The first to depart

A loss of a former classmate and friend whom I celebrated many milestones with takes me to the next phase of my life

Back at the tail end of the 1980s, when we were all in junior college, I would occasionally stop and take a good look at the classmates around me, most of whom would eventually become lifelong friends.

Sometimes we would be seated in groups in the lecture theatre, trying to make sense of everything from interest rates to rock formations. Other times, we would be talking and laughing after class at one of the long tables in the canteen.

We were so very young and I often wondered what life had in store for us.

And that if I could wind the reel of the VHS video tape forward, what scenes would I find.

Would I have foreseen that barely six years later, we would all become members of a working committee seated in a room in J's house planning her wedding, the first among our group?

And that just a little further along the tape, we would be celebrating the first of many house-warmings as we bought our homes, and the births of many cute little kids as we started our families?

As the years progressed, coffee and text messages flowed freely as the first of us went through PSLE anxiety, talked to our kids about dating and sex, and endured break-ups with spouses and long-time partners.

ST ILLUSTRATION: CEL GULAPA

A few weeks ago, the VHS tape reached an inevitable arc when, at the age of 45, F became the first among us to die.

The news broke, as it would in 2017, on a WhatsApp chat group.

"Everybody, I am so sorry to be the one breaking this to all of you, but F has passed away," was the message posted at almost exactly noon on a Tuesday.

I remember receiving it at Serangoon Gardens Market & Food Centre - one of my preferred haunts these days for a quiet lunch by myself away from the stress of the office.

Going by the replies that followed, beyond the usual whats and whys, I think our normally boisterous group was shocked into relative silence.

I guess that is one of the problems with communications technology today.

It's supposed to be more human, and we are a long way from the old JC canteen table, but emoticons and exclamation points don't cut it in moments like this.

To most of us, her death was unimaginably sudden and surreal. After all, she had just come to a big reunion we had on National Day and she had looked just fine.

As with the first of many of these life-changing moments, our group was a little lost over the protocols.

Do we send a wreath? Or is that wasting money which could be used to help her young son?

Is it appropriate for all of us to be going en masse to the wake and turning it into a mini class gathering, knowing the family would like to keep it low-key?

I may not have been that close to F over the years, but I could not let her leave without saying goodbye.

In the end, I decided that no matter what I had to go.

When I got there, I was initially afraid to approach the open casket, unsure if I wanted to come face to face with mortality.

But I went up close and put one hand on the casket. I looked at her one last time and whispered silently "Bye, F."

Some of my classmates were there and we sat at the table glum, knowing that something had changed forever and we were on to another phase of our lives.

But later at midnight, when we were all back in the safety and comfort of our homes, the chat group lighted up with a last message from V.

"Friends, I want to say that I treasure our friendship," she wrote.

"Each of you has been part of memories that are special to me and have a place in my heart.

When I think of each of you, an old memory pops up. Know that you are precious. God bless you all."

It had been a couple of days since we heard the news but, for me, it was only then that the tears flowed.

The next few days, the chat group was full of old school pictures that everyone spontaneously dug out to share.

Eventually, someone had the idea of compiling a scrapbook of old pictures, memories and tributes for F's family - not just to remember her, but also to honour the impact she made on others.

This is what I wrote:

"If you need any help, just let me know."

That was one of the first things any of my new classmates said to me when I transferred to the arts stream in 1989.

For the first three months, I was a triple science student hanging out with kids from similar Chinese-medium school backgrounds. Suddenly, I was disoriented - in a class full of students from Singapore Chinese Girls' School and Raffles Girls' School listening to expatriate teachers go on about Chaucer and IS-LM (investment-savings/liquidity-money) curves.

F meant what she said and, for the first few months, she was my constant guide. I remember our lockers were right next to each other, just outside the main entrance to the school hall on the second floor and up a flight of stairs from the lecture theatre, LT3.

She would walk with me often to the lockers in between classes, explaining who was who and what was what. She would describe each of our teachers and some of our classmates in detail, like characters out of a fantasy or science-fiction novel - telling stories about them with a mixture of wonder and mischief.

That is the way I will always remember F. How her voice started out soft as she told you something serious, only to rise and break into a loud chuckle as she ended with a joke or a wry observation.

Over the months and years to come, we spoke less and less. But every time I met her, I never fail to be reminded of the childlike angel in a dark blue pinafore, who wore glasses too severe for her and often tied her hair in two cute pigtails.

F is the first among our classmates to depart and her memory will always be with me - the grateful boy in silver buttons and green shorts lost in a crowd in late February in 1989.

Who knows what life's VHS tape will show us next? All we know is that the tape must eventually end.

The hope is that it would have been a good show that was well worth watching.

LIFE IS A MIXTAPE

By Ignatius Low

Available at $25 (including GST) at major bookstores and www.stpressbooks.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 17, 2017, with the headline 'The first to depart'. Print Edition | Subscribe