Every year, Nat receives countless well wishes on his birthday, March 23. That is, up until 2015, when his personal milestone was eclipsed by a national tragedy – the death of a founding father.
“Why did Lee Kuan Yew have to die on my birthday?” The question is rhetorical, of course, and I don’t know what Nat intends to achieve or express by saying it aloud. I’m not sure he knows either. No doubt, some function of vocalising the unnamed feeling of discomfort, that unpleasantness that builds in the pit of your stomach when something negative happens within uncomfortably close proximity of an aspect of your identity, was to pin it down and make sense of it.
A murder in your block of flats, the total destruction of the hotel you once stayed in by an earthquake or tsunami, a bombing at an airport you just came from.
Big global events, small personal milestones, birthdays and death anniversaries, people and places, they signpost our lives and we organise the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves around them. When they overlap or coincide, they disrupt those narratives and we have to change the way we tell them. Why this, why now, and how does this relate to me? We must sort these things in the immediate aftermath, or we may struggle with it for the rest of our lives.
My little brother’s 17th birthday was also the day my grandfather died. Every year since then, he’s declined friends’ invitations to celebrate to instead have a somber dinner with the extended family, listening to my Ah Ma tell the same tearful stories over and over. Last year, I got him tickets to Neon Lights and politely excused the both of us from this morbid ritual. I told him I’d rather we celebrate his birth than Gong Gong’s death. Our mom was visibly annoyed, but I knew she too wasn’t big on the whole affair either. She needs Ah Ma to move on, we all do.
Ah Ma has steadfastly latched on to the narrative of my grandfather’s departure. In the wet November days that lead up to his death anniversary, he appears to her in dreams, half-remembered and dampened. These visions leave her Decembers ashy and bitter. Tainted by a distortion of a past she never wanted but can’t let go of.
My grandfather had an affair with another woman, and they had children together. My grandmother found this out early on in their marriage. (It was my mother who exposed him. She was a tiny child, and didn’t understand. Still doesn’t understand.) She despised him for it, held on to it for years and years, chastised him at every opportunity. But never discussed it in front of the children. My cousins and I only learned of this after the funeral.
Yet, Ah Ma mourns the loss of her lifelong companion as if he could do no wrong. His absence stains the walls of the flat they shared for four decades and gives her memories a different flavour. Sentiment-glazed, every corner of the house, every piece of furniture, every display case – every item that was once a trigger for an argument between the bitter old couple that bickered endlessly – tinged with love, now confers pain.
I wonder if she loves his ghost more than she ever loved him. Maybe this is too cruel an interpretation. I don’t share this thought with my family. Especially not my little brother. I just want to celebrate his birthday without confounding the emotions that I experience on November 27 with those evinced any other event.
When I wish Nat a happy birthday, he responds with: “Aw, you remembered.” As if it were an anomaly.
There are only 365 days in a year. We pin meaning and affect to some of them, and we get so confused by the resurrection of these feelings year after year. Would we be better off if we just didn’t commemorate any of them?