Memories of tong yuen my mom used to make on Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice or “Tong” falls usually on 22 December each year (sometimes it falls on the 21 December). It is one of the very few Chinese festival that follows the Gregorian (English) calendar instead of the Chinese lunar calendar.

Yesterday was the Winter solstice festival and how each year it brings back memories of the preparation and prayers my mom would do each year without fail during the festival. She had said that Winter Solstice is actually more important than Chinese New Year in terms of the Chinese custom. Over the years of working as a nurse even on shift, she would try her best to apply for leave during that day so that she could make the tong yuen and prayed at the altar.

Even though my mom had received English education, deep down she is a very traditional person. She continued on the legacy of my grandaunt (the lady who adopted and raised her) in terms of performing prayers on important Chinese festivals.

I have started my blogs for a very long time- with articles dated as far back as 2006. At times when I read back on some of my blog articles, memories of how my mom used to be would flood back. For example, when I wrote a blog post about catching a chill, my mom had initally tried to run a hot herbal steam and asked me to inhale it in hopes I would get better. I remember the concerned and worried look on her face as she tried to think of ways on how to help me get better. When I did not got better, she accompanied me as I drove to a traditional Chinese doctor who felt my pulse and prescribed two packs of Chinese medicine. My mom boiled the herbs into a cup of bitter medicine. The moment I drank the medicine, it was as if a switch was flipped and all the chill symptoms just disappeared and I got better almost instantly.

Each year before Winter solstice, my mom would be doing preparation for the festival. My brother would be the one helping her in the kitchen to prepare the tong yuen…. because he himself loved tong yuen and making them. The tong yuen my mom used to make was a hybrid between the traditional tong yuen and the Malay onde onde. Mom would use gula melaka (palm sugar) in the fillings and to boil the water with pandan leaves and ginger. After that, she would first serve the tong yuen at our altar for prayers, complete with lighting candles and jossticks and burning offering papers (a Taoist tradition she continued from my grandaunt).

After the prayers are completed, my mom would dish out the tong yuen from the sweet cane ginger water they are soaked in, and then roll them over with shredded coconut, turning tong yuen to onde onde which is a traditional Malay dessert. My brother would be the one consuming the bulk of the tong yuen as he loved it very much. Through helping out my mom, he learned to make it and would be able to make the tong yuen the same way as my mom used to make it.

Things started to change during the Winter solstice festival in 2016. My mom who was usually very particular about the preparation seemed to lose interest during that year which was something totally out of the ordinary. She was lying in bed and did not want to get up to make the tong yuen. So that year, my brother made the tong yuen and I helped out. Then the next day, she claimed she was tired and did not get out of bed. My brother and I did the prayers on her behalf.

After Winter solstice, it would be followed by a huge spring cleaning, followed by Chinese New Year preparations.  Again, she seemed passive and did not want to do much so my brother and I did most of the tasks and chores on our own. Looking back, I should have seen it as a big warning sign of her declining health.

Few days after Chinese New Year I went back to work. I was telling my colleague that my mom seemed tired and was lying down in bed. I also noticed her skin complexion was turning yellow. My colleague looked at me in alarm and told me that I needed to get my mom to the ER asap. He said if her skin and body is yellow it was a very bad sign.

I took emergency leave and went home after lunch, calling my brother to take leave as well. We both came back and there she was lying on the bed in the middle of the afternoon. We told her we wanted to take her to hospital and she absolutely refused and was fierce about it. She just refused to go. Until my brother literally kneeled down on the floor and begged her to go….. seeing my brother like that for the first time, she relented and we went.

We spent about 10 hours in the ER as there were many patients that day. During that time, my mom was very moody and fuming asking what was she doing there and kept wanting us to take her home.  The doctor said she had to be hospitalized as she was having acute hepatitis B and liver hardening which caused the jaundice.

During the hospitalization, my mom was quite aggressive and kept insisting to go home. I accompanied her in the hospital and could not sleep the night because she was asking me every 15 minutes where she was and what she was doing there. After two days, the doctor wanted to discharge her because while I went home for a short while to bathe and change clothes, she scratched one of the nurses when the nurse tried to take blood from her. This was totally not typcal of her behaviour – my mom in the past had always been very tolerant and docile during hospital stays and visits as she used to be a nurse herself and knew the job of being a nurse is not easy.

The cut the long story short, I ended up resigning from my job in 2017 to look after her after I was told by someone that from the jaundice and bloating (ascites) my mom had, she probably had another 3 months to live. Also she had a fall and was in a lot of pain- which got better after I forced her to go to acupuncture.  I also saw to it that she had proper meals, she slowly begin to recover. But that time it was already obvious that my mom could no longer be on her own and needed someone around to look after her.

In the blink of an eye, it has been more than 6 years since I left my job to be my mom’s full time caregiver.

My mom’s liver condition flare up went into remission, but she was showing signs of Alzheimer’s which took quite sometime to diagnose because she initially managed to fool doctors and her friends so no one believed me:

By the time she was officially diagnosed in 2020, the signs were very obvious. By June 2021, she was placed on tube feeding as she had ‘forgotten’ how to swallow. My mom had not been able to recognize me for more than 2 years:

The role has been reversed- she is now more like a baby. Initially it was sad as my mom who was the closest to me and my pillar of strength was slowly not able to recognize me and become physically and emotionally dependant on me. But I got over the grief and accepted my new role with a willing heart.

Caring for her has been the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done in my life. Much more than the good so called successful corporate career that I used to have.

My point in sharing my story is ….please do not take your loved ones, especially for parents for granted. If they start to behave in a manner that is not typical of them or have unusual symptoms, please get them checked with a doctor. A lot of health symptoms, if detected early can be treated, prevented or delayed.

The tong yuen in Winter solstice, as well as Chinese New Year would always remind me of how things used to be. It has been more than two years so I got used to the nurturing role. Over the years whenever I was unwell, my mom would drop everything to care for me, with concern in her eyes. If it had been me that she had to care for, she would not have hesitated.  It is an honor to have the opportunity to care, loved and repay my mom for all the things she had done for me in my life.


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