Originally published in Men’s Health (May 2007)
You know how as kids, we were indoctrinated at a young age about how truth and honesty trump untruth and dishonesty? I was such a believer I decided to put that into practice when I was about five. And who else to demonstrate that new found knowledge to than Mummy.
We were dining in a coffee house (that was what cafes were known as in the 1970s) and because I was the clumsiest kid around, knocked over the sugar dispenser and spilled sugar all over the table.
Only thing was that my mother had turned away to get the waitressâ€™ attention when it happened. And so, a moral dilemma presented itself, and just as quickly, what was learnt at kindergarten that very week suddenly sprang to my young mind and it was clear that I would tell THE TRUTH when the time came for THE TRUTH to out itself, or for untruth to push THE TRUTH off the stage after THE TRUTH had outed itself!
And so when my mother did ask who it was that spilled the sugar, I remember almost springing off my seat, right hand raised, and shouting, â€œI did, Mummy!â€
At that point my young mind learnt two things:
1) Nope. Honesty doesnâ€™t pay, 2) Ninjas do exist and my mother is their trainer.
I remember coming to on the floor of the coffee house, attended to by a waitress, wondering what had stung my head so badly that the entire right side of my face was numb and kinda swollen.
I wouldâ€™ve attributed my not seeing motherâ€™s open palm coming towards me to losing a few seconds of memory from the concussive impact, but my brother corroborates my theory, telling me years later that heâ€™d seen me fly off chairs for no apparent reason, mostly when seated next to or across from my mother.
One moment youâ€™re saying something authoritatively and with gusto, and the next, youâ€™re sprawled across the floor or table, a helpless victim of the stealthy deadlinessness of the Ninja Shaolin Slap.
Now, Iâ€™m not saying that my motherâ€™s a terrifying woman at all (though the time she asked some church friends of hers to exorcise the â€˜demonâ€™ that was within my brother was quite scary). Sheâ€™s what you would call a strong woman. Really strong. Stronger than most men. So strong, youâ€™d better write something nice about her lest she shows you how strong she is. That kind of strong.
A few years ago, my mother had a fall in the bathroom, and she had sat on the floor in pain, yelling for help for about half an hour before anyone came to her assistance. (That anyone was me, of course, and I didnâ€™t think it was appropriate to tell her at that point that I didnâ€™t know she was yelling for help because that was her tone of voice in any situation anyway).
When I got to her, she was, what you would call, in a â€˜complainingâ€™ mood. My brother and I picked her up and carried her to her bedroom, where she continued to berate us about not being around when she fell down.
My brother and I thought it was a sprain at best, and that our mother wouldnâ€™t have been so verbose if it was anything worse. So we gave her two panadols and ate lunch before deciding to take her to the doctorâ€™s for a consultation â€“ not because we werenâ€™t concerned enough, but you know how clinics are as regards after-lunch consultation hours, and youâ€™d be lucky to get to see the doctor before 4pm â€“ where we were asked to whisk her away to the nearest hospital, where x-rays showed that our mother had broken not one, but two bones in her leg, and where my brother and I stood, shellshocked and feeling really guilty we took our time having lunch at Holland Village.
From the time we found her on the bathroom floor â€“ approximately 11.30am – till the time she was warded at SGH â€“ approximately 7.30pm – my mother was dealing with the pain of two broken bones in her leg, on two 500mg panadols.
If you think that was just an indication of a high physical pain threshold, and nothing to do with real strength, the following six weeks demonstrated otherwise. At the SGH, my mother was seen by several prominent orthopaedic specialists, all of whom advised that surgery was the best solution for her, and that even with surgery, her chances of being able to walk again was slim, at best.
After one particularly trying day at the hospital, where two of the specialists declared, in a way that wasnâ€™t very nice, that she would never walk again if she did not opt for surgery, my mother wept. But they were not those kinds of tears.
They were tears that meant that she was going to defy every surgeonâ€™s opinion and walk again no matter what. No matter that she had to endure six weeks of traction, a secondary infection that required a transfer to Tan Tock Seng hospital, food poisoning (yes, hospital food can cause that too), and the pain of not being able to go shopping for so long.
It goes without saying that she was able to walk again within a year, and what she had to say about the naysaying specialists after that should also go without saying.
And six years before that, my mother suffered from and survived cervical cancer, though at one stage, another secondary infection had also resulted in a lengthy spell at the hospital.
And before that, Mum had polio as a child, and the disease had ravaged her bones and only a timely surgical intervention saved her from being crippled. Today, her left leg is shorter than her right by a few inches. (And you can see why the orthopaedic specialists were so pessimistic about her recovery). Back in her day, this meant being laughed at by her siblings, classmates and friends. That also meant that she was even more determined to be able to walk without any aid.
Not that her polio-induced limping was that obvious, but her gait was abnormal enough for people to ask about it, even though my mother never spoke about it openly. When we were kids, my siblings and I never needed to know because we knew enough about the Ninja Shaolin Slap and its accompanying mantra â€“ child who utter wrong thing shall perish at hand of justice â€“ and it was obvious that it was a sore point, something which I garnered off a well-meaning uncle, whose eleventh beer compelled had him to make me understand more about my mother.
Speaking of uncles and aunts, my mother grew up in a small house in Seremban, Malaysia, with 14, or was it 15 brothers and sisters. I donâ€™t remember how many of each gender there were, but it was a family large enough that a nephew or niece could be older than a sibling (there is in fact, an uncle and a cousin who were born on the same day), and when we last took a family portrait in 1992, the photographer had to cross the street to capture the entire family, 50 odd grandkids to boot.
As you can imagine, the noise levels in that household would be quite tremendous â€“ and this probably explains why my mother talks so loudly on the phone â€“ she intercoms her secretary but her voice through the wallâ€™s louder than what youâ€™d hear in your earpiece. But thatâ€™s not the point of the story, because Iâ€™d still get Ninja Shaolin Slapped if I were to go on.
So, as you can imagine, my mother has sisters she hasnâ€™t met for years, nieces and nephews all over the globe, and apparently, a brother who was formerly on the board of the NKF, but we donâ€™t talk about him at the dinner table. A family so large Iâ€™d imagine how difficult it was to have the attention an ordinary child would require. Much less a girl, in a Chinese family, suffering from the effects of polio. Iâ€™d imagine youâ€™d either be broken, or youâ€™d grow up determined to succeed, take the bus out of Seremban and never turn back.
But when you left your hometown and succeeded in life and business, you might have had some emotional baggage, and some people might have said of you in the 80s that those things on your shoulders were not your blousesâ€™ shoulder pads, but a couple of rather large chips, one on each shoulder. Your children may have complained about you, telling others some time after the first Gulf War, that â€˜my mother is the mother of all mothersâ€™, and your clients may have sometimes left your office, ears buzzing, wondering how come it was their consultant berating them instead of the other way aroundâ€¦
But Mummy, when I see you holding Josh (my nephew) and playing with him, youâ€™re stronger than everything thatâ€™s made you what you are. You are all love. And we love you back. Happy Motherâ€™s Day.