Maya Soetoro, sister of presidential candidate Barack Obama, poses with her husband, Konrad Ng of Burlington, Ont., and their daughter Suhaila, 4, after meeting with Obama supporters in Honolulu in May 2007. ((Lucy Pemoni/Associated Press))

Konrad Ng is clearly living in a busy, surreal world at the moment. The Honolulu-based Ng, who hails from Burlington, Ont., is the brother-in-law of Barack Obama — who may well be the president-elect of the United States by the end of the day.

As well, Ng and his wife, Obama's sister Maya Soetoro, are mourning the passing of Soetoro's and Obama's grandmother, Madelyn Payne Dunham, who died in Hawaii on Monday after a bout with cancer.

So there was a lot going on in his life. But still he found time to touch base again with CBC News after several days of e-mail exchanges. 

"Hey, how are you?" asked Ng casually, his voice sounding weary even from thousands of kilometres away. He apologized for being elusive regarding an interview earlier in the week, an apology that was not necessary.

He also admitted the family was living through a range of emotions in recent days.

"It's a bittersweet moment for us as we mourn the passing [of Dunham]," he said. "We're doing very well. Holding up. We have multiple currents of emotion — joy and sadness."

A huge family figure

Dunham was instrumental in Obama's life, as any reader of his biography will tell you. He lived in her two-bedroom Honolulu apartment from 1971 to 1979 and visited her in hospital there just a week or so ago, in the final countdown of his campaigning as the Democratic presidential candidate.


Barack Obama with his grandparents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham on a park bench in New York City, when Obama was a student at Columbia University in the early 1980s. ((Associated Press))

Ng and his wife were certainly close to her as well. He said Dunham played a huge role in the life of his daughter Suhaila, now four. "She was a remarkable woman. My daughter was touched by her."

Because of the death, Ng and Maya couldn't make the trip to Chicago to be with Obama on election night. Instead, they plan to spend a quiet evening at Dunham's small apartment, watching the election results, in what is clearly a tribute to the spirit of a woman most call a tower of strength.

"We'll be quietly alone in her apartment and take in the moment," said Ng, who is a professor at the University of Hawaii, teaching at its Academy for Creative Media.

Of course, they will be talking to Obama later in the evening.

A close family

In his only visit to Canada, Ng's now-famous brother-in-law came to Burlington in 2004 for the wedding of his younger half-sister Maya Soetoro, who he grew up with. 

Obama and his wife, Michelle, flew into Toronto, rented a hotel room with their daughters Malia Ann and Sasha, before they drove the 120 kilometres south to Niagara Falls. The Obamas also visited Ng's parents in Burlington and hung out at Spencer Smith Park for a few hours.

Ng's Canadian family has crossed the border in the other direction to be in Chicago on election night. "I really wanted my parents to experience history," he said.

Ng met his future wife in Hawaii while working on his PhD in political science at the University of Hawaii. (After Obama's mother divorced Barack Obama Sr., she married Lolo Soetoro, moved to Indonesia and gave birth to Maya. Later, the family moved to Hawaii.)

The Hawaii connection

In Hawaii, Ng took an active role in Obama's campaign, calling voters, writing a blog and "reaching out to Asian and Pacific islanders voters." Like Obama, he used his love of new media and the internet to get the message out.

Ng said Obama was doing what he usually does on election day — playing some basketball to keep things loose — after a gruelling, almost two-year campaign.

He seemed about to describe more about the routine, but then there was a slight pause.

"There's another call. It's him," Ng said quickly before saying good-bye.

Apparently the basketball game was over. Yes, it's a surreal world for Ng right now.