Many friends and relatives have been asking the circumstances surrounding my late aunt’s sudden passing. Amongst the questions were whether she had been sick and whether she died of cancer.
My aunt had been asthmatic since she was a young girl. It was a condition that she had learned to cope with and lived with throughout her life. Because of her condition, she was not a physically active person. She regularly consulted with her physician and took medicines to manage the condition and she always had an inhaler with her.
Despite her condition, she did not let it became an excuse for her not to live her life to the fullest. She lived in Illinois for three years when she was in her 30’s (that was in the 80’s). She was pursuing her degree in The University of Illinois. Despite her condition, the winter in Illinois was not a problem to her, I recalled she had a picture taken of her out in the open and the surrounding was white with snow.
When she retired from her post as a lecturer, she continued to enjoy her live, participating in dance classes etc and she travelled with her best friends Magdalene and Jennifer. She went to Australia, Vietnam, The Holy Land etc.
This year they planned a trip to Jakarta. There were twelve of them in the group including my aunty, her friends aunty Jennifer (who was the group leader) and aunty Magdalene. They were to depart from Kota Kinabalu to Jakarta in the evening of 1st May by AirAsia.
There was nothing unusual about her health condition, no signs. She was her usual self. Except that she insisted on cooking the food to celebrate my aunty Maggie’s birthday on 28 April 2010. The dinner was to be had at my sister’s place and despite everyone telling her not to cook as they intended to just ‘ta pow’ from outside(because they wanted everyone to just enjoy the dinner and relax), she insisted and was adamant that she would cook for the dinner. She telephoned my mom in Beaufort and told her to come down to Kota Kinabalu for the dinner and she asked my mom whether I would come along but I declined because I felt I couldn’t leave my work and I don’t like going to Kota Kinabalu anyway. So I was not there to partake the last family dinner she had.
I was in Kota Kinabalu on 30 May 2010 for a dental appointment and at the same time to drive my mom back to Beaufort. My mom wanted to join my aunty Toni to go shopping, as usual my two aunties i.e. aunty Maggie and Toni were fashionably late. My mom waited from morning till late afternoon for them to come and pick her up but gave up and went to take her afternoon nap as she was tired. For some reason, her two sisters telephoned (after many phone calls since early morning) and insisted that my mom joined them. I sensed that there was an unusual forcefulness in the request but I thought nothing more of it, dismissing it as one of those quirks my aunties have.
They came and picked up my mom, I saw my aunty Toni in the car, she did not come out. My mom went in the car but few minutes later, my mom came out and handed me RM20.00. I asked her “What for?”. My mom told me that my aunty Toni said that it was for fuel to drive back to Beaufort. I just took it without further queries because it was one of those rare moments that aunty Toni voluntarily part with her money without being asked :). She was known to be frugal in the family.
My mom and I came back to Beaufort on 30 April as planned. In the morning of 1 May 2010, my aunty Maggie came back to Beaufort to attend the wedding of a daughter of a relative in Kuala Penyu with my mom. My cousin Kirstine and her boyfriend were tasked to drive my aunty Toni to the airport. Kirstin and her elder sister, Sheila, live with my aunty Toni and aunty Maggie. When we asked Sheila and Kirstin whether our aunty Toni showed any signs of ill health prior to her planned flight in the evening of 1 May 2010, both of them said that there was nothing unusual.
They said she had her foot reflexology massage at home by someone she hired for her stiff neck but she was not in pain or anything. She was joking and laughing with the masseur. My cousins said that she was in high spirit and was excited with the trip.
My cousin Kirstin and her boyfriend sent her to the airport at 7:30pm. Everyone thought it was a ‘routine’ trip and she would come back to us safe and sound. At about 11pm, while I was busy twitting about politic and social issues, I overheard aunty Maggie talking over the phone. Aunty Jennifer called her and told her that aunty Toni fainted in the airplane and few minutes later, aunty Maggie received an SMS from aunty Jennifer that aunty Tonie ‘was no more’!. That got my attention and I stopped twitting and I uttered ‘WHAT!?’.
Aunty Jennifer was crying at the end of the line and my aunty Maggie was telling her to calm down, that was when my mom who had been listening to the conversation broke down and cried, I went to her automatically and gave her a hug(my mom is the eldest), I consoled her.
My mom proceeded to light candles on the altar of our home and prayed while I went outside to have a smoke(well, we all have our own way of mourning).
According to aunty Jennifer, half way through the flight, aunty Toni started trembling, her hands were shaking and she was frantically rummaging through her hand bag (we now know that she was looking for her inhaler). Moments later, she just fainted. According to aunty Jennifer, before she fainted, she joined her hands together and placed them on her chest, she looked like she was at peace. It so happened that there was a doctor couple on board, they tried to revive her but failed. When they reached Jakarta, the doctor pronounced her dead.
Who was my Aunty Toni to me?
My aunty Toni and my aunty Maggie never married. I think it was because they sacrificed their own happiness to look after their family i.e. us. The first tragedy in the family was when my father died when we were just kids. My mom said I was four years old when he died.
When I was a kid, I knew that this aunty Toni of mine was sickly and ‘no fun’. Hence, in terms of ‘coolness’. I liked my aunty Maggie more than aunty Toni. That was the mind of a kid. A visit by both of them was like Christmas to us, at least for my sister and I.
When my sister and I were young, they would bring us to Kota Kinabalu and we would stay with them in their rented apartment in Sunny Garden. I remembered aunty Rita Kisil also stayed with them and I also remembered that there was this one mean aunty staying there also. Not very nice to kids. I can’t recall the sequence but it seems that aunty Rita was not there anymore when that mean lady stayed with my aunties. I don’t know her name but if I meet her today, I’d give her the middle finger for being mean to me when I was young :) and that is very generous of me. Try being mean to me now you jerk!
Anyway, it seemed to me that aunty Toni was always at the background while aunty Maggie was having a ball with us kids but she was never far away. She was like the back up, the support.
The arrangement continued in our later years. Of course, as I get older and wiser, I appreciated her role. When we got older, my two aunties continued to play ‘Santa Clause’ to their other nephews and nieces. Sheila, Aaron, Kirstin, Zach, Benjamin and Kezia. Later on, it will include my uncle Julian’s children and it would even include children in Kampung Takuli who has no blood relation to us at all.
Yes, aunty Toni was frugal but for good reason. She was like the ant to the grasshopper. Whenever we had problem, she was always listening at the background. Perhaps weighing the pros and cons. And when you are about ready to give up, she would come and spring a surprise and offer to help. Of course sometime you wish that she had done that earlier but she was like Ultra Man, Ultra Man only bring out his ultimate weapon when the light in his chest started blinking :). For good reason, my aunty Toni was the back up when all things failed. I think she wanted to make sure that we try every avenue and learn to stand on our own, if that fail, then she would swoop in to help.
If that doesn’t impress you on her humanity, then let me reveal that Aunty Toni was a great cook! There were many birthdays that she provided the birthday cakes for us. Hand made! I had told her many times that she should start a catering business but she never act on my advice. She was contended with what she had.
I can go on and on about her…. As it turned out, this quiet lady is actually the glue of the family. At the risk of sounding cheesy, she was indeed the ‘Wind Beneath our Wings’. Always low profile, never in the limelight, contended to let others fly. Like a great chef, she prepare the food and let us enjoy the feast while she disappeared into the shadow and never taking credit. Perhaps in us, she saw what she would have done and achieve if she did not have her condition.
Aunty Toni, I for one will honour your memory by living well and achieve what it is to achieve in my lifetime. Rest In Peace and I Love You.
As I am writing this, there are about 20 or 40 guests in the living room of my home in Kampung Jimpangah. I hid myself in a room because I want to honour her in my own way. Tonight’s suppose to be her seventh night, let’s see whether she will come back and say goodbye.