Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mourning in private

It's been an emotionally exhausting week. Every where we turn, every time we're on any social media platform, we are inundated with the death of Lee Kuan Yew. I've read some, tried to ignore quite a lot and taken to heart quite a bit; his red box, his love for his wife, his house that looked suspiciously like my grandma's house a couple of blocks down from him and  despite how draconian his reputation was, he was also an empathetic man to those who needed his help.

A friend once wondered out loud why we mourned the deaths of people we don't really know. So the question of whether we were just caught up in the moment or felt true genuine grief was something I wrestled with.

I knew this day was coming. After all, we had all started to see how frail he had become. We all knew he was in intensive care. We all knew it was a matter of time. But even then, when we woke up to the news at the beginning of the week, for that moment, everything hung heavy in the air.

We didn't do a lot of what everyone did. We didn't go and join the queues at the Padang to pay our respects and we didn't get the car decals. I didn't change my picture on FB and I don't think I actually put up anything on FB this week.

But that didn't mean that we didn't think about it. That didn't mean we weren't in mourning. Much of our conversation revolved around the stuff we had read and our responses to it. Much of what we talked about to JED revolved around him as well.

Up to this point, he has been a very removed figure in their lives.

So I have tried my best to personalise him to them. I told them that Mama and Ah Gong (my parents) met him when they were students in England. I told them that when I was young, we would drive past his house at Oxley to get to my grandma's house and I would wave at the guards. I told them that Papa taught his grandsons. That has helped a little.

We took Muffin with us to watch the cortege travel from the Istana to Parliament House. He waited for an hour for the 30 second drive by. He wanted to see LKY and was upset that he only saw the box. For the rest of the day, he whined that he didn't see "Lee Tan Yew" (That's how he refers to LKY)

And as the gun carriage passed us by, we were struck by how the casket seemed too small to contain so great a man.

I'm not entirely sure how much of it he actually understood but he was able to tell the teachers where he had been and came home reporting that if we visited Lee Kuan Yew again, we had to bow. He has also woken up over the week asking for "Lee Tan Yew" so we know he's been on Muffin's mind.

The twins' learning curve has been steep; at school, they've been inundated with "Just In Time" lessons about this relative stranger. But they are at the age that they take it all in, seriously with absolutely no sense of cynicism. So, they've come home asking to go to his funeral (nope, we're not important enough to be invited), Parliament House (nope, the queues are too long and they've stopped letting people in) and the Istana (once again, nope, you're not important enough so the guards won't let you in.) Jordan has asked repeatedly for a history book. Not only does she want to read about LKY, she wants to read about other people in Singapore and about old Singapore. I have resolved to get her a secondary school history text book.

But because of that, we have wanted to give them some sort of closure. They've been displaying some distress at LKY's death though they have been unable to articulate why. It's pretty much their first exposure to death of someone albeit not close but nonetheless impactful to them. And because we weren't able to take them to Parliament House, this morning, we trouped the whole brood down to pay tribute at the Istana.

Each made a card and I brought it along with a stick of glue. Of course, when we got there and they saw the available cards, they wrote a couple more.

That helped them, especially Jordan who took the time to read the cards of others and admired the photo collages and drawings that people had left behind.  They asked us questions- why there was a drawing of LKY crying, what people from other countries were thanking him, why people left candles and flowers and gifts. They had to get it out of their system. This afternoon, they all seemed a little bit more settled.

As for us, the adults who were children when he was Prime Minister and became critical young adults as he stepped down from office, it's been a surreal week trying to reconcile our intellectual criticisms of him with the emotional reaction of seeing the Great Man of our childhood pass on. Yes, Singapore has lost a great someone, our own national myth. And no, there won't be anyone to fill those britches or that seat in Parliament. But at the same time, the distress I feel is more personal. This great man of god-like proportions was also a father and grandfather but his family has had to put their loss on the back burner as they conducted dignitaries through to pay their last respects. I know that if it were my own father, in a coffin, all I'd want to do is to cry for him, mourn his passing and keep his memory alive by talking about him to others. Feeling that, I ache for his family who are unable to go up to the coffin and touch it and talk to their dad or grand dad because there are millions of others waiting to walk by.

So our thoughts of condolences both wax lyrical about what he has done for Singapore as well as thanking his family for sharing their dad/grand dad with the rest of the world. As I go to bed tonight, as Singapore prepares for the funeral tomorrow, I feel very moved to pray. Not just to pray for the nation and the soul of the man who has passed but for the family that must now live without him.

And that pretty much sums it up.


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