She died alone at night. One by one she had watched the lights go out around her, including her husband Tony a few years earlier. At home, she had always found something or other about him annoying, but in their final years at the old folks home, his presence became a surprising source of comfort.
It was hard to think of herself as old, the youngest of seven siblings born in Singapore before the war. She had always been the baby of the family, born to a wealthy Hakka merchant who made good on his own but later lost everything to gambling and the war. As much as she missed the comfortable life, she wasn’t going to mope. Determined to make it on her own, she qualified as a stenographer, finding work as a secretary in the post-war years.
Those days of independence: earning and spending her own money, doing up her hair, buying nice shoes, going wherever she wanted on her own, whenever she wanted. But those were just nice-to-haves, she had come to realise. In those final months and days she lay alone, unable to move or feed herself, withering like a skeletal tree at the end of autumn. If not for the fall, if only she had taken a different route, if only she had taken a taxi that fateful afternoon almost ten years ago. But it was too late for if onlys. If only she had the courage to meet the nice English boy she had exchanged letters with for years when he came to Singapore, instead of asking her older sister. In the end her pen pal became her brother-in-law. If only, if only. Life was too short for if onlys.
Each breath grew more difficult. In the far corner, an old man whined. Another old woman talked to herself. To them, to the nurses, to the doctors on their weekly rounds, she was probably just another old woman too. Closing her eyes, she remembered herself as a child. Her older sisters running ahead of her, struggling with her small legs to catch up. Wait for me, she shouted. I’m coming!