A light of St Mary’s goes out

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Marie’s daughter Karen Smith (2nd from right) with her husband Michael Smith next to her, their daughter Amelia Smith standing next to Datin Dayang Mariani (extreme left) and the writer (centre) during the wake.

MANY former St Mary’s Secondary School students were saddened by the loss of their former teacher, Marie Song, on Aug 11, 2023.

Affectionately referred to by her students as ‘Mrs Song’, she passed away at the age of 83 after struggling with health issues in the year before her death.

The former teacher had a profound impact on the St Mary’s Secondary School students from the early 1960s to the mid-1990s. In addition to her commitment to her job as a teacher, she was highly regarded and adored by the girls for her overall beauty and grace.

Meeting fellow ex-Marians at her wake, which was held at the St Thomas’ Church’s funeral parlour, evoked fond memories of her. The one thing the old Marians had in common with each other was their deep admiration for Marie whom they dubbed as the most beautiful teacher in St Mary’s.

In all honesty, I had never encountered a teacher who was as beloved, respected, and admired by the students as Marie. We just could not help but think back to the times she had been our History and English teacher at our old school.

Well loved by the girls for her overall beauty and grace, Marie Song (centre) in a 1970 group photograph with form two students.

Graceful and charming

One of the things we liked the most about her was her classic dressing sense, especially when she showed up in her typical low-cut dress on her ‘voluptuous figure’, as how my good friend and ex-classmate, Datin Dayang Mariani described her beautiful curves.

“She was always nicely and immaculately dressed,” she added.

Dayang Mariani, also an ex-student of hers, had struck a friendship with the former teacher since she became her colleague when she taught in her alma mater just after she finished her Form 6.

I remember vividly how we used to fix our eyes on Marie’s beautiful cleavage, especially when she was on stage addressing the school assembly with all gentleness. She was simply beautiful and rounded, and as regards her grace and elegance, we could only liken her to Elizabeth Taylor in her prime.

“She was well spoken and we loved listening to her whether it was her history or English lesson. We just admired everything about Mrs Song – the way she walked into the classroom with grace and elegance, her feminine heels, the sweet fragrance of her perfume, her ladylike hairstyle, her moderate make-up… how we often wondered why her lipstick never faded away.

Marie’s love for animals never waned.

“We even wondered where she had her clothes tailored,” said one ex-student, my sister Ann Thomas.

Ann’s ex-classmate, Majidah Obeng, chipped in: “She looked like a beauty queen and no wonder we were very attentive in her class. I guess we all did well because we liked her but even if we didn’t do well, we were just happy to have such a beautiful teacher and kind as well.”

“She was beautiful inside out,” said Nani, an ex-Teresian who had become Marie’s friend since the 1990s through Dayang Mariani.

“When I had an operation because of cancer, she was the first person I saw the moment I opened my eyes after the surgery. She sat there holding my hand.

“I’m going to miss her during Ramadan because that was the time when she would be joining Dayang Mariani and me and our usual group of friends for breaking fast.”

The latter’s sister, Dayang Mastura, brought us back to 1960 when she was in Form 1 and Marie was her English teacher:

“She just got married then and every day, she wore a new dress to school. We were always looking forward to seeing what dress she would wear the next day. She was so beautiful.”

Kind, compassionate teacher

Marie was one teacher who was kind and compassionate, who never raised the slightest reflection of disdain among her students.

“I had never heard her raise her voice in class,” said Dayang Mariani.

I asked Marie’s daughter Karen Song, also an ex-Marian, on how her mother was like at home.

“She was very strict. Although I can’t remember being beaten, but she showed the rattan to discipline my two brothers and me. She did raise her voice, but just a little. Her philosophy was when one of us did wrong, all would get it.

“So we watched out for each other! I think it worked,” she said.

Dayang Mariani and the writer reminiscing about the days when Marie Song was their teacher in St. Mary’s.

“I loved my mom for what she was. She devoted her life to her children. I guess she brought all her teaching skills to the home. She raised me up to be a prim and proper girl, teaching me how to walk and things like that.

“She was so devoted to bringing us to all our activities that when it came to swimming, she knew the rules better than us. My father played golf and tennis and she also knew the rules of the sports. That was my mother.”

Karen hilariously confided that it was rather hard for her to have her own mother as her teacher in school.

“She was my mother and she was also my teacher at school,” she restated.

Devoted to children

She could not forget her first experience as her mother’s student.

“It was the beginning of the first term and my first day in her history class. When she came in, everybody had to stand up to say ‘good morning, Mrs Song’.

“All my classmates turned back and looked at me, who was sitting in the back row. They wanted to see whether I would say ‘good morning, mom’ and I said ‘good morning Mrs Song,’ and they were like, oh, she calls her Mrs Song!’”

Karen began her eulogy at the funeral for her mother with a poem that was a fitting tribute to her.

“A strong woman won’t let anyone get the best of her, but a woman of strength gives the best of herself to everyone. A strong woman wears a look of confidence on her face, but a woman of strength wears grace. A strong woman believes she is capable of completing the journey, but a woman of strength believes that the journey itself will make her strong enough for the journey. This is how we remember our mum – a woman of strength.”

In the eyes of the thousands of girls who had walked through the portal of St Mary’s Secondary School, Marie was an epitome of beauty and elegance that must be a glorious manifestation of the woman of strength she was as dotingly defined by her daughter Karen.

Marie shared her journey, which contributed to her becoming a stronger woman, in my book ‘Women Who Inspire’, which was published in 2006.

She recounted how she had to deal with the untimely death of her loving husband, Augustine Patrick Song who died in a boat accident, and then how 10 years after the ill-fated incident, she was stricken with third stage colorectal cancer.

She wrestled with the fear of dying after the diagnosis:

“I prayed that God would give me the strength to overcome the fear and cope with pain. I knew I had to be strong for my three children. It also moved my heart to see how they were also trying to be strong for me. I had to be strong for the sake of my loved ones and also myself.”

She had her large intestine removed and since then, had been using a colostomy bag which was plastered to her left abdomen.

The bag was connected to the artificial opening of her abdomen through which a portion of the bowel was connected for the removal of body waste.

She did her colonic irrigation herself at home. The procedure that took an hour drained out body waste, which would keep her bowels clean for 18 hours.

She would rely on the colostomy bag and procedure for the rest of her life. Grateful that she survived cancer, she learned to live with her lot and move on with life.

Faith in God

1964 photograph of Mrs Song (Marie Song), seated at the extreme right with the principal of St Mary’s Secondary School, Miss Ruth Duncombe (seated centre) and her colleagues, seated from left, Mrs Hwang, Mrs Siaw and Mrs Ho.

Marie’s encounter with other patients during chemotherapy sessions at the hospital often left her contemplating on the meaning of suffering. She was reminded of the frailty of life.

Even the long hours spent at the hospital’s waiting lounge were not wasted. She would interact with patients and found comfort in each other with encouraging and spirit lifting words.

“There is a purpose why bad things happen to us. My Children learned to gather strength as they helped me to fight the battle together.

“And my faith in God increased. For a long time I had not been very serious with God, although I did go back to church after Augustine’s death. It was whilst dealing with cancer that I became closer to Him,” she said.

What had afflictions taught her? The dread of pain, the value of friendship, the meaning of caring. Always grateful to her family and close friends for lifting up her fighting spirit during her recuperating period, she fine-tuned her life to make it a life worth living.

“It is futile to dwell in self-pity. It drives people away. Even words of pity from others can do harm as they tend to encourage us to enlarge our problem. Soon, we find ourselves complaining about all our shortcomings and when this happens, I don’t think people will like to visit us again,” she once remarked.

Impact of cancer on outlook

Dealing with cancer had a profound impact on her outlook on life.

“Before, I lived as though I was going to live forever. Cancer propelled me to make short-term plans thinking that I might not live long but then I also realised that life was not just planning but living,” she said.

So Marie lived and lived well. As an animal lover, she contributed actively to the Kuching Kennel Society with many terms in office as secretary; as a grateful cancer survivor, she gave talks on cancer, and she baked cakes for fundraising events.

“As I can’t donate in cash, I donate cakes because I love to bake,” she would say.

As a retired teacher, Marie ran a children’s weekly radio programme titled ‘Aunty Marie,’ and she was also a soprano singer in her church choir.

“She was a faithful member of the choir. When I attended service, I would see her singing there and sometimes she would do the reading for the lessons. Her beauty was still there despite her age. She was still so elegant and she read so well,” said Margaret Nichol, another ex-student of hers.

Towards the end of her life, Marie had to stay in a nursing home as she needed proper care after she had her right leg amputated due to diabetic gangrene and she needed to stay there until she was fit enough to go home and had learned to walk on her prosthetic leg.

Battling cancer courageously

She showed no signs of self-pity as she braved through the adversity.

“When she was in the home, she treated everyone with love. She knew all the nurses and caregivers by name, and I would hear her say to them, ‘Thank you, I love you’.

“She had always been kind and courteous to the people at the home,” Karen said.

“She was like doing a public relations job, too, as she would welcome visitors who came to visit their loved ones, lead them in, talk to them and make them feel comfortable. That was her,” she said.

As Marie was recuperating at the home, another problem arose – her cancer came back and had spread to other parts of her body.

Two weeks before she passed on, that was not long after Karen went back to Australia, I visited her.

I found that she was still the gracious woman I knew despite her deteriorating health.

Even as she was lying peacefully in bed looking frail and weak, she greeted me and spoke to me briefly in complete sentences.

“What a sweet voice,” I said to myself.

It was the last time I saw her.

“She was a brave woman till the end,” Dayang Mariani said.

“I visited her as soon as I came back from haj. Despite her frailty, she still said that she would walk one day and would walk with me, but I knew she was in pain, just that she would not tell.

“When I was about to go, only then she said she wanted to lie down. Then she called the nurse and asked for morphine injection. A week later, she passed away.”

Many caring hearts

It moved my heart to see how my dear friend Dayang Mariani had treated her former teacher and friend with such kindness and respect.

When Marie was slowly recovering from her leg amputation, she often brought her out together with another old Marian, Alice Wright, saying that she was also blessed to have a strong driver who would carry Marie into the car each time they brought her out.

Likewise, Marie had been blessed with many caring hearts in her life – the children that she raised well, the students she had impacted at St Mary’s and all whose lives she had touched.

She was a teacher loved by all and who taught the girls to be well rounded in words and action.

Marie left a legacy of which all Marians can be proud.

She was kind, devoted, and charming.

She was St Mary’s light, which is a description that goes well with the school’s anthem, ‘Light of St Mary’s’, the lyrics of which she wrote.