#SabahQuake: Every Parent’s Nightmare

Last night, I slept with my son Ayden in my arms, as we did for the last few nights since the #SabahQuake on 5 June 2015.

His fingers were tightly laced around my neck, my leg wrapped around his body. It wasn’t comfortable and our collective body heat made it impossible to keep our blanket on despite the air-con.

Still, night after night, we do this. Sometimes he requested for it, like last night: “Mama, can you sleep next to me?” Other times, I just reached out and folded him into me, his head on my shoulder fast going numb, my arm doubling as his bolster. It gives us both comfort and it’s a luxury I refuse to take for granted.

We don’t know any of the 7 children and 2 teachers from Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS), or the Singaporean guide, who had perished under falling rocks when the earthquake struck while they were climbing Mount Kinabalu. Neither do most of Singapore but our hearts ached and our eyes wept along with the bereaved families and school, just the same. We all prayed against dimming hope that the missing pupil, Navdeep Singh Jaryal S/O Raj Kumar, and teacher, Mohammad Ghazi Bin Mohamed, would be found, safe and sound. (UPDATE: Their bodies were both found on 10 June and sent back to Singapore.)

It’s strange. My heart is so heavy for the perished children and teacher, I feel as if I’m grieving for someone I personally know. Last Sunday, I posted this on Stellar Communications Consultancy’s FaceBook page.

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Losing my child is every parent’s greatest nightmare. Losing YOUR child is also every teacher’s greatest nightmare. A relative, who is a teacher in a secondary school, posted on FaceBook that she was saddened and stunned to read the thoughtless (and brainless, I might add) comments that keyboard warriors posted.

Some blamed it on overzealous schools trying to meet their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) by organizing such “unnecessary and dangerous” overseas learning journeys. Others accused the teachers of not doing a thorough Risk Assessment. These accusations are so ridiculous, I don’t even want to go into it except to say this: it was a natural disaster, a freak accident that cannot be pinned on the school, Ministry of Education or PAP (yes, I’ve seen those comments too). In a time like this, let’s not point fingers and cause greater rift in an already grieving nation.

Since I became a parent, I grieve differently. Every accident reported in the news hits me in a way I never thought about before my son came along. I grieve for the  parents and the unbearable pain they must bear to bury a child. (I saw it in my own parents when they had to say goodbye to my sister Sally, who succumbed to cancer in 2005. It was one of the most painful sights I’ve ever seen.)

I decided to take half-day leave yesterday to pay my respect at  TKPS. I deliberated on whether I should take Ayden along. Is he too young to understand? Will he feel scared? In the end, I decided that I can’t bubble-wrap him forever; life is as much about sadness and tears, as it is about fun and toys.

We worked on a card together.

 

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He wanted to draw a mountain, cracked by the earthquake. He drew angels that held little children by their hands because, as he told me very solemnly, “I hope they all went to heaven.”

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Together, we drew colourful hearts. Then Ayden, who has seriously bad handwriting (like me) as all his teachers complained, carefully, neatly wrote ‘rest in peace’. He made sure he changed colours between letters, to make his card prettier for the TKPS children and teacher he didn’t know but for whom he “feels very sad”.

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When we arrived at TKPS, traffic policemen were directing cars to the nearest parking at the nearby private estates.

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Many, bearing bouquets and cards like us, were streaming in. We walked past a Counselling Room and my heart broke a little. After the initial bustle of organizing a tribute centre and answering anxious parents’ and the press’ queries, when the dust settles, the school will have to go through the process of healing. I don’t know why but I started tearing at the thought of distraught children and staff trying to patch the pieces of their lives in the counsellor’s office. (I think I was probably feeling extra emo because I went through a similar process when I lost my sister.)

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The walkway leading to the canteen-turned-Tribute Centre was lined with bouquets of flowers. We spotted this stuffed toy.

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This bouquet with a note scrawled in a child’s handwriting to the late Mr Loo Jian Liang Terrence Sebastian, caught my eye and got me even more teary-eyed.

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In the canteen, tables and chairs were set up for well-wishers to pen their thoughts on little cards provided, which were pasted on white boards.

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A group of students from nearby Tanjong Katong Secondary School left this beautiful tribute made from messages written on Post-its. “TKSS heart TKPS”. Some seemed to be former students, hugging and weeping with their teachers.

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A special corner was set up for the missing Mr Ghazi and Navdeep. Someone left a talisman; others lit candles and left bouquets.

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Ayden and I lit a candle each and prayed for their safe return.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Education Minister Heng Swee Keat arrived. The mood was unbearably heavy; even the press surging forward was respectfully quiet.

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The ministers penning notes for the school.

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Reading the many notes left me with a major lump in my throat. Many were from the TKPS family.

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This one was from a canteen vendor.

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This, from a friend who misses Karyl, one of the six children who lost their lives.

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One of Mr Ghazi’s former students penned his hopes and prayers.

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A final goodbye from a Pri Fiver to her seniors and teacher.

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Fellow educators and students from other schools also turned up to show their support.

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Children’s drawings brightened up the walls of words.

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Neighbours from the Katong neighbourhood shared the school’s grief.

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Earlier, we’d spoken to the two ladies on the left, seen here receiving the ministers.

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They chatted with Ayden and looked touched when they found out that he’s 7 years old, not from TKPS, but wanted to come down to give the school the card he’d drawn.

The TKPS teacher gave Ayden a little blank card. He thought hard about what to write, trying to recall his Spelling words as he faltered over ‘rite’ (right) and ‘form’ (from). “Go on, write whatever you want, it doesn’t matter if you make mistakes,” she gently encouraged him. And Ayden finished his note, trying his best to keep his lines straight and signed off with his full name, class and even class register number.

They read Ayden’s note solemnly. They thanked him, asked to give him a hug and requested to take a photo of the note he’d composed all by himself.

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At that moment, I noticed a mistake. The Grammar Nazi in me wanted to correct it immediately (it’s ‘loss’, not ‘lost!’). But I resisted the urge. Some things, like showing empathy and love for the grieving, make more important lessons than Grammar right now.

PS. I asked Ayden to explain his note. Turns out, “the right side” refers to ‘heaven’ (he couldn’t spell it) but he reckoned ‘the right side’ makes a good substitute. Can’t fault that reasoning.

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