It would be worth noting at this point that I had a brother, but that he had tragically passed away 15 months before I was born. Of his short, 3-year life leading to the tragic event, and the reason behind my conception, my parents have related to me this family tale.
My brother was born feet first. Those who know the birthing process will know this is one of the most difficult and dangerous of birth complications. At the time, ultrasounds were unheard of, and caesarians unpopular. When my brother was finally born, the usual smack on the bottom practised by physicians of that era was only greeted with a tiny “meh” before my brother fell back into silence, eyes closed but nonetheless breathing.
It was my father’s reaction that was more startling. He told us much later in my life that when he first held my brother in his arms, he had a strong feeling in his gut that something was wrong, that the life he held in his hands was not one that would last. Whether that was a reflection on hindsight or truly a grim foreboding, who’s to say?
My brother was brought home. For the next three years, he would exhibit instances of some rather unchildlike behaviour. As he passed his first birthday, he would plonk himself on the sofa of our old Toa Payoh flat, right in front of the TV, at 5.30pm sharp, without the help of a clock or watch, nor the knowledge of how to tell time in the first place. Then he would grunt at my mother and point at the television set, because 5.30pm was the exact time his favourite cartoon would start. This happened daily, and it fascinated my mother, but she thought little more of it.
Once, my brother put his hands on the hot plate of a coffee maker in the kitchen and scalded both his hands badly. My mother was quickly on the scene when she heard a scream from the kitchen, but found my brother not crying in pain, but looking at his burnt hands with a strange curiosity, and making no sign of pain nor any other noise throughout the process of my mother patching his hands up.
Throughout his short life, my brother never uttered a single discernible word other than the grunts and sounds he makes to get things done around him (like turning on the TV). That was not to say he didn’t understand anything. My father took note of the fact that by the time he hit 18 months, he understood everything. He took instruction very well, and was even able to understand conversations, listening intently to every word anyone around him spoke.
It was his third birthday when the accident happened. Never mind that the scooter was going at only 20kph (the rider confirmed this with my father, saying his scooter was faulty and he was actually riding it to the workshop). Never mind that my second sister was with him at the time to greet my auntie who came bearing birthday presents for my brother. It was a split second; before my sister knew it, he was halfway across the road, and then he got hit in the head. He passed away an hour later in the hospital.
My father was devastated; my second sister said she had never seen nor heard him cry ever or since. And she never really forgave herself since, either.
My mother, of course, was the hardest hit. For weeks she refused to leave her bed, until one of my aunties decided to offer her some closure by bringing her to a medium to speak with her deceased son.
(Bear with me here, particularly if you’re skeptical about such things. My mother has a penchant for drama when she relates stories like this to us.)
The first question she asked when the medium announced my brother’s presence was, why? Why so soon, and why us? To this my brother replied (through the medium), “Mummy, if I have caused you grief, I am truly sorry. I was never meant to stay long; if I had not left at 3 years old, I would have left at nine, and if not then, at 12 years of age. I am a celestial being, come down to experience life as a mortal. I have learned much of the world, and you have cared for me well. Please forgive me; I promise to make it up to you.”
The rest of that conversation was sketchy at best. It would be useful to note at this point, that this “medium” business was not of a medium getting possessed by a spirit and speaking in tongues, but more of a Ghost Whisperer deal, which would explain why the medium was speaking in Hakka when my brother never spoke a single word of any language in his life, much less the Hokkien that was my family’s dialect.
My mother added that in the night that followed, she dreamt of heaven, and my brother. She described herself in a beautiful white place, and surrounding her were all these little cherubs (without wings; more like a nursery filled with naked babies sitting in clouds), and my brother leading a way in for her. In the dream, my brother told my mother, “Please, pick a child. It is my way of repaying your kindness to me during my life on Earth.”
My mother replied, “My son, if you were to gift me with another child, I only ask that he be handsome, smart and filial. You may help me pick one.”
My brother smiled, and said, “I will try my best.” And my mother woke up, a heavy weight lifted from her shoulders.
This was the story that my mother told me, the same story that convinced my parents to try again for another child, a story without which, I wouldn’t be here.
But my mother ended off the story by voicing this one regret. She said when she was talking to my brother about the traits she wanted of her new child, she had neglected to include “hardworking”.