May is graduation month. American schools and colleges are in a graduation mode. A ritual. Commencement—as we call it. The beginning of a journey that will never have an end, as we reach the end, that will be the beginning.
Parents, grandpa, grandma, and relatives will be there to celebrate with the graduates. I have attended countless in my calling as an educator – from kindergarten to middle school to high school to doctoral graduations.
But today I sat down on my porch on this stormy evening reminiscing. I thought of my mother. She passed on exactly ten years ago today (May 22, 2012). A sudden death over the weekend. 65 years old, I supposed she was. Came out of the bathroom, sat on our old beaten-up sofa in our village home, held her brother tight, and cried, saying she will have to go. Then she closed her eyes right there, uttered the Shahadah, and went off peacefully. It was almost midnight; The neighbors helped her leave this world. Buried the next day. That was what was told about how she died while I was away thousands of miles, and heard the news but could not go home immediately.
I remember standing in front of the class Global Issues I was teaching in college and lectured as if nothing happened, Then I broke down while teaching. My students consoled me, “Go home, Professor Rahman. If you need help, we’ll take you home.” I could not help myself. Unlike me at all!
The point of this piece is to share what we owe to our mothers. On graduation day. Whether graduation we are having. We are never too old to be a child loving our mother.
Reminiscing today on a dark and stormy night, I remembered that with all the 12 stages of my learnings-end from middle school to my doctorate, my mother was never able to be with me to celebrate. Circumstances rule endlessly. The butterfly effect of things as I always spoke about in my hundreds of lectures.
So, I honor yearly my students’ successes whether they are graduating from college or from high school to go to America’s Ivy League institutions, I will always be drowned in those moments of sitting in those ceremonies, with these two feelings vacillating: Joy and Melancholy. That I wished my mother would have attended at least one.
May is also the month for Mother’s Day and I wish to share what I wrote on that occasion.
HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY
To the most important person in my life. Memories we share I cherish, till eternity concludes. May you be at peace wherever you are …
Though you only finished school till Standard Three (Darjah Tiga) and you told me you wanted to be a teacher, your place was taken by one from a privileged class, you worked hard as a seamstress daily, sewing clothes to raise us, then for many years worked in a factory, making sure we are all fully- clothed, well-fed, and happy, and in your olden days you could still listen to our success stories, still making sure we are all fine in this world of chaos and complexity. And yes, you wanted us to be in the English school, bought us English storybooks once a year maybe … though you do not speak and read and write in English surely. Thank you, Mother, from here till eternity!
My mother always use this Malay proverb to drive a point to its glorious conclusion:
“Alang alang menyelok pekasam … biar sampai ke pangkal lengan”.
It means that if you want to do something do it till it is done and go beyond that. In other words: “Go for it” as the New York Giants would use as words of encouragement, or “Just Do It”, as Nike would say to sell its product.
But neither the Giants nor Nike would want to “seluk pekasam” that Malay gangsta fermented gooey thing used to ferment fish to make it more gangsta in taste, It is a fermentation juice made of salt primarily. Pekasam is usually kept in a huge clay pot as high as half my height when I was thirteen (as in the photo). So, naturally, if I were to stick my hand in the Pekasam Gangsta Giant pot and to go for it and to just do it, my hand would reach beyond that — to my elbow or the edge of my “lengan”.
So– to plunge one’s hand into a gangsta-smelly container filled with fish is a challenge seldom undertaken by a child. But a child who has nothing better to do, and is forced by the mother, would try that.
My mother used that metaphor of going for it, go for the jugular, Run Forrest Run … and try before you die … in order to teach me how to do things. Of course, it didn’t always work for me. Because — my life as a child vacillated between realism and fiction. I would “selok pekasam” or plunge my little hand to get the “pekasam-fermented” fish but get bored halfway and imagine other things.
Had there been Dr. Seuss’s books when I was growing up I’d be thinking of “One Fish Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish” (Republicans and Democrats gone fishing, while Nero plays his Fender Stratocaster). That would be my idea of “alang alang menyelok pekasam … biar sampai ke pangkal lengan …”
I supposed my life as a child was never a traverse down a straight path with a linear trajectory. Always a pendulum of the Real and the Surreal and even Supra-Real. Never a life played up by Virtual Reality. Always roller coaster too.
So– I love the proverb, My mother used it often. I love the message.
If I had another name — a gangsta Malay vaping-village name right out of Chinua Achebe’s tribal society name — it would be ALANG.
Nothing else but ALANG. There is so much gusto and power in that name. If I were to fight with other kids in the village … I’d just say “Call me Alang … ” and I think my enemies will go running berserk (or lari berserak or berterabor as the Malays would say) and hide in a huge clay pot of pekasam. No need to use the keris or any kind of Siamese micro-mini-midget dagger.
Yes, ALANG .
Just call him Alang.
In loving memory of my mother.
(To my Mother Mariam)
I am at a loss for words
I could just write “Words cannot describe my love for you.
Thank you for everything …”
Like everybody said
In those cards, those poems, those moments of well-wishing
I could just say that
And wait for another year.
At each and every breath I take
As each and every thought of every veins in my body that makes me stay awake
Each and every cell I bathe with mantras to
Each and every corner of your womb my eyes glanced through
I want to say “thank you …”
But that would be ordinary
As others too have wished. Maybe.
I could send you a card
A prayer to your soul
And remind you of a memory of me when I was a child
And tell you where I have been as I walk on this world they called “maya”
I could tell you now what you meant by the path of righteousness
The path I took
The road not taken
That may have made a difference
But mother, on this day of yours
Those would be ordinary.
I am at a loss for words
Unless my thoughts and my words are in the Jawi you know
I could write about the days when I was a child
Strange creatures in my mind
Out to destroy our kampong
I fought them alone
None will ever know
On those trees
In the rivers
In the room I locked myself in
No one knew. Not even you.
I could write all those on Mother’s Day
But those would be ordinary stories.
Mother on this day I must confess
That I was an existentialist as early as when I started to:
Climb that tree
Sneaked out of that wooden back door
Jumped out of those old Javanese looking windows
Roamed the city alone in my Japanese slippers
Walked along the huge water pipes that lead to Singapore city
I was an existentialist, mother.
I cared about the Universe
But did the Universe care about me?
I wanted to tell you all these
On Mother’s Day back in the day
But my story would be ordinary.
You combed my hair daily
Laced it with Brylcreem
Masked me with Cuticura talcum powder
Tucked my shirt well into my neatly pressed pants
You held my hand everywhere I go
Afraid that the world would take me away
You held my hand tight as we crossed roads
Afraid that I would come to multiple crossroads
I wanted to tell you all these Mother.
On the following Mother’s Day.
Back in the day.
Ordinary story to me.
Mother you are sweet
You said I had beautiful eyes
Those eyelashes too
Eyes that came from the depth of the night
Somewhere you and I may know
I saw you smile
When many came to look at my eyes
But what have those eyes seen now?
I don’t know how to say “Happy Mother’s Day”
That would be too ordinary for you and me.
I can only feel every day is your day.
Though for many years I was sent away.
Like an Anakin.