My life changed on March 23 when Papa died at the age of 91. As he aged and his health failed in the five years prior to that, I took his welfare into account in every decision I made. His death was hardly unexpected; yet, Papa’s passing affected me more than I had anticipated.
I had not travelled alone since 2009 after he asked me to accompany him on his working trips. After Mama died in October 2010, Papa’s health deteriorated. So I restricted my travels abroad to the ones where I could accompany him as I was concerned about his fragile health.
Following Papa’s funeral, I was not feeling up to a distant trip so soon. But friends encouraged me to attend a week-long meeting organised by the American Academy of Neurology in Washington DC, which began on April 18. After that, I would visit a close friend living in Ithaca, New York.
I was hesitant about the trip as I was spent. My muscles were stiff and my body ached. In fact, I remained this way until the day I left Singapore some two weeks later. I travelled in spite of my misgivings because I decided that I needed to prove to myself I was capable of being as daring and reckless as in the past when I travelled alone.
The journey lasted more than 24 hours. But amazingly, when I landed in Washington DC, I no longer felt stiff or sore and was not hobbled by jet lag either. So I checked into the hotel, washed up and changed into a pair of running shorts and T-shirt – and jogged to the meeting’s venue at a convention centre to register and attend the lectures.
As lectures started at 6.30am from the second day, I decided to run instead of walk to the venue in order to save a few more minutes for sleep. I would also run back and forth from my hotel to the venue to attend the lectures.
By embarking on such shuttle runs three to four times daily, I clocked an average distance of at least 10km a day. What made these runs more challenging was that I had to cross busy streets and step up and down the sidewalks, often in the dark.
At the meeting, I tried to absorb and remember new information and concepts. The regimen I constructed kept my mind away from dwelling on the loss of Papa, except at night when I was trying to sleep. I was moderately cheerful during the day. Learning combined with exercise has always had an anti-depressant effect for me. So I felt as if I was 40 years old once more during the meeting.
After the conference, I travelled to Ithaca to stay with a close friend. She, too, had lost a loved one recently. I thought we could console each other.
My friend is four years older and I call her jie jie (“elder sister” in Mandarin); in fact, being motherly is a more accurate description of her behaviour towards me. And when she greeted me, I had an immediate and overwhelming sense of belonging.
My stay with jie jie was the downtime I needed. I occupied my time with routine – grocery shopping, gardening, twilight walks and drives to scenic sanctuaries. It was early spring in Ithaca, and life was returning after an apparently harsh winter. Daffodils and hyacinths were in full bloom, and the trees were starting to leaf out.
My friend remarked that the changing of the seasons seemed to reflect the cyclical nature of life and death. For me, it was reassuring just to have the sense of continuity, the familiarity of
a beautiful Ithaca, and the comfort of an enduring friendship. While this was a welcome change of scene, it was hard not to turn my thoughts to Papa. But unlike the period of two weeks prior and two weeks after his death, thinking of him now evoked a dull ache that was replacing the sharp pain I felt previously.
I suspect this ache will always remain, but perhaps to a lesser degree as time passes.
In my article published a week after Papa’s funeral, I wrote that I must now move on to face life without him. That was a declaration of hope rather than a statement of fact.
I will move on, I have to. But as a friend who had experienced the passing of his parents long ago recalled, that sense of loss and the ache will never completely disappear.
But today, the sun was out, and as I ran up my friend’s driveway, the budding trees and flowers greeted me. We went for a walk at my favourite waterfall, Taughannock Falls, where I have asked my friend to scatter my ashes after I die. But for now, life is sweet.
My way of coping with my father’s death is to be grateful that my parents lived happy lives. Old photographs of Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew together, young and obviously in love, and more recent ones taken in their eighties and evincing mutual affection, remind me of what my father said when he saw me sorting through pictures of himself and my mother. “How lucky I have been,” he remarked.
Yes, my parents were lucky until Mama’s devastating stroke in 2008. Subsequently they suffered, as anyone who has lived for so long usually did in the last few years of their lives.
Still, 60 years of happiness surely outweigh a brief period of suffering. As I see it, my parents were fortunate to have been able to spend their final years in their marital home, a privilege rare among couples.