I was 16 years old when I learned what it was like to receive and wear donated clothes. I cried the night I wore them to sleep. I cried because I felt above donated clothes, and because most of them were stained and dirty.
The next day I went to school in uniform my mother bought with the tiny bit of money she had left. I cried on my way to school. I couldn’t believe what was happening.
‘We collected this for your family,’ my form teacher said to my mother, handing her an envelope of money. I felt slightly embarrassed for receiving donated money, but I knew it would help us.
A fire had burned down our house of 15 years. We could not save anything but ourselves and the car my mother drove us to school in every day. The most valuable thing the fire took were photos of my childhood I now cannot remember without.
When I was 16 I hated that the fire happened. Not long after we had to move into a small two bedroom place a tenth the size of our previous home. I felt embarrassed for being so down in the dumps.
Except I was wrong
I was too young to understand that I was nowhere near being down in the dumps. Although we downsized, we still could have three meals a day. I was lucky enough that school textbooks were school property and my teachers gladly replaced them for me.
Though so, they could not help me quickly return to how I was before the fire. For several weeks I paid no attention in class. I did badly, very badly for my first term exams. My teachers noticed but didn’t say anything.
My mother, on the other hand, was furious.
‘It is your final year in high school, work hard. Never forget your goals,’ she scolded me.
11th January 2005. I had lost every single page of the notes I copied and re-wrote in Form 4. I had to start over. Looking at a blank stack of fool-scape papers, I cried again.
I cried many times that year, until one day my mother said to me, ‘Lu Wee, crying helped no one. You can cry, but you should do something about it too.’
I had no choice but to pull myself out of self-pity and re-write all the notes that had burned in the fire.
With an unwilling heart, I stopped pitying myself and got to work.
The fire took away things I loved, but left behind things I didn’t realise I loved even more. The fire taught me that life can still go on even when you lose everything; that people around you are kinder than you think – all you need to do is ask; and most importantly, that there is no shame in not having as much in material things.
Because when you lose everything (but not your life), you will always have you. And as long as you have you, you can create anything you want. But be careful, because anything includes misery too, if you let it.