It is a girl’s room. Pink walls, tissue box wrapped in frilled edging. Through the half-open door, sounds of her little brother running about and the unpacking of equipment drifted in. But she was still. She sat, hands folded across her gold polka-dotted, salmon tulle-lined dress, eyes closed and head tilted back. A brush smoothed her cheeks, nose, and forehead with primer, foundation and luminizer. The makeup artist standing in front of her applied each in sequence, pulling bottles and tubes from a pale rose box covered in shimmering butterflies.
A man walked in. He watched as her mother, standing behind her, smoothed short tufts of hair into a straight line across her forehead. A moment later, he joined in with a compliment, “Wow, you look so pretty.” He continued with a half-joking jab at his gender’s incomprehension, “All women want to look pretty,” and got a few laughs from the women in the room. The mother replied, “Of course, Dr. Chong” and told him a story of her daughter’s eagerness to put on makeup for a primary school photoshoot not too long ago.
It was picture day. The family’s living room was filled with over ten volunteers from Star PALS unpacking lighting, setting up camera equipment and talking to the grandparents. Star PALS is a community paediatric palliative care service in Singapore that supports children living with life limiting conditions at home. Its multi-disciplinary team of clinical and allied health specialists render dedicated care that is both comprehensive and family centred, attending to often forgotten siblings and grandparents, in addition to offering much appreciated respite within the home setting. It is a service provided by HCA Hospice Care This Saturday afternoon, program director Dr. Chong Poh Heng and a team of volunteers have come to take a family portrait.
“Pampering” is the word he used to describe the reason for this service. On occasion, it also gives him a chance to talk to the family members, some of whom may not usually be present for his weekly visits. This way, he can provide more tailored and holistic care. But more than that, he says it is to “build up the joy of being a family.”
When it was her mother’s turn, she watched. Daughter faced her mother, who closed her eyes in anticipation of what she knew came next from years of applying makeup to her own face. The brush deposited product on unblemished skin lighter than her daughter’s but more taut, thinner. Her brows were traced, her eyelids lined, her lips painted berry in slow detail. She tilted her head and lowered it, closed her eyes and opened them, looked up and then down in a knowing dance with the brushes, pens, liners. It was a ritual she knew.
When finished, she cast a quick glance at the mirror, then turned to her daughter again to tuck away stray hairs, compliment her on how pretty the makeup was. It was more special for one less acquainted with it.
The first of the three generations, the last to be called in was the paternal grandmother. She sat down heavily. Even though she knew what came next, on occasion the lines around her eyes and forehead fluttered up and down as her face defied imposed stillness. A few sunspots that couldn’t be covered with light foundation marked her age. She barely looked at the mirror at all. She only blinked a few times when the makeup was done, as if unaccustomed to the added weight.
When the three women finished their makeup, the family gathered in front of the living room window. The transparent, gilded curtains were drawn to provide a backdrop. Mother and father stood in the back. Grandmother and grandfather sat front, center. She sat on the right, next to her mother and grandmother. Her brother stood in his tuxedo and red bowtie on the other side. They smiled. The lights flashed. They smiled again. The doctor and an HCA volunteer joined in, standing next to the mother and father.
After a few shots of the mother and father together, she was called for her own portrait. She sat in the middle of a row of chairs in front of two bright lights. She looked up through the wig that gave her long bangs, the round glasses that hid her drooping eyes, and the pair of Minnie Mouse ears from her Make-a-Wish trip to Disneyland. She looked at the camera, surrounded by fifteen faces looking at her, smiling at her, wishing to her. She straightened her back a little. The lights flashed.