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Strong Enough to be Gentle

Content note: grief, mourning, death

In these quiet times, I can often find myself in sudden unbidden remembrance. In the solace of a simple task they drift into my heart: I'm washing dishes, making tea, gardening or in the warmth of creative cooking, and those I've loved and lost, visit. There they sit awhile, making themselves comfortable, while I adjust, breathless for a moment. Unchecked tears make their way down my face fringed with gratitude for their love and company.

My beautiful mother-in-law passed away at 92 in August 2018, and I was lucky enough to be able to travel and attend her funeral in Malaysia. She was, without doubt, the embodiment of one of my life goals. Auntie Rosie was truly ‘Strong Enough to be Gentle’. Her diminutive stature did nothing to hide her huge heart. She had taken in this stray European 32 years earlier, and despite my cultural ignorance, the goodness of her heart fundamentally changed my life. I am not alone in feeling this way, there are so many people still touched by her, so many who feel her presence, and her absence.

Auntie Rosie raised five children while working full-time as a staff nurse in her 30s, 40s and 50s. She also trained hundreds of nurses. Family legends are filled with her getting up at 4am to cook breakfast and lunches for her loved ones, before going to work at 6am. She'd pause a while, Rosary in hand in front of Mother Mary, joining her husband in quiet prayer, while the food cooked. To say she was iconic would be to diminish her strength and authenticity. She was a vital, flawed woman doing her utmost to live her best life. Scolding was as much a part of family life as the nourishment she served. In our time of lockdown there were, and still are, legendary souls who have led us to things we didn't think we had the strength to do, and to accept 'new normal' with unexpected agility. She was one of those souls.

Dubbed St Teresa of Ampang, Auntie Rosie certainly wouldn't have wanted to be remembered as one. She was a fiesty, trail-blazing rule-breaker beneath a gentle, quietly elegant figure. Marrying a man some years younger than herself, she'd already bought property and sent her youngest sister to medical school in Dublin before she was married. This was remarkable enough within her culture, without her husband being of a different ethnic descent - a rare occurrence almost anywhere in 1958. The truly significant impact this woman had on hundreds of lives was in her acceptance of human foibles as long as there was honesty. Her strength lay in her devotion to her religion and its code of ethics, inextricably entangled with her job and her family. She had complete faith. Years later, she told me she'd dedicated a Mass for each of her grandchildren's safe delivery each time we had a home birth, sometimes spending most of the day in church, to balance her very medical viewpoint. The priest on one occasion came to bless our new home with her, and neither turned a hair at the placenta sitting in a plastic container, waiting for the midwife to finish tending to mine and newly arrived Freya's needs.

I loved her deeply, as did many people. Rosie's clear, simple instructions as to what was to follow her death - where she would like the service, no eulogies, no obituaries, and her final resting place, had all the hallmarks of a woman who knew what she wanted. All we had to do was to retell stories, as family and close friends dropped by for prayers, shared laughter and tears to celebrate her soul. Even in her passing, Auntie Rosie made sure there was as little stress as possible for all those she loved. The Chinese believe that if you pass as she did, before breakfast, you leave three meals for your family. An abundance of food. Prayers answered.

How grateful I am that we had the opportunity to say goodbye to her, to acknowledge the life she led, to be together under one roof enveloped in her love. My heart goes out to all those who have not been able to have this simple expectation over the last few months. We had no idea how privileged we were in every aspect of our ritual, and I sincerely hope we can all be strong enough to be truly gentle with each other now.

Goodness, I miss you, Ma Rosie. God Bless you.


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