When we boarded the plane for Penang to visit mum, I recalled my first time on a plane. Mum took me on a trip to Hong Kong end of 1969, just the two of us. I was 14, waiting to start grade 10 (Form 4). It was a reward of sorts for my performance in my LCE (grade 9 government exams). Mum had a programme to enlarge my horizons; to push me to grow intellectually; heck, to make me excel, to be first boy in the class — something I achieved only once, in Form 3A1 (grade 9).

Mum was a tiger mum before the term was coined. Maybe it was because she was a teacher. I am sure it has to do with the fact that she was from Hong Kong. (I believe all Hong Kong mums are tigers.) She had come to Malaya after World War 2 as a teenager and had to fight hard to make a new life. Excelling was survival. Her only son had to excel/survive.

Dad was different, almost the opposite. The youngest son in a peranakan family, dad was Mr Chill whose motto in life was “I want you to be happy”. From dad I learnt unconditional love. He celebrated people for who they were, not because of their performance or achievements. But mum pushed me to excel.

Hence it is very hard to see mum travelling down the road of dementia. Sometimes, she still remembers that she was a highly respected lecturer at a teachers college, that she played the piano, that she was an excellent Sunday School teacher, that she was chairman of her church council at a time when some felt very strongly that women shouldn’t be holding such positions. I always tell people that she was the best man for the job. She loved to travel and has been round the world twice.

But all that is behind her now. Soon, what little memory she has of those days will also go. And I have been prepared that a day will come when she won’t remember who I am. My psychiatrist friend reminds me that I am already grieving for the mum I am losing.

But for now, she remembers she has a son who is a pastor, who lives in Singapore, and who visits only once a month. “I have to wait 30 days in between visits, she complains.” But she can’t remember my visits because her short-term memory is virtually non-existent.

It is not easy to be with mum. Her list of irrational behaviours continues to grow. We live in the moment. To see her smile and happy in the moment is what we have now. And we take what we can. She expanded my horizons. And now we walk with her as her horizon shrinks.

We know where her road ends. And so does she. Once in a while, she will say that she is just waiting for her name to be called when that roll is called up yonder. She has no fear of death. She knows where she is going.

In the meantime, we walk with her as best we can. I am sorry ma, that we can’t do better. But we are doing the best we can. As is often the case, we trust that the Lord, in His time and in His way, will make up for our deficit.