In late-November 1985, when I was still barely a newborn, and my mum was recovering from the aftermath of the C-section surgery, my dad’s eldest sister, Aunty Catherine, moved in with us at our place for a while to help out at home and to take care of me.
I had come into this world prematurely weighing a mere 2 kilograms (slightly less than 5 pounds) and was as tiny as a little rabbit. According to what I was told, Aunty Catherine would lay me on her chest as I slept, and she would try to breathe as lightly as possible in order not to wake me up.
Even when she did doze off, she’d wake up every once in a while to make sure I hadn’t rolled over, and seeing me fast asleep, my tiny eyes shut tight and fights curled into small balls, she’d close her eyes again and try to get some rest.
Later, when I’d grown up a little, say maybe when I was ten or so, Aunty Catherine would take a 7-hour coach bus down from Kuantan, Malaysia (where she lived with my Uncle Chee Sun and my cousins Bryan and Jonathan), and stay over at our house in Singapore every once in a while.
I loved her visits because Aunty Catherine would always come bearing gifts for my siblings and I – whether it was a hair accessory or a book that she thought I might like, or packets of local Malaysian food, she almost never came empty-handed. It felt like Christmas morning every time she visited.
Yet more than the presents that we children so much looked forward to, it was Aunty Catherine’s enthusiasm for life and contagious laughter that I enjoyed most. Petite but full of energy, she was always moving around, cooking something in the kitchen, or sharing a new discovery with us.
In the day, if she was free, we’d go window shopping together – it didn’t matter if we were out in Orchard or Chinatown, it was always fun. We’d make jokes about clothes that we didn’t like, snap up bargains at thrift stores, and then eat at a random foodcourt for a quick afternoon snack. When our legs begged us to stop walking, we’d eventually return home, tired but happy.
In the room that I shared with Aunty Catherine on her visits, we’d lay awake till the wee hours of the night, as she’d tell me about her childhood and the life she had before moving to Malaysia. I’d listen to her voice with rapt attention, absorbing every single detail, trying to re-create the scenes in my mind, until I grew tired and let sleep claim me.
Aunty Catherine played a huge part in my growing up years, and the one thing that I witnessed every time I saw her was this – her unabashed love for God and unshakable faith that He would always accompany her.
You see, Aunty Catherine had been diagnosed with breast cancer in her early thirties, and with a tearful prayer she made a promise to God that if he healed her, she would devote the rest of her life to Him. God delivered on His promise, and when her cancer went into remission, Aunty Catherine became a devout Christian whose very life was a testament of God’s love and joy.
She was the epitome of optimism and generosity, and her overflowing love was not confined to just her immediately family or extended relatives like us. She also dedicated a large portion of her time and energy to the church she attended in Kuantan, where she served faithfully each week, as well as went on mission trips whenever she could. She knew that her destiny and mission in life was to be a blessing to others, and she executed her goal with precision and determination.
Over the next thirty years, the cancer would return a couple of times, and each time, she’d pray fervently and hold strong to the Bible’s promise that God would heal her.
Two or three times, the cancer came and went back into remission, and upon finishing chemotherapy, Aunty Catherine would rebound and return to her normal life – always full of joy, laughter and sunshine.
In November 2014, my mum texted me to break the news that Aunty Catherine’s cancer had reared its ugly head once again. This time however, there appeared to be some kind of metastasis and the doctors were deeply concerned. They didn’t know how long she would have left. When I received the text that morning in Argentina, I swallowed the lump in my throat and prayed that God would once again see her through.
This time though, the cancer had returned with a vengeance and attacked with a relentless ferocity. In the next nine months, Aunty Catherine’s health deteriorated slowly but surely, and she permanently moved back to Singapore for treatment.
When I visited Singapore in March last year, I noticed her visibly thin frame, and was shocked to realize that she was almost half the size she used to be. Yet Aunty Catherine was still hopeful and bright, and on the day of my homecoming dinner, she spent an entire afternoon cooking in the kitchen together with my mum and our helper Meriam. When I hugged her goodbye on a Wednesday evening, I wondered whether it would be the last time I would see her in person. I tried to push that dreadful thought from my mind, and let it fade away.
Unfortunately, my hunch was right. As the months passed, water started accumulating in Aunty Catherine’s lungs as a result of the spreading of her cancer, which was an ominous sign. She began panting heavily and had to rely on a tube hooked up to an oxygen tank to help her breathe normally. In late-July 2015 my mum called me to tell me that Aunty Catherine had been warded to the Singapore General Hospital upon developing an infection.
It was a snowball downhill from there. Within three weeks, Aunty Catherine had to be transferred to a hospice and was soon drifting in and out of consciousness. Nurses administered morphine in increasingly larger doses, and finally, after fighting the good fight and giving every ounce of energy she had, Aunty Catherine returned home to be with God on 17 August, 2015. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye in person, and it’s something I still regret to this day.
It’s been almost a year since Aunty Catherine left us, and while I know that she is in a better place and that her suffering is over, my heart still aches with a hollowness I’d never experienced before.
I can still hear her familiar voice and light laughter. I can still see her bright, wide smile and remember the many conversations we had. I can still feel her tiny cancer-struck frame as we hugged goodbye that fateful Wednesday. And I know that these are memories that I must hold on tightly to because she is no longer here. It’s hard to believe that a year has come and gone since her departure. Time and tide really waits for no man. And while we may have moved on in our lives, Aunty Catherine’s absence is still so vividly noticed.
My heart is heavy today; but writing about the beautiful life she lived makes me feel closer to her. I still miss her tremendously, but writing helps me get through it. Writing, as I told you before, is my antidote to almost anything. In fact, when I don’t know what else to do, and my heart is filled with sorrow, as it is now, writing keeps me sane. I never realized the immense power of writing in my life as much as I do now, and I hope that my words will bring honor to the memory of a woman who lived with as much passion and love as Aunty Catherine did.
Tender moments like this call for comfort foods to ease the tidal wave of homesickness when I’m so far away from home. There’s something so familiar and warm about settling down to a plate of food with flavors that I’ve grown up eating, and this gluten-free teriyaki chicken is no exception.
I’ve whipped up a homemade teriyaki sauce for marinating the tender chicken strips – combining the flavors of gluten-free soy sauce, honey, grated ginger, minced garlic and chili flakes – everything that you can expect to find in an Asian dish.
Start off by placing the gluten-free soy sauce, honey, grated ginger, minced garlic, apple cider vinegar and chili flakes in a large saucepan over low heat and stir well. Allow the mixture to simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, and then add in a tablespoon of tapioca starch to thicken the sauce. When the teriyaki sauce is done, let it cool briefly before marinating thick chicken strips in it. After the chicken is done marinating, cook it in a wok over medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring every now and then until the chicken is cooked through. Serve teriyaki chicken sprinkled with chopped spring onions and sesame seeds, and rice of course.
I hope this gluten-free teriyaki chicken brings you comfort, wherever you are in this world.
- 1 cup gluten-free soy sauce (also known as tamari)
- ½ cup honey
- 4 tablespoons grated ginger
- 6 garlic cloves, minced
- 4 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon chili flakes
- 1 tablespoon tapioca starch
- 1 pound chicken breast, sliced into thick strips
- Chopped spring onions, for garnish
- Sesame seeds, for garnish
- Place the gluten-free soy sauce, honey, grated ginger, minced garlic, apple cider vinegar and chili flakes in a large saucepan over low heat and stir well. Allow the mixture to simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add in the tapioca starch to thicken then sauce.
- Allow the sauce to cool for 10 minutes before using.
- Place the chicken strips in a large bowl and pour the teriyaki sauce over, using your fingers to massage the chicken and ensure the strips are well coated with teriyaki sauce.
- Allow the chicken to marinate for 30 minutes.
- Place marinated chicken in a large wok and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, stirring every now and then to make sure chicken doesn't get burnt. When chicken is cooked through (juices run clear when you slice into the chicken), remove wok from heat.
- Serve teriyaki chicken with chopped spring onions and sesame seeds.