days before I had to fly back to Singapore, I did not want to leave words unsaid. I apologised for yelling at her that day on the bus and thanked her for coming to see my father when he was dying, helping us with his care. She asked me if I wanted any of her clothes. I took a thick black woollen jacket, more as a way to remember her than because I would wear it, living in the tropics.
A month after I got back from Holland, I received word that Maria had asked for an infusion which would sedate her, helping her transition, as her body had begun to shut down. Not being able to absorb any nutrients or food for weeks, she was effectively starving to death.
She passed away two days later.
What I hope for her now is she is resting deeply, recharging and healing her exhausted spirit; that she has perspective on her meaning-filled life, one that was spent giving the very best medical care, comfort, safety and solace to countless patients. I hope she is basking in the truth that she created a beautiful family and home, that she is loved, oh so loved, maybe not in the ways that she wanted to be, but in the imperfect and flawed way that is human.
What I hope she now knows, and I was not able to convince her of was that I never had a better life than her or struggled any less. I was instead blessed to learn from wise mentors that we all suffer and are shattered by life, that is part of what living is, but we do not have to make it mean anything about us, our worth or lot in life; that the willingness to make peace with what hurts us and we cannot change, while doing the work to patiently and humbly change the things that we can, brings inner freedom and a sense of calm.
Most of all, the saving grace that nourished me was the boundless benevolence that assimilated into my life and being once I committed to making peace, truth, gratitude and understanding my priorities. Dedicating my life to these principles in thought, word and action for the last twenty years meant giving up relationships, marriage, children, career, money and position but I gained so much more. It was a price I gladly paid, albeit unknowingly.
So yes, I will continue Maria and so will you, in your children and their descendants, in your deeds and sentiments, in the hearts, minds and memories of all of us who love you, in the everywhen and always.