Viewpoints

Navel Gazer

Published: Saturday September 27, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Friday October 3, 2014 MYT 12:44:01 PM

Why I navel-gaze

Before we left for semester breaks, she would leave goodbye notes on my table.

Before we left for semester breaks, she would leave goodbye notes on my table.

The reason writers sometimes share their most personal stories with the public.

Technically, I’ve been navel gazing since I was 12.

In addition to writing for school assignments, I faithfully kept a journal. I pretended I was writing letters to an imaginary friend, and most of the entries were long and gushing pieces about my boy-crush of the week. The prose was so purple and ramblings so melodramatic that they are still good for a few laughs today. But it wasn’t until I made them public that I experienced the effects of sharing from the heart.

In my 20s, I wrote my first article for The Star about a university mate, Sheena. We stayed just two hostel rooms apart but for the better part of my first year, we barely exchanged two civil sentences. Always in full make-up and designer gear, and constantly surrounded by guys who hung around her like lovesick puppies, she came across as an attention-seeking bimbo to me.

Despite the inauspicious beginning, varsity activities drew us into a fast friendship. Underneath that dumb blonde exterior was a whip smart chick who was juggling nightly board meetings, organising a student exchange visit to a foreign country and countless assignments and who worked hard at friendships.

Before we left for semester breaks, she would leave goodbye notes on my table. At the beginning of every semester, she’d round us up and treat us to nasi kunyit, rendang ayam, spaghetti and chocolate chip cookies, courtesy of her mum. You could wake her up any hour of the day if you needed to talk. Of course, she’d expect no less of you.

Towards the end of our third year, I noticed that she preferred to stay in her room. We found out she had been diagnosed with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus. She bruised and became tired easily, and experienced hair loss. Other than that, there were no obvious manifestations although we knew that she tried a slew of other treatments to alleviate her dependency on steroids.

Life went on. After graduation, I stayed on to work in Penang while she went back to her hometown Kuala Lumpur. Every now and then, she would call me for the most trivial reasons. It puzzled me why this owner of more women’s magazines than your local newsstand, would call me to ask for my advice on how to co-ordinate her new necklace and handbag. After a while, it sank in – she was just trying to make us distance-challenged friends feel that we were still a regular part of her life.

One Saturday morning, I called her and found out that she had been hospitalised. We did not speak much; she was too weak. A few days later, I got a call from her mobile. It would be the first time I spoke to her sister, who called to ask me if I could attend her funeral in KL.

I took a bus down from Penang with Siew Chyi, my other best friend who also knew Sheena. Despite our best intentions to control our emotions in the presence of her family, we bawled our eyes out. As her jenazah (body) was carried out of the house, I knew that goodbye was final this time.

Upon my return to Penang, I sat at the computer and tried writing how I felt. I would start and stop after a few sentences, immobilised by tears. This went on for months; in the meantime, I accepted the fact that I might never write the story. Then one night I felt the sudden itch to hit the keyboard.

After a year of verbal constipation, the words poured out in a torrent and fell into their respective slots effortlessly.

My heart pounded like mad when I hit the Send button. I had never written so intimately about friendship, love and death, about a person so close to my heart, and here I was, about to share it with the world.

Surprisingly, the editor Ann Marie seemed to like it. She wrote a very nice, gentle note to me. She seemed to understand the struggle I had faced in order to get those inner demons out. A few days later, the article was published in the youth column and even became the topic of a radio discussion for the week.

Earlier, I had called Sheena’s sister to pre-empt her. But my heart nearly stopped when I saw the headline. “Hard to say goodbye”. Poignant – but oh so direct. How would she take it?

When Sheena’s sister’s call came in the afternoon, I braced myself for the worst. I had been on tenterhooks all day, agonising over the repercussions of my spontaneous action.

“I read it today,” she began. “Thank you...”

That was as far as we got. There were no words. We both dissolved into great howling sobs, as if a dam had just broke, and all the caged-up emotions for the past year now spilled over the banks. Two women who’d only met briefly once, joined by the invisible thread of a common soulmate, “embraced” and remembered the girl we had loved so passionately.

When I put down the phone, it was as if a massive grey cloud had lifted, replaced by a sense of serenity, as if something epic had taken place and a monumental weight was now lifted from my heart. There was, finally, closure.

People ask me how I find the nerve, and why I choose to write such personal stories in my column.

Part of the answer can be found in Bird By Bird, a book by Anne Lamott that was given to me by my friend Irene. In it, Lamott explains why she wrote two books: One about her father dying from cancer and another, about a dear friend with a terminal disease. When you write from the heart, every sentence is a part of a love letter. And sometimes, those sentences are the only memories of a loved one you can keep.

For me, each story is personal, a gesture of love that, I hope, means as much to someone else as it does to me.

Alexandra Wong believes that writing is about getting your message across without the writer getting in the way. She has just released her first book entitled Made In Malaysia: Stories Of Hometown Heroes And Hidden Gems. Updates and random musings can be found at facebook.com/MadeinMalaysiabook.

Tags / Keywords: Navel Gazer, Alexandra Wong, personal stories, lupus, terminal disease, death, journal writing

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