Obituary of Wai Ling Lam
Wai Ling Fan Lam (林范慧灵), of Fujian, Nanjing, Hong Kong, and Toronto, passed away peacefully, after a few days in palliative care at St. Michael's Hospital, on Saturday, 30 September, 2023.
I like to think that she left with the Harvest Moon and replaced it with the best Indian Summer in years because that was so like her.
Always taking the worst and leaving the best.
The sun shined bright and warm the morning she passed. Autumn was her favourite time, the vibrant colours, the crisp air. She knew it meant winter’s cold dark days were coming. But for a while, the light and long shadows would be gentler and kinder to her old eyes. She passed away bathed in autumn sunlight and warmth.
She was born, 20 November, 1935, in Fujian, to Fan Long Sai (范朗西) and Lau Wai Hing (劉慧卿), both teachers. An only child, and from the few stories she told me, I believe a happy one.
Then, the dark clouds came, and more or less, stayed.
As a child, she suffered malaria and brain fever. At the tender age of 6, she lost her mother, and grew up with the horrors and privations of the Japanese invasion and occupation of Hong Kong. She watched as her best friend and playmate was shot and killed, as he, a child, defiantly ran at the invaders.
But she survived, and went on to study Chinese Classical Literature at Nanjing University. She married and had one child. But then came the revolution, and with it, more sorrows.
She remarried, and suddenly found herself in Toronto, Canada, reunited with her guardian aunt.
At first, life was hard. She spoke no English, but went to work to support and feed her children in her own way. She vowed her children would never know hunger.
She was a fighter.
She settled. And gratefully, proudly, she became a Canadian.
A superb cook, she made perfect congee, the most wonderful clear soups, the tenderest fried rice, the most fragrant and tastiest steamed turnip cake, the most delicious Chinese leek and potato pancakes, the most delicate steamed fish, and the best "never-just-one-bowl" red bean dessert soup. Her wontons and dumplings were out of this world. And she made it all look so easy. Her specialty, pork belly with taro (芋头扣肉), wu tau kau yuk, made your mouth water long before it made it to the table.
Every meal was bountiful, and her rice was always perfect.
A gifted writer and accomplished painter, she also loved to knit and sew while her hands and eyes still allowed.
And she loved books.
She was a cataloguer for University of Toronto's John P. Robarts Library. I think the library was where she was most at peace, if not happiest. Before she retired, she had catalogued over a million books. The day they presented her with the certificate was one of the proudest days of her life.
Along the way, she lost her father, her guardian aunt, her uncle, and her beautiful cat, Timmy. Their deaths all cut deep.
A devoted mother, she stayed in an emotionally and financially abusive marriage, at times working as many as 3 jobs a day to repay her husband's bad debts again and again, for nearly half a century. She sacrificed her own happiness for the family that eluded her most of her life, and for her children, even after they cast her aside.
When her husband, in his 80s, came for the house that she suffered so long at his hands to keep, she finally said,
She suffered poor health most of her life. In sorting her things, I found her card file brimming with doctor after doctor, appointment after appointment.
After being diagnosed with cancer, her husband wanted nothing to do with her.
She never complained.
Plagued with a growing list of health concerns late in life, still, she never complained. She never shared her pain, and she survived them all.
She was a fighter. And what a fighter. Given half a chance, she had the tenacity of a bull terrier.
When she came home from hospital, her smile filled the room.
She had a wonderful, wonderful, genuine smile. It came from deep inside her and danced like fireworks all over her face. It was infectious. You couldn't help yourself when she lit up. Everyone who met her at her best was warmed by her and charmed by her.
All her life, when called upon, she helped, she gave, not frivolously, but fairly. She expected, and more often than not, got little in return. An unsolicited kind word, a smile, a call, a little time together, even a sincere “thank you” meant the world to her. Sadly, many who took away, rarely gave back.
For most of her life, her hardest roads, even chemo, she walked alone.
She never complained.
Later in life, her illnesses and her husband's money woes, pettiness, bullying, and neglect of her, combined to rob much of her capacity to express joy. There was a time I thought she just stopped enjoying things. But I know now that expressing it is what had become a constant struggle. She withdrew rather than appear rude or cold.
She was always thinking of others, not herself.
In our quiet moments, when asked if she enjoyed her meal, a show, a full moon, a sunset, she'd smile and nod, at times, even quietly speak her mind.
In a rapid-fire world, she just needed a little help, a little time, a little thought, a little prompting, a little space, a little patience, a little kindness.
Her final months were comfortable and content. She watched her favourite shows in her new easy chair, and was as full of her favourite foods as her swallowing difficulties and appetite allowed.
But we both knew we were living on borrowed time.
On Saturday, 23 September, 2023, still trying to do things on her own, still wanting more than anything to not be a burden, she suffered a fall that fractured 2 ribs and punctured a lung. It was finally more than her long-suffering body could bear. She never really recovered after that.
She lasted a few more days. I knew too that she stayed, not because she wasn’t ready to go, but because it pained her that we were parting. It always pained her. The sparkle in her eye left as she drew her last breath, still holding my hand, still hearing my voice.
Tiny in stature. Heart of a lion. Mom was a fighter.
She leaves behind three children from two marriages, and a wonderful grandchild.
She was cremated holding fresh yellow roses, her favourite, a few daily personals, and armfuls of flowers from those who sent and those who came to send her off.
They filled the box.
After, as we gathered outside, a stunning monarch butterfly circled overhead and flew past. Mom was finally free of worldly cares, free of all the frailties that plagued her, free of worries, free of fear; walking, dancing, seeing, hearing, being her best, feeling her best, and most of all, at ease, enjoying herself again.
Per her wishes, there will be no memorial or funeral.
In remembrance of her, please be happy, smile, enjoy the everyday wonders of life. Be kind. Be patient. Leave room for others. Don’t live for things. Don’t live for money. Don't dwell on sorrows. They will pass.
Find a way.
It's what she always told me.
It's what she would have wanted.
In lieu of flowers, donations in her name to St. Michael's Hospital Geriatric Emergency Management, University of Toronto East Asian Library, Toronto Royal Conservatory of Music, or a charity of your choosing would be very much appreciated.
My best friend, my guiding light, my teacher, my conscience, my mother, my soul, I miss you so very, very much.
Every day we shared, especially in your final years, were the best days of my life. And I am grateful, so very grateful, for all of them.
'Til we meet again, I love you always, and I will never forget you, mom.
“Sleep well. See you in the morning.”-- 玉敏