Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Skillful hands, two siblings and other stories

My aunt Laura died in January. She was eighty-five, brilliant, unfairly gifted and scary-excellent at whatsoever she undertook. She grew up during the war, married and raised three sons, part of which as a single mom. She loved music - sang it, played it, taught it, arranged it, conducted it and for a time oversaw the setting up and management of music curricula and programs in the schools of Singapore. When she wasn't busy with music, she was sewing, baking, painting - it was always one thing or another, she delighted in anything creative, and she was very good at it. Like award-winning good, in that gut-intimidating and awe-inspiring way that one so often appreciates in perfectionists.

Auntie Laura was diagnosed with chronic leukemia in her last year, and she fought it with the same resolve and matter-of-factness with which she’d handled much of the other hardships life had thrown at her. During those twelve-ish months, she went about business as usual while accommodating the nastiness and inconveniences of her new normal: chemo, fund-raiser galas, blood transfusions, family gatherings, blood tests, church choir, hospitalizations, her sister-in-law's funeral, chemo, my Dad's funeral, transfusions, flying to Australia to attend her granddaughters’ graduations, more blood tests, Christmas, more chemo, then no chemo, just the pain shots and the quiet final waiting days as she slipped in and out of lucidity. 

One year. 

I’d lost my Dad in that year. And, in a way, my Mom, too - the part of her that was whole and fearless because of him. The day I got the phone call with news of my Dad, I'd thought it was Auntie Laura. After all, despite the doctors' optimism, her prognosis - and its impending outcome - was no secret, and I’d been anticipating it, even trying to make peace with it. What I hadn't expected was losing Dad before her. Nobody had. Everyone was forced to shift gears, even Auntie Laura herself. There she was in her wheelchair, playing hymns on the rental keyboards while my uncle led the singing. We were all stunned stupid, yes, but how surreal it must have been for her to be sending off her younger brother, to be standing before suddenly-bereft relatives and recounting memories of him, of themHow, as children post-war, she’d babysat my Dad, hefting him in her arms as she’d tried - and failed - to play tag with the neighbors. How, when her first marriage ended, Dad became a second father to her sons, teaching them the joys of boyhood: making wooden boomerangs and cherry guns, swimming in the ocean, hiking in the woods, sitting in contented silence by ponds and storm drains as they waited for fish to bite. How, years later, they'd furbished her first home, Dad and her sons working together on the cabinets and split-level floor while she painted artwork on the walls. I remember sitting wide-eyed at my Dad's memorial service and drinking it all in. Before, there’d only been allusions to those stories, fragments of fables at best, carelessly tossed out whenever the two of them were in the same room, ribbing each other in that slightly crotchety way of elderly siblings. I think I’d only truly understood the bond between them after my Dad died. In hindsight I see it now, of course: this is what family does, how family loves.

It’s hard to think of Auntie Laura's death as separate from Dad’s. Not temporally (obviously I'm fully aware of when either occurred and the specific emotional and social repercussions after) but in the way of compartmentalization. My brain knows to uniquely grieve each loss and honor the memory of each person, but my heart senses only the aggregate volume of what I no longer have, and there are no shades to that. I suppose losing them within months of each other was a big part of it. Also, their colorful personalities - both leaders and movers, equally matched in a close-knit family in which we were all someone to everyone else. But - and perhaps most pertinent of all - I relied on them both to keep Singapore feeling like home. Initially, they were simply kaki-nang - my own people - the constants to which I returned in order to remember who I still was while miles away from who I'd once been. Later, I'd leaned on Dad's grounded presence to keep me buoyant during Auntie Laura's illness, and I'd drawn strength from Auntie Laura's immortal resilience to move us all forward in the wake of Dad's death. 

Logistically, too. With the memory of flying home for my Dad's funeral still achingly fresh, I found myself on a plane returning to Singapore for Auntie Laura's. While in transit in Amsterdam, I'd opened my laptop and prepared to write what would eventually become that blog post about finding words to process Dad's death. It'd felt daunting, but necessary, and to motivate myself, I'd reasoned, "Quit procrastinating - you're already one death behind, for pity's sake." It was all at once pathetic and hilarious and I'd laughed, right there in the middle of all those people in Schipol, at how ludicrous it all was, how it felt like Groundhog Day: the Bereavement Edition, a looping rerun in which we were forever scrambling to keep up while miserably backsliding into a psychological wasteland. 

When I'd finally emerged from the fog, however, I'd had the sense that I'd been stretched thin across the grief spectrum. I knew what it was like to lose someone utterly unexpectedly, to be reeling from the shock of it and be months adrift before feeling even a semblance of true, pure emotion. I also knew what it was like to lose someone incrementally, to staunchly deny, to fervently hope, to supplicate, to wait, to watch. In the beginning was guilt at being unable to mourn each loss for itself, for subconsciously comparing them and weighing the merits (or unbenefits) thereof. After all, if the stories in my grief support group were any indication, there were practically infinite ways to lose a loved one, with each more horrific and traumatic than the next. I listened to them all: the strain of protracted caregiving, the pain of being blindsided, the relief that the suffering was over, the gratitude that there hadn't even been time to suffer. Ask me which I prefer, I'd reflected morosely at the end, and I'll tell you that there are no winners.  And there was more: I remember feeling levels of bonkerdom that were as frightful as they were comical, and seasons of rabid hope that plummeted instantaneously into crises of identity and faith. I swore I was a bad daughter and an even worse niece, toggling between dead relatives, missing one more than the other on any given day, then both at once, then neither at all. Eventually, I declared myself unsound; what other rational explanation was there, really? I know better now, though: this, too, is normal, this compounding of multiple losses. Long before this global pandemic and its existential angst joined the party, I think I might already have been hanging onto sanity's flimsiest threads.

That said, while losing Aunt Laura was brutal, it was also unexpectedly healing. There was much to be thankful for. Had it happened even a couple of months later, for one, we'd have had to contend with social distancing and other restrictions. As it was, we were blessed to have had time to be with her as her body shut down, to meet her various needs as they arose. And we were able to enjoy her company and be edified (and inspired) by her dignity; she was wonderfully upbeat and sharp throughout, save for those last few days when the pain medication brought her comfort at the expense of her reality. She continued to sew throughout her illness, turning out Menagerie animals and other projects during the long hours of chemo and between hospital visits. When those visits stretched into indefinite stays, her sewing machine was moved in with her. Her hospital room became her new creative space and she picked up and continued her WIPs without missing a beat. Doctors and nurses stopped by to browse and buy, and her finished projects found their way to local charities and fundraisers. Every now and then, I’d get an email from her: look what I finished today! How do you attach the ears? Can you make me a pattern? Guess how much this-and-that raised at the auction?

With her troop of kangaroos and other friends; credit: Kum Kit Chan (Uncle!)

I can never overstate my wonder at watching her Menagerie collection grow. Aunt Laura was a highly accomplished seamstress, the kind who drafted from scratch and taught other people to draft from scratch, who was fast yet precise, who could spot a bad fit from a mile away (and might say so to those within earshot), whose eye for detail and excellence in workmanship were unparalleled. She was the artist who'd impressed her quilting instructor with the backside of her quilts because the allowances were so assiduously finished, the knots so meticulously tied and neatly tucked away, to the point that the perfect alignment of print and intersecting seams on the right side were almost a non-issue by comparison. She was also the teacher under whose tutelage I learned to play the piano (when I didn’t actually have a piano), to smock, to love and value a good seam, a great fit, an innovative design. To behold her, years later, sewing stuffed animals from my pattern - a project almost accidental in its inception so many winters ago - I had no words for it. I was thrilled, of course, but somewhere in the delight was something bittersweet: another facet of loss, perhaps. Not for the quality of Auntie Laura's work - the woman was still ferociously unpicking seams that she considered subpar - but of the seamstress she'd been, the one with the energy and drive to make breathtaking bridal gowns and award-winning quilts, who stepped up to make my entire maternity wardrobe when I was expecting Emily and too encumbered by my job to even shop, let alone sew.

This, to an extent, is familiar to us all, even those of us who haven't yet lost a loved one. Psychologists call it anticipatory grief. I remember feeling this even as a child, although I didn't know its name at the time. Sometimes it hit while watching Mum or Dad sacrifice something so my brother and I could have a particular toy or a fun weekend out. Other times it was an obscure realization that while Mum or Dad were unspeakably precious to me, I would someday grow up, leave home and never again access that moment beyond a memory. I felt it the first time I moved to Minnesota as a student, and again as a wife and mother, marveling at the implications of those changing roles and own parents' evolving participation in them. And I’ve felt it whenever I reacquainted with my extended family in Singapore and calibrated the missing months in the lines of their faces and the changes in their gaits. This past year, I recognized those stirrings again, more ominous because of the looming loss at which they hinted: Auntie Laura was ill, had not been home for weeks, did not have much time.

She was turning out Menagerie critters left and right, though, she’d reported with satisfaction. She’d been eyeing the elephant on my blog and wanted to make it; could I send her the pattern? 

Yes, I’d emailed back. Let me make a second muslin to refine the seam alignments and correct something funky about the toenails and ears, and then I'll mail the templates over. 

OK, she'd replied. Can't wait. Also, can you design a koala for me? And I really like the owl. Can you re-send the file for that chicken that lays eggs? And thanks for the mini birds. I’m going to tweak their heads because they’re a bit fat. Do you want to see? 

Typically, patterns - or even templates - don’t leave my sewing room until I’ve ascertained that they’re fit for other people to use. This is part principle, and part idiosyncratic: I often make early drafts on random scraps of paper with notations and cut-and-paste sections hinting at revisions that only I understand. Two to three additional muslins go into refining those templates before the results are consistent enough for other seamstresses to replicate in their own sewing rooms. After which I’d still have to document the sequence and streamline the instructions. It's a time-intensive process and invariably longer than I anticipate. 

Time, though, I didn’t have the luxury of. So I prioritized Auntie Laura that year and put everything else - even the blog itself - on the backburner. I sent her the templates and instructions, imperfect and vague and skimpy, and trusted that her skill and powers of improvisation would take her the rest of the way. I designed the koala she'd asked for, and mailed the prototype to her home so she'd have a 3D model to facilitate her work. I rephotographed the owl so she could have about a thousand different angles from which to remotely scrutinize it. We emailed back and forth about the birds' heads, the koala’s ears, the elephant’s trunk, the frills on the owl’s chest. And she proudly sent me photos of the results, including the magnificent white peacock she made for the charity auction, the one which drew in thousands of dollars. For months we bantered and collaborated and talked sewing, blood tests, the thrill of the sale, the kindness of helpers, nurses and friends. Then the emails dwindled. Eventually stopped. She couldn’t type, my uncle reported. But she's still OK. She’s still sewing. 

Until she wasn't. And then we knew we were truly in the homestretch. Via email, Whatsapp, phone calls, in not so many words, we all recognized the onset because Auntie Laura had finally stopped sewing.

I took this photo of her hands when we were last in her hospital room. 

The sewing machine, having jammed, was in the shop, she'd explained, so she was hand-stitching a fox, and there were pig parts somewhere about that needed her attention. I watched her work, as I'd watched her on so many other occasions in the past. Such strong, skilled hands. They played amazing music. They made amazing things. They taught uncountable people invaluable lessons. They worked tirelessly, toward praiseworthy results. They directed and demonstrated and corrected. They shared and gave and blessed. I stayed with her as long as I could, relishing the normalcy of that encounter: the paper templates and fabric scraps, her running commentary as she threaded her needle (still without glasses, she'd smugly reminded me) and cast forward onto the animals still on her to-do list. And then, it was time to go.

I didn’t get to say goodbye to Dad - not even Mum did, in spite of being right next to him when he left us - so I was determined to make up for it with Auntie Laura. Oh, how lofty my expectations! How thorough my preparation! Books on the Needs Of The Dying and What To And Not To Say. A video recording of my mostly error-free rendition of a Bach minuet that had special meaning to us. Deep and Vulnerable Conversations, invented and mentally rehearsed in the shower, to be staged at her bedside - I would unpack her profound influence on me and she would deliver some astounding, impactful truth, a veritable beacon of hope upon which I’d live the remainder of my henceforth transcendent life. 

The reality, however, was as matter-of-fact as she herself had always been. There were no actual goodbyes, no falsely-positive See You Again Soons, no life-altering words of wisdom. I remember holding her, warm and light-boned and ever so frail. I remember the smell of her hair, newly washed and neatly clipped back (so as to be out of the way of her work). I remember thanking her for . . . well, everything, I think. I remember her not saying much back. And somehow, it was oddly right. Wholly authentic. I wonder now if it wasn't because we’d already spent our lives being the important things we’d wanted to say to each other. Regardless, in some serendipitous way, it gave me peace about letting Dad go without the Hallmark send-off of which I’d initially felt so cheated. Perhaps goodbyes were overrated. Perhaps the good Lord knew us better than we knew ourselves. Perhaps the entirety of our relationships are the hello and farewell and all the important words in between. What a lesson. What a gift to be left with. I like to think that Auntie Laura helped me with that without even knowing it. 
It was the strangest thing, leaving the hospital, seeing her still earnestly stitching away, knowing I wouldn’t see her again on this side of heaven. It felt cruelly premature, for all the present reality of that moment. And not for the first time, I wished I didn’t live halfway across the cosmos, navigating grief by the rules of time zones and geographical miles. Yet I am thankful. For being able to say goodbye at all - regardless of how it eventually played out, is still a gift I don’t receive lightly. I forget now what other work projects I'd shelved in favor of readying those templates for Auntie Laura but I remember being aware that that entire year, those email conversations, our shared interest in sewing, even Menagerie itself, were all gifts. My heart, bruised as it was, had somehow found space to be thankful.

That is not to say I'm immune to the prickly jabs of grief. At least for a while, I expect to feel wretched every time I hear a hymn. Not only because of Auntie Laura's vast knowledge of them but for the memory of a rogue alto in her Easter cantata choir (she'd cajoled; I'd said OK fine, and surprised myself by loving every minute of it). I haven't been able to enter a JoAnn store without remembering that I no longer get to send yards of fabric home to her for her latest fundraising project. When I was sewing masks for first responders last month, Auntie Laura was constantly in my thoughts - were this a different year, a time when she'd been well, she'd have mobilized her small army of sewing helpers in Singapore to mass-produce masks for all and sundry. And I'm well aware that every now and then, I'm going to be ambushed by a memory of her and Dad sitting around our dining table together, chopsticks a-waving as they opine current affairs and each other's deplorable behavior and music tastes. 

Laura in her early years.

It's funny: I'd wanted this post to be warm fuzzy sunshine in the way of typical tributes and celebrations-of-life. Especially after the rawness of Dad's post and my conviction that Auntie Laura's illness had given me time to process her death in a way that mirrored everyone else’s experiences. And I’d had grand plans to recount all her accomplishments (of which there were many) and virtues (likewise) and downplay her flaws (ditto). 

Obligatory brag photo: 
one of many cakes Laura made for exhibitions and competitions. 
This one, as remembered by one of her sons, 
is entirely cake with no supporting inner structures.

Instead, it turned into this: yet another essay on the elusive nuances of grief. But maybe that isn't an altogether terrible thing. I see now that my loss isn’t a measure of her amazingness and the piecemeal accolades she’d amassed throughout her life. Rather, it’s about my Aunt, the person of weeks and months and years, and our shared decades of that everydayness. And it's also and ever about family and how, when one has been raised by the proverbial village, it's completely rational (and OK!) for each loss to feel profound and communal, private and universal in equal measure. 

Laura, with LiEr, circa 1970s
Finally, it was an opportunity to revisit Menagerie through the eyes (and hands) of someone who derived purpose and happiness from a project that came out nowhere and of whose market value I'd always been slightly skeptical (how many people have space in their homes for that many stuffed animals?). When I fire up the sewing machine again and return to the critters of Season Two, it's going to be extremely bittersweet. Hurrah for the fun Auntie Laura had with it! Bah for the reminder that we will no longer have conversations about it. 

Grief is a strange thing. For something so paralyzing, there is so much about it that involves doing. Particularly in these crazy times, it's been defined by all the ways we are unable to carry it out: rituals of closure and in-person processing and support, to name a few. Certainly in the beginning, grief is that, and perhaps it is sweet providence that the adrenaline and cortisol drive us so forcefully to tie up the loose ends in those raw early weeks. But when the slump comes, when the weeks turn into months and years and we slowly realize that this loss isn't temporary, is indeed our new normal henceforth, doing is not sustainable. Grief for keeps becomes - quite necessarily and organically - less about doing and more about being

This quote on Facebook says it well: "Be the things you love most about the person you lost." 

One year after losing him, I've found myself already leaning into that transition with my Dad. And now, too, I must, with Auntie Laura. They are a pair, those two. So different yet so alike. And so much good in each of them, not only to remember as theirs but also to inherit as mine. Crazy passion. Infectious creativity. Quiet generosity. Skillful hands. And a bar set high. 


  1. Lier, I am so sorry for your two losses of such precious souls. Your tribute to your aunt is lovely. I can tell from the pictures that she was a beautiful lady inside and outside. You were such a caring niece to help her with her animal creations so intently. Thank you for sharing your heart with us. God bless.

  2. What a beautiful lady your Aunt Laura was! So many memories you have to cherish. You are blessed. ❤️

  3. Your tributes to both your Dad and your Aunt are beautiful and make me cry a little, even as a stranger to all of you. I have learned a couple things about death as a nurse for 40 years, with time spent in Hospice and in the ICU and ER. Sudden death may be "easier" for the person who leaves us, but it is terribly hard on those of us left behind. One lesson is, never leave someone you love without telling them "I love you", I'm sorry, or " I forgive you"(and they should know where your passwords are and how to get into your accounts.) And throw away anything that would be hurtful for someone left behind. In contrast, long slow declines can be hard for the person, and are also very hard for the family and loved ones. You do get that window to say the things you need to say and talk to the people who you want to see. Those opportunities are a gift, and they should be cherished. In the play "Our Town" by Thornton Wilder, we get to know the people and routines in a small town. One of the residents of the cemetery wants desperately to go back for a day, and the other cemetery inhabitants plead with her not to, and then not to choose a special celebration day, it will be too hard. Pick an ordinary day to revisit. I believe that our lives are not made important by the celebrations or big events or the eloquent greetings or farewells, they are made up of hundreds of tiny simple moments that weave together a whole. It is obvious by your beautiful story that there were many many moments that will remain in your memories and will stay alive as you share them with your family and pass them along to your children. I don't think your Aunt or you said goodbye, for the same reasons, you didn't want it to be the end. And I pray for you that it isn't. God bless you.Thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts.

  4. What a beautiful tribute. I am so sorry for your loss.

  5. So much in this - capturing a lifetime of love and then loss is not easy, yet you have beautifully done so. I've written and deleted over and over, so I will just say, I'm so sorry for your losses. Significant and deep losses. I pray your memories and your glimpses of your dad and auntie in yourself, and even your girls, will give you much joy.

  6. Oh LiEr, you expressed so much from your heart. I read this two times, it is such a beautiful story. Brother and sister together again.. I know your heart is broken. These two losses have been so painful. This is the hardest part of life, and living, and loving. Losing those we love and never want to let go. I have learned that I still have my mom (2016 at age 94) and my oldest sister (2000, age 48). I see them in my daughters, and my nieces and nephew, and now in my grand children. The hurt never goes away. You have such vibrant memories of these two brilliant people that are part of you always
    Love you dear friend

  7. Beautiful words. I am so sorry for your loss. xo

  8. Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful . I would not have been able to imagine your Aunt's talents, accomplishments or influence without your story and grief included to "paint the picture". I admire (and am envious!) of her skill and talent in *all the things*. As you said, there is no ideal or winning way to say goodbye to a loved one...but i look forward to reflecting on the wire you shared:"Be the things you love most about the person you lost." Your writing has always been a joy for it's human honesty, your creativity an inspiration. Sending thanks, admiration and love from the Pacific Northwest.

  9. I am not a person of eloquent speech so I won't attempt to express the bursting of emotion your words bring to my heart. We have a saying in my part of the county (southeast USA). When a person looks and/or acts much like a deceased loved one, we say the deceased one will never die as long as the remaining one is still living. So I say to you that your Auntie Laura will never die as long as you are living. From this post, I can see so much of her in you just from my observation as a reader of your posts. I pray I have not offended you in any way. My lack of tact and knowing the right thing to say has always been a source of amusement in my family and embarrassment for me. But I wanted to let you know that I am greatly touched by your posts about you loved ones. My mother passed from cancer in 2003 at age of 66 and I still have moments of wanting to call her or think to go see her. I look forward to seeing her again in Heaven.

  10. I'm so sorry that you had two tough goodbyes so close together. This post is beautiful, and it really touched me. As soon as I read the first sentence I pictured her amazing menagerie peacock. The seahorse cake is incredible, and that young photo of you with her reminded me of photos of your daughters when they were younger - Jenna in particular.

    I also really appreciate that Facebook quote you shared.

  11. Thank you, LiEr, for these beautiful reflections and the loving story of your Auntie Laura. I was so moved by your post after your father's passing, and this one is equally profound and heart-rending. My parents died within 65 days of each other, and I was so grateful to have had them in my life for 57 years. I am very sorry for your bookends of sorrow, and amazed at the incredible father and aunt you had. I wish you peace in the coming days and months ahead as you process and progress through your grief.

  12. She's so beautiful ... I too have most of my family overseas and it's really hard when there's a loss. The grieving seems that much harder, thank you for the post. -Sarah

  13. Your writing is always so poignant, whether about your family, your projects, or your feelings. Thank you for sharing. Sending HUGS your way.

  14. Absolutely beautiful and eloquent as always. I felt so much warmth the whole time I read it and could feel of your love and it made me love her and your family, too.

  15. This is beautiful! Written with such love; I hated that it had to be your journey, but grateful for that you could experience such love, and share the wisdom and gratitude you've gained. I came to my lap top to sneak in yoga while my youngest is distance learning (the nightmare of our lives - Thursday they are supposed to return to school half days, but everyone is expecting the governor to make an announcement tomorrow that with rip that too from our grasp.) You've filled my heart gratitude and love.


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