This is my swan song

I had planned for BBGB camp to be my swansong. Now, after serving with my fellow cell group mates who have proven themselves over and over again to be people who are willing to serve in a community, and hearing stories about how other cell groups might not be so willing to step up and organise things, I’m not sure if I want to leave this cell group anymore. I was initially set on exploring other younger groups- the average age of the cell members  in my current group is roughly six-eight years older than me. Sometimes it is just difficult to get along because I want to be simple and uncomplicated, I don’t want to worry about so many things and they are such … ‘advanced’ life people. But after the camp, I realised that maybe, it doesn’t matter that I can’t get along with everyone in the cell group, because I can get along very well with at least 50%, and out of these 50%, 90% are keen on serving other people. The underprivileged, the children, and the elderly.

I am content to have these people as my friends, even if a group within the larger group makes me uncomfortable because they are a strong clique. With this cell group, I have many opportunities to serve- in church camp, for a primary one class. At the carnival, manning the stall. During the kelong retreat, and the two camps this month. Being from a cell group as established as this gives me the credibility that I am a member of the church, it gives me the mental and emotional support I need to go through the more difficult parts of my week. Because I might be working in consulting, but there are many people in the cell who are working in medicine, law, finance, science- it is inspiring to see that I have a long way to go with my heart. Perhaps we won’t be friends outside of church. But that is okay, I am glad that we have a fixed meet up time every week now.

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The initial planning for the camp was OK. But it was also the first month of my antidepressant medication, a lot of things were causing me mental pain. I wanted to give up many times because my moods were fluctuating, I would get little anxiety zaps at random times of the day and I was very tired. There were two weeks where I felt like I was just dying slowly, my mental health and happiness just crumbling bit by bit. It is not like my strength was failing me, it is a much more crackly situation- imagine rocks falling off the cliff and falling apart when it hits the ground, into small bits of gravel and crushed soil.

I tried my best. I was with the kids from start to end, except for one session sitting out because it was after the trip to the gardens and I was just so tired I was like a dead fish. And another fifteen minutes sitting with a primer talking about guys and what are her standards for relationships while my tribe was playing in the room. I was also in charge of the game under the sun, which sunburned me and turned me five shades darker than my usual pasty vampire look. I shouted timings, gave instructions, prepared the game with last-minute materials, kept the  materials after everything has ended, used scissors, plasters, and duct tape to hold everything together.

A lot of people helped me for this camp. Those who participated in my games as fellow station masters- HS, J (whom I’m still slightly scared of. I can look him in the eye but I can’t be around him, I can’t talk to him, and I instinctively move away when he’s near me), R, D, the three primers- M, E, and KF. All the children in my tribe, and the tribe leaders J and BR. The bus uncles, the station masters for other games, the people who led the camp fire songs and ordered lunches, the guys who helped set up safari beds.

I admit that when I was wrapping up the game, I was a bit annoyed that there were so many bits and pieces left over by the kids and my cell group mates (not all of them, but 2-3) were standing around not helping, just eating their twisties. I didn’t say anything and I just continued packing up. After a few minutes I thought about what I was thinking in my heart- being annoyed, “why aren’t they helping”, “my game was the hardest”, “I am sunburned and their games were all indoors”. And then I realised that perhaps I was just being a mean person. We all contribute in our different ways. Some people run the camp from an administrative side, some buy dinner, some ensure the safety and discipline in the camp. I prefer a more relationship based style, so I tried my best to engage the kids. I was the one who knew the raft materials best, so I had to stay with my game. And it just didn’t make sense to hold it indoors on the carpeted floor, so I had to do it outdoors.

But instead of looking at my own heart and assessing whether I truly had a servant’s heart, I just got miffed that I was doing more than other people for that extra hour. I didn’t stop and think about the people who were helping me, out of their goodwill, with the packing of wooden poles and plastic floats, and these people were the ones who weren’t even from my own group. They were from other game sessions. For that, I am grateful.

I need to learn to manage my emotions and not let some people irritate me, spoiling the whole event. It is not what we do, but how we do it, whether or not I carried out my duties with a joyful heart or was I concerned about other people seeing me all the time in the limelight of what I have accomplished. I tried to be a good mentor.

Through this cell group, I learned to love other people. And that is perhaps the kindest gift that God has given me so far. Before university, I did not have friends from non-elite junior colleges. And before this camp, I did not have friends from neighbourhood schools. And now I do. I don’t know if I can be considered a kinder person, but I am definitely better at recognising the different strengths of people and not using academics or eloquence to measure their worth as human beings.

I might not know how to love all the time, to expand my consciousness beyond my tiny sense of self, but I do know what the feeling of serving others in love is like. I can replicate it again, with children, I can be a better person. I don’t need to be alone all the time, but I also don’t need to make adults my only companions. This is my swansong for my cell group- my last act with them. Perhaps next year, I’ll go on a mission trip.

The song lyrics say “test our thoughts and our attitudes” and I used to think that an attitude is just something you are born with. It’s not something you can change. But through serving with my cell group in so many events, and the weekly kiddy class, I am starting to realise that love can be cultivated. The kids whom are not eye-catching, are equally huggable and teachable. It is possible to love them, as long as one is willing to love them.

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It happened when I first decided to serve. And then to intentionally love, to look for their good points, and then love comes naturally, and it was so much easier to connect to the children. It is not possible to have kind thoughts all the time, but it is also something that one must be intentional with- first acting in a loving manner, and understanding what it means to give up one’s time and efforts without hoping for any form of reciprocation.

I wish I could say this was how Christ felt, when he saw that we were lost like sheep without a shepherd. That he decided to suffer so that we could learn what it was worth to be a follower of Christ. The same things draw me back to Christianity- that it is about compassion, kindness, an unchanging figure who knows how it is going to be played out. We might not have all the answers, but we are asking some of the right questions- how can we better the place around us? How can we make our life slightly more worth it? What are some markers that we can use for the next forty years.

I might struggle with anxiety and depression and on some days, feel the urge to just stand on the balcony railing. The one where you can plant your feet firmly, and 40 floors down is an expanse of concrete and car park walkways. I never knew how people would jump while looking forward, I always imagined it as climbing up, and then turning around to face the building, with your back towards the wind. You just need to close your eyes, straighten your body in a last act of grace, lift your arms up to feel the breeze on your skin and then, lean back. And fall. Like a trust fall, except that there is no one to catch you. All will end, it will be final, but at least, it is the end. A final goodbye without any complications because you will be past the point of feeling.

Not everything at camp was sunshine and roses. Ok, maybe a lot of sunshine. It was hot and boring at some points, because there was a lot of waiting time involved in the stations as two tribes were disbanded, which messed up the order of stations. And not all kids enjoyed the camp- some thought it was boring, some were whining all the way, some were sick towards the end. But I am grateful for what did go well, and grateful for the three rainbows we saw on the last evening of camp.

My best memories of the camp will be watching the kids interact. Yelling at one another, “you are not saying table grace!” “oi I talk nicely you don’t want to listen you want me to shout is it!” “water parade!!!” “fall in, fall in!” “yes, sir!” “full strength, sir!” “you wanna hear my embarrassing story moment?” Their easy camaraderie and care for each other. I was given this opportunity to serve them and to practice humility, and I think I have achieved that in the camp. I got to know the boys better, I understand their simple wants and got to know their embarrassing stories. Some of them will make good leaders in the future, some will probably be quiet wildlife researchers. Most will not flourish under the stress of A levels and entrance exams. But that is the nature of Singapore’s education system.

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(A double rainbow, on the last day.)

I am glad I saw it through. It is an honour to serve alongside fellow church members, in a children’s group. At the age when they are going through puberty and have not learned to be selfish and manipulative yet.

This is my swansong.

 

But if you lose a child, you go on being a mother or a father. There is no word because we refuse to cede that much authority to the possibility. It is literally the indescribable pain. If we can’t call its name, it can’t come. Only it can.

 

‘If heaven exists, I hope it is far beyond what we conjure with our gravity-soaked imaginations.’ (Happiness-a memoir, Heather Harpham)

As a 23, soon to be 24 year old, I am solidly myself. I know what dress size I am (US6-8), I know how coarse my hair is after a swim, I know the strength of my fingers. I know my likes and dislikes- I don’t like vegetables, I don’t like wearing nail polish, not even on my toenails. I like soups- kimchi, chicken, pork ribs, tofu and seaweed. But there are many things I have not figured out, such as “why do I like children? Why am I not scared of being alone and in the dark for many hours, why can’t I commit to relationships?”

Sometimes reading helps. Heather Harpham writes about how Gracie (her first born daughter) coped with her illness. And reading through her experience made me realise all the different parts of a child that I appreciate. Exactly why I like children, as if the parts of a smaller human being can be dissected and laid on the ground, ready to be scrutinised and magnified under my stare. I remember things like their innocence, the way they trust you to give them cheerios which taste the same week after week, they never ask “is this the only food?” The way they meander into class in the morning, half asleep, sometimes fully asleep, only to wake up and realise that they are surrounded by other little monsters and plastic toys. I remember how beautiful and universal some traits are- like their complete and utter faith in your ability to protect them while they sit on your lap. And their anxiety when a parent is late to pick them up, and they are the last ones in the classroom.

“We don’t deserve these kids.” It was true, we didn’t, because no one does; a child is an unearnable grace. There is no way to deserve or earn a child.

I love children, I love everything from their short height to their tears and the way they extend their arms to you when they want to be carried. I love their fluffy hair and soft skin. I love the way they don’t blink an eye at wherever you put them- on the sofa, on the table, on the chair, they will automatically explore what is around them because they are curious. Are there books? Yes. Good. Excellent. Said books must be touched and bent and gently taken apart. Chewed a little if necessary.

Their smells, the way they lifted their arms for “uppy” with total confidence that Brian or I would reach down, the velvet of their inner wrists, the translucence of their ears- little shells held up to the light.

“We might not deserve them,” I said. “But we cherish them. That must count for something.”

I can’t imagine any of the kids I know falling sick. Or being kept in the hospital. I can’t imagine any of my foster brothers being treated badly, although I know that their parents often do. I can imagine my life going on and being the same when an elderly person dies. It is natural, she has lived for long enough. What emotions were spent throughout her life, all the things she enjoyed. But children are different. They have not had enough time. It feels like something was robbed from them.

They played in this room, each of the four children. They touched the crayons in that box by the door. They handled the videos. They took out the games. We are surrounded by things they picked up and put down, but with no way to call them back.

I drive home from the hospital crying. I’m not sure if I’m crying with grief for the four children who died beside us, whom we did not know. Or with relief that my child has lived. Or with lingering fear.