Experiencing Empathy with My Late Mother
I can’t remember the exact moment I was triggered, but a peculiar realisation about my late mother struck me today, for the first time ever.
…That was perhaps the ironic beginning of my journey of empathy with my long-gone mother.
My mother was aged 24 when she gave birth to me. That is on average a young age to be married, and to be with child, but perhaps not so in 1990s Singapore.
I was 14 when my mother died, and 2018 would be the 10th year since I last saw her face to face. There her supine and corporeal being lay, on the bed of our master bedroom at home, as she breathed her last and succumbed to cancer.
It’s a cliché to say this, but time does fly. Within the decade after her passing, were periods of time that I do not seem to recall vividly. There were also the moments where milestones in my life were completely bereft of her involvement (take National Service, for example. I could not for the life of me imagine her being at my National Service parades, because she never could have). There came moments when I realised that she never heard my post-pubescent ‘cracked’ voice, and there also came moments when I gradually contended with the fact that I could no longer confidently conjure in my mind the way she used to sound (this one hurt).
There came times when I knew I had outgrew her, but could not comfortably imagine myself standing next to her without having to look up at her. There were seasons of abandonment and anger regarding her death, but also more recently seasons of peace and forgiveness. To the preceding sentence, I owe it to a life in Christ. My mother accepted Christ sometime in 2005, and passed away in 2008. In physical terms, she was a 3-year old Christian at most, on earth. I followed her to church in 2005, began acknowledging myself as Christian sometime between 2007 and 2008, got baptised in 2010, but truly and personally gave my life to Jesus in 2013 at the age of 19. Regardless, I am, if not an 11-year old Christian, then at least a 5-year old disciple of Christ.
Forgiveness and peace over the past were often barricaded by feelings of abandonment and blame. It was only recently that I realised the first ‘overlap’ in the lives of my mother and mine — that is, when I too became a ‘3-year old Christian’ from the time I truly accepted Christ as a 19-year old.
In terms of ‘room for Christian retrospection’, I had so many more years of earthly stockpile than my mother had to reflect on. I would look back on all the times in my early Christian life (basically my teens) and learn a huge lesson: the point of acceptance (of Christ) never meant the point of all my petty worldly troubles coming to an end. It also did not mean the immediate accrual of all knowledge and godly wisdom — much less the spiritual maturity to boot.
For instance, I started to reflect upon my distorted idea of God; back in Junior College (ages 17–18), I felt perplexed as to why God was not so-called blessing me when I was doing all the so-called correct and Christian things. In fact, God was instead giving me a hard time (and terrible school results). I looked back, sought forgiveness and forgave myself in the process. Another example of forgiveness in retrospection was when I would consider my past struggles with all sorts of temptations, and deplorable behaviours and attitudes. Again, I could forgive myself for the young and arguably immature Christian I was.
With each time I practised this exercise in forgiving my younger Christian self, I would realise that I had grown to an age where the number of years I walked on earth knowing God and growing with Christ would have far out-walked my mother’s comparably short stint of 3 years as a Christian on earth. It would not have been a surprise that I soon knew the Bible better than she ever did; soon prayed and served and sang and done more in a Christian context than she ever physically would have gone through, from the time she got to know God. But I would have forgotten to factor in this very difference in length between my older Christian self and spiritually younger Christian mother. I would have forgotten to do so, each time I held onto certain angers I had over her. In the years following her passing, I recall reading diary entries that she penned down during the beginning years of her becoming a Christian — I would find a biblical error here and a misunderstanding of Christian doctrine there. I would raise my eyebrows at a certain prayer request and even gawk at the nature of a confession or two.
Then, Christ showed me exactly where I had missed the mark in my thought exercises. That was perhaps the ironic beginning of my journey of empathy with my long-gone mother. I would be more sensitive to the fact that I too, as a young Christian at one point in time, would have not known God as fully as I would were I to have more time to know Him. I would be more forgiving about the perceivably selfish and problematic requests made to God, but instead focus on the joy of the fact that a young Christian, who had only just begun walking in step with the Holy Spirit, was zealous enough in their relationship with God to journal to Him and spend time with Him.
Forgiveness about other things I bore about my mother now came more easily, and that had also translated into an understanding, and tolerance, and God-inspired love for a living father whose imperfections were now no longer treated with my anguish as before. But before I get too confident to say that this must be it — lesson learnt, done and dusted — I sense myself going into a new phase of empathy:
This year, I would be turning 24. This afternoon, I asked myself the question: “be honest with yourself, could you picture yourself now, married, and with a one year old child?”. 24… And there I was, thinking about what Masters I would take, and how many years my investment horizon is and should be if I started investing in a certain instrument now. There I was, forgetting that my mother had me at the age of 24, and along with it a unique set of challenges I would never understand lest I thought it was easy for her as well… Now, don’t get me wrong, for my parents were by no means caught in their situation unawares. It was a marriage and birth planned and journeyed well together. But I still must ask myself, how life must have been for them, and try to understand things from my 24-year old mother’s eyes, now that I am soon able to as a 24-year old myself. How would I feel, truly? As I turn 24 this year, I will slowly move along the number-line of ages into my late 20s and then my 30s, and I will start to face more direct comparisons regarding my life’s stages with my mother’s, for I would now have a working memory of when she was 24 and onwards, until the next 14 years to come.
This piece was first written on 12 April 2018, and posted on my personal Facebook notes. It finds a new home here today, on Medium, lest it gets buried deeper beneath the heap of posts on a social media platform that has lost its touch with the younger generations in recent years. I made very minor edits to its form and substance before re-posting it on 27 October 2020.