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LETTER TO MY MOTHER by Tania De Rozario

'If I sound cold, it is because I am. The minute I understood my trauma had currency, you stopped being my mother and started being material. This icy attitude is how I survived.'

I want to start with a cliché. To ask how long it has been. To scan the apartment – comment on what has not changed, ask questions about what has. To muse about how time flies, how death has a way of smoothing over the rough edges of life, the sharp pointed corners of broken relationships.

But I can’t. Because I know exactly how long it has been. The last time I was here, it was 2003. You were in your bedroom, working. Gramps was taking a nap. Nana was in the living room, watching television. This is the amber memory of my last day here, frozen for a decade and a half. I left, and three of you were here. Today, everyone is gone. I return the same way I left – alone.

Do you remember my leaving? Did you see through all my stealth? I could not afford to move out all at once, so I packed whatever would fit into three plastic bags each day, and transferred all of it to my new place after work. Three was the magical number. Small enough to not to warrant suspicion – substantial enough for someone who did not own much. By the end of the week, I had moved everything I needed. The next day, I just did not come home.

Did you ever wonder where I’d gone?

I have so many questions about your apartment. About the objects it houses. As with most people who’ve lived in one place for many years, life does not change as much as accumulate. Closets brimming with clothes – all yours. Leftover medication from the cancer. Electronics thick with rust, carpets fat with the corpses of dead unidentifiable bugs, books jacketed with years of dust, pamphlets concerning single parenthood and “how to bring your child back to Christ”.

Fifteen years we lost to each other. Perhaps in another life, we are making up. Perhaps in another life, I had no reason to leave. Perhaps in that other life, I know the names of all these strangers pressed between the pages of the twenty-five photo albums I am lugging home. Perhaps I knew my father.

I must admit, as I pillage your belongings, I think about how they might become useful to me: Maybe I will make drawings from these photographs. Maybe these documents can be turned into found poems. Maybe all these personal belongings will become an installation piece about “Archiving Family”. Archives are very popular these days with artists, you know. Very hip. Very now.

If I sound cold, it is because I am. The minute I understood my trauma had currency, you stopped being my mother and started being material. This icy attitude is how I survived. The day you got your church friends to exorcise the “lesbian demons” from my twelve-year-old body, you broke my heart in the process, so don’t blame me for its malfunctioning, for this wintery ability to milk you for all you are worth. Make no mistake – you made me this way.

Packing up your apartment has really been the mildest part of this logistical nightmare. Thanks to your death, I have also been thrust headlong into a wonderful world of bureaucracy: conveyance lawyers, letters of administration, contracts, agents, knowledge about taxes. Off and on, I find myself feeling like a child. Like these are matters I should have knowledge about, but don’t. In these moments, I realise how sneaky Singapore is, how its culture of uniformity finds its way into one’s flesh, embodies itself in the ways we think. Surely, there is no one way to be an adult. When I left you, I learned to eat three meals a day for under five dollars. I hacked the rental market, and survived. I found my own family, wrote about it, carved a career from loss. Surely, this is some sort of adulthood that deserves recognition.

One of the last things I find in your apartment, I find on final day of clean-up: a bright orange noose made from plastic rope, measured and looped, placed together with illustrated measurements, pushed to the back of Gramp’s bottom drawer. It has been carefully double-bagged, and as I unpack it, I expect to find some random purchase Gramps made and forgot about. Instead, I come upon this object – an intention so deliberately crafted, it causes all the hairs on the back of my neck to stand.

I know what I am looking at when I stumble upon it, but am unable to process it as real. My reflexive response is that I am having some sort of nervous breakdown. Finally, I think. All the feelings I thought I never had about my father hanging himself, are materializing in some sort of psychotic break.

It is only when I find the suicide note, written the year Nana died, unopened till now, that I understand the noose was never used – Gramps had kept it as a safety net.

Taking out the last of the garbage, I think to myself that maybe I’ve been wrong all these years, that maybe I did inherit some of this family’s genetic traits. After all, there were many times in my life that I wanted to die. Many periods I fantasized about it constantly. It was not a dramatic desire that announced its presence in loud sobs or melodramatic love songs. It grew slowly, quietly. A strong wanting for the inevitable to come quickly – tiredness the weight of bricks. These thoughts were the most prevalent the years I was living hand-to-mouth, waiting every other month for the power to be cut, moving house repeatedly because rents had doubled or leases were over or landlords just did not want me there anymore.

Did you ever feel that way – too tired with life to see it as more than anything but a chore? Those feelings, they don’t go away. I’ve learned to master mine. To sit them aside, acknowledge their presence, turn my back to their murmurings.

Did you ever read about Michelle Yong and Wee May May? The two young women who jumped from a flat in Toa Payoh? They were a couple. Yong was 21. Wee was 30. The news reached only the tabloids; they appropriated the tragedy as scandal, focusing on who had “gone to therapy”, who had been “torn between boy and girl”, how the younger woman had defied her parents.

What nobody wanted to talk about was the fact that their bodies were found clad in red – a message to anyone fluent in local Chinese superstition: if you died by suicide dressed in red, it meant that you intended to return for revenge.

Something else no one wanted to talk about: the red string tied around each of their fingers – a symbol of their desire to be together in the next life.

I remember weeping when I read the article, feeling oddly complicit, oddly guilty. What had we done as a society to these two women, that even their love for each other could not undo? I hadn’t known either of them, but I saw myself in their deaths. I saw their bodies as mine, their rage as my own. I wept over the act but took strength in the message: This isn’t the last you’ll see of us. 

A friend once told me that anger and disappointment were two sides of the same coin – she said that anger was disappointment in disguise. Anger is bigger, louder, a force that pushes outward. Disappointment runs deeper, closer to collapse, to the parts of us that are soft, vulnerable.

I’ve learned to hone my anger like a knife. I carry it around for self-defense. My anger at you, at this homophobic country, at leaders too self-important to really care about anything, much less us. My anger at how so many queer friends of mine, born less middle-class, less fair-skinned, more non-conforming, have had it even worse, were thrust into the world with even less luck to weaponise.

I’m not sure why I bring all this up now. Why I am talking to walls. Why I am talking to you, the ghost of the woman I hated so much that the first thing I said when I heard she was dying was, “Good. I hope it’s slow, and I hope it hurts.”

Those words, so final. Not just for you, but also for me: is this really what I’ve become?

Perhaps this rage needs to die with you. No point, after all, stabbing at air. And shouldn’t I be happy coming back to this apartment, this windfall that solves all the problems caused by my leaving it?

I should be glad that you no longer haunt me, that your specter exists only in photographs, in the minds of your few remaining friends. I should be glad that all you are is ash.

There is just one problem with letting the anger go – what to do with all that remains.

What of this disappointment settling in my bones? This house that failed at becoming home. These cracked tiles, this peeling paint, the wind whistling through windows.

What of this disappointment? These clothes left out to dry. This unfinished book. That broken lamp. This child you leave behind.

Tania De Rozario is a writer and visual artist engaged with issues of gender, sexuality, home, memory, and representations of women in Horror. She is the author of Tender Delirium(Math Paper Press, 2013), And The Walls Come Crumbling Down (Math Paper Press, 2016 & Gaudy Boy, 2020), and Somewhere Else, Another You (2018, Math Paper Press). She was the 2020 winner of the New Ohio Review’s Nonfiction Contest, and the 2011 winner of Singapore’s Golden Point Award for English Poetry. Her writing has been cited in journals such as The Routledge Companion on Architecture and The City (Routledge, 2019), Singapore Literature & Culture: Current Directions in a Global Context (Routledge, 2017), and TEXT – the Journal of Writing and Writing Courses.Copyright © 2020 Tania De Rozario.

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