the measure of a life
J's ma, J's favourite niece, and J's all-time favourite girl.
Y: I wonder how your mom feels.
J: Sad lor. Depressed.
Y: That I know. What I mean is if she looked back on her own life, how do you think she will describe it?
J: Before she got the stroke?
Y: Yah. Before. If you had her life, how would you describe it?
J: Hmm...I think she would have said it was good. She would be quite proud about it. You remember how she is always boasting about how good a mother-in-law people say she is, how she cooks so well, how this son or that is so fillial to her, how this in law or that treats her so good, how she is so polite, how her husband is such a good man... that sort of thing. I think she sees herself and her life as being good in that way.
Last Saturday was Ma J's birthday. Someone suggested that we take her out for dinner. The venue chosen was Sakura, a low budget Japanese buffet place.
Of all her 7 children, only 2 were there - J and his only sister. The other 5 brothers were absent, for varying reasons (one had chosen perform some duty at a taoist temple instead, one had opted to play soccer with his mates, one had to work, two had opted out of the dinner citing financial problems), although 3 were "represented" by their wives and children.
Ironically, much of Ma J's life had revolved around her children and dinner. She had her first child when she was 20 and her last (my J!) when she was in her late 30s.
She never held a job, save for helping out at Pa J's food stall and keeping house. Up till the day she suffered a stroke, she still made dinner for most of her sons. These men in their 40s and 50s would bring their wives and children to their mother's dining table each evening. They arrived at different times of the evening, sat, ate and left.
Before her stroke, a typical day for her would begin in the late morning. She would get out of bed and make a trip to the market with Pa J for lunch and to shop for dinner. In the afternoons, she would nap before waking up at 5 to start making dinner. After dinner and seeing off her children, she would often pick up the phone to call relatives in China or Chinese relatives working illegally in the UK. Once every few years, she would make a trip to China to see these relatives, although every other day she would be talking about travelling there. She would end the evenings lying in bed and watching cable TV. She saw no reason to change any part of her life. She took no counsel. She always spoke what was on her mind.
However mundane all this might seem, most of it she can no longer do, until she regains her mobility. And what she can (i.e. talk on the phone, watch telly), she no longer finds any joy in them or motivation to do so. Now, even if she wanted now to change her life, she felt helpless to do so. Nonetheless she still takes no counsel and she still speaks what is on her mind - even if she seldom even speaks.
So last Saturday's dinner celebrating Ma J's birthday was a particularly depressing affair with only 2 out of her 7 children present, and our unsuccessful efforts to cheer her up. As Ma J blows out the candle stuck into the random slices of cake selected from the buffet, I wonder if it is just the physical effects of the stroke that causes her to lament once in a while "I'm so tragic!" (or in hokkien "我真惨!"). Or is she lamenting a loss she never imagined, for things she thought she had but never really did.
She smiles only because of Adobe Photoshop - image by J