You can give Robert the wine glass, they said. At five in the morning I think about life, friendship and a cup that is overflowing

This is funny, Robert, I got the wine glass to give to you. While I was fidgeting with it, someone said to me: “You must be a connoisseur.” 

Haha, I say. Nothing could be further from the truth. Given all the other gifts lined up for you, the wine glass must have made me seem like the boozer in the room.

I woke up at 5am that day, wondering what to say. About this glass, about us.

You’ll have a minute, they said, because everyone will say something about the other gifts.  

The other items say so much about you. 

A plant clipping, for the avid gardener.

The calculator and fountain pen, for Robert the accountant.

The Hash shirt, from the Seletar Hash House Harriers, that bunch of beer-guzzling trail runners. But you were also a serial marathoner and Ironman.

The tube of golf balls.

A cigar, because sometimes, that was a thing to do. 

The riding jersey and shades, for all the long-distance bike rides that took you through Malaysia, Japan, France, everywhere. 

The dancing shoes, because hey, you danced!

That weird Chaine thing, that the gourmet club members wear and decorate with badges and shiny objects to show where they’ve eaten and drunk.

A fishing reel and hook, because you relished that quiet time. And fresh fish.

A snorkel, thermals, beanie and travelling pants because no place was too wet, too high or too cold for your next adventure. 

The battered gardening cap you refused to throw away even though it had seen better days, because why waste it, it still provided shade.

The Hawaiian shirt because nobody else filled out those colourful, patterned things like you did. 

And, the wine glass. 

At five in the morning, not yet fully awake, I wonder what the wine glass represents for us. 

Yes of course it is about all the times we had a good meal together and sometimes drank more than we should. In your house. My house. That time in Hong Kong when we lurched from meal to meal. We found a wine shop in that public housing estate in Tuen Mun, where we shopped for fresh seafood and sat in the open air on a cool night, as the restaurant served up your market selections.

But much more than that, this glass represents our cup of friendship going back more than three decades. An unlikely friendship between you, me, Hun Hoe and Eddie, four guys who had so little in common except that we married Pauline, Hedwig, Sock and Shirley, four women who were the best of friends going back to National Junior College, Tanjong Katong Girls’ School and Haig Girls School.

We were the “friends-in-law” brought together by four smart, opinionated, strong women. And gradually over years of getting a word in sideways while they gabbed, we got along too, and looked forward to meeting the next time.

The last time we saw you, just a month ago, I was taken aback by how the cancer had affected you and you seemed so gaunt. But you would overcome, because you were always the fittest man over 60 that I knew. 

You had no business being ill, and although the thought crossed my mind that day, you of all people had no business dying. The rest of us were ahead in that line, surely. 

We spoke briefly about praying at a time like this, when you were losing weight, had no appetite, could not taste your food. You said you were not a praying man. But we knew there was a crowd lifting you up in prayer. 

Thinking about our cup of friendship at dawn led me to Psalm 23, the one that starts, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” 

As if seeing it for the first time, the line that says “my cup runneth over” stands out now and holds me. Although this is a psalm that speaks of walking in the valley of death and is a funeral favourite, it is an ode to life, of being fully alive. 

I realise that all these gifts we have for you today celebrate the fullness of the life you lived, the wide and varied groups of people you shared time and interests with, the friend you were to so many of us.

Now it is my turn to place the wine glass in your casket. 

Seriously? How could this be. 

And then I feel your light filling the room, overflowing, promising to stay with us. 

ROBERT TAN BAN SENG 1 April 1949 – 14 December 2020

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