A Mother’s Smother

Last night my mother told me she tried to kill me. Ma should have asked me, I would have let her, willingly. Unconditional love, that. But, I didn’t know that was her wish, and so I fought and repulsed the smothers, not knowing they were by her hands. She relinquished, I won. I was not even three months old. I could feel her despair, her remorse. Ma was 35 years old. By then, the scars from ten childbirths, four of which resulted in neonatal deaths, would have jarred her. In her mind, they barred her from further unwanted pregnancies. She did not want anymore, the burden of the heavy responsibility was too much for one woman. Six rowdy children already occupied the home plus one horny man who kept wanting the love-making. Tsk tsk tsk, your Pa. He wanted it even when I was five months pregnant! Do you think he may have caused those fatalities, she asked. I am no medical professional but I firmly assured her. No, Pa didn’t risk their well-being. As if that too absolved any guilt I may have harboured about my own predilection. I think the amniotic fluid in her uterus would have protected the four siblings who didn’t make it. RIP, my three brothers, my sister. One of the boys was very handsome, your father was very pleased with him, Ma said. Fair skinned, with a constant grin. He beamed a huge smile at Pa when their eyes first met. The midwife inexplicably left the baby near an open window. One ominous sneeze was all he hinted to Ma of his impending demise. She went berserk at the midwife but it was too late to save him. He passed away a brief moment later. Mornings in 1950 Penang were cool and fresh. The sea breeze could send shivers even to young adults. My brother didn’t stand a chance. Whereas I was lucky. By 1958, the devastating effects from WW2 were waning. Food was becoming plentiful, less exorbitant. With a big household, Ma the thrifty one, had to budget very well, to make the little money go far. Rental for the shophouse was $40 a month, that’s almost 20% of sales. A woollen jacket cost $2.40 to dryclean, a pair of trousers, $2.10. Their dry cleaning business relied on the European and American expats, and the RAAF blokes. Maybe Ma had better nutrition by then. Maybe I was getting better sustenance during those three months. That may be why I had the strength to survive. Maybe I already had that stubborn streak? Or was it my will to live? My karma to follow this path? Of the six surviving children before me, five are daughters. She didn’t want anymore. The preceding fifteen years of her life were a constant challenge. The prewar years in Malaya were not easy but at least they offered some excitement. They married on 24 December 1940, Pa had a laundry shop in Teluk Anson. He knew to head to the big city, that’s where the big money lies. Before their first wedding anniversary, they sold their shop to an uncle and with the $100, they formed a partnership with three equal but silent partners. Pa alone would work on the business, in the business. Their first accommodation in Penang was a $2 a night room in a cheap hotel in Chulia Street, named in recognition of the early Tamil Nadoo Indians who congregated there to form Little India. To this day, the street is still a Mecca for cheap accommodation for tourists. My parents stayed in that hotel whilst their new landlord built their new shop in Bishop Street. The street was named after the French catholic priest, Fr Arnaud-Antoine Garnault who opened his presbytery there. My folks never did get to celebrate the grand opening of their shop in Bishop Street. It was bombed by the Japanese, on 8 December 1941. Nine days later, the Imperial Army marched into the island, well, some say they cycled in leisurely since the British colonial masters and their soldiers had already fled. My parents fled too, to Penang Hill and hid there for a few days until they were spotted by an Indian man who probably would have dobbed them in to the Japanese for a sack of coins. The whole clan fled back to the town and found refuge in a clansman’s compound on Anson Road.

Chulia Street, Penang

In my third month of enjoying a warm safe refuge in Ma’s womb, I came under attack. My world was being destroyed by a vile brown chemical. What the?! Who’s there?! What do you want from me? I’m just a baby. Don’t harm me, I’ll tell my mom. I have six older siblings, you will not dare! Ma took three dosages of that brown liquid, prescribed by her gynaecologist. It was the doctor who gave her the murder weapon. They want to kill me? Oh mother! The Plan: Madam, take a spoonful every four hours during the day. Do not stop until you have the result you seek. This bottle gives you ten dosages. Ample, for what you want. Ma almost died from it. I almost died from it. The pain was so severe she left her chundering all over the bathroom. When she doubled over from one chronic bout of seizure, she almost fainted. The next day, her Second Yiyi (maternal aunt) came to visit. She had heard about The Plan. Silly woman, what if? What if it’s a boy? Ma did not divulge whether that changed her mind or the chundering did.

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