Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Woman Who Was My Great Grandmother

"It is the evening of the day
I sit and watch the children play
Smiling faces I can see
But not for me
I sit and watch
As tears go by"

As Tears Go By (1965) by The Rolling Stones

What constitutes a person? Is it the body or the mind? Is it that person's belongings or deeds, his dreams or beliefs? Is it what she thinks of herself, or what others think of her? How long does a person or the idea of a person persists after death? Innumerable men and women, people with life stories and feelings as complex as yours and mine, have passed from the world and from living memory - their names worn by rain from the face of stones, their actions the feeblest echoes from the past. It's like they were never here to begin with. Given enough time, even the greatest person in the history of the world will die.

A wise person once told me to close my eyes and recall the strongest, most cherished memory from my childhood, and to hold it in my mind. He asked me, "Can you see it clearly? As clearly as if you are there right this moment?"

Yes, I said.

"You weren't there at all," he told me, smiling with a smugness that was not at all unpleasant. "Every single atom that was part of you back then has been replaced many times over. What you think is your thoughts at that time, all your experiences and memories - they aren't yours."

On Thursday, I received words that my great grandmother have passed away. It happened at 7:00 in the morning, and she was 94. I am writing this now in my bedroom which only became mine a few short years ago. It used to be hers. My bed now is where hers used to be, in the exact same spot. My desk took the place of her wardrobe - and pictures of my girlfriend standing on this desk mirrors how that big, sepia picture of my great grandfather used to stand on top of that wardrobe. In a corner is a little table with a white top which does not seem fit into design scheme of my bedroom at all, or even the time period for that matter. It is the only clue of the room's previous owner. This bedroom possesses almost two decades' worth of living in, of ingrained familiarity counting from the day she first moved into this house; all but gone under a fresh coat of paint and new furniture.

The room was given to me because she was moved to a home after a stroke because we are all ungrateful fuckups. No, that's not true. She was moved there because more than half the day, this house is empty. Both my grandparents still work. Besides my grandparents, I am the only permanent occupant of this house, but I was studying in India at the time and only returned less than a year ago. Still, the home was near enough that my grandmother could walk there pretty regularly to see her. I don't really know how much my grandmother loved her mother and how her death made her feel; she only talked to me twice since Thursday - once to hand me a white T-shirt to wear to the funeral tomorrow. She looked and sounded weary both times.

My great grandmother's death is the first death in this family since I was born, and this is going to be the first funeral I will ever attend. I am not counting the death of my father's mother because, frankly, I never knew her and only met her twice, nor my great uncle's because he was a dick (also, I never really knew him either). My house is literally crawling with relatives at the moment, and I have not spoken a single word to any of them. I prefer holing up alone right here, in my bedroom. Or her bedroom. Is anything really anyone's? What constitutes a person, really?

Between the period of time my great grandmother had a stroke and Thursday, I only visited her twice and I admit that I did not - and do not - see the point of doing that. She couldn't recognise me at all, mistaking me every time for my mother's brother. That's what happens in senescence, in the forgetful evening of our lives; the newer memories are the first to go. You'll forget you grandchildren before you forget your children. Me? I am her great grandchild, her first. I lived with her my entire life, from the day I was born till the day I left for India. Whatever relationship I had with her, whatever memories we shared... those live on only in me now. It's a strange feeling to have, thinking of it that way.

My great grandmother had a headful of white hair ever since I could remember, though I admit that there isn't a lot I can remember of her now. I remember her laugh, deep and chuckly. I remember how she used to grumble to me about my grandmother's habit of grumbling to herself as she works. I remember all the times she asked me to dial numbers on the telephone for her because she couldn't do it nimbly enough herself, and she had these little cards, each with a single telephone number written in a very large hand on it. I remember that it was my duty to play the video-tapes of Hong Kong drama series we rent for her every night because she did not know how to work the VCR, and every time an old-timey actor or actress she knew appears, she will say their names out loud in delightful recognition. There was an armchair which she will sit in every night to watch the TV, and when I was littler, I would sometimes set up my little folding table in front of her and make her play cards with me. And she would nag me every time I don't finish every grain of rice on my plate. She always say, in Cantonese, "Do you know how hard it is to grow a grain of rice?" I finally came up with a retort to that while I was in India, but I never got the chance to use it.

And no, I'm not sad that my great grandmother have passed away - at least, there's no sadness I am aware of - but writing this, I realise for the first time that I do miss her. The old her. Before she had that stroke and became a husk of the person she used to be. Again, what constitutes a person anyway?

She had told me many, many times that one day when she finally dies, she wants to be buried next to my great grandfather - my great grandfather who I only knew from those old, yellow photographs. She spoke of him very often and very fondly; of their arranged marriage, their vacation in Hong Kong, and their morning walks to the beach - a beach which no longer exists even at the time when she first told me about it. Those are her oldest, most cherished memories. Those would had been the last memories she forgets.

They don't grow just one grain of rice at a time, Ah Tai. Good night, and good bye forever.

Your Eldest Great Grandson,
k0k s3n w4i


bevE said...

first! comment properly later. but it's a good post, one i actually feel comes from the greater part of your emotions. despite you saying that you don't feel sadness.

oh posies. *hugs* it doesn't have to be goodbye forever. I mean, before she became that "husk" you didn't yet consider it goodbye forever did you?

something like that. take care of yourself posies

Terri said...

Sorry about your great-grandma, Po. I'm amazed she lived as long as she did - she must have been a tough, healthy old bird.

I know how you feel about the not-being-remembered thing. I'm guessing it sorta detaches you from her passing in a weird way, because... Because it's like she already wasn't there.

As you know, my grandmother has no clue who I am. I don't think she recognises anyone or anything anymore. She lives in the same house as me but I avoid looking at her when she stares blankly at me. I can imagine how I'd feel if she died - and it would be a horrible, empty, ghostly sort of grief. I don't know. Don't really know what I'm saying anymore, but yeah. I sympathise.

*pats Po*

Terri said...

*as you might know - don't know how frequently you read my blog

bevE said...

sorry about the inconsiderate-sounding phrasing, you know what i mean, right? don't have much time to be online now.

i WILL properly comment later! unless i've realised i've said all i could say yesterday.

McGarmott said...

I don't often say such things, but this is rather a heartfelt post.

I, too, haven't lost a single relative since the day I was born ... and I sometimes imagine how it would feel like when it eventually happens.

- yuhhui - said...

Wow. Moving post. Really touching. My great grandmother passed away too before I came to India. Heh. Hm.. to answer your question.. what constitutes a person.. my answer would be.. emptiness. I believe you know what that is in the contex of Buddhism. =)

minwi said...

have been looking out for updates on your blog for a very long time. sorry that this post had to be the one that quenched my thirst :/

on a totally random note: why does it take so long for your blog to load?? i don't have this problem with other blogs/websites.

Jacquelyn Ho said...

Condolences to you and your family *hugs*


mcheo said...

Time is a precious and scarce commodity. We trade time for wealth and also in exchange for experience or memory. Earthly wealth will be gone eventually, memory too succumb to aging. Like the poor squirrel in Ice Age animation trying hard to cling to his walnut, we too fighting hard to keep the fragile memory that we've hard earned.

My condolence to you and your family. And may your memory of your great grandmother stay as long as you want to.

MichelleG said...

sorry to hear about that.. =\

Khim Hai said...

Condolences to u man...
I remember those old days where she used to talk to me in cantonese but I dun understand and now i realise what it means when u wrote the sentences about the rice grain that was when we are in standard 1 or 2. While we were playing video games, she had to force you to eat lunch man..moreover, bring your lunch directly in front of you! miss her though...yet i remember how deep is her voice and the laughter she made....

k0k s3n w4i said...

bevE: Nah, you don't sound inconsiderate at all. And yeah, I didn't yet consider it goodbye forever at the time, for what it's worth. I'm fine, really.

Terri: I read that post of yours and wanted to comment, to say I understand where you're coming from.. but I didn't eventually. I'm sorry about grandmother, but sometimes, they do have these little lucid moments when they do recall everything. Try watching for them :)

McGarmott: Someday, we will all lose somebody. Our only hope is that it doesn't happen to a life which isn't quite spent.

yuhhui: I know the context, but that's an interpretation which I could never quite agree with - regardless of whether it's really accurate or true, or not.

minwi: you're not the first person to complain about the slow loading time. I half suspect that it's the nuffnang ads which cause it. anyway, I thought that have stopped visiting entirely. What sort of updates are you looking for, really? :P

Jacquelyn Ho: thank you

mcheo: thanks for your well wishes. and I have to say; this is the first time I ever see anyone using Ice Age as an analogy for the meaning of life :)

MichelleG: It's alright :)

Khim Hai: Yeah, and she used to call you Sei Ngan Chai. I can't believe you remember so much about her, haha.

Anonymous said...

I think you're mistaken about the atoms, its the cells that have been replaced. If indeed your atoms were replaced then there would be an issue. It goes against the theory of the strong nuclear force that keeps it all together. Perhaps electrons splatter but not the details of the quarks.