Monday, April 4, 2011

Diary of a Bereaved Mother: Chapter 2 part one

Andrew October 4th, 1989 5.30am Wednesday

A stranger tells of her woes,
Yours are worse than hers,
You want to shut her up,
But you can’t!
You don’t shush a hurting woman!

On October 1st, I wrote to my sister Elizabeth. I was sure she would have cried with me and prayed for me.

I saw a young Hakka Chinese woman; she belonged to the same Chinese dialect group as CO. She had just delivered her second daughter and she came to my private room. She asked why I was privileged as a multiple mum to have this private room. She didn’t like to be in the open ward because she couldn’t speak English. I bit my tongue and couldn’t answer her. She cried saying that her mother-in-law did not like her because she had given birth to another bloody girl. She admired me saying that I was lucky to have a son and my mother-in-law would be so happy and treat me well. I comforted her telling her that I too had two girls, and this was my third baby. Next time she would have a son.

“No, my husband said we didn’t have money to have more children,” she moaned.

Deep in my heart, a river of gushing tears caused a tsunami. I wanted to tell her to leave, but I didn’t want to hurt her as she was an uneducated immigrant woman.

I wanted to shout, “You want to swap places? I will give anything to do it.”

Her talk verged on the ridiculous.

“My mother-in-law will force my husband to take a new wife,” She sobbed, “You are a Chinese woman yourself; you know Chinese men can have many wives.”

Blah! Blah! Blah! She went on and on. Eventually I told her that I was very tired and needed to rest and rolled over to face the windows. She took the hint and left.

My heart sang this romantic Chinese song. “I am so sorrowful, I have words but I can’t utter them.”

This song was very popular when I finished high school. We had a family crisis, when Rose heard me singing the song, she warned me never to sing it within Mum’s earshot, and it would worry her very much. Mum was hurting enough.

Right now, I am a bag of emotions. I am feeling my lowest since Andrew was born. Andrew was now six days old and was still fighting on. Since Monday, he appeared to be breathing better and had not had a near death episode. However irrational it was, I was having a glimmer of hope. Perhaps the doctors were wrong; they were wrong when they said, tonight and then three days, weren’t they? I wanted so badly for them to be wrong. I wanted my healthy little boy.

Deep down, I knew it was hope against hope. Andrew was still breathing deeply with difficulty, he still had his club foot, and he still was being tube fed. He could do nothing a healthy normal baby could do. Dr. James told me, now the deadline was ten days. I asked what if he survived ten days. How long then? He said, he would be living one day at a time, then maybe month by month and who knows?

The song, “One Day at a time, Sweet Jesus, that’s all I am asking of you;” came to my mind. When you sing this song on any other day, they were just words. But when you are actually living one day at a time, this couldn’t have been more horrifying.

I thought of two women in my family who lost their children. One was my paternal Grandma Chan. First, my 4th uncle, aged four, drowned swimming in Rejang River in Borneo. We were frequently told how my Grandpa Chan cried aloud.

He lamented, “God, why did you take this favourite son of mine? Why couldn’t you have taken one of the other boys?”

Even when he was in his seventies, he was telling us his loss of 4th Uncle and how all the women folk sighed and shook their heads. He might be a grieving dad, but he shouldn’t have cried to his god to take one of his other sons.

Grandpa gave him a grand funeral, which was unheard of at that time for a little boy. That little boy had a younger brother to call him, “Ah Ko” which meant big brother, so it was fitting that he had a funeral and be remembered. But a grand funeral? The people shook their heads. Grief had softened his head!

Every year, at Ching Ming Festival, Grandpa led all of us to pay respect to his poor son. Forty years later, Grandpa, aged almost eighty, wanted to move 4th Uncle’s remains to a new cemetery to a new grave next to his, Mum and Dad and Grandpa went to dig some dirt to put in a little box. It was a symbolic gesture to remove his remains. Mum said that Grandpa dug and dug, and there was nothing. It was very hot under the tropical sun, Mum told him to stop, he would find nothing. He refused; eventually he found a sole of a tiny shoe. Mum said that Grand Pa had loved his son very much. He had buried his little son in a pair of leather shoes when most people walked barefoot at that time.

There was no talk about how Grandma grieved. Was she a stoic woman? Grandma came from a rich family. She brought a slave girl to do all her housework, but in the Chan’s family, everyone had to work. She suffered in China. When she and Grand Pa came to Borneo, she endured hardship as a pioneering woman. After 4th Uncle died, she wanted to return to China. Maybe that was her way of escape. As a strong headed woman, she was determined to go even when Grandpa said, “If you go, I will take a second wife.”

She must have been heart-broken when she left. Shortly after she returned to China, her third son, at seventeen, suddenly died. He came home from a basketball game and felt sick and “dropped dead.” The local people said he suffered from what many people returning from the tropics to a temperate country suffered, the suddenly transition from the extreme heat to the cold killed him. Some people even pointed the finger that Grand Ma had killed her son indirectly because she insisted on returning to China.

Poor Grandma, her husband had taken a new wife, her sons dead. After that, she lost her will to live and died without any apparent sickness. The Chinese call it Sum Tung or heart ache.

I never saw my grandma. But now, I was thinking, Grandma, I am following in your footsteps. I am burying my son.

I was in primary school, my aunt, Mum’s brother’s wife, had gone to deliver her baby in the hospital. The baby died. We were not told if it was a boy or a girl. It has become an unmentionable, forever to be forgotten by everyone except by his mother.

Mother arranged for a trishaw man to take the baby away and paid him twenty dollars. The Chinese are shackled by this sad belief. They believe that if a baby dies, his spirit will return to his mother and dwell in the body of her next baby. The next baby will die and the cycle goes on. If you give him a funeral, it makes it attractive to come back. Hence, if you pretend that he was never born and treated as rubbish, he won’t come back and you will bear healthy babies.


  1. I have never heard that superstition before, or is it part of their religion? YOU have made sure that your son will not be forgotten and people will know and really remember. You had such self control to not speak out to that complainer.

  2. In China, a girl is a Bloody daughter.

    It is an aged old tradition, not exactly religion. It still happens. That is why girls are available for adoption in USA.

    I was the 3rd bloody daughter according to my maternal grandma.

    Mum went on to have a 4th, 5th and 6th daughter.

    Each time, grandma sang the same song, "Not another bloody daughter."

    When my Dad paid for me to go to university in Canada, she jokingly said, " You lucky bloody daughter. Back in China , you will be sold off to be someone's slave. You dad is a fool."

  3. It must have been hard to juggle all the different cultures and beliefs that you have lived with.