Monday, June 13, 2016

For Sebastian

There is a photograph of all of us on the last day of school. We occupy the fourth floor staircase: Aisyah and myself demurely perched on the bottom row, and above us a packed gallery of the boys - grinning on every step, about to slide down the staircase rail, standing tall at the top, arms thrown carelessly around each other's shoulders. Too many to keep track of, too many to remain close to. Now when we show that photo to other people we will have to say, "And this is Sebastian, who died when we were 32."

We will have to tell people about him because he stood out so much, and the photograph is no exception. In it, he leans forward and meets the viewer's eye, a teenage boy's attempt at intimidation. In real life he was tall and broad-chested, with dark rings under his sunken little eyes, even at 13 years old. We called him the Crab, after the Little Mermaid's hassled sidekick, but he was more like some great, snorting beast of the field - a bull or bison, an intimidating sight to face down on the basketball court after school. 

Don't get me wrong. He wasn't a dumb jock. His intelligence manifested itself in his conversation. You couldn't take him for a fool, and very often he would corner you triumphantly and make you feel about two feet tall. We were all cruel teenagers then, and his presence in our after-school chatroom was enlivening - hilarious, sometimes hurtful, but he always stung the place awake. His love of boobs and upskirt views was only matched by his devotion to his Russian teen gymnast alter-ego, Godina, who spoke only in caps and frequently proclaimed her horniness in public channels. Godina tended to make an appearance whenever he was asked to be serious, or to focus on something.

Still, he couldn't hide his innate goodness, his generous sense of fair play. Once in Secondary 1 he had been teasing me all day long, and at recess I saw an opportunity to sneak up on him and kick him in the leg and run away. I forgot I was wearing steel-tipped boots for drill practice later. He hit the ground hard, howling and clutching his ankle. For a moment I had a fearful vision of the principal's office, his fractured bones x-rayed and on display. But he soon got back up and - typical Sebastian - said nothing about his massive bruise to our teachers or his parents. I guess he figured we were even.

We kept in touch after secondary school. I edited his appeal letters, project reports. He could always persuade you to do something he wanted. Once he got me to get up, go to the mall, search the music stores for a particular Kenny G album, bring it to the post office and mail it to his crush who was studying in Australia and was apparently a big fan of elevator jazz muzak. He didn't let a little thing like being confined in an army camp over the weekend stop him from what he had planned to do. He made a few calls, he got it done.

He was a real hustler. He wanted to make it big in business, though he was really happiest working on his grandfather's fish farm. He was willing to be temporarily tamed, to wear longsleeved shirts and sit in an office, because he was absolutely determined to achieve his goal of making a better life for his family, his girlfriend. We fell out partly because of his overwhelming drive. He called me when I was on my way to work and asked for media contacts which weren't mine to give. I told him no and in a huff, he hung up on me. 

He couldn't believe I wasn't willing to help him out with something so simple, and I was indignant that he could suspect me of holding out on him, after all I had done. I didn't invite him to my wedding. Quick to anger, quick to forgive: he congratulated me anyway and from then on he was always the one who made the effort to stay in touch, though things between us were never as easy as before. A few weeks before he died he tagged me in a comment, and then a while later he commented on something I had said. Both times I didn't reply directly. I was busy, I figured I'd talk to him later. Maybe when we were older, calmer, we could return to our childhood confidence, our mutual surety of friendship without agendas or competition. 

Now I and our other friends are the ones who are left to grow old, for now. Sebastian crossed over to eternal youth and twilight on Sunday, 5th June 2016. I am sad he is gone, but I am not sorry he is dead, because the alternative - life as a vegetable - was unthinkable for someone like him, who gloried so much in the physical, its labours and pleasures.

It was this fear I felt that night when I saw him in the Intensive Care Unit of Tan Tock Seng Hospital. The hallway at 10.30pm was lined with old schoolmates, his colleagues and relatives. The entire front of his room was glass and only immediate family were allowed in. I saw them framed within the ceiling-height glass panel around his bed, his father and mother wrapping their arms around his chest, crying to him in Chinese to wake up, please wake up, son. A large ventilator tube snaked out of his mouth, distorting it into an O, but it was still recognisably, awfully Sebastian - Sebastian with a terrible slackness in his pale, fluorescent-lit face, an emptiness that convinced me he was not coming back, could not come back. What a shit world we live in, when one moment you're walking to get your car and the next you're braindead, your mind and self knocked clean out of your body by a fucking taxi, of all the mundane things.

I choose not to remember you like this, in the years to come. I will remember Godina, and the time they put dry ice down your back, and your voice on the phone telling me I had to come down to the pub for the 2B reunion, I couldn't miss it, even though I'd told you three times already I wasn't going. So full of life, eager to try everything at least once, and drag all your friends along with you. On Monday they will hold your funeral. Now you are in the twilight world, gliding down dark waters in a boat - you always did love the sea - scanning the horizon for your next great adventure on that distant island all of us must visit eventually. You deserve Valhalla, Sebastian. But I'm sorry you had to get there so soon. Godspeed my friend, and goodnight.

Sebastian Kae, 1984 to 2016. Dearly missed by his friends and schoolmates from ioven69.