Old Age is No Place for Sissies

Old age is no place for sissies.
– Bette Davis

Whenever I come back to my hometown, Pematangsiantar, there is one person that I must meet – my Chinese tutor. I just met her few minutes ago and it was one of the toughest moment I had in my life because the face of old age was too in my face. Yes, I’m indeed a sissy.

“Lao shi” which means teacher in Mandarin, is how I always call her since I was 3yo. But actually she has been more than just a teacher to me. She’s like a friend, a mentor, a grandma and one of the important person from my hometown that’s so close to my heart.

I was her student even before I went to the kindergarten. She literally saw me growing up. When she was hanging the laundry, I was there next to her pretending I was playing piano on top of the washing machine. She told my parents I did that thinking there was some talent in me and I got enrolled to music lesson after that. Aiyoh!

She never failed in giving me birthday presents ever since. By the time I was not that amused by toys and stationery, she taught me the value of gold. My birthday present was upgraded from toys to gold ring. By the time the price of gold soared up, she gave me ‘angbao’ (red packet) filled with money instead. Very practical. Also, as I have some phobia crossing the road in my hometown (still am), she would help me and made sarcastic remark “aiyoh, so big liao dunno how to cross road ah.” Then she would smile and laugh at me for being so chicken. 🙂 I always love those moments.

When my parents came to Singapore in December 2013, I asked them how Laoshi was doing and they said she is bed-ridden, her legs are too weak to walk. She wanted to give me angbao once again afraid she wouldn’t have the chance to see me anymore. My parents dismissed her and said she’s big enough and you don’t need to give her angbao anymore. If you want, please give it to her yourself. That statement from her mouth really crushed me.

Today, I finally met the frail her. Someone who once used to wash me after I went to toilet cause I was helpless and clueless, now the table has been turned. She is helpless in her diaper. After talking to her for at least 10 minutes, she actually didn’t even recognize who I was. But she remembered once I mentioned my name and said I have different look but my jovial and mischievous character still the same.

I asked her what she thinks is the most important in life, she said working. Indeed, she has devoted her entire life to her work. Teaching Mandarin, which she can’t do it anymore now, must be devastating to her. But what she didn’t know those Chinese characters are not the only thing she has imparted to her students. I can’t speak for others but for me she has instilled in me the importance of being kind, friendly, generous and always smile in all circumstances (except when those moment I drove her mad, thank God there were only a few of those). Strong lady that she is in her 80s, never married, she is still with her big smile even though it lacks some luster now, but she still smiles.

People in my family (and community) always emphasize the youngsters to get married. Why? If not, when you grow old, who will take care of you? Funny logic, really. Because what if your husband/wife dies before you or if your kid dies before you or … as if you know what will happen. Getting married is an insurance for old age? I’m not sure. I’ve seen too many elders with kids and spouses who are also living alone and taking care of themselves in the end.

But what I learn from my Laoshi who is single, unmarried, without any children is still being taken care of very well. A family whom she taught for many years has stepped up to provide care for her. Providing the 24/7 attention that she needs. Without her knowing, she has built her own family simply by doing what she knows best – teaching.

I don’t know anything about old age but I know seeing someone you care so much slowly drifting away is not an easy sight. But that’s life. All of us will go through that. Our loved ones will go through that. Hence the only moment that is truly real is the present moment we have with them, which we may lose if we are too busy on our phones when we are at their presence. Sorry … I’m rambling with not much sense.

I said goodbye to her as I needed to leave and I did things I never did to her before. While trying hard to hold back my tears, I hugged her and kissed her on the cheek and told her,”Laoshi, ming nian zai jian.” (Teacher, see you next year!). That’s a lie. I will see her again before I leave because I am not sure if there is a next year. I hope so. I will see her again and with my broken Chinese I will write her a short note to let her know that my life would have never been the same without her presence (though she already knew as I already wrote her such letter once but I will do it again). I will let her know she has led an awesome life touching many lives without her even knowing and the inevitable of being old and frail is nature’s way to let you know, you’ve done enough. Please rest and savour the moments you have collected. They are enough.

Thank you, Laoshi. See you tomorrow or Friday. I have not decided yet. But I will see you again.

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