More than a decade later, I feel a sense of duty once again to write a eulogy to two others who have just fallen to this terrible disease: Mrs S. Amrik, and Leng Kavern. Both who lived up to that solemn motto of our alma mater, Fortis Atque Fidelis: Strong And Faithful.
The only reason I had the great privilege of knowing Mrs Amrik was because she got tired of gardening. She had completed a distinguished career culminating in being Principal of one of the convent high schools in Penang. And after a few months of pottering around in retirement, she decided that gardening wasn’t the thing for her and she applied to go back not into the realm of administration, but into the classroom to continue to shape minds – and lives – of yet another generation.
She was nothing short of a force of nature, not only in the sense of her impact but in the humble way in which she accomplished the great. Some of the most challenging students in the school, who routinely had issues with just about every disciplinary teacher, would sit quietly and attentively to this charming lady. She wielded no loud voice or menacing cane to achieve this – just the oft-forgotten skill of actually being interested in listening to what students had to say. Plus she picked Macbeth, and wasn’t shy in talking about its rather sordid themes of murder, incest and parricide. She realized, and made us realize, that Shakespeare had written it as a tragedy, and not as Little Bo Beep. Seeing the limitations of the classroom, she brought students to her house over the weekend to show us the video of a performance of Macbeth, and ended up talking to us about menopause and how best to empathize with people going through it.
I was the star pupil of English Literature, and perhaps she realized then that this kid “writes novels” in exams, but lacked a certain art within the spectator sport of quoting from just about any part of the play you’d like. She made it a point to have me meet someone else from my class who didn’t quite bother to quote as much as to compare Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to Bonnie and Clyde. In doing so, she started a friendship that lasts today – not long ago I played the violin at his wedding. And she also made me realize the value of relating things to images we can grasp. Looking back at my admissions and scholarship application, I now hear her voice echoing through my choice of mentioning the perception of the viola as the Cinderella of instruments.
On Teachers’ Day, you could count on there being no clear space on her table, with cards adorning every corner. When invited to give the Principal’s speech one day, instead of the usual hum-drum of work hard and succeed, she decided to tell us that life doesn’t have to be like football games where someone needs to lose in order for you to win – that the real victories are the ones we all share.
A few of us teachers and students continued to be close long after both she and I left school. We had the occasional lunch or dinner, sharing stories and discussing how our lives have continued on very different paths – from careers to weddings, politics, and memories of times shared in the hallowed halls of Penang Free School. What a thing we were granted that the last time we met, it was the largest gathering of her old students, now doctors, engineers, academics – and mothers and fathers too. We will never have another one of these again, but her voice, that charm and twinkle in her eye, will continue to live on.
Honestly, maybe I said two sentences to Leng Kavern when we in school together. I simply didn’t know the guy. But there’s something special about the class of ’96, in that no matter whether we liked or disliked each other when we were in school, years down the road we all feel a sense of brotherhood. We have a shared history, an era of the passion of Frees, winning trophies and prizes at the state-level and beyond and its unabashedly proud sense of identity. But this was also the era of our seniors’ fireworks-laden revolutionary protest of ’94 and the crazy anonymous tramp who came and pooped on tables in the middle of the night. Brothers we are, and that’s how it became news when Kavern was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer – the first of its kind in the whole of Malaysia.
And one day when Kavern realized that I happened to move down the road from him, he decided to give me a call to meet up. I was a bit surprised, because I didn’t really know him. What surprised me more was that was exactly the point why he wanted to meet up – because we were brothers of ’96 but we didn’t know each other yet. And it was about time for that to change. His blog chronicling his battle with cancer is called “ntsocialism” – from how I understand it, because he considered himself antisocial when he was younger, and how he now grasped life so very differently.
He was supported by this wonderful bunch of fellow former formmates who had known him well since school-days, who stood by his side at home and at the hospitals. They updated all of us on his condition, helped to organize meets and fundraisers. On only one small occasion was I really privileged to spend some little time in their shoes, being the only one near enough to Hospital UKM the day before of his operations.
The way to the hospital was a maze, and the hospital is a maze within that maze. When I finally found the ward, he was asleep and while waiting I had a chat with the nurses. There was something from the way they talked about him that seemed to me that the warmth of his character touched them as it did us. One of the nurses told me that when we are around he puts up a strong front within his own fears. He was always the model of positive thinking, of making the most of every moment in his life, and now he became even more so an image of bravery within struggle.
When he woke up, it was as if that instead of me visiting him as a patient, that I was a guest in his hospital! He took me on the grand tour of where he was, who his neighbours in the ward were, and onwards through the building. He walked me to the door, and only for the briefest moment mentioned his understanding of how he might not be around to talk to me in 24 hours. And how he looked forward to every moment of any celebration.
Both Mrs Amrik and Kavern led lives which had that one important element: they provided those of us who had the gift of knowing them a real meaning to that much-underestimated term: role models. I believe as much as anyone can possibly do in life, they continue to exist not just as faded memories, but as present models in life on how to take each day, seize it, and make it better for one’s fellow man. They are not just people of yesterday, but ideals for today, and tomorrow. I can think of no better aspiration for my own life, and wherever they are, I hope they know that towards this aspiration they are my inspirations. In doing so, perhaps this eulogy, is really, that you live in me.