On Tuesday, 27 October, just over a week ago, I collected the keys to my new apartment.
Yes indeed, I have taken the leap and – with some financial help from my mother – bought the place of my dreams. It’s beautiful; it has just enough space for me to have almost floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and to finally print, frame and install on the (ample) wall space, the best of all the photographs I’ve taken on my travels across the port and imperial cities of Asia.
It’s also got a sweeping view of rain trees, the river and gleaming towers of glass and steel – a rather quintessential Singaporean view, if I may say so. In short, it’s got everything I need.
I thought I wouldn’t let slip this piece of good news just yet. Not until I had collected the keys and moved in. I didn’t want to jinx it. And I’ve been so happy and high with anticipation.
On Monday, 26 October, however, just one day before I collected my keys, I received an urgent call from the cardiologist, urging me to visit the clinic as soon as possible. You see, I had just had a CT scan of my heart done the Saturday before (24 October) – the culmination of a two-month health-screening journey I had embarked on after my father’s massive heart attack and ensuing multiple bypass surgery in June this year.
[Yes I hadn’t let on about that either.].
The prognosis wasn’t good. It appeared the main entrance to my No. 1 Artery – the MAIN artery – was blocked in two locations, and I would need to get a stent put into my heart. Two separate, independent opinions confirmed the same. In fact, the doctor I finally chose to go with – a very senior cardiologist – said that if it wasn’t because I was so young, he would have recommended bypass surgery.
Ironically, I was in the pink of health. There was absolutely nothing wrong with me at all; no tumour markers or diabetes in spite of family history. And I had passed a treadmill stress test with flying colours. In fact, the doctor had remarked on how extremely fit I was, as I – literally – chatted with him, while running on the treadmill, about the museum, which he had recently visited!
But yet, there was this inconvenient matter of my blocked main artery and the possibility of needing a stent so long it might have to reach into the aorta.
I was absolutely floored, of course.
What’s happening? I thought to myself. This… all this… The new apartment, newly being single again… This was supposed to be my new lease on life! I was so ready to live fully! Instead – this past week – I’ve had to come to terms that I was, in fact, at risk of dying.
I suppose… so I consoled myself afterwards, following a bout of sobbing (again) on the floor of my apartment, that I ought to be thankful at catching this early; that instead of sudden death by cardiac arrest, I would, by way of a catheter secreted deep into my heart, get a literal new lease on life.
That’s also what my friends all said to console me.
In the meantime, I was told – by some other friends – that arterial clogging was highly correlated with stress. The doctor had said that I’d been living with this blockage building up within me for possibly the last 5 years.
Which meant that my work at the Museum had literally been killing me.
Certainly, I’ve been pushing myself way too hard these past few years. But I never once thought there’d be a toll. I consider myself still rather young… And the young always believe they can live forever.
Well yes… there’s also the matter of family history. My dad had just had a heart attack, after all. And his dad – my grandfather – died of a heart attack. So I suppose some degree of heritage is to blame.
But given my clean bill of health otherwise, and the fact that I really wasn’t a glutton – more of a lush, really, though my liver and pancreas were completely healthy! – I’d say it was mostly STRESS that was to blame.
* * *
2019 and 2020 will be remembered for the year and half in which I experienced multiple instances of heartbreak.
The first instance was in August 2019, when an 18-year relationship ended after a trial, three-year, long-distance experiment finally fizzled out. It was hard coming to terms with the fact that after almost two decades with somebody, I was now on my own
Work, naturally, became solace – it had already been that when the relationship segued into a long-distance one anyway. It was also, quite possibly, the reason for the end of the relationship – since I couldn’t (or rather, wouldn’t) leave Singapore.
The second instance of heartbreak was when, turning to my mother for comfort and sympathy in August 2019, I was instead, made to feel small and insignificant (as usual). Some people are just meant to be alone,” she said. “I’ve always told you that you are meant to be with me.” In other words, your needs really don’t matter. At all. Thanks.
Turning to professional help, I came to recognise, finally, that I had been emotionally manipulated, alternately controlled and neglected by my (narcissistic) parents all through my childhood and adult life. The truth was rather hard to take. I decided to cut all contact with them for almost a year in order to process this shift in my worldview.
The third instance of heartbreak was when, coping with loneliness, I experienced a random and sudden blossoming of (sort of) new love in early 2020; one that lasted through and also got me past the very difficult time of the COVID-19 Circuit Breaker Lockdown in Singapore. This new relationship was revealed to be built on sand and narcissism – [I learnt that I was conditioned to be drawn to narcissists.] – and I broke it off before things got too sinister.
The fourth instance of heartbreak was my father’s major heart attack, which broke the silence between us. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to see him again. My months of self-enforced non-contact seemed, at that point, childish and irresponsible.
For weeks on end, in the hospital as well as at his home, we spoke about our lives – my childhood, his tumultuous marriage leading to divorce with my mother, the last few years of our lives. But I never divulged what it was I had recognised in him during the course of therapy, and which had driven me to cut contact with him for months. I still haven’t – I don’t I think I will.
Around the time I reconciled with my father, I decided to also regain contact with my mother. Again, I was a victim of circumstance. Singapore held its COVID-era general elections in July. My polling card happened to be sent to my permanent address, which was my mother’s house. And so, like it or not, I had to collect the polling card, and face (inevitable) contact with my mother.
Through therapy I had learnt new tools with which to fortify and protect myself. With much difficulty and tension, I practiced setting new boundaries with my mother; boundaries she wasn’t used to. Suddenly, I became firm and forceful, rather than gentle and deferring. The new boundaries seemed to work, initially, and we reconciled on reasonably good and mutually respectful terms.
Now urgently needing to leave my rented apartment for another, on account of the bad memories associated with the place, I turned to my mother for advice and help. She suggested I take the leap to buy my own apartment; and, to my surprise, she offered to help financially.
I accepted the help and advice, and I very quickly bought my new place – the one I’ve just moved into.
In years past, I would never have accepted any gift from my mother, because of the requisite dosage of manipulation and control that invariably came with “altruism”.
And I wasn’t wrong. Weeks before I would collect my keys, a bout of casual narcissistic manipulation sent me briefly sinking into despair and hopelessness – of the kind I used to feel as a child, when, confused as to why on earth I existed when nobody cared that I did, I entertained thoughts of self-destruction.
Again with professional help, I came to terms with the fact that I would never have, and thus should never expect, the kind of normal parental love – [whatever that means] – I need from my parents. Instead, I had to see them as flawed human beings who just happened to be my parents; and I had to accept the limited ways by which they offered their (sorta-kinda) love.
Embracing this paradigm shift in how I framed my relationship with (the flawed human beings that just happened to be) my parents, allowed me to decide, with great clarity, that I didn’t need to depend on them emotionally anymore. I didn’t need to live up to them – or anyone, for that matter! – anymore. I was good enough on my own.
I grieved this “divorce” from my parents. This was the fifth instance of heartbreak.
And then… just when everything was starting to look up; just when I’d truly finally decided that I was good enough just being me; just when I’d begun to relax more and successfully enjoy doing what it was that pleased me; just about the time I was preparing for the final move to my new place and new lease on life, I was told that my heart was truly, literally broken, and needed to be fixed
So this past week, alongside the moving, I’ve also been grieving. Again.
It seems all I’ve been doing this year and a half is grieving. And yet I’m not depressed. Not in the least. I just happen to be crying a lot.
But sometimes crying fortifies you; makes you tap into the depths of humanity that you might have forgotten lay within you. To be vulnerable is to be human; to acknowledge that one is human.
I feel strong. I feel just fine. I get on with my life, nursing the grief, but also celebrating the joy – the joy, for example, at having a new place, a place that is entirely mine, and that I have been furnishing and decorating to my unique and specific taste.
Yes, it hurts. I’m angry. It sucks.
But yet I’m thankful I’m alive. I’m thankful I’ve got the best healthcare here in Singapore. And I’m thankful that I’ve got through the pandemic year unscathed while so many others have not been quite so lucky.
Yes indeed, I am fortunate.
So the hurt passes. And I pick myself up from where I’ve been sobbing on the floor.
Get up, Kennie. Time to get working on finalising the photos I wish to print, frame and install on the walls of the new place. [OMG, I’m so excited!!]
* * *
It’s been really challenging this year and a half managing and leading the museum, while coping with these multiple instances of heartbreak. In fact, it’s taken all the strength I have to cope. And let’s not even get started with COVID and its drastic impact on the museum and on daily life – that needs its own post.
Some of my colleagues have seen glimpses of me grieving. All of them have told me that I need to slow down and take better care of myself.
I’ve tried, I really have. Though I’m not sure I’ve been that successful. There are, on a daily basis, multiple demands on the museum and on me, from the universe of stakeholders that are associated with the museum, and who refuse to leave me alone.
Just this past week, after I had informed everyone that I was taking leave and medical leave in order to move house and sort out this business with my heart, an error of judgement made on the part of my colleagues required my direct intervention such that potentially grave consequences were (narrowly) avoided.
And like it or not, I had to intervene, even as I was moving house, sorting out the details of my impending cardiac procedure, and grieving.
Given my present state, the stress could have killed me.
But did it matter to anyone in the thick of this crisis? No.
I’ve been told that the stress at work is a direct result of my management style. I’ve been told I’m far too kind and that I try to please too many people, at the risk of neglecting my own needs.
My mother, when told that my condition could be highly correlated with work stress, was one of the first to point out, on no uncertain terms, that “if I couldn’t handle the job, then I shouldn’t have taken it in the first place” and that my heart condition was a result of “my poor management style – my need to always please people.”
Gosh, the irony of this tough love… when I had been conditioned all my life to please her!
She went so far as to quip that if I should die of a heart attack as a result of the fire-fighting at work this past week, I would “ONLY HAVE MYSELF TO BLAME.”
Yes, you read that right. If I died of a heart attack, I would only have myself to blame. So said my mother.
I would’ve been deeply hurt again by her remarks, except for the fact that I’d already concluded the emotional “divorce” with my parents just over a month ago.
[I mean… phew, right?]
And yes, perhaps there is some truth to what she said about my management style and my not being able to handle the job. I do try to do way too much. But that’s because I’ve had an ambitious and aspirational vision I wanted to actualise.
That’s because I wanted to show everyone that I could be Singaporean and present the best, the most original and the most beautiful exhibitions anywhere on earth, right here in Singapore, in a Singaporean museum. I wanted to call out Singapore for its double-standard – its mindset of always thinking the best in the globe was elsewhere, and that its own children – I am a child of Singapore, after all! – were never going to be good enough.
In a way, my mother’s perennial disregard for my achievements mirrors Singapore’s double-standard towards the achievements of its own.
And so this motivation and obsession in me to prove at all cost.
Even as I’m now acknowledging the full nature of the cost involved.
My clogged artery is my body – and the universe – telling me that something’s wrong; that I really must slow down and change the way I work; that I need to re-prioritise; that I need to choose between vision or health.
I’ll grieve first, and postpone choosing till later.
In any event, the grieving and heartbreak this past year and a half has precipitated great beauty on the creative front.
The one thing I take most pride in, is how my demand for quality and excellence results in the Museum’s exhibitions being astoundingly, gasp-inducingly beautiful.
Why beauty? The reader may ask. Why this single-minded focus on achieving great beauty?
Because when everything around is broken, beauty becomes a kind of hope; a sign that no matter what, life is good and things will be better. Beauty – particularly beauty in man-made things – is a reminder that we, as human beings, are capable of transcending our lot; capable of much more than we can imagine.
I want the Museum to always be a place of beauty; and by extension, a place of solace, peace, hope, faith, love and inspiration for all of our visitors, just like it has been for me.
My time of great emotional stress has corresponded with the most beautiful and well-reviewed exhibitions and displays the museum has ever put on. One of these exhibitions even won an international award. And the feedback from local visitors this past year and a half has consistently been good.
I’m pleased and proud of all that I’ve done in the past year and a half, despite all.
Even as I’m grieving right now, I’m setting down the initial visual, curatorial and design directions for a new exhibition opening in December; an exhibition that will be very different from what we’ve ever done before; a heartachingly beautiful exhibition; one that will embrace sorrow and grief in this year of great change and great loss for everyone, even as it speaks of faith, love and hope for the new year.
But all that must wait.
For now, I need to fix my broken heart.
* * *
Next Monday, 9 November, I check myself into the hospital for the procedure.
It’s a non-invasive procedure. Many people have told me that it’s commonplace. Loads of people do it. And I’m likely to be “good as new” after it.
But the fact is I’m still rather young to have to go through it – the cardiologist didn’t fail to point that out as he shook his head and tutted, lamenting, “you’re so young… you’re so young,” repeatedly as he analysed the offending CT scans of my heart and its clogged artery – clogged in two places, I might add.
My dad’s response has been a kind of catatonia; he appears to have been harder hit by the news than I have been. But I know he is trying to help – and after all, he has just recovered from his very own personal health crisis.
My mom… well, aside from the initial shock and genuine concern for me, our conversations – if one can call it that – vacillate between my “poor management style at work”, my cluelessness with regards to the details of insurance coverage and the cost of hospitals, and – at risk of her sounding like a caricature – her pronouncement that she would “minimise involvement in my medical affairs from henceforth so our conversations don’t kill me with stress.”
Thankfully, other members of my family have been far more compassionate and practical in their advice and reassurances. One particular aunt has helped me find second and third professional opinions and to link me up with the right cardiologist for my case – the tut-tutting senior one. My brother and sister-in-law have been amazing in terms of advising me on the insurance that I (thankfully) have and directing me to their excellent insurance agent.
My friends have rallied round too, offering consolations on Whatsapp and on the phone. I’m thankful for their warmth and concern, as well as their unanimous reassurance that all will be fine, that I will be fine, I will be the same Kennie, post-stent.
But will I though?
I’m scared. It’s hard not to be. I am, after all, undergoing a procedure that is meant to save my life – which means, I’m presently dying, or en route.
No. I won’t be the same Kennie.
I’m never going to be the same again.
These affairs of the heart – all of them! – scar permanently.
The scars have made me strong. Will make me stronger. They have precipitated great beauty already – and in some cultures, scars are beauty marks. The scars – and in particular, the scar on my heart – will remind me of life’s fragility and transience. They will remind me that I need to seize life by the heart, so to speak, and live it up.
[Though it’ll be very hard giving up Hainanese chicken rice, Cantonese roast pork and seafood. Thankfully, I can still drink… in moderation – here’s to small pleasures!]
This affair of the clogged artery is the final turning point, so to speak.
From next Monday onwards, I won’t be the same, and not just because there’ll be something in my heart, keeping me alive; and that this insertion of a man-made, sort of mechanical part into the very core of my body makes me kind of…well, part-cyborg-ish (?)
I know I will survive and thrive. I am strong physically and strong-willed. The doctor, my friends and my colleagues have said so.
I am strong.
Post-stent, I will no longer waste any time on other people’s needs. From now on, I come first. Not my parents. Nor any (future) love interest(s). Not the museum, for sure. Not anybody. Ever.
I shall do what that pleases me, and what that’s best for me. Me first. Always.
Not paying attention to the chatter anymore.
Everybody else can wait.
[P.S. the photos in this post were taken by me, and belong to two series of photographs I’m installing on the walls of my new apartment. The first series is THE GRAND TOUR of the port and imperial cities of Asia, naturally. The second is titled THE DIVINE COMEDY, and is extracted from a street photography project I did while I lived in New York in 2011/12 – the project may be found here: 100waystosee.com.
In considering how I would decorate the new apartment – it dawned upon me that I should be putting my own photographs – my own creative work – up on the walls; that I should be doing justice to the thousands and thousands of photographs I’ve taken of cities in the past 10 years. Not all of them are great – they are mostly documentary in nature. But some of them are truly gorgeous, and I will have the pleasure of having them framed and installed on my walls after my procedure – this keeps me joyful in anticipation, despite all.]