Recently, my mother has been asking about her brother. Does he stay in Australia or Guangzhou? She forgets. In Hainanese, they sound similar. I told her he is residing in Australia, in Sydney. My mother has four brothers, all older than her. Only this brother, who is the youngest among them, is still alive. He is 93 this year. The last time she spoke to him was during Chinese New Year. He has led a very difficult life. During the tumultuous years, he fled to Vietnam from China. His son and daughter became the infamous boat people in the 1980s who found refuge in Australia. He and his wife would later join them in Sydney. My mother came to Singapore in the 1950s. When a country is in turmoil, its people are separated; families are broken. Sometimes it will take decades for some of them to reunite. If at all.
My mother would not see her brother for over 30 years. 6 years ago, he made the trip here in Singapore to see her. I remember the scene at the airport. She was looking out for him. When she spotted him in the crowd passing through immigration, I could only imagined what went through her mind. Let alone how she was feeling. Older people at a certain age do not express their feelings unnecessarily. When they do, their feelings are raw, almost primal. Her brother ran across the crowd to the glass wall separating them. Their hands touched the glass on each side. He was calling her name loudly because we could hear him through the divider. This spontaneous outpouring of brotherly love was heart breaking to behold. We were all in tears.
These two pictures were taken at the airport when he was leaving for Australia after spending a week in Singapore. If his arrival was emotional, his departure was defined by unspoken sadness. There were no tears. Both brother and sister felt blessed that they could see each other again. Having spent time recollecting and updating each other, they were happy enough that life had allowed for this meeting. They held hands walking towards the departure gate. They knew this would probably be the last time they could see each other. He was pushing 90 then and was medically advised against travelling long distance. At the time, my mother could still walk with the help of a stick. She would later be wheelchair bound.
This February, on the fifth day of the Chinese New Year, I had a nagging feeling I should put a call through for my mother to greet her brother. They talked periodically. When I did, I heard a panic in his voice. He had been calling from the first day of the new year but somehow could not get through. He just wanted to hear her voice during the new year. I told him there must be some problems with our line and then passed the phone to my mother. I kicked myself for not calling him earlier. In this time and age, when we are so connected in our digital world and we travel ever so often, it is quite unimaginable that some people can accept the fate of not meeting their loved ones again, to be forever apart. My mother has. Her brother has. We sometimes forget that a different generation stay in touch in a different way…
‘Brothers and sisters are as close as hands and feet.’ – Vietnamese Proverb