I stare intently at the five digital timers lined up in a straight row in front of me – each of them counting down the minutes and seconds to the next required action. I brace myself, alert and ready, the moment one of the timers reaches the 30 seconds mark. 10 seconds now, and I lean forward, my fingers positioned above 2 critical buttons I am about to press. 5 seconds, and I swallow. Anytime now.
DEE, DEE, DEE
The shrill alarm goes off from the timer, especially jarring in the quiet room. It is almost immediately silenced by my coworker. A split second later, I depress the buttons, and my voice fills the corridors and rooms through the microphones.
You have 2 minutes left
I lift my fingers from the buttons and all is silent once more. I bring my gaze back to the timers, the remaining ones still ticking down the time. The bell is up next. I posit the device in front of the microphones and I stare at the timers again.
The timer runs down to zero and is silenced. I lift the bell from the table with my right hand, and depress the buttons with 2 fingers on my left hand. With controlled flicks of my right wrist, I swing the bell.
CLANG, CLANG, CLANG, CLANG
I still my right hand, and my fingers leave the microphone buttons. The stillness of cold air replaces the echo of the bell in my ears. My eyes immediately seek out the timers again.
With varying minutes between the countdown timers, we synchronise our breaks, mental or physical, in between the required actions specified by the timers. This cycle repeats itself throughout the day.
My colleagues and I, 3 of us from different departments, are roped in for a special event. A weekend that marks an important milestone for a group of young people about to realise their calling in life.
We comprise the timekeeping team; and I am assigned the role of the chief timekeeper.
We keep a tight check on the, well, time; broadcast crucial cues to move people along, and inch these young people closer to freedom. To these young people crossing the final hurdle, adrenaline gushing through the blood, time loses its significance. They are also safe in the knowledge someone will be watching time for them, leaving them to ply their trade.
Closeted in a tiny room, hidden from view and forgotten (for most of the day), I feel time’s claustrophobic presence. Every second and minute seems longer – the significance of time passing becomes critical. I watch time pass literally and hear bells the whole day; after 2 days of intense time-watching, imprisoned by my duty, I am ready to scream. But I know my responsibility – nothing glamourous, just pragmatic.
At the end of each (exciting) day, congratulations abound for the key organisers on a job well done, an event well run. I get none of that but it is not unexpected; I am just glad to be let out of the prison I have spent the last 12 hours in, and escape home, having executed my duty to the best of my ability.
All the best to you all – please promise you will always do your best for the welfare, mine included, of the people you pledged upon, that many years ago …
It was past the kids’ bedtime as I returned home, trying to open the doors as quietly as I could, and tip toe-ing into the darkened house.
Before I could close the door behind me, I saw a little head full of hair spying at me from his bedroom doorway. Ah, the little one who places a great deal of emphasis on quality time.
“MaMa! I have been trying to keep awake to wait for you! Can I tell you about my day?” Matthew was all smiles as he whispered loudly, remembering to keep his voice down because MeiMei was already asleep, and loud enough because he knew his mum was a little hard of hearing. In all fairness.
Could I say ever say no to this request of his? Never. I pushed aside my desire to crash out on the floor and followed him into his room. And I listened as he recounted his whole day at my parents’, this week being the 1-week March school holidays.
As the story unfolded, I was reminded how important fairness is to my boy. He explained why he tried to spend equal time with his GongGong; he realised he had been spending more time with PoPo, and not enough time with his grandfather. In all fairness.
“I have to be fair, if not I won’t be able to remember their names next time, right?”, was his (a little strange) reasoning.
But I understood. Quality time with family, no matter how briefly, counts. Every little bit, and as equally apportioned as possible, matters. Powerful reminders worth paying attention to, especially coming from a not-yet-8-year-old boy. Have to hand it to him. In all fairness.
Although we only get the first 2 days of the Lunar New Year off as national holidays in Singapore, we continue to celebrate the festivities with lots of feasting with colleagues, friends and family throughout the 15 days.
One highlight of all the feasting in my circle would be the Yu Sheng (raw fish slices tossed with a sweet sauce together with lots of shredded fresh vegetables and sweet, preserved fruit and vegetables – symbolizes prosperity.)
Yesterday was the 7th day of the Lunar New Year, which was also the day of “everybody’s birthday” (Chinese are therefore always 1 year older than the actual age, according to the Lunar calendar). And what better reason to celebrate birthdays than Yu Sheng?
The kids are older now and joined the adults to toss the vegetables high into the air merrily, while saying auspicious phrases as we wished one another good luck, health, wealth and whatever good wish we have for the New Year.
As we sat around the table enjoying the delicious Yu Sheng, Matthew started a little game of “Who is born in the year of the (zodiac) animal?” It went like this: “Who is born in the year of the P.I.G.?” We would then listen carefully to the letters of the zodiac animal he was spelling and then put up our hands if we fit the description.
We were all smiling and indulging him in his fun, totally forgetting about the curse of knowledge. Not everyone at the table was proficient in spelling yet! A little soon-to-be-6 yo girl was starting to feel left out. She started to rush to blurt out the animal as soon as it was spelt. I know! Pig! Snake!
So when Matthew started on the next animal, “Who is born in the year of the M.O.N.K.E.Y?” Megan went “MOUSE!” very loudly. The Man corrected her, saying it was “monkey”, and that there was no “mouse” amongst the zodiac animals, but rather it was “rat”. We made the mistake of ignoring her.
Not someone to be deterred, she tried again. When Matthew went “Who is born in the year of the T.I.G.E.R?”, and before Ah Yi could respond, Megan shouted “TURTLE!!!”
She got the attention she wanted. We were stunned for 2 seconds; then we could not hold back any longer. We burst out laughing. I know, we were so mean to her right? But she looked so certain and cute when she said “Turtle” we could not help it. Matthew laughed heartily, and added “Turtle couldn’t have won the race*, he’s soooo slow!!”
The Man retorted by asking Matthew who won the race in the Hare and the Tortoise*. Matthew understood straight away, and laughed harder. Amidst our uncontrollable laughter, we finally answered the little girl staring wide-eyed at the maniacs around her who were laughing unrestrained and loudly. When she realized her innocent blunder, she burst out laughing too.
As I looked at Megan laughing at her own mistake, I thought that this little girl should grow up fine, possessing the courage to laugh at herself. Aye, she will be alright …
*None of these fables were scientifically accurate nor true. Animals didn’t take part in races; turtles and tortoises are not synonymous. Nevertheless, the morals behind these stories were what we grew up with, and what we have passed on to the next generation with much pride.
If Matthew’s quiet-time hobby is reading, then Megan’s would be drawing. This little girl of mine just loves to draw and colour, and colour and draw.
We don’t send Megan to any art / drawing class, and she has never requested she be sent to one. But we make sure she has access to drawing paper / scrap books, markers, colour pencils and crayons. Even Matthew will tell me to “get ready another drawing block because MeiMei is finishing hers soon.”
Megan is almost an autodidact, with occasional pointers from the Man. Her other teachers are pictures and scenes around her. She learns by observing people and copying pictures she sees in her surroundings. I cannot claim she is a genius at drawing, but I love the fact that she never stops practising. She will even draw on tiny scraps of reused paper, just so.
These are her drawings sometime mid-2014, when she was 5yo and crazy about Elsa from Frozen:
And this is what I consolidated from her latest drawings Jan/Feb 2015, before she turns 6 next month:
I love it that she mostly features the both of us in her drawings to me; she conveys her love through drawings and some words, like Matthew does with his little note. And I in turn, display their works proudly all over the little work station space I have; it’s pretty amazing to see their progress through a matter of mere months – Megan with her improved drawings, and Matthew with his improved vocabulary and handwriting. It is also a constant reminder that the kids are growing up faster than I think, and that I better treasure every moment I have with them (to the best of my mortal ability of course!)
I got to office very early this morning, because I found out my favourite ex-teacher was giving a talk as part of the Continuing Education series for the other professionals. This was a lecture I wasn’t going to miss!
I wasn’t disappointed. My ex-teacher was dynamic and outspoken as usual. When he spoke, everyone sat up and listened.
When I first attended his lesson all those many years ago, I knew I was going to register for all the modules he was teaching; I didn’t care what modules they were because I knew I was going to enjoy them, I was just going to ‘follow’ him. Before it was time to choose my supervisor and topic for my Honours project, I sat in his office and convinced him to take me in as the only student for the year; he wasn’t intending to take in any student because his laboratory was undergoing renovations. I am eternally grateful he agreed to take me in.
I learnt so much from my Boss (as I called him) in that wondrous year I spent under his tutelage. He drank tonnes of Coca Cola; so did I. His intelligence and sharpness of mind (and tongue) superseded all he did, but he remained humble and oblivious of his accomplishments. I felt in awe yet super tiny in his presence.
But there was no denying that underneath all that brilliance, laid the fundamental values that made Boss a world-renowned Master in his specialty – PASSION and CURIOSITY.
Passion and insatiable curiosity were what I did not put into practice after the short year with Boss, unfortunately. Other life priorities took over; I walked further and further away from what interested me all those years ago.
Meeting him again after all these years was so exhilarating; but time didn’t allow me to say much to him. He told me to “behave” and behave is what I’ve been doing all these while, in some areas. I wanted to tell him so much that I’m back in school again, not in the field I spent 4 happy years during the undergraduate years, but in another area that has caught my interest. That I’m considering becoming like him, albeit 20 years too late in my lifetime. But I hesitate – he’s UP there and I’m way below, no accomplishments under my belt, except that I contributed to the dismal birth rates in Singapore; even though it wasn’t enough to meet the replacement number.
I would love to ask for his advice, but I would flounder at the first question he is sure to ask – what do you want to do? I know the general direction I want to go towards, but do I have the knowledge, determination and detailed plan (and dozen other things) how I would go about achieving what I want to do? I need to go into my reflective cave again and again to think things through.
Maybe I should pluck up the courage to drop him an email nevertheless ..
Warning: This post may be too graphic in the description of body fluids to be comfortable for some
I have been living with a perpetually blocked or runny nose throughout my life until I became pregnant with Matthew. Overnight, my blocked nose cleared up and I could smell many things that eluded me most of the time, when my nose was blocked. And of course, that was also when the problems started.
Ask the Man and he will probably tell you that I react dramatically to odours. From cigarette smoke, distinct metallic smells in perspiration and blood, to a particular strong odour some shops that sell clothes emit. It’s always that one smell that suddenly makes breathing difficult and my eyes water, and I will most definitely gag and cough. (And the Man will look at me as if I have gone mad, but he will never understand.)
I can also smell coffee and the sulphurous odour, after one has consumed asparagus, in the urine. And don’t get me started on how adverse I am to the various odours I can pick up from poop. (The Man is probably rolling his eyes as he is reading this)
With my ‘heightened’ sense of smell, I was suddenly disadvantaged to be a hands-on mother. I gagged at the sour smells of vomit from the babies – Matthew regurgitated lots of milk when young, luckily Megan hardly any, and my little niece Natalie did some. But poop smells really torment me – back when the kids were babies and soiled their diapers several times a day, to now when I enter the ‘fragrant’ toilet to help wash their bottoms after they are done cleaning up after themselves (just to be doubly sure).
So you can imagine I am extremely skeptical, cautious and wary when someone asks me to smell something, especially when I don’t know the source of origin, or the smell has not reached me yet.
Megan and I were walking hand-in-hand along a familiar path we have walked so many times I did not even realize when I had let go of her hand. Suddenly, she stopped in her tracks and with her quick reflexes lifted her little hand almost to the bottom of my nose, while saying something to me. With my almost-equally fast reflexes, I recoiled from her fast approaching hand, while saying “What?! What?!”, almost in panic. Oh please, not something smelly she has touched and asking me to share it too!
Oblivious to my physical rejection of her hand, she brought her hand to her nose, smiled her pretty smile and then stretched out her palm again towards me. I forced myself to calm down and listen carefully to what she was saying. “MaMa, you smell my hand. My hand now smells like you. Mmm, so nice. I love it!”
I relaxed, and embarrassed of my rejection, brought my nose to her hand. True enough, her hand smelled exactly like my favourite rose-scented hand cream. Through holding hands, we shared not only a mother-daughter bond, but also our smells.
And the Man, who had witnessed the whole scene, was rolling his eyes and chuckling to his heart’s content. Glad I brought some comic relief …
11 years ago, I put aside the opportunity to continue my studies to start a new phase of life, with the Man by my side. It was a choice I never regretted. Other commitments soon came rushing my way as a young adult – starting on my first job while getting used to coming back to my new home, to my other half the Man. After a few years, the kids came along and a whole lifetime of learning to be a parent started. But I have never forgotten my unfinished business – furthering my studies.
Then, 1 day last year, the thought crystallised somewhere in my mind. 2014 might be the year I continue my journey as a student, the official way. If not now, then when?
The Man and I discussed at length over my decision; we strategized and planned (or rather, he strategized and planned). There were many adjustments to be made; I am after all of a certain mature age (ahem!), a wife, and most crucially, a full-time working mother of 2 young kids.
In May 2014, I got accepted as a part-time graduate student. On 11 August 2014, I officially hold the dual identify of student and responsible contributor to the workforce in Singapore.
It is now mid-November 2014. In a span of 3 months, I have learnt and am still learning so much.
8 lessons I have learnt:
1. Have Faith
A lump of apprehension grew in my throat as I sat through the Special Seminars. What are the lecturers talking about?! This was only the first day. Of ORIENTATION. Why are my classmates nodding their heads as if they understand? OMG. What have I gotten myself into?
Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase – Martin Luther King, Jnr
2. Answers may not Satisfy
Everyone who knows I am enrolled in the course ends up asking questions. Depending on the rationale behind the questions, my answers may disappoint:
“Why this course?” – Because interest turns out to be the most important predictor in the relationship between my exposure to the course, and the outcome of obtaining the degree, after adjusting for financial capability, distance from work and to home, and other independent variables.
“How are you advancing your career after taking this course?” – Seriously, why won’t people believe me when I said it is really interest? And that I haven’t thought that far ahead (see #3)
3. Know the Race You’re In
I am enrolled in a 3-year part-time graduate course. I’m running a full marathon. And being cognizant of my brain capacity and other responsibilities, I opted for only 2 evening modules, leaving 1 module to December holidays . Even with this move, I’ve been struggling with work, family and studies for the past 3 months. 2.5 years to go, and many things can happen along the way.
4. You Cannot Hide Forever
The very subject I have avoided since I was 17 years old is back – bigger and meaner – a graduate module I must now pass, or die trying. Biostatistics, that’s his name.
You can run, but you can never hide. Eventually it catches up to bite you in the a**.
5. Being a Small Fish in a Big Pond
My classmates are big fish; intelligent individuals of whom 9 in 10 are professionals in the healthcare industry. I am the odd little fish, trying not to drown in the big waves they are creating. They understand the concepts with a snap of the fingers – I stay bright-eyed and clueless, my mental mouth hanging open while I figure out if the lecturer is speaking English.
Will this little fish with nothing but determination survive?
6. Taking The First Step towards Knowledge
The first step towards knowledge is to know that we are ignorant – Richard Cecil
Very ignorant, that I am, in a course that is out of my depths and comfort zone.
But I hope that one day, I can proudly say “A mind (mine!), once stretched by a new experience, never returns to its original dimensions.”
7. Summoning Mysterious Energy Reserves
I quit staying up at night to revise my work, switching to waking up earlier each morning to cram while guzzling extra strong coffee. Except for suffering the most serious stiff neck and shoulders, I’m still chugging along with energy coming from goodness-knows-where in the day. Just don’t talk to me at night. Oh, how I miss my sleep and television!
8. Cherishing my Band of Brothers
To shoulder more responsibility that was originally mine amongst other considerations, the Man quit his high-paying job to become a stay-at-home-dad. Read about how he’s enjoying his freedom (win some, lose some) here.
The kids have lost quality time with me. Our long-talks are down to once a week, and I’m usually too tired to read to them at night. On nights when I’m in class, they go to bed without their mummy tucking them in. But my wonderful darlings understand MaMa is studying and curb their requests on my time and energy.
Because I’m often absent at my mum’s place after work now, my dearest sister has taken over as the crowd control officer – trying to get 3 kids (2 of the toughest to handle are mine) to behave in the evenings is no mean feat. It also means showing up earlier at our mum’s.
My dearest, supportive mum is also busy cooking nutritious food for me, and letting the kids stay overnight when I just could not manage some nights. All these are done to support my dream.
This is my band of brothers, my family. They are the ones who raise me up. Without their support and encouragement and acts of love, I don’t think I would have survived the past 3 months, let alone have the courage to continue on this difficult journey I have chosen to take.
Unconditional love. I’m enveloped, blessed and buoyed by it. And I am eternally grateful. Thank you.
You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up to more than I can be.