THE YEAR WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED

Framed by the year’s confusion, inefficiency and worry, the world’s contradictions seemed stark. But living in hope is possible.

By Michelle Cheong

Young families entered a strange new world as countries all around the world bent to the will of the novel coronavirus.

 

“Lift Renewal: 28 March 2020 – 16 June 2020,” read a notice stuck on the metal barrier in front of me.

I groaned. Overnight, a large metal barricade appeared in front of one of the two lifts that served my mother-in-law’s block. With only two temperamental lifts, waiting times at her 30-year-old flat were already long. “How on earth will we tahan just one lift?” I wondered in frustration.

But a few days later, when Singapore began its circuit breaker on 7 April, congested lifts were the least of anybody’s concerns.

 

A changed new year

I had expected COVID-19 to change things, but not like this.

At the end of 2019, I bade goodbye to ten years of life as a school teacher. I envisioned carefree days ahead, gently nurturing my three children, free from ever-growing stacks of papers to mark. Perhaps like a scene out of The Sound of Music. But I had discovered by March that life without a full-time job was not what I’d thought it would be. Any remaining fantasies that things would be easy were soon ripped to shreds with the start of home-based learning.

Our family was privileged to have two home laptops we could share with our two primary school children. Thankfully, our 5-year-old’s kindergarten never jumped on the home-based learning bandwagon. However, clashing needs and a steep learning curve meant chaos.

“I cannot find the Google Meet link, mummy! The meeting’s supposed to be NOW!”

“This online quiz has never-ending pages! Help!”

“Mummy, come help me in the toilet!”

With us effectively in a lockdown, the little financial contribution I made to the family was reduced when a student I coached had to stop the lessons permanently due to cash flow problems.

For a time, I kept late nights struggling to use the iPad (when the kids were done with it) to deliver work I had committed. I was upset at the sight of dust and grime in our house, because our part-time Myanmar helper could not come during the circuit breaker.

My stress grew without the lunches and dinners lovingly cooked by my in-laws every day. One day, when I found that household necessities had flown off the shelves at supermarkets, I realised my nerves had become frayed to the maximum. Suddenly, I was not only a far cry from Fraulein Maria, I was a raging monster who breathed threats and spewed words I would afterwards have to apologise for.

 

What our children said

The unprecedented change COVID-19 brought into our lives made an imprint on the children as well. One morning when I took our 5-year-old, Prudence, for a walk, she suddenly stopped and cowered behind me. Two passers-by walked past with concerned looks on their faces. Finally, she squealed, “Other people came so near us, mummy!”

Another time, while explaining to my 9-year-old, Christianne, how the actions of selfish “hoarders” affected others, she urgently requested to see our stock of food in the storeroom. “But that’s not enough, mum!” she exclaimed in alarm, “You better go out and grab at least two times of this!” While I did not take up her suggestion, I must say she made me doubt whether I was doing enough for the family.

 

Bright moments

Thankfully, things got better. Trying to look on the bright side, we bought ourselves a toilet roll cake from BreadTalk.  We had never seen one before. Because the barber was closed, we took our 7-year-old son’s haircut into our own hands. Armed with a shaver, my husband John and I gleefully ambushed him one night. Without grandparents to save him, Jonah ended up with a lopsided under-shave. It was all good fun since there was no school and nobody to see. As Jonah was a homebody, he didn’t mind never stepping out of our house during the lockdown.

 

All is not well

Yet it became increasingly clear that all was not well for many other people. My heart broke each time I walked past the taxi stand across the street. A long line of about a dozen taxis – an uncommon sight – would wait silently as I walked towards the supermarket. When I left the supermarket, the line had not moved.

Kopitiams normally packed with lunchtime crowds were empty except for stall-owners looking alternatively expectant and sad. Soon we would read about taxi drivers breaking down and crying in the street. A number of food businesses around our estate would fold, leaving no trace of their gay colours when they were first redecorated for Phase 2.

Closer to home, after weeks of uncertainty, an aunt who worked at a Chinatown restaurant was put on no-pay leave. Several young friends who were graduating could not find jobs, and became filled with anxiety and self-doubt. Others cut short their overseas study programmes. Some of our friends had spouses or parents working as taxi drivers, or in the airline industry.

Aware that we were in a privileged position, John and I tactfully asked some of our closer friends if they needed any help. Most, including our part-time helper, turned us down. As for others, we decided the best thing to do was to pray for them privately.

We have an old friend who recently had a baby and bought a new home. Her husband was an air steward.  I did not have the courage to ask her how she was coping until we were into Phase 2. She sounded fine – over text messages and social media – but I still feel rather ashamed for not getting in touch sooner.

 

Cabin fever

Actually, while I use “we,” it was usually just me, getting in touch with others. Not that I’m good at it, but John was swamped with work and struggling to understand the creeping listlessness he felt. Besides suffering persistent backaches from sitting at his desk all day, he needed (much more than I) a separation between work and home life. Whereas I was content with jogging, he pined for his basketball game. He needed the adrenaline rush he got competing with friends or strangers he met on the court. With the ban on group sports, he was forced to abandon his healthy routines, sleeping and eating at odd hours, gaining weight and dissatisfaction. But he was entirely supportive of all I tried to do.

 

The conflict of being safe

John and I both felt that we were very fortunate to be unscathed by Covid-19. Feeling undeserving and somewhat apologetic (although not to the extent of joining some of our friends who gave away the government handouts we all received), I looked for ways to do good, with John’s support. Besides passing on a writing stint to a widowed friend and sending gifts to some family and friends – this was either money, or food from hawkers we were trying to support – I also made donations to various organisations and was thankful for John’s generosity and trust.

“After a few weeks, I found myself feeling resentful that the meetings were a reminder that another week had passed without my accomplishing anything.”

 

We made it a point to tip food delivery riders and taxi drivers. When we said, “Keep the change,” I found myself wondering whether the taxi drivers thought we were being squeamish about physical contact. Would they be offended? Or will they think we’re showing off? Neurotic as I was, it was hard not to entertain these thoughts. I tried very hard to take courage in the fact that my conscience was clear.

 

Church life in the age of Zoom

“Actually, I feel closer to everyone because despite the tough times, we’re all doing our part to meet like this!” This was my answer at a small group session during the circuit breaker. Our group leader, Eddy, had asked how everyone felt about church services and group meetings going online.

The blur of Zoom did not hide the surprise on the screen faces that looked back at me. Everyone else said that the lockdown was taking its toll on them – they dearly missed face-to-face interaction, and online gatherings were not a close substitute by far!

But what I never told the group was that my positive energy was starting to fade after a few weeks. From looking forward to our more frequent sessions (bible study every fortnight, and group prayers in between), I found myself feeling resentful that the meetings were a reminder that another week had passed without my accomplishing anything.

As one week melded into the next, remembering each of my children’s online Sunday school class also became tiresome. Is it Saturday, or Sunday? This week, or next week? I could not figure it out, instead requiring frequent reminders that I usually failed to heed until it was too late. This added to my growing sense of failure.

With my own experience in mind, I was immensely thankful for each young adult who turned up for the bible study sessions John and I led. Still, our group shrank – we had only started to make friendships in December and January, and found it hard to support these young people better when the circuit breaker started.

Things were not working out as we had hoped.

Not going to school didn’t mean no homework. Drawing by Deb Monti.

 

Feeling stalled

The lack of accomplishment that I felt was not only my own. It disappointed me that Christianne had only about two months of gymnastics CCA experience before it ground to a halt in school. Having quit her external gymnastics class last year because the programme never seemed to progress, we were eager for her to develop her skills and grit through the school training. But the small beginnings turned to nothing.

I had also been anxious for her to find friends in her new class this year and thought she made some good inroads in Term 1.

But after eight weeks of separation, and strict social distancing rules in place when school reopened, her friendships cooled, and she spent many weeks simply keeping to herself. I also felt guilty that I hadn’t helped her to organise Zoom or Houseparty calls during the circuit breaker.

 

Losing control over our lives

To be honest, my personal ‘losses’ cannot be blamed on Covid-19.

As I reflect on this year, I’m tempted to sink into some measure of self-contempt. Despite giving them more devoted attention, the two tuition students I coached this year showed little discernible improvement when examination results were released.

Two publishing projects that I had poured considerable time and effort into since 2019 also failed to take off.

Even plans for home renovations for the end of the year (we had hoped that restrictions would end then) went back and forth repeatedly, only to end up nowhere.

I had hoped that staying home this year would let me feel closer and more satisfied in my relationships with my children. But instead of that, I discovered new areas of friction between my two older children and me.

I heard a voice within me whisper that my initiatives to help others were simply futile and uncalled for – nobody needed or appreciated them – and I found it hard to disagree. In short, if it had been a bad year for me, it was due to my own shortcomings

But the temptation to sink into self-pity was checked by a sense of gratitude. I shudder each time I hear about a friend’s toxic work culture, which was horribly exacerbated by the requirement to work from home. This friend had escaped wildfires and Covid-19 in California, only to return to local bosses who expected her to respond to texts any time from 6 am to the wee hours of the night, and an entire team of co-workers who feigned a show of enthusiasm and cheerfulness while being called into midnight meetings.

“I only work and snooze. I can’t even go to the toilet,” she told me, “so my husband does all the cooking, cleaning and looking after the kids after he’s done with work.” In comparison, living with John’s cabin fever was a walk in the park!

There were news of close friends’ relationships breaking up after living too closely for comfort. Families got into each other’s way. Recently, one friend confided that her son had come out of a mood disorder only to find that Covid-19 had wiped away his gig jobs. Seeing him dispirited and aimless filled her with anxiety.  He angrily brushed away all her recommendations.

“I’m just helpless. When you have a child, their happiness or sadness is your happiness or sadness. I would give anything in the world for him to be happy but it’s just not possible. I can only pray for him.”

A few weeks ago, I received news that a young girl I once mentored had passed away. I couldn’t believe what I heard. She was barely in her twenties. I longed for closure, but her funeral was over. Probing turned up only a few details. Few people wanted to discuss the cause of death, but it appeared she had taken her own life.

The isolation Covid-19 brought has increased our emotional and mental vulnerability. It has exposed how little control we actually have over our lives and future. Humbled, I could only commit my setbacks and cares to God.

 

Rolling out of Phase 1 and 2

“Level 9… 8… 7… Mummy, the lift stopped for the fourth time!” My children exclaimed in annoyance.

They were waiting to see their grandparents. We had already let an earlier lift pass because it had no room for us. Soon, more residents arrived, as we all waited in tense silence for the sole lift to inch its way down.

It arrived minutes later, spewing out too many masked neighbours than safe-distancing measures allowed. We piled in – determined not to miss another lift – and were followed by four other people.

I closed my eyes. Oh well, extenuating circumstances. I suppose the authorities will understand!

Later, I examined the metal barricade outside the other lift. No sign of any recent work being done.  The notice had been torn down. No more promised completion dates. Nobody knew when the foreign construction workers would resume work replacing the lift. But who would blame them? Far from home, confined behind walls and packed in small quarters, they were in a worse situation than we.

 

Plenty and need

While my children bemoaned the start of ‘normal’ school in Phase 2, they seldom needed public transport so I didn’t have to worry about them picking up germs on the way home. And though the zealous safe-distancing measures at Christianne’s school cut her off from friends, she was very happy that, when the weekend came, her uncle and auntie would play hours of Nintendo Switch with her.

Hence, inconvenient as post-CB life was, it was undeniable that my family and friends were mostly sheltered from the storm.  In fact, I thank God that one of my close relatives who had been unemployed for a few years after an entrepreneurship stint went wrong, actually snagged a job during the circuit breaker, and in his former industry, no less.

A friend who works in an MNC commented that the circuit breaker had been a breeze. There was plenty of space and laptops for her, her husband, two children and parents in their home. “My mom cooks and my parents watch the kids, so I can pop downstairs in between working from home to play with them or enjoy home-cooked food. I could keep on doing this!” she said candidly.

The contradictions in our world have never seemed more stark. The number of lives lost globally has passed 1.6 million. Unemployment threatens countless families, and poverty and hunger rise. Yet stock markets soar unfettered. Luxury cars continue to be sold while home prices pursue their upward march. The old cliché seems true: the rich get richer while the vulnerable poor become further exposed. How unfair life is.

In the face of these mind-bogglingly opposite trajectories, I suddenly recalled a prayer I wrote in my diary at the start of the year. “Help me to always remember Your truth: that this world is fading and will face judgment, but we stand in the hope of Christ’s return and His command to share it with others.”

 

How God sees us

In the light of this, my botched renovation plans and my students’ bad examination results fade in significance. So does my inefficiency, and lack of accomplishments. Perhaps this is why Paul could write, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:12-13)

I think this quote from John Piper brings comfort to stay-home-mums like I: “Walk in the peace and freedom that, when your to-do-list shatters on the rocks of reality (which it will most days), you’re not being measured by God by how much you get done. You’re being measured by whether you trust the goodness and the wisdom and the sovereignty of God to work this new mess of inefficiency for his glory and the good of everyone involved, even when you can’t see how.”

And so, for every person who has taken the time to read this, whether you are “abounding” or “brought low” in 2020, I pray that you may have the comfort of God’s immeasurable grace, His mighty promises and everlasting love.

 

Michelle Cheong teaches English at a local secondary school. She will return to the classroom in 2022.

Opinions expressed are those of our authors. All rights reserved. Please send comments to together@trueway.org.sg. This is the first article of our December 2020 issue of TOGETHER. 

 

Also in this issue:

4 reasons why virtual church may be problematic by Png Eng Keat
What is the gig economy and why is it controversial? by Lee Chung Horn
In short