Grandma died when I was 14. I always thought she’d be at my graduation, maybe when I get married too. And definitely, I thought there was time for her to live off me.
Towards the end of her days, she grew thinner and thinner until she became a wasted version of the grandma I knew as a child. The one I visited everyday during the school holidays. I’d take a train down, leaving the house with mom who would be going to work. I’d rap on the metal gate and press against one side of the wall. But she always knew who it was.
I can barely remember the days I’d fall asleep on the mattress by her bed, drifting off to sleep as she taught me folk songs in the only tongue she knew: Teochew. When I grew older, we’d talk about those times and she’d recall how I stood on elevated brick walls and sang the songs she taught me the night before. She’d tell me how the other grannies fawned over me, with what I believe was pride in her voice.
Like my mother, my grandmother never smiled much. They could never communicate their love affectionately. They seldom praised, and criticized whenever the opportunity arose. I craved their approval and vowed that I would be expressive with my love in future. But I’m probably more like them than I’d like to be. I like to think, like me, they are messy puddles inside but the words get stuck at their throats.
The day grandma died, my aunt sat in the dark of my living room with my mom long before the break of dawn. Blurry-eyed in the morning, I rose at 6am and walked into the bathroom to prepare for school. I should have known when I walked back into my room and saw my mom sitting on the edge of my bed. But I didn’t. When mommy told me that grandma was gone, I had to force tears into my dry eyes because I felt it incumbent on me to cry. I hated myself for that. But I just couldn’t feel anything.
I shouldn’t have to hate myself; I cried myself to sleep every night for a year after that.
I don’t think I’ve grasped that my grandma is dead. Even today. It just feels like I haven’t seen her for a long, long time. It’s like she’s just been away to China or something, to visit her old village, like she had always wanted to.
Grandma did not go peacefully into the night. She probably struggled for hours before the night-duty nurses found her gasping for air in her bed. She had lung cancer. Though she’d never had a stick of cigarette her whole life. It was her sister who rolled sticks of tobacco by the door of the kitchen every time she visited, one feet up on the dining chair. I remember.
Sometimes, very rarely, I’d dream of grandma. In some weird, kafkaesque dream that makes no sense. Each time I dream of her, I hold on to the dream image of her like a treasure that dims with each minute. I can’t much remember her face anymore. How odd. A woman I grew up with, that took up so much of my visual memory as a baby, toddler and child.
By some unspoken agreement, each time we dreamt of her, my mother and I would tell the other about it. I guess…it’s our way of keeping her alive between the two of us.