This was a long awaited day for my son.
It was his 5th birthday and he had all his birthday celebration plans lined up. I was to report at his kindergarten during break time with the birthday cake, candles and utensils, plus goody bags for his classmates. He had even picked out his party clothes to wear to school, after briefing me that all birthday boys and girls get to attend school on their birthday in their own clothes instead of the school uniform. He’d gone to bed the night before full of excited anticipation.
The same morning, I awoke to the news that a gifted young adult who had previously worked with us at Focus on the Family Singapore had just passed away. She had been battling a brain infection that was later found to be caused by antibodies released by her own body. She fell into unconsciousness a month ago. Only a day earlier, she was reported to have been taken off the respirator and doing well enough to move her from ICU into a high dependency ward while easing her off sedation. We had expected her to return to consciousness, but alas…
I’ve experienced life and death in the same day before, but this paradox of events hit me only seconds apart with extreme emotions – joy and excitement on the one hand, shock and grief on the other. I spent the rest of the day amused by childish revelry while brooding over the loss of a precious life. My spirits were lifted just by imagining the adrenalin that must have been rushing through my 5-year-old boy, but at the same time, I felt numbed by a sense of incredibility at hearing the unfortunate news.
Later that day, I decided to share with my son that Joanne who we’d been praying for had gone home to be with the Lord. He stopped in the midst of his playing to ascertain that she was in heaven. Then he asked if God could put a broken heart together, as if sensing too the sorrow that Uncle James and Aunty Sarah must be feeling. When I affirmed that God does indeed heal the broken-hearted, he took a second pause, as if registering the fact, then gave a slight nod and resumed his playing.
Phew! I breathed a sigh relief. That seemed to have gone down considerably well. Just a couple of weeks ago at bedtime after the lights were out, he’d asked, “Mama, where do you go to buy a wedding dress?”
I told him that if he was referring to the wedding gown, it would likely be a bridal shop. Curious that he’d ask such a question, I broached the subject further by asking if he was intending to get it for his future wife, then assured him that he’d have lots of time to prepare for that day. The conversation developed unexpectedly into one about how I’d grow old and become a grandmother, and eventually die. He’d started crying; he was sad about missing me when I was gone.
We now miss our friend, Joanne, though I can hardly imagine the greater grief her parents must be experiencing. Losing your child is particularly hard because you don’t expect them to go before you do.
Joanne seemed to have somehow sensed that something was amiss. Before she’d been taken to the hospital, she reminded her mum not to worry because God is in control. Upon clearing out her apartment in Bangkok where she was doing further studies after a humanitarian stint, her parents found notes that she’d left for each of her immediate family members – to be read if something happened to her.
Joanne has always been known as a “toughie”, in all aspects of the word. Having been brought up in a strong Christian family, she had a strong commonsensical faith about her. She was confidently independent and was never afraid to challenge the status quo or take the road less travelled. She was also a smart cookie – she worked methodically and fast. I constantly marvelled at her clever resourcefulness while appreciating her diligence in analysis. She had been the one mainly responsible for ploughing through all the research and materials to help rewrite our No Apologies curriculum for Focus on the Family’s global use. She helped get Focus on the Family Singapore started on social media, including setting up my personal Facebook account and creating this very blog that you’re reading! In her own unassuming way, she exercised leadership and commanded respect.
Joanne sure exuded great promise. Yet, at her last farewell that I attended at Mandai Crematorium, instead of feeling it a great pity that she’s now gone, it struck me how proud we should be of one who had fully lived out her 25 years of life. As her dad said in his parting words to her, “We’re so proud of you, Joanne.”
And so I will always remember Oct 25, 2011 – a day of celebrating and of commemorating a life.