A Trilogy. Apology, Elegy & Eulogy

The funeral director at Alfred James said we were there to celebrate. Celebrate someone’s death? Mrs Yelland was someone so dear to me. It was her funeral yesterday, 25th November 2021. But, how on earth can we bring ourselves to celebrate her passing? The modern meaning of ‘celebrate’ has been skewed to mean a happy time, to party, to enjoy a happy occasion with a feast, dance and grog. For me, it usually means a rock lobster with fried noodles, i.e. rarely. The funeral director was like an apparition to me – I could hear her and could see a body smartly dressed in a black suit from the corner of my eyes but whose face I did not even have the courtesy to look at. Forgive me, I was in mourning. She explained to us that the true word for ‘celebrate’ is to solemnise an event or honour a person in order to publicly acknowledge that the event or person has significance. She spoke professionally in a low and appropriately sad voice. Her comforting words were very possibly from a template she will often use in her opening delivery as a professional. My mind had wandered off before she finished. The Mrs was thoughtful enough to collect a big bunch of red roses from our neighbour’s garden and present it beautifully in a nice box. If not for her, we would have got there empty-handed. I felt the urgent need to apologise to Mrs Yelland as I looked intently at her lonely coffin in the front of the room.

We were almost late for the funeral. “HURRY UP! WE CANT BE LATE TODAY!” I yelled at the heavy footsteps upstairs. Ever since The Mrs retired over ten years ago, she gets to do whatever she wishes. Her time is strictly hers too. No longer dictated by other people’s schedules, she was also late for her doctor’s appointment. How do I know this? Because they rang me. She wanted to show her respect and love for Mrs Yelland and asked to deliver her eulogy at the funeral. But, she woke up the day before and thought she saw a ghost in the mirror. Around her eyes were big dark circles and the sudden greying of her hair made her look ghostly. She looked more like a panda bear than a ghost, I thought, but I kept quiet as neither would sound right to her. So, she said it would not be appropriate for her to stand in front of everyone looking like a ghost in a funeral. A few days earlier, she had tripped whilst tending to our neighbour’s garden in the front and fell down the rocky slope. She tried to get up by grabbing at a nearby branch (luckily it was not one with rose thorns) but she slipped and fell further. A second attempt also failed and she tumbled down the moss rocks. She hit her head against a rock but at least it stopped her from falling further, I reasoned with her. I suspected the mild concussion caused her hair to suddenly turn grey but she was adamant to put the blame on me instead. I made her old and grey. I was watching The Legends of Chu and Han on Youtube when she walked in. No, she limped into the house. She showed me the deep gashes on all her four limbs, as proudly as a Vietnam vet would to prove his battle scars amounted to bravery. Her dishevelled hair and soft whimper prised my attention away from the TV. “I fell down,” she said with a trembling voice. You won’t need to ask her what my reaction was; she will tell you I nagged and scolded her like she was a kid. She won’t tell you I quickly got up and got her some band-aid and antiseptic cream. And, of course I did not nag! I merely asked her why? Why did you not learn from your lesson? Why won’t you learn? Why won’t you wear proper shoes and leather gloves? There are snakes in the garden, you know! Her excuse? We Chinese are accustomed to wearing our thongs at home. Flip-flops are the most comfortable and easiest to wear. But, she won’t accept that wearing thongs or wearing my leather sandals are a bad idea in the garden – they aren’t purpose-built protective footwear for the gardener, right? “Just be nice and pour me a gin,” she said, trying to change the subject. Since then, I have been properly chastened by her stories to her friends that I am a really unsympathetic nag. A few weeks earlier, she slipped and fell on the neighbour’s property; she did not know how to negotiate the slippery wet slope of their steep driveway with the slippery leather soles of the oversized leather sandals she was wearing; oversized for her because they belong to me. I told The Mrs this is a serious matter. People of our age should not be falling so regularly. We ought to be more careful and take necessary precautions. Mrs Sage from two doors away came to visit us after The Mrs had her second fall. She walked into our house with her sand shoes on. I did not have the heart to tell her to take them off – I imagined it would be an enormous effort for the old woman to bend down, teeter and take them off in front of me. It makes logical sense to wear thongs, see? Just fling your feet and the thongs come flying off them. No laces to untie, no need to bend her back or lose her balance. The Mrs is always this convincing. I will need to apologise to her too.

The funeral director brought me back to the room. She was about to play a cello duet performed by two of Mrs Yelland’s students. It was a concert they performed in Manchester over ten years ago. Before they came on, I had apologised to Mrs Yelland. It remains my huge regret that I visited her only four times in the six years she spent in the nursing home. On the first three occasions, she could still remember us and we were able to have meaningful conversations. There were no moments to dull our minds whenever Mrs Yelland was around, longueurs and she could not exist together. The last time I saw her was in June 2019. By then, her illness had robbed her of her beautiful thick long hair and agility. Her hair had turned all white and thinned enough so that parts of her scalp were visible. She no longer waltzed or clicked her heels like a tap dancer in the lounge. Her lips had become two thin lines of skin which hid a mouth that was empty of teeth. Saddest was that wretched illness had also robbed her of her memory. She did not recognise any of us. She no longer asked about my father whom she always admired, because she knew about how he spurned a childhood of abject poverty and left home at nine years of age to fend for himself. She could also feel his pride and amazing support for the boys – her boys. Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease. It may actually be more cruel to us than to the patient, since the patient would not be aware of her debilitating condition later on. Well, that is what I hoped for anyway. It would be too cruel if she knew she had lost all her precious memories. When her mother passed away, Mrs Yelland confided to me that she was fearful that one day she too would be afflicted with Alzheimer’s. She would have lived with that worry for decades. That is also the cruel thing about the disease. I told her I was sorry for not checking on her more often. Even though she did not recognise us, it was not sufficient reason to not visit more often. The pandemic offered me a good reason for awhile, but to use it as a reason would be too convenient. She would not have liked me to be a malingerer. On the weekend before she passed away, I had actually planned to visit. Murray, my son’s dog can vouch for me. I told him during a long walk. That I did not get to do it hurts even more. The regret is more painful today. I am so sorry, Mrs Yelland.

The cello music was impossible to ignore. I had listened to it many times over the years, but in that room, on that occasion, it was especially beautiful yet filled with deep sorrow. The Andante of Jean-Baptiste Barriere’s Cello Sonata in G for two cellos ripped out my heart. I could not contain my tears and towards the end, they freely flowed down my cheeks. I did not see any point to wipe them off. No need to hide. I wondered why Barriere wrote such a sad movement, and for whom did he write it. It is to me an elegy, a lament for the dead. A wonderful choice, for Mrs Yelland, played by two of her students.

Before I had the time to compose myself, the funeral director had asked me to read my eulogy for Mrs Yelland. I had never made a public speech in my life. It had become a phobia, I did not want to admit. How can someone in his sixties evade speaking in public for so long? I was a confident student in my first year of university. When asked to present a talk on the theory of price elasticity, I stepped in front of the big tutorial class full of confidence and thought I could be as impressive as the lecturer. I started delivering my full understanding of the topic without any notes, but I bombed out when drawing a graph on the blackboard. Looking up at the board above eye level and writing with a chalk that kept breaking was a very different experience from looking down at a piece of paper on my desk and scribbling on it with a pen. It was embarrassing. I became confused and lost control of my talk. The lecturer must have pitied me when he asked me to stop. I was a total wreck as I trudged back to my desk with my tail between my legs. That scarred me forever. So, when The Mrs told me she could not deliver her eulogy and I was given no option, I became afraid. My hands turned icy cold. Sophie, Mrs Yelland’s daughter, called to tell me it would be very appropriate for me to speak. I had no choice. My ice cold hands were frozen by then. I had to make many trips to the toilet the day before the funeral. I learned that anxiety does cause diarrhoea and not just morning sickness which I had lots of on the days of school exams. But, on the morning of the funeral, I was calm. Although I had not ever made a public speech and in front of so many people, I had no qualms at all when the moment came for me to stand up. I simply told myself it was not about me. So, there was no reason to be self-centred or self-conscious. Or be nervous! I did not even care that I was swimming in my old new suit. Hardly worn, it was made to fit me perfectly some ten years ago. I was not aware I had lost so much weight since practising intermittent fasting. Mrs Yelland never cared about material goods or brand names. She cared even less about money and high fashion and pretentious people. Photos beamed on the big screen showed her to be a very beautiful young woman with very kind eyes, a perfectly shaped nose and perfectly shaped lips. Her living room was well lived in, not at all a display room, but instead it was crammed with the most impressive collection of books, cello music sheets, CDs and DVDS. Her vast vinyls collection was comprehensive and included recordings of all the great cello legends. It was clear to me Mrs Yelland would not bat an eyelid over my ill-fitting suit. I knew I would be alright before I made my first public speech. Because, it would be about Mrs Yelland. It would be for her.

My eulogy for Barbara Yelland (24.01.1948 – 03.11.2021)

My wife, Joon, first met Barbara in a school carpark. We have always called her Mrs Yelland out of our respect for great teachers. Mrs Yelland was visibly late, rushing towards her old yellow car – her long strides somewhat slowed by the burden of a cello strapped on her shoulder. A cello! “She must be a cello teacher!” Joon cleverly deduced. Even though Mrs Yelland was clearly in a rush, she kindly stopped for Joon. “Excuse me, excuse me!” Joon yelled across the carpark. “Will you teach my sons?” she asked. “Twins!” Mrs Yelland’s eyes sparkled. She already knew they were twins because in that school in 1989, they were the only three Asian kids, one older brother and two twins. “They are good kids, and they lurrrve music!” “Their brother is already learning the violin and piano,” Joon continued to sell our kids. But, all Mrs Yelland promised was to give us a tape of Suzuki’s music for them to listen to. We didn’t know at the time, but that was her way of saying yes. Years later, she told me there was no doubt she would teach them. She was curious to discover how to teach twins.

Mrs Yelland taught them till they were twelve, apart from a short stint of about six months when she joined the ASO when they were six or seven years old. Her absence dramatically showed what a great teacher she was. The contrast in her teaching methods was like night and day when compared with the other teacher’s. Their enthusiasm for learning soon reignited when Mrs Yelland returned. She took them everywhere – for Suzuki rehearsals and concerts – we, the parents, were tied to our business and could not leave work. Occasionally, she treated them to a cake or pie at her local deli. She was the one to introduce them to mince pies. Yes, son. There is no meat in mince pies! The other benefit she gave us was she came to our home to teach. She wasn’t just their cello teacher. She was their cello mum. Her devotion,  and passion for the cello was, I think, the catalyst for their love for music.

Friday nights were special. Mrs Yelland came at five pm. Although she made it a point for the twins to take turns to start each lesson, there would be the inevitable jostling and subsequent misery by the one who had the second lesson. In actual fact, they each had two lessons, as the one who had to wait would still be observing the lesson. It was quite common during a lesson for the twins to suddenly scream out “The chicken! The chicken!” Mrs Yelland had tears in her eyes as she told us how hilarious it was to witness the panic in the boys as they stopped the lesson abruptly to clean and cook the chicken. We didn’t arrive home from work till six thirty, so it was their responsibility to get dinner ready.

Dinner was usually at seven, during which the adults’ conversations would veer perilously from religion to politics and refugees and even the environment. Our dinner conversations could be best described as lively and boisterous. Mrs Yelland was proud of her Irish roots and very much a romantic humanitarian. A single mother, on a single income, she had no qualms about helping others. Her political leanings were the opposite of mine and her strong sense of social responsibility, I now should acknowledge, was right and I was wrong. Mrs Yelland’s kind heart ranked highest despite her modest economic means. She had the most beautiful soul.

Lessons would resume at eight and not finish until eleven. It was not unusual to find one of the twins quietly crying on the staircase. I did not have to ask him to know that he felt aggrieved that his lesson was shortened by dinner, and that he was not compensated with any extra time. They were both happiest when Mrs Yelland asked them to play cello duets. It meant no one missed out on playing time! Mrs Yelland called them “My boys”. “My boys should compete in the Eisteddfods!” My boys this and my boys that. It is no wonder they loved her so much. Mrs Yelland asked Joon to enter their names in the local competitions. She refused. She was too scared of failure, for the boys’ failure. She didn’t want the boys to be scarred so young. “No, my boys will learn a lot from it,” Mrs Yelland said. Being their cello mother, she entered them in the Eisteddfods instead. She was right, of course. The opportunity to perform in public from an early stage was so important to their development, to anyone’s development. Before the youngest turned ten, the brothers won gold in the Eisteddfods playing Beethoven’s Ghost Trio. A devilishly difficult piece. Especially the piano part. Only Mrs Yelland had such confidence in her boys to pull it off with that!

Music has enriched our lives beyond what I could ever imagine. Mrs Yelland and her boys took us on their amazing journey, traversing the music world and meeting so many interesting people and places. There were so many highs we enjoyed together. We attended many competitions and concerts together. Mrs Yelland travelled with us to Hobart, to attend a national competition. Our last concert together was at a lunchtime concert at the 2014 Adelaide International Cello Festival. She was already suffering from early Alzheimer’s but she was so thrilled with their performance. After the concert, we stopped by a cafe and had cappuccino and cake. It was a  great moment that made a lasting and permanent memory for me, but alas for Mrs Yelland, she had forgotten she attended the concert by the time I dropped her home.  Mrs Yelland, thank you for being part of our family. We love you and will always love you. I will hold on tightly to the happy times we had together. Your memory will live on whenever I hear cello music on the radio, music you taught your boys.

Thee were many speakers who shared wonderful stories about Mrs Yelland. She is indeed one of the greatest cello teachers South Australia has produced. Her big heart and beautiful soul in the cello world was, to me, unrivalled. An inspiration to many and greatly admired by all despite her huge dislike for bureaucracy and head-numbing red tape. Many mothers said that Mrs Yelland was incredibly generous, she always gave much much more than the allotted time. It is true that no one could afford their lessons if they had to pay for what they received. That was for sure. She gave so much to all her students. “I should not be paid more for enjoying what I do,” she said to one mother who tried to pay for the extra lesson. We were convinced Mrs Yelland will live on, not just here, but all over the world. Her love for music, her soulful artistry, her musical interpretations and perhaps most importantly, her passion for the cello will spread far and wide via her students, many of whom teach in other countries today. When the funeral director asked us to pause quietly and celebrate Mrs Yelland’s memory in our own way, I screamed inside my head, wanting desperately to have a last look at her and say my goodbye face to face. But, the coffin was closed, separating the dead from those alive in the room. The thought did cross my mind later as I stood close to the coffin and laid both hands on it to say my final goodbye. Maybe it was just a prop and she was already somewhere else. I do not know why I did it but I softly tapped the coffin’s lid with my fingers and lowered my head before I left her one last time. Maybe I wanted to leave my fingerprints with her. Vale, Barbara.

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