I smelt it first, before I saw it with my eyes.
No, I am not talking about the smell of death. Despite my usual acute sense of smell, I did not detect the putrid and rancid smell that evening like that described by many others, who have proclaimed to have smelt it at a scene of death and know immediately that it cannot have been anything else. I have always thought that only happens to corpses that have been left undiscovered and unattended for days, at which point they would have become infested by white, disgusting, squirmy little things.
But that was not the case here. Not at all. Not with her.
Lee Fah Wong was not one who could have been left alone long enough that she could die and no one would notice for days. She would not allow it. She was constantly surrounded by people. She was the type who would rather not eat a meal than eat it alone. She would sign up to classes of any sorts, whether it be line dancing, or gardening, or pottery, just to meet new people. She would decide whether to attend a concert or a play not based on whether she liked it, but on whether there was someone (whom she liked) to go with her. One of her favourite past times was to plan and organise for guests to come to visit her at her house where she would host them for a meal, or sometimes just a tea and a chit-chat.
And on this Tuesday evening I was that companion. She had insisted three weeks ago that I was to have dinner at her place four times a week, being Monday to Thursday nights. Demanded, in fact, as she placed her bony fingers on my arm, like she always did when she was insistent upon something and she suspected that I might not be of the same view.
She started by saying how terribly concerned she was about the state of my mental health and general welfare.
“I am worried about you. To have no family and no job, when you are almost forty!” she exclaimed. “What are you thinking? Most women your age will either have beautiful family or successful career, or both, by now. Aren’t you worried?”
She always had a way with words.
“Ma, it’s not that I don’t have a job,” I tried to explain, not for the first time. “It’s just that I decided I did not enjoy what I was doing, so I need time to reassess my career choices. Lots of people who become successful later on in life do this.”
She waved her hand in my face. “Same, same,” she said. “We should have dinner together more often so that you have company, and I can give you some advice about being a woman at your age.”
Besides, I did not like cooking, she had pointed out, so why not just have dinner at her place and she would cook for the two of us? Rather than getting something frozen from the supermarkets or getting meals delivered by Uber-eats, as I usually did, both of which were laden with salt, preservatives and MSG. Again, not be suitable for a woman who was close to forty.
Of course, I suspected that it was her own loneliness that played a big (if not overwhelmingly major) part in her invitation. Ever since Mel went back to work a year ago, the visits from her were getting further and fewer in between. Therefore, a replacement was required. And who else would be better than the eldest daughter who had no family, no job and nothing better to do on a weekday evening?
I finally relented to three nights a week, because really, what else was there for me to do on a weekday evening? I convinced myself that I could use some company (even if it was from my own mother), a healthy dose of family and non-family gossip, and home-cooked dinners which usually consisted of rice and a soup that had been boiled on the stove for hours. I had always liked my mother’s soups.
That evening, as I was standing on her porch in front of her door, the one with the wooden ornament that said “Please take off your shoes before coming in”, my nose sensed that something was not right.
I could not smell the essential oils. Sometimes it was lavender, sometimes peppermint, sometimes eucalyptus, sometimes chamomile. Each night may be a different one, depending on what needed to be remedied that day (whether it was sleeplessness, indigestion, a blocked nose or anxiety), but she would always have something on. Diffusing in the background of her living area (not burning, as she had explained many times before, because burning would destroy the healing properties of the oils). She was a firm believer in the healing power of essential oils, so much so that a lot of her retirement funds had gone into the acquisition of them. As such, she would always have something on. Every single evening without fail. She could not sleep without them.
And that evening, I did not smell it.
I had a copy of her house key. It jangled amongst the others as I tried clumsily to insert it into the key hole and then pushed the door opened.
The house was dark. I flicked on the light switch. Her downstairs living area was not huge and I could see it all in one glance. She was not there. She was not in her regular La-Z-boy in front of her television, nor fussing around in the kitchen. The living area looked clean and meticulous, as if no one had been in the house for the last few hours. True enough, the cylinder-shaped essential oil diffuser was sitting on the kitchen benchtop, with the lid off and not plugged into the socket.
“Ma?” I called out. “Ma, I’m here.”
I was expecting her voice, from somewhere upstairs in the house, to say, “Yes, Ah-Jie, I am here!” But there was no answer.
Then I noticed the pair of red cloth-slippers with the green beads. The ones that she wore when she went out. There were laid out neatly by the door. She always tidied her shoes before she went to sleep each night, and they looked like they had not been touched since she left them there last night. My heart pounded.
I took off my own shoes and ran through the house, across her cream-coloured carpet, past her collection of Chinese landscape paintings in the hallway, and up the stairs to her bedroom. Her door was closed. I reached for the knob and opened it. And that was when I found her, on her bed, stiff and yellow, still untouched from the night before.
And that was that.
Later on, they told me that she most likely died in her sleep, of old age. I remembered thinking, What does that even mean?
She was only 68, and seemingly healthy just the day before. Very healthy indeed. She even went to her weekly line-dancing class at the local leisure centre and was talking and laughing on Monday evening, with rice spitting out from the side of the mouth, as she described to me how one of the aunties at the line-dancing class was trying to flirt with the stand-in instructor.
“Can you believe that, Ah-Jie? The young man, very fit and very handsome.” She pushed out her chest when she said that, trying to illustrate a young and fit man. “That Auntie Fong, old enough to be his mother. Oh, Ben, she said, can you show me how to do that again? The poor boy. Of course, he could not say no. I know she used to be quite a fox when she was younger. They say that she used to wear pants so short that the men did not know where to put their eyes. But doesn’t she realise that she no longer has a body like Kylie Minogue? Wa-haha!”
And the next time I saw her, she was stiff and yellow, on her bed. With her long grey hair spread out against the white pillowcase like silver phoenix wings. Looking so peaceful and yet not breathing.
There would be no more joking about Auntie Fong and her flirtatious ways. Ever again.
Died in her sleep, they said.
On her death certificate they put down the cause as “cardiac arrest”. Really? I had asked the doctor. I had never known for her to show any signs of heart related issues. The doctor explained that it was not always possible to ascertain specific cause of death in an older person, and they would usually not carry out invasive procedures on an elderly who had just passed on if there was nothing suspicious about the death, so in those circumstances they would usually just put down the most likely cause of death.
The first thing I did upon finding the body was to ring my sister, Mel. She picked up after three rings.
“Mel?” I choked, right after she picked up the phone.
“Yes, Sara? What’s wrong? Is everything OK?” she asked. There was the sound of a child shouting in the background. I could tell she was genuinely concerned. After all, it was not common for her to receive a phone call from her elder sister in the middle of the week, under normal circumstances.
“It’s Ma. I-I think sh-she’s gone.”
“Gone? Gone where?” There was the sound of a dog barking in the background.
“Gone! Gone! Kaput! To where Pa is! To the Heavenly Kings!”
A sharp breath on the other end of the line, then followed by a rhythmic breathing as I imagined her pacing quickly to a separate, quieter room in her house.
When she reached the other room, she breathed into the phone: “Where are you? What happened?”
“I’m at her house, and how would I know? I just arrived at her house and found her in her bed, you know, gone.”
A pause. “Are you sure?”
“Am I sure? Am I sure?” I said incredulously into the phone, almost shouting. “Yes, I think I’m sure. She’s not breathing and her skin is cold and saggy! You should come and see her face, Mel. Then you’ll know whether I’m sure.”
“OK, OK, Sara, calm down,” she said. “Have you called the doctor yet?”
“No, no, you are the first person I called. Am I supposed to?”
“Yes, you are. Can you please call Ma’s GP Dr Patel now and let her know? Her details are on the fridge, on a white magnet. I’ll be over in fifteen minutes.”
Typical Mel. Always the calm one. The cool and collected one who did not buckle in stressful and unexpected situations. She always knew what to do and she always had a plan, despite being five years younger than myself. I was glad that I rang her. At least that was one decision that I felt good about making, the first one in the last five years, that I knew I would not regret.
After my phone call to Dr. Patel, I walked back to Ma’s room and sat on her bed, next to her stiff body, as I waited for Mel to arrive. I looked at her face, the skin that was losing colour, the closed eyes, the sagging mouth, a face so calm and not at all like the one that I recognised from when she was breathing. For a second there I thought that maybe it was not the same person. Maybe my mother was still alive and out there somewhere and a stranger had climbed into her bed and died in it. The absurd thought only lasted for a second.
I put my hand over her clammy one and gave it a light squeeze. Then I pushed a few strands of loose hair out of her face, and laid them out by the side of her head, as symmetrical as I could possibly make it, and I smoothed the creases from the top of her nightgown. I wanted her to look presentable when they, whoever they were, came in later to take her away (which I only found out was futile effort when they came and swiftly rolled her body onto a piece of white cloth without so much as looking at it).
But that was how she would have wanted it. She always took the time to make herself look presentable.
And that was when the first tear made its way out of my eye. And then a second one. And they did not stop falling until long after Mel arrived fifteen minutes later and we held each other, as sisters would in times of distress, and sobbed together until our faces were wet, our eyes were puffy, our chests were heaving and our wails were penetrating the unnatural silence that had been invading the house since the night before.