Friday, 1 May 2009

Memories of an Absent Daughter

Once in a while I am asked to write something which I find most difficult to do. Recently I was requested by Her World to write a piece for Mother's Day.
Here I reproduce the whole article.

Memories of an Absent Daughter
By Zaharah Othman

Mak’s latest picture on Flikr did a lot to put my mind at peace. She is a picture of contentment as she watches the antics of her children and grandchildren at one of the many and frequent family gatherings. I found myself clicking on it many times to see her smile as it helps to take away a little of the guilt gnawing away at my conscience.
Pix by Nadya Shahabuddin.

It is the look that I want to frame forever and keep in the deep recesses of my mind. It is the look that helps erase the sad picture of confusion and helplessness as she searches for her glasses, handbag and her false teeth that she frequently misplaces. Old age has rendered this once formidable woman helpless and frustrated and more often than not confused. We have yet to hear any of us utter the dreaded word Alzheimer’s to explain her predicament.

Similarly, tucked away in my mental album are recordings of our Skype sessions together. She sits in the front room of my sister’s house in Bangi, while I sit in my lounge in London; both of us connected and communicating, courtesy of modern day technology. Once in a while she reaches out to touch the screen, caressing my face;
“Anak Mak,” she’d lament again and again as it dawns on her the distance that separates us.



Other than that I have numerous collections of MiniDVs clearly labelled, “With Mak during raya”, “Mak in 2001/2002”, and many more. In most, Mak is her busy, healthy self in the kitchen doing what she loves doing best: cooking for the family. We sit around the big table in the house that Pak built for her, while she fusses about, cooking every dish that we mentioned. A mother’s pride is being able to serve what her children crave for.

“I found some fresh crabs at the market today,” she’d say after sneaking out in the wee hours of the morning after subuh before the crowd descends upon Alor Setar’s wet market. Thus, there’d be sambal tumis ketam for me, banana spadix for abang, fresh fish on the grill for the rest of the family. She knows each of our favourites and would refrain from eating or cooking them if one of us is away.

Technology has made separation and distance a lot easier but it does not necessarily ease the pangs nor erase the guilt of being away. Mak had made it very easy for the absent child to feel less guilty. At the airport 29 years ago, she waved me goodbye as I clung on to her and hugged her for what was to be only a three-year separation.

“You are now someone’s wife and you have to go with him,” she said bravely, pushing me gently towards my husband waiting at the departure lounge. When three years looked set to stretch to thirty years, she never once said, “Come back.” Last year, too weak to see me off at the airport, she said, “Go. You don’t want to miss the plane. The children are waiting in London.” She still has the knack of making things easy, without making you feel guilty. No emotional blackmail that we lesser mortals tend to employ in times of desperation and selfishness.

Communication via Skype is the only way we could talk to each other; her grandchildren fit her with a set of earphone and microphone, without which she couldn’t hear. Normal phone conversations are almost always painfully frustrating. Her impaired hearing means that she answers questions I never asked and repeated questions I had answered several times before.

This experience always leaves me punishing myself with a list of unanswered questions: when Mak could still hear, did I tell her enough that I love her, have I asked her for her forgiveness and blessings? When Mak could still see clearly, did I show my appreciation of her dedication and undivided love to her children, when she could walk, did I accompany her enough to places she wanted to go?

A punishing routine like this need not necessarily absolve or lessen the guilt of a frequently absent daughter. The punishing ritual usually finds its way into an online journal expressed in a form, which I could never verbalised. Ever.

The few precious moments I had with Mak during my trips home have left some mental pictures that will forever be there. There was the time I rushed to her bedside in the hospital after being told that she has the big C. Being away for too long, I was scared that emotionally I couldn’t cope being with her alone. My sisters had left me to change her diapers, an experience that left both of us in tears and laughter. I had put it the wrong way round and after three wasted diapers, I called for the nurse to help.

Mothering Mak is a painful yet humbling experience. It is painful not because I didn’t want to do it, but because I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that this once strong person, who had changed my diapers without as much as a moan, is now a child herself. Once, walking her to the bathroom, she nearly collapsed. Her sarung fell unceremoniously to the floor, leaving her naked and vulnerable. On her face, etched a painful look; one that said, you shouldn’t see me like this. And once, when I was supposed to care for her as she slept, she rolled off the bed and I found her clutching her head. I held her in my lap and consoled her the way she must have done to ease the pain every time I hurt myself as a child.

In happier times, she’d regale us with stories of her journeys to Mecca; recalling the experience on the Bunga Raya as she sailed the rough seas. Cleary etched on her mind as if it happened yesterday, was the busy Port of Aden, where she recalled vendors in small boats approaching their ship with their goods.

“They’d hoist a basket at the end of a long pole to show you what they have on offer and if you wanted to buy, you just put your money in the basket”, she told me as I was preparing to leave for my own flight to Mecca. She remembers the smell of salted fish that she and her cabinmates fried to eat with piping hot rice, and the sight of bodies being lowered into the sea as pilgrims died during the voyage before reaching their destination.

All these that happened forty years ago, are clearly etched in her mind. Not forgotten was also the fact that I cried on my first day at school.

That Mak’s memories can be selective is undeniable. Sitting at the dinner table with her one afternoon, she fretted about going home to the house that Pak built for her in Alor Setar. A subject she brings up on a daily basis.

“I am not well,” she had said. “I want to go home.”

“If you are not well, why go home as there’s no one to look after you there,” I reminded her.

“You can look after me,” she said looking straight into my eyes.

“I have some work to finish here,” I pleaded.

“When you were small and not well, I looked after you,” she countered my plea, hitting me where it really hurt. That was the only time she tried this emotional blackmail.

I had no answer to that and when none of us had answers for her frequent requests to go home to the house that Pak built for her, we resort to lying, an art that had been perfected over the years. Exploiting her failing memory, we had to tell her that she had just returned from the place where she thinks her chickens and duck run free in the compound which once had colourful bougainvilleas and orchids of different species. She wants to be there when passers-by stop and admire her flowers.

Although trips back to the old house have been frequent, she is now too frail to make the journey. A drive back, even with many stops, would tire her. Even the short flight back would take its toll on her health.

So, a small garden with plants from her precious plot is recreated in each of her offsprings house in Bangi and Kajang to make her feel at home. She’d be satisfied for a while and then she’d ask again, taking out her old bag to pack and repack her clothes.

All these reports are relayed to me eight thousand miles away via sms, skype and chats and these would nag at my conscience until I buy that flight ticket back. And until that happens, I pray that if Mak’s failing memory made her forget everything else, she would still remember her daughter who used to cling on to her kebaya sleeves, the one she waited for patiently after school on the old iron swing outside the house that Pak built, and the one she sang syaers and pantuns to when she was small. For all the distance that divides us, Mak is forever in my mind.

63 comments:

NanaDJ said...

Reading your poignant piece I could feel your love for your Mak and how much you miss her in every word and line. I wish you and your Mak well. She is lucky to be so loved. I miss my Mak (she is actually my Grandma but for a very long time I thought she is my mother)although she has been gone nineteen years ago.

Al-Manar said...

Mak, oh mak! She is long gone. I never had the chance to share with her the many pleasures in life I am enjoying to-day. She had wished, and I know she prayed hard that she would die in Mecca, leaving me just dreams of her, not even a grave to visit. In my prayers she remains forever, a mother, tender and caring. Abang Ngah am not as lucky as you are,Zaharah,and as Kak Mah is.

D said...

K Teh,
Cherish the memories for they make the heart grow fonder and miles seem closer. The memories I have for my mother is scant and vague.

Thanks for sharing!

Mia's Mom said...

Salam Kak Teh,

Ohh... this brings tears to my eyes. Your Mak is blessed with loving children & grandchildren. My Mum refused to stay with any of us (4 of us altogether) though her health is failing. Once we even begged for her to come stay with us - still she refused. Said she wants to feel close to my late Dad. Imagine how we feel everytime when the phone rang after or before the normal "phoning" hour. So, we called her everyday and visit her almost every week - without fail.

mamasita said...

My dear KT.
A very beautiful dedication piece to your dearest mum..so full of love.

I hope your mum will continue to be as healthy as possible..engine lama memanglah ada rosak sini sana..tapi your mum is still Alhamdullillah sihat..sihat orang tua.

Hope you dapat jumpa dia soon when you get to come back for your holidays ye?
Happy Mother's Day to you too!

mamasita said...

My dear KT.
A very beautiful dedication piece to your dearest mum..so full of love.

I hope your mum will continue to be as healthy as possible..engine lama memanglah ada rosak sini sana..tapi your mum is still Alhamdullillah sihat..sihat orang tua.

Hope you dapat jumpa dia soon when you get to come back for your holidays ye?
Happy Mother's Day to you too!

Ida Hariati Hashim said...

Salam Kak Teh,

Reading this on your Mak brings tears to my eyes.

I cannot write much here, for I, at this moment is a casualty of a mother's emotional blackmail..:(

Happy Mother's Day to your Mak..

Ms B said...

KT dear,

It is the same feeling that I have, even more so now as I am a mother myself.

Perhaps this is why I still see myself going back someday.

tireless mom said...

Hi Kak Teh

You made me cry there. I have never appreciated my mother more until I have children of my own. Previously I always took her for granted not until 16 years ago after I bear my own and I realised that mother's love is priceless. It must have been a tough decision for you to leave her and even now it seems that that may have not been the right decision. Nonetheless, I am sure your love towards your mum and hers towards yours had grown deeper with time and distance.

May Allah bless both you and your mum.

Salt N Turmeric said...

Beautiful and very very sad story Kak Teh. Pagi2 dah buat orang sedih. huhu. Dah lah i pun rasa guilty sbb duduk jauh.

n.i. said...

I am touched! I know I have not been a good daughter...

Happy Mother's Day to you (in advance)...

masterwordsmith said...

A very moving post...Thanks for sharing. May you and your lovely family be always blessed ...

Makes me miss my mom so much too. Been 37 years since she passed away...

Have a lovely weekend...

Naz said...

My dear Kak Teh,
As soon as I saw the picture, I had to take a long pause :(
I guess being away have matured us in many ways but somehow we will always be our Mak's little girl. I don't have to say more because I think you know how I feel about it. Such a beautiful piece. You and your Mak are lucky to have each other. Salam from me and my family to her.

pugly said...

Simply beautiful.

lizaimen's blog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lizaimen's blog said...

Sorry, tersilap...anyway, your post made me cry so early in the morning!! 'Grandma-sat' Tok yesterday as half the clan is in Kelantan for a wedding. Don't be sad, Mak Teh, she is stronger than all of us put together and draws strength from knowing that all of us love her very, very much, no matter the distance!!! Will buy the mag today...

anak si-hamid said...

Hello Kak Teh,

What a loving statement from daughter to mother. Visit her and touch her when you can.

Only a few nights ago, I dreamt of my mother walking in front of me wearing her telekong. Then I felt this hand next to me, I held it and kissed her hand. It was so satisfying and she's been gone for 12 years!

Nothing, absolutely nothing can break the bond between parent and child. Cherish your mum now while you can.

kay_leeda said...

Beautiful piece you have here Kak Teh. You had me in tears...sedey. I imgine myself in your shoes. Don't think I'm as strong as you are.

But it's okay kak, I'm sure yr Mak understands the choice you made many years ago. We are mothers ourselves, walaumacamana pun, anak tetap anak, baik atau buruk, jauh atau dekat.

I pray for both yours and your Mak's well being. Take care kak and Happy Mother's Day to you :)

Madam Tai Tai said...

Kak Teh,

I just waved goodbye to my hubby this morning, and I don't know when I'll see him next.

So I was already feeling very emotional when I read this posting. Now, I just want to bawl my eyes out.

I hope you will get your flight tickets to Malaysia soon. Go home and see her, Kak Teh. I'm sure you are missing her badly now.

GUiKP said...

Am in Langkawi now with the family and also Wan (Opah to the kiddies). She wanted so much to visit my younger brother and his wife who work here. We will leave this afternoon, but she wants to spend more time with them. Good for her. I'm forver bersyukur that her health is robust to take this trip, although she has to consume plavix, cardiprin, lipitor, etc daily. Semoga your Mak dipanjangkan umur dan sentias mendapat rahmat Allah.

P/s All of them are having an encounter with jaws, etc at the Underwater World now, while I'm having a virtual date with A-list bloggers.

Theta said...

Tears ceased to stop falling down my cheeks as I read this post. Thanks for sharing Kak Teh. It makes me feel grounded and thinks about my own relationship with my mother.

Kak Teh said...

NanaDJ, thanks for kind words. I have come acros many people whose Mak is actually their Grandma. It does not matter - because whoever they are, they are the ones you shower you with love, affection and care for you.

Abang Ngah @ Al-manar, Al Fatehah to your Mak. Whereever her grave is, it is important that you still have that memory of her and no one can take that away. Take care, Abang Ngah. And love to Kak Mah.

Kak Teh said...

D, this is the thing about blogging. I am trying to document and keep whatever I can remember, especially those childhood days with Mak. Take care D.

Mia's Mom, I dread those phonecalls at nights as well. You tend to think the worst. Our Mak keeps asking for her home as well. It is in her best interest that she doesnt live there - once in a while it is okay - but being there, she'd tire herself so much. She wants to do everything. and that is not good for her health. Like your Mak, ours too wants to be in Alorsetar to be close to our Pak.

Kak Teh said...

mamasita, thanks. She is as well as can be expected at her age. And we cant ask for more. Her memories only started failing recently and Alhamdulillah, she remembers all her anak menantus and cucus.

Ida, oh dear, I wonde what that emotional blackmail is. I have just said goodbye to my daughter who is now in Brussels for the weekend. And when I phoned her at the train station to remind her this and that, I sound so much like my mak. and i could hear the desperation in her voice. I had that same desperation too when I was younger.

Kak Teh said...

Ms B, good to bumo into you again yesterday - that mummy and daughter time. Priceless! Cherish it.

TM, Everything was a blur - I must have brished aside all those anxieties and worries about leaving her twenty nine years ago. Suffice to say, when we landed at heathrow, my eyes were so puffed up as i cried all the way here.

Kak Teh said...

farina, nak buat macam mana, we chose how and where to live our life, kan? and with mak's blessings as well.

n.i.,we all have those moments when we felt we have not been good daughters and believe me, I have moments, I know, I have not been a good mum. I wish we are perfect. Happy mother's day to you too.

Kak Teh said...

Paula, 37 years ago? Gosh. But her memories live on, right? Take care and have a good weekend too.

Naz, thanks. I grew up when I came here. If I am still back home, I'd be a spoilt brat because Mak will make sure of that, pandering to everything that I want. Today, I think of emping kerabu and I know, I will never again taste Mak's emping kerabu. Dulu, just a mention, and she'd have all the ingredients ready to make them for me.

Kak Teh said...

Pugs, thanks and thanks for the kind words in the email as well.

Oli, you are in that picture!! It is good that you can grandma sit once in a while. Thank you all for looking after her, i cant say much more than that.

Kak Teh said...

Ms Hamid, what an experience. It must have been wonderful to actually feel that close to her and have her come to you in your dreams. I dreamt of Pak from time to time too. and sometimes, like now, i long to have a sniff of that curve cut tobaccos that he used in his pipe.

Kay, i didnt know i was that strong to leave, but i did. and thank you for your prayers. Nanti bila anak-anak kita nak tinggalkan kita, macam mana pulak, kay?

Kak Teh said...

MTT, my heart goes out to you but I am sure you'll see him soon enough. and think of that london break together. Take care and cant wait to see you.

GUiKP, it is so good to be able to take her with you. and good that she still wants to go. Others dont want to anymore - nak kena pujuk.

Theta, thanks and salam to your mum - a lovely lady!

Zendra said...

Thank you for the article Kak Teh, written straight from the heart. Mum called me this morning and said, "Jangan lupa nanti pukul 11 tahlil kat rumah shasha". She's so sweet, an 82 year old reminding a forgetful 55. May Allah shower His blessings upon her.

Pi Bani said...

Ampun Kak Teh... mula-mula baca the title of your posting I TERbaca as "Memories of an Absent Minded Daughter". Banyak benar benda dalam kepala otak, pandai-pandai aje gi tokok tambah...

Beautiful piece. Makes me so thankful I took the decision to come back to Ipoh to stay with my mother when my father passed away in 1992. I am still staying with her and I treasure every moment.

Kak Teh said...

Zendra, masih sudahi phone conversations with , sembahyang laaa zaharah oi, jangan lupa.:) rawsa macam dok std six lagi!

Pi bani, Memories of an absent minded daughter tu mungkin akan datang tak beberap alama lgi! you are lucky boleh dok dengan mak. your mum is blessed.

ray said...

Komen Pak Malim kucing ray yg alim.

Mak Kak Teh, boleh ajar saya guna skype, tak? kata Pak Malim sambil meminum susu kotak. Saya tak tahu guna, kata Pak Malim yg merana.

madam gold said...

Beautiful piece kak teh...reminds me to visit my mom too.Havent seen her for four months.
Yes, sometimes there is a guilty feeling for not being able to be near her and do our duties.
I hope your mak will continue to stay healthy and be among the love ones.

Manal said...

clap clap clap....Read it before yet never failed to keep me enthused from the start towards the end of the entry. Nanti ade plak nak mintak autograph dgn mak kak teh if they could recognize her picure in the mag.

Kak Teh said...

Pak Malim tak pandai skype, tanya kak teh yang sedang type. Pak malim nak skype dengan sapa, tanya Kak Teh lagi sambil bertapa.

Madam Gold, thanks and do visit your mother. Hug her for me too.

Kak Teh said...

Manal, these are old stories rehashed. So some might be familiar to you. sapa lah nak autograph kak teh!!

~Tis§ot~ said...

kak teh, this is the best mother's day story i've ever read.

wishing u and family well....

happy mother's day to all mothers.

Andrea Wh@tever said...

Dear Kak Teh,

Thank you for this heartfelt and funny-in-a-sad-way piece that had me vacillating between laughter, tears and a tad of homesickness.

Thank you for reminding me that I should count my blessings to have a mom who, at 70, remains fiesty enough to bully her daughters-in-law into allowing her to drive to the mall, argue with my Dad over every little thing, and fight with my brothers whenever it's time for her monthly medical check-up *laughs*

rossie's said...

Ibu..ibu..engkau lah ratu hatiku
tempat ku mencurah kasih..
wahai ibu...
Tanpa ibu kita tida didunia ini...

Kak Teh said...

Tissot ( is that spelling okay?) thanks for kind words. I found it most difficult to write this piece.

Have a good day too.

Rossie, that song is the most wonderful dedication to Ibu!

Kak Teh said...

Andrea, I am glad you like the piece. My mum is ninety something and there have been moments of sadness but sometimes in sadness there are lots of wonderful moments too. I phoned my sister the other day and she told me about Mak, we just had to laugh...Mak, oh Mak!

Take care Andrea abd take care of your Mum and MIL.

Nazrah Leopolis said...

kakteh: i am at a loss for words.but i think u know exactly what i am feeling, and i think i can imagine what u must be feeling when u wrote this piece.

p.s : did u get my email re: your birthday?

Kak Teh said...

Yes, Nazrah, I know how you feel and do take care. Email? Will try to check again. I have been spammed a lot by people offering me millions and wanting to make me rich. Your email must have been lost among those.

nadya.s said...

bring tears to my eyes. happy mother's day kak teh. my love to your mom :)

Shahieda said...

What a beautiful post!! A mother's love is completely unconditional, that is something I've learnt when I became one myself!!

We just celebrated my mum's 54th birthday two days ago and I'm absolutely grateful to the Almighty to still have her with us.

At the end of the day making beautiful memories with your mom is what matters most. And you have so many Alghumdulillah!! Afterall, like I was taught 'Paradise lies at the feet of your mother,' may Allah grant you just that!! Ameen!

zaitgha said...

Kak Teh,

I am still missing my mum though she had gone almost 18 years ago...she would every time came to me in my dream, when i was carrying the 3 boys...in the dreams, she would scold me for not cooking what i wanted to eat while she cooking it for me....the moment she told me the food was ready, she would just gone...

thanks for sharing

edelweiss said...

Kak Teh,

Sedih lah pulak i baca posting u...
i tak tau lah i nih anak yang baik atau tak...i cuba sedaya upaya..

Insyallah semoga Mak dipanjangkan umur...dan sihat.

Happy mother's day to you n all readers.

LifeBloom said...

KT: your beautiful renderings and stories about your Mak never fail to touch my heart la K Teh. And also remind me of how much I should appreciate my parents and do more for them while they are still around.

Your Mak uncannily resembles my beloved late grandma and the tales of the sea voyage to Mecca were also told to me by her since I was small. When my grandma lost my grandad, it was half of her died as well. It took years for her to get over it and regain her vitality and zest for life. Thats why she treasured those Meccan voyages and recanted it to me many, many times. Looking back, I suppose because it was the rare opportunity she and my Tok Tan were together for a long stretch of time, if not, they will be surrounded by their 11 kids!

Mama Rock said...

kak teh, that was a very touching piece. happy mother's day to you!

Kak Teh said...

Nadya, I know you took to her when you first met her and she to you as well. She had embraced you like one of her own. Thank you for taking so many beautiful pictures of Mak and Kak Teh. I will forever be indebted. And HW didnt credit you for the picture!!! hmmmmm! but I have.
Take care.

Kak Teh said...

Shahieda, thanks for the visit to my blog and I have visited yours as well. Will make more visits and read your entries. I would really like to link your blog here.

Happy belated birthday to your Mum!! and take care of her. I know my siblings and sibling in laws are looking after mine well. I need not worry, but the fact remains that I have not done my bit.

Kak Teh said...

zai, now i know where you get your cooking skills from. she must have been such a good cook and a caring one. And you are lucky that she still visits you in your dreams. When I dream of my mother, she always looks healthy and fresh. Maybe that's how I want her to be.

Take care.

Kak Teh said...

edelweiss, i too dont know whether I am a good or a bad child, but mak being mak says all her children are good. You know, mak never talks bad about one child to another. I have never heard her say one bad word to any of us. Even her children in laws.

I am sure in your mak's eyes, you are also a good child.

Take care and Happy mother's day to you too.

Kak Teh said...

Lifebloom, yes, a part of my mak went too when my Pak went. She cared for him most of his life, right till the day he died. Thus she wants to go back to the house that Pak built for her.

You must document her stories about her pilgrimage. When I go back next, I will talk to her more about this.

Take care and dont stay away for too long!

Kak Teh said...

Mama Rock, Happy mothers' day to you too. am sure your children will spoil you rotten!!

Shahieda said...

Thank you for visiting my blog!! I would feel greatly honoured if you could link my blog to yours, thanks a million.

Thank you for the well wishes, I will surely pass them on Insha-Allah!!

You shouldn't be so hard on yourself, we're all just trying our very best & I'm sure your mum knows this :)

Kak Teh said...

Shahieda, you are most welcome.Its nice to be able to read stories and jottings from someone in Cape Town.

nadya.s said...

my thank you to you & mak, kakteh.

..and no worries about HW. small matter aje.. and up until today i go serch for the mags, tak jumpa2 lagi! :) heheh.

Kak Teh said...

thanks nad and take care!

Phaeza said...

Salam Kak teh all the way from Malaysia.

I've been a silent reader of your blog for quite a while now having discovered it after reading GUiT and googling AG. (Happy to report that the book is now easily available in bookstores). Been reading your blog whenever some free time crops up at the office (sometimes reading even when I'm not free, just to let off some steam. heheh)

Your postings have really touched in me in so many ways, being also from utara, i love it when u selit some utaraness dialect here and there and i feel the need to comment on this particular post because I trully hated it for bringing tears to my eyes, and susah nak cover bila bos dok betoi-betoi tang depan kita. yeah I know serve me right, sapa suruh curi tulang kan?

Anyhow, KT thank you from the bottom of my heart for the piece. It trully bagi peringatan to me to take better care of the two matriachs in my life- tok and mama.

Salams to you, your family and Mak.

Kak Teh said...

Thanks Phaeza,

Thank you for your kind words. Kak teh cuma mampu rakamkan kenangan ni dan ulang2 balik dalam kenanganbila dah rindu. Dan tulis apa yang ingat sebelum terlupa. Terimakasih kerana sudi membaca. Mai lah lagi, ya?