It’s July 1, and who doesn’t wish we could reset everything, go back to New Year’s Day and start over. But we can’t, and here we are. I’m looking at the photos in my iPhone, always my main record of what I did when, with whom. Here is what they tell me.
January 2: I’m in Petaling Jaya to see my mother. We were estranged for some years, then she turned 90 in March 2019 and my sisters Audrey and Barbara called to say I should see Mum because she wasn’t doing so well, health-wise. So I went in the middle of 2019, and it was a good visit. Now I’m back, it’s a new year. I see my sisters, nieces, a nephew, a couple of cousins.
I drop in on my sister Barbara, who is in a bad way, with diabetes, kidney problems and other health issues. As I leave, she says: “Come again, there’s something I want to tell you.” I promise to return that evening, but she is admitted to hospital, so I don’t see her again before returning to Singapore. Always, I leave feeling I should come again, soon.
January 11: Hedwig and I attend one of the happiest weddings ever, of Danson and Celine. They are Hedwig’s students from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communications and Information, now our young friends.
January 21: Our friends Cherian and Zuraidah celebrate a milestone wedding anniversary. We were there when they tied the knot, and it’s good to be marking the occasion with them now.
January 30-February 4: Melbourne. This feels like a whim, but friendship is like this sometimes. My old friend Kim Low has lived in Melbourne for decades. On a visit in 2019, we drove on the Great Ocean Road with him and at the town of Port Campbell, had a meal with his old friend Scott, and his fiancee, Tiffany. We’ve known Scott since he was a teenager, but it’s been years.
When Tiffany sent me a message some months later and invited us to the wedding in Warrnambool, I said Hedwig and I would be happy to be there. Now here we are, back in Melbourne. We have lunch at Victoria’s parliament house, visit the Victoria market, shop for books at Readings, have coffee in nice cafes, catch up with our old friend Teng Kiat too.
One of Melbourne’s best kept secrets is that you can have lunch at the Victoria parliament when it is not in session.
We drive out to Warrnambool for the wedding, and both ways I say we must stop at Hulm’s Bakery in Colac to have the old-style sausage rolls, slices and a cup of coffee. Everyone indulges me.
From Warrnambool, we do a quick visit to tiny Port Fairy, a place that immediately made me feel I wanted to return to one day.
The garden wedding goes beautifully, and at the reception packed with friendly Aussies I’m meeting for the first time, I’m thinking: “What am I doing here!” Old friendships are like that, sometimes.
On our last day, before heading to the airport, we score a late lunch at Tipo-00, a superb Italian restaurant my friend Brendan told me about, but we couldn’t get into last year. The perfect end to a great few days away from Singapore.
The only hint of trouble to come: our daughter’s friend is heading back to Shanghai and cannot find hand sanitiser in Singapore. Kim takes us on a sanitiser shopping trip in downtown Melbourne and, guess what, several shops are sold out. When we finally find a place that’s stocked, I want to buy six (small!) bottles, but they say No. Two, maximum. OK. The Covid-19 pandemic was about to change our lives, but we still had no idea how overwhelmingly.
February 17: My sister Barbara turns 72 and she is very ill, but has a happy smile for a photo with a cake made by my niece Imelda, Audrey’s daughter. The photo of us together was taken some years ago.
February 29: Two weeks after her birthday, Barbara passed on. My son Zachary and I head to Petaling Jaya for the wake, at Audrey’s home, and the funeral. My Mum’s memory comes and goes. She tears up sometimes over Barbara, her first born. Sometimes she is unaware.
I’ve been away from this family for so long, and my sister’s wake becomes a reunion with so many cousins, their children, old family friends.
I sit with Bella, whom I have not seen for many years. She is one of my Taiping cousins, who are always warm and loving no matter how much time has passed since we last met. Bella is the daughter of my Auntie Girly, my mother’s older sister who settled in Taiping, Perak, and had 16 children. My other Taiping aunt, Elsa, had 13 children. At the crematorium, Bella holds my hand affectionately and says we must meet again.
I have two cousins named Patrick. At the wake, Patrick Albert, from my father’s side, tells me it has been 45 years since we last met, and that was when I was Best Man at his wedding. Patrick John, from my mother’s side, is someone I try to see on most trips to KL. After the funeral, he spends an afternoon with Zachary and me, driving through Ampang and Sentul, where I lived growing up.
In the evening, Patrick John, Zachary and I have dinner with Patrick Albert and another of my cousins I’ve seldom seen, Deanna. This evening feels good. Barbara brought us together. I promise Patrick Albert to stay in touch. Forty-five years. What kind of Best Man was that.
The news about the pandemic is becoming serious. But it still seems to be something mostly happening somewhere else. Nobody was bothered by it while we were in Petaling Jaya. Nobody in Singapore is wearing masks.
Then we all have to stay home. Covid-19 is upon us, good and proper. Hedwig and I cancel a long-planned trip to Taiwan with friends, air tickets bought, hotels booked. I had hoped to go to KL at the end of March for my mum’s 91stbirthday, but no way now.
We speak on the phone, on video calls, and Mum is happy to see me, though sometimes she isn’t sure who I am. She always starts our conversations asking: “When are you coming to see me?”
APRIL, MAY, JUNE
My photos become a record of home-cooked Covid-19 meals. Hedwig, Nicola, Zachary and I are all at home with our Indonesian helper Yanti. There’s no telling how long this will last. Our only outings are to the supermarket. Zachary goes to help at a dog shelter near our home, two or three times a week. Yanti has to stop seeing her friends on her day off, Sunday. Days turn into weeks.
Churches are closed and I don’t like online services. One day, Elena, my cousin Joan’s daughter, sends me a link to online masses in Catholic churches worldwide. Curiosity leads me to services in New Zealand, Australia, India, Kenya, Rome, Scotland and England, before I settle on Clonard Monastery, a Redemptorist church in Belfast where white-haired priests deliver succinct down-to-earth homilies, and wave and blow kisses to the camera at the end to people watching from around the world. Catholics worldwide are attending services in other countries, it feels good to worship anywhere. Now I’m practically a regular in Belfast.
April 26: I wake up with a pain in my back I know too well. It’s Stone In The Kidney pain, and I first got to know it in 2012. I need emergency surgery and spend a night in hospital, no visitors allowed because of Covid-19 restrictions. Some people will do anything to get out of the house during a pandemic.
It takes a few days to recover, and then all is good.
More food pictures. There’s nowhere to go. There’s nowhere I want to go, really.
May 12: I need a haircut. Hairdressers are allowed to restart in Singapore and Joo Hock, who has cut my hair for 30 years, opens his shop again. It has been more than two months, whereas I usually get a haircut every three weeks.
Strangely though, I don’t like being in the city, where all the shops are closed. Raffles City is eerily dark and empty except for some food shops and supermarket in the basement. This new coronavirus has a way of spooking you when you least expect it.
More food pictures. Dinnertime is the highlight of the day.
May 31: I can’t go to Malaysia, and speaking on the phone is not a great experience because of Mum’s fading memory. I send her a couple of videos of me singing old songs. She is delighted with Let The Rest Of The World Go By. My niece Imelda sends me a video of Mum watching me sing. She is singing along. She remembers all the words.
I have a new hobby, and poor Imelda has the job of playing my songs to Mum, who likes it best when she knows the songs. I try to recall songs my uncles, Mum’s brothers Cyril, Alex, Teddy and Charlie, used to sing when they were boozy and happy at the end of a party. I will spare you my croaking, though I remind people I have only half a set of working vocal cords so they should be merciful if they somehow happen on these gems of mine.
June 26: Sad news from KL. My cousin Bella has passed away in her sleep. She was 76. She never married, but helped raise her nephew Kevin and his sons, and they called her Grandma Bella. She was well loved and will be missed. I am glad now that we had those few minutes together at Barbara’s funeral.
Has only half of 2020 gone by?
Two weddings, two funerals, one hospital episode. Home-made meals. No eating out. No meeting friends. No church on Sundays. No idea at all, when we will travel again. Who knew, that going to Melbourne for a wedding and Petaling Jaya for a funeral would turn out to be this precious.
What a lovely life you’ve had, dear Alan – good friends, good food, wonderful places to explore and get to know and a terrific career. I’d like to be at one of your home cooked meals when we next meet, please. Miss you. dear friend. Stay well and safe. A hug for you and your dear Hedwig.