Shannon and Yong Wei were here last weekend with my aunt.
It had been ages since I last saw them.
Shannon's in Primary Three this year, Yong Wei in Primary Four.
My mum noted that Shannon looked a lot like I did when I was 9.
Scrawny, long-limbed, dark-skinned, boyish, with a body of a wannabe swimmer.
I liked that comparison.
We are, after all, family.
Yong Wei took after his mum in looks and in behavior. And Shannon, after her daddy, who is my cousin Xiang.
I remember when Yong Wei was a tiny screaming baby who wouldn't sleep if there was no air conditioning. I remember when he was barely a month old and my brother and I noticed the similarities between our nephew and Crayon Shin. I remember when he first addressed me as his aunt when he was a wee toddler.
I remember that one time, before Shannon was born, when Yong Wei wouldn't fall asleep until his mum held him close and whispered into his ear that Daddy and Mummy loved him.
I met Shannon before she turned two. She'd just rolled out of bed and had wandered downstairs alone. It was as if time stood still for a moment when we all caught sight of the toddler looking sleepily at us. And then she broke into a shy, dimpled grin that made me fall in love.
Their childhood is pretty much like the one I had with my older brother. School holidays were spent visiting my aunt and her family in Singapore. They'd take us to tourist spots, feed us well, and always, always made sure we went to the Science Center.
There was one year when we made our usual visit and my cousin Xiang was serving his term in the army. 11 years my senior, I had been so fascinated, just watching him polish his boots and lacing them up before we all made our way to the bus stop. Xiang had held my hand when we were crossing the road, and I remember the pride I felt when people looked our way. That's my cousin Xiang holding my hand, see, and looking all handsome and grown up in his army uniform. I was pretty attached to Xiang as a child. And I'd make him give me piggyback rides sometimes. He told me horror stories that he'd heard in the army on the nights that I'd insisted on sleeping in his bedroom. Sometimes, he'd show me pictures from his photo albums. Always with a different girl.
For the years that my brother and I had stayed with them whenever we were in Singapore, it's funny how Xiang's children are staying with us now whenever they come to Malaysia. It's like a cycle, that Xiang's children do the exact same things with us, just like my brother and I did with him.
When they were here last weekend, I regretted not having enough time to spend with them. I have 2 papers to sit for on Monday, you see. So I couldn't very well go gallivanting around town with them, though I think I'd have loved it if I did.
I did, however, manage to do a spot of camwhoring with them. And it made me see how these 2 have grown. Shannon could work my camera on her own after fiddling with it for a couple of minutes. Yong Wei, on the other hand, was playing the older brother who obliged his sister's commands to pose for the camera.
At one point of time, Shannon had asked if she could review the pictures she'd taken. I showed her. And she came across an old picture that I've kept.
The conversation went like this:
Shannon: Who's that?
Me: That's my ex boyfriend.
Shannon: What about now?
Me: No more.
Shannon: Did you get a divorce?
Me: No, I didn't. It's called breaking up. We weren't married.
Shannon: So why did you break up?
Me: Because he was leaving for another country.
Shannon: So you broke up just because he was leaving?
Shannon: But that's such a minor problem. You could work it out and stay together.
It broke my heart to have it come from my own niece. I would've laughed on any other given day. But I didn't. Because the parents of the little girl sitting on my lap were divorced.
The divorce had been bitter, and Xiang had custody of the children. But life hadn't been a bed of roses for them.
"Mummy said she'd come see us this weekend. But I'm tired of waiting. I think she lied to me again. I don't think I'll believe her anymore," Yong Wei once said to me a couple of years ago.
These were children who had been through a lot more than I have. Children who had been burdened with secrets that were never theirs to begin with. Children who had been threatened with death if they ever spoke of those secrets. These are children who had grown up being fed with half-truths, and being let down with countless broken promises. These are children who were mature beyond their years, who had grown up way too fast. These are children who blamed themselves for the divorce of their parents.These are children, who never knew what it really is like being children.
I haven't seen Xiang in a few years. I wonder how he's doing. I want him to know that I've paid everything forward, that I love his kids as much as he loved me.
Shannon, Yong Wei, it is my privilege to have you two as my nephew and my niece. You have both taught koo-koo many things in life that koo-koo has taken for granted. You're the closest to heaven that I'll ever be.
There are so many reasons I love these two. Reasons that extend beyond our blood ties.
So much damage had been done to them, and I don't know if they can ever be reversed. So much hurt inflicted that I wonder if they will ever heal. So much more broken than I had ever been. So many secrets contained in minds that had been aged with circumstances.
It's not fair that they had been robbed of the privilege of being children.
I would give everything I have, if only they can have a childhood like mine.