When I was young, I didn’t live with Ma.
Many thought the both of us weren’t close. But distance has a way of bringing the hearts closer, and we were, as cliche as it sounded, the best of friends.
At 10pm every night, knowing Ma was home, I would pick up the cordless phone, lie on the sofa, punch her number, and call her. And we would chat.
When I was young, school was everything I cared for. Naturally, my conversations with Ma would revolve around that topic. We would talk about everything. Many times, I would imagine Ma standing by the balcony and listening compassionately, nodding her head and breaking into smiles as I shared snippets of my stories.
We would talk about the food I ate, the bus ride ‘home’, the girls I liked, the people I met, the things I learnt … Sometimes, Ma would reminisce her younger days and I would struggle to stay awake because it was past bedtime.
Sometimes Ma shared about her experience as a rebel. How she would get into fights to protect the weak and for the righteous. Sometimes Ma shared about her dating stories. How girls used to chase her when she was the notorious tomboy of the crowd. But mostly, she would share about how I came to this world.
She used to mention how I was a rebel like her because I refused to exit her vagina. And after 24 hours of deliberation, the doctor, had to resort to using a vacuum. She told me what my name meant. That is, when translated, “happy” and “lofty”.
Those 60 minutes conversations would be lost amid the receding radio waves yet remain forever etched in memory.
Life was simple then. Until age and responsibilities caught up. The 60 minutes conversations would fall short to 45 minutes, then 30, eventually 10. And sometimes the frequency of dialing would decrease altogether. Ma must have expected it.
Today, I am 22 and Ma is 53. I moved back and am living with Ma. I am in my prime but she is experiencing menopause.
Today, I know that the idyllic portrait I painted for Ma when she speaks with someone over the phone would never materialise. On the contrary, she would sit on the sofa, beer on the table and cigarette in hand, chatting away.
Sometimes, I would try to start a conversation.
“I’m not managing my life well.” I’d say.
Silence. She would look at me, hold her hand up, speak something into the speaker, cut her call promptly, before looking straight into my eyes and telling me to deal with it. She would take in a sip of alcohol and a whiff of cigarette, and wait not for my response but my solution.
Distance has a way painting false pretenses. But false pretenses are not necessarily all benign in nature. In any case, my interactions with Ma taught me many life lessons that I am grateful of.
Perhaps to Ma the manner she interacted with me was her way of teaching. To her, the 60 minutes calls were a substitute for the lack of contact comfort in my childhood. While her savage face-to-face communication was her way of telling me to solve problems and not rant about them. Ma was uneducated but she has always been an educator at heart.
Perhaps to Ma the way she greeted my question with silence was her way of encouraging me to try even if that meant I would come face to face with nothingness. Perhaps to Ma, trying was all that mattered because if everything fail, I would walk away with no regrets.
But for the longest of time, there is one thing Ma is constantly silent about — relationships.
And I pray she never will.