The first was in 1972, during the Primary One registration. Born to a family of 9, and having spent the first 6 years of my life running around a tiny 1 room flat at Mattar Road, I was a super lazy kid who ended up last in my PAP kindy because I hated going to school. I had been expecting to go to Mattar School where my 5th sister was studying, but somehow my mother got wind of an opportunity to register me in St. Andrew’s Primary from a neighbour.
It was the final stage of the registration and we had to ballot. My mother brought me to the school to watch the ballot. There were like 50 people bidding for some 20 places. We were all packed into the school hall, waiting nervously, as a man dipped his hand in a box to pull out a slip and read out the name on the slip. Each time he did it, my mother’s hand will squeeze my hand tightly, and then relax. I glanced at my mother’s face. It was taut with anxiety. I thought: "wow… she must want this badly" and for the first time in my life, I got scared about my future. What if uncle never called my name? Does it mean I won’t get to go to school like other kids?
My name was the last to be called. I looked up at my mother’s face again. That was the first time I have ever seen her cry.
The second time was in 1973, when I got my report card back after the P1 final exams. I was First Boy and was promoted from the worst class in Primary 1, to the best class in Primary 2. I refused to let my mother sign my report card because I thought parents were supposed to use English to sign their names. My mother didn’t understand a word of English. She cried when she found that I had signed my own report card by writing my father’s name in English.
The third time was in 1985, when my parents were invited to attend the celebration dinner for winners of the overseas scholarship. I had worked very hard for this all these years and felt that I had done it all by myself. So I told my mother that maybe she shouldn’t go since she was supposed to interact with the bosses and people who had so kindly given me the opportunity to study abroad, and I don’t want them to be prejudiced by my parents. She locked herself in her room for hours. I knew she cried her heart out.
When I came back to Singapore 5 years later in 1990, I was met with a woman I could hardly recognize. My mother’s grey hair has gone almost all white, and she now walked with a distinctly bent gait due to the years she had spent at the sewing machine. But she was still the same caring mother that loved me despite all the times I had made her cry.
Her years of toiling to help eke out a living for our family finally caught up with her in 1997, when she was felled by a massive stroke that put her in a coma. I spent that night squatting on the floor beside the bed, asking her to wake up and talk to me. I told her I needed her to tell me what a horrible and selfish son I had been to her, to have let her suffer all these years instead of spending more time with her to thank her for all the sacrifices she has made for me and the family. At some point, in the darkened ward, I saw a tiny tear glisten at the corner of her right eye. That was the last time I made my mother cry.
She passed away the next day, without regaining consciousness. In the subsequent years, Mother’s Day no longer held any real significance to me, because not a day passes that I’m not reminded of my mother as I looked at the faces of my own children.
It is in their eyes that I see my mother looking back at me, telling me that the best way to repay her love for me is to love my own children, and to care for them in the same way that she has cared for me.