Thankful for small blessings

Why angst over reunion hiccups when there are many things to be grateful for

Many, many years ago, my friends and I made a pact to meet in Paris the year we all turned 40.

That never materialised, though one of us did end up there at the appointed time to drink a lonely toast in the City of Lights to his absent friends.

Not wanting a repeat, we figured last year we should get our act together and make plans well in advance to meet somewhere this year and celebrate the big 5-0.

Alas, it turned out to be impossible to get people scattered around the world, who had different schedules, preferences and budgets to agree on a destination.

One by one, the exciting prospects of New Zealand, Hawaii, Japan and Bali fell by the wayside in favour of... Singapore.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Staycation, someone said.

But even here, we were denied an ideal outcome, when another of our rapidly dwindling number dropped a bombshell last week to say she could not make it after all.

I think it so deflated the rest of us that we haven't yet thought about what we'll do when we all meet next week. We're in denial that it will actually happen.

The reunion hiccups did not help to dispel the aura of reluctance that dogged me for weeks before we came to Singapore this summer.

Planning the trip felt like a chore. It had been a year of grinding stress and I wanted nothing more than to stay at home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and tune out.

But we were on, and we were bringing along a 16-year-old friend, Talia, on her maiden trip to South-east Asia.

My children were enthusiastic. To them, Singapore is both their first home and a vacation destination to do "touristy things" they've always enjoyed, like going to the zoo, spending a day at Universal Studios and shopping in Haji Lane, among others.

They were looking forward to showing their friend all the delights of exotic Asia whereas I was mainly aware of the responsibility.

How would she deal with the weather and the spicy food? Would she be comfortable sharing a tiny bedroom with someone else? She was used to spending many weeks every summer in an idyllic camp setting. Would Singapore live up to summer camp?

Still, making sure Talia had a good time was not the only thing that preoccupied me. There was also our apartment, which had to be re-let since our tenants had ended their lease in May.

Over protracted WhatsApp conversations with our agent, deputised to handle the handing over of keys, we realised the flat was close to being a disaster zone, averted only by throwing hundreds of dollars at it in cleaning fees.

The market is slow, he told us. Be prepared to wait for a new tenant.

So, whenever a friend in Chapel Hill said, brightly - as they all did - "You must be so excited to go home", I found myself murmuring assent half-heartedly.

I told everyone I dreaded the weather, which was partly true.

Even the main reasons for our trip seemed fraught. My parents were a year older and had health issues. I had so many friends to see and, as always, not enough time to see them all.

The idea of going home this year had all the allure of something we had done too many times before.

So I had to laugh when most people I ran into on my first day back at the office two weeks ago asked: "Why are you here?"

I know they didn't mean it that way, but I was starting to ask myself the same thing.

I went to the apartment and discovered the expensive cleaning jobs had taken off only the worst of the grime. There was plenty of it left to go around. I pulled the cushions off the stained couch to clean them and jumped at the sight of a roach living on the largesse that had been dropped into the recesses over the years.

As the novelty of being done with school and on vacation wore off, the kids began to chafe at spending so much time together. The first week ended with mismatched expectations, tears and the inevitable regret of ever having come to Singapore.

But much as I tried to be pessimistic, the angst began to dissipate.

Yes, it was hot and the construction relentless, but instead of the tourist traps I had braced myself to expect, we were enjoying the country's new charms. Where had all these cute shops in Holland Village come from? And why had we taken so long to explore the Selegie area?

We loved the hipster cafes we found everywhere and the creative works we were seeing. Singapore design was quirky and delightful.

Singaporeans themselves seemed less reticent; to wit, the two buskers I saw last Saturday: an elderly gentleman regaling patrons with tunes on his erhu at the Holland Drive market during breakfast, and the other, five or six decades younger, who sang and played the guitar, quite boldly, outside Cathay cinema as dusk fell. He could have been tone- deaf (he wasn't) and we would still have parted with our money.

To borrow a tagline from the tourism authorities, Singapore was surprising us. Even the weather began to mellow.

In the midst of scrubbing my apartment in our second week here, I stopped for a second and realised how much I was enjoying the breeze blowing through the wide-open windows. The space felt familiar and natural, like I had never left.

Things finally fell into place a few nights ago as I was making my way up the hill to my parents' block of flats, where we were staying during our trip. I was coming home from work on the company bus, at around midnight.

I have walked this same path every year for the last eight years, I thought, and realised that what I felt was not boredom or regret, but gratitude.

Every opportunity one has for seeing the face of a loved one is not to be taken for granted. I am lucky to be here, in this place, right now.

And there'll be nowhere else I want to be, when my friends and I are together next week for our joint birthday celebrations. We have known each other for more than 30 years, from the time we used to sneak out of school to go to the Milano's in Greenwood Avenue (the first geniuses to put egg on pizza) or take the bus to Far East Plaza to have a Wendy's frosty with french fries.

We've wasted many hours hanging out in the Hwa Chong forum, quarrelled with one another and been through good times and bad, as you tend to when you are friends long enough. These are people I am happy to do nothing with.

We are just sad that one of us will not be there.

Over text, my friend told me part of the reason is that she has had to travel a lot to Taiwan, where the company she'd formerly worked for had lost five people in a tragic river tracing accident.

Three of them were young mothers and she had been close to them. She was going back every weekend for the funerals.

It has been traumatic for everyone, she said. Every day I'm reminded not to take life for granted.

Maybe we'll get to go some place amazing when we're 60. Perhaps the powers that be will grant us that good fortune. But I'll take joy now, any way I can, for there's no telling what tomorrow may bring.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 26, 2016, with the headline 'Thankful for small blessings'. Print Edition | Subscribe