Six weeks ago my grandmother was well.
I sit on the mechanised bed in front of the little table in front of the coffin. It is noisy. It is the noise of the kopitiam, voices just a little bit louder to be heard over the conversation at the next table. The tables are outside, one open double door away from the hall, where I sit on the mechanised bed in front of the little table in front of the coffin. Just outside the door they are talking. Food. Dinner. Logistics. It’s very normal. That’s what it is. That’s what I am. We’re normal because we’re one stream of thought away from breaking down into sobs.
People come in and they stand in front of the coffin and they look in. They say something. I don’t know what each person says but it’s usually something with “natural”. Or “peaceful”. Or “she doesn’t look 95”. I sit on the mechanised bed in front of the little table in front of the coffin and I can’t hear what they are saying but they are looking into the coffin and I want to say “That’s not her.” On the little table in front of the coffin are two pictures of her, awake and smiling and vibrant. She loved taking photos. She laughed often and easily and always. I sit and they look and I want to say “That’s not her. This. This is her.” I want to say it but I don’t.
Six weeks ago my grandmother was well.
Mama would walk along the road, I am told, every day. The old nonya, you understand. In her sarong kabaya. With her white hair. She would wave at the neighbours. Walking, every day, at 94.
On Christmas eve she went to hospital and she was getting better and then she was not. Then she was getting better again. She got well enough to go home. The doctors were surprised. And at home she was getting better. And then she was not. And then she was not. And then she was gone.
Walking, every day, at 94. The person who came home was no longer the woman who walked, every day, at 94, with her white hair in her sarong kabaya, waving at the neighbours. It is a tiny comfort to know that she had to go; she had to go because she could no longer come back.
Her birthday passed the day she came home. She made 95. She was proud of how old she was. People are always surprised. She made 95.
But she didn’t make Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year is a big thing. There are, oh, perhaps 30 of us now. Children, grandchildren, great grand children.
Every time she saw me, she would ask of me: “Do you have a girlfriend?” “No.” “Find a girl. Good family.” Something like that. I would tell her, “Slowly, ma, slowly.” Google translate tells me the spelling is “perlahan”, but to me it sounds like “plant” without the t. “Plun plun, ma, plun plun.”
She would ask my age and be surprised and say I’m old enough to be married. And I would stroke her arm, where the scars from when she was bitten by a dog as a little girl wrinkled her wrinkled skin, making tracks for my fingers to read. I would stoke her arm and I would say “plun plun, ma, plun plun.” We had this conversation over and over. Every time I saw her, for years. Many many times a night. The same questions with the same answers.
The same conversation except for one thing. She said she would give me an angbao when I got married. Over the years, the amount went down. It started at $200, now it’s at $20.
My mom and my sisters and I, we would try and have dinner with her. I often didn’t go because I was too tired. I’m often too tired. It’s a sort of casual, common neglect.
People who read me, I am told, like the morality. So here is a truth: There are things which are urgent and things which are important and life is such that the things which are urgent leave no time for the things which are important.
It’s not even a real lesson because everybody knows this. I do. I’m sure you do too. Whoever you are, there’s someone in your life you should be spending more time with and you feel guilty that you don’t.
I used to tell my sisters that mama is 93. She doesn’t have long. We should spend more time with her. Once a week, we agree. But it doesn’t happen. Not even once a month. And when they do manage to arrange something I’m too tired. Years from now, I would know that I didn’t go the last time they went out with her and I wouldn’t be able to remember why. Only that something urgent made me miss something important.
I know this lesson and I know the guilt. Is it not so often the case that we feel the guilt and do nothing about it? That we think that feeling guilty is somehow enough?
Carrying the guilt; it’s not even hard. Because something urgent is urgent, and something important is not. Real life is casual neglect.
As she lay unconcious in the hospital bed I would tell her this: “Ma, it’s Chester. I have a girlfriend already. You met her before. I’m not married yet. But you have to give me angbao when I do.” I said this over and over. I said it so often that my sisters could quote me. It’s the only thing I knew to say to her. I pretended she thought the question in her head, and then I answered it. The same questions, the same answers.
This is important.
It’s the first thing she asks, because she can’t remember that she asked it already. So it’s the first thing she asks; it’s the first thought when she sees me. That makes it very important indeed.
For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to remember where this took place. She said: “Got girlfriend?” “Got, Ma, you met her before.” “Bring her to my house, okay?” “Okay.” “Come… three times a week?” And then she hesitated, and she smiled a weak smile, because she knew that that was too much to ask.
I can’t remember where this took place but it must have been at the hospital. It’s the last conversation we ever had.
Six weeks ago my grandmother was well. And I lived as if she would be well forever.
Plun plun, ma, plun plun. Slowly, ma, slowly. And then there was no more time to be slow with.
Goodnight, mama. Thank you. Thank you for being important to me. Thank you for letting me know that I am important to you. I will never say goodbye.
||Something witty this way comes…|
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