We were made for each other, my mother used to say. We were both skinny, forgetful, and stubborn. Made for each other, my mother would repeat emphatically, shaking her head and smiling. I would just roll my eyes at my grandmother as she laughed. While my sister was mummy’s girl and my brother, papa’s boy, I was always my grandmother’s cucu. Granddaughter.
By all accounts, my grandmother was a wonderful person. My mother told numerous stories of the sacrifices my grandmother made to support her family of seven. My uncle spoke of trips to the market with her when he was a child – a journey that would usually take a mere ten minutes extending to half an hour due to them constantly being stopped by friends and family in the kampong, wanting to exchange pleasantries with “the most popular lady around,” he’d boast.
My grandmother was a mid-wife. She spent her life caring for others, giving everything though she hardly had anything to give. And she loved being around people. Not once in my entire life have I met anyone who hasn’t been charmed by her smile.
Simply the way relatives hold on to her hand when they visit, and the tenderness in their eyes when they look at her speaks volumes about how much she is treasured. Every visitor comes with a new story about her. I only had ten years with her before dementia took hold, and I feel vastly under-qualified to talk about this woman who means so much to so many. Her influence in my life is only a tiny fraction of her story.
Grandmother and I
It’s difficult for me to put into words the relationship I have with her, except to say that she has always been there. She was there when I was ten, every morning when I woke up for school. She’d be ready waiting with a mug of hot Milo, a plate of cream crackers and a cheerful smile. After breakfast we’d go into the balcony and she’d braid my hair tightly so it wouldn’t come loose.
Before I left for school, I would lift her hand to my lips and kiss it – a sign of respect. Formality over, I’d then kiss her three times – once on both cheeks, and once on her forehead. She’d do the same to me, and in place of “Goodbye” I’d say, “Jee sayang nenek banyak banyak.” Loosely translated, it means, “I love you lots and lots,” in Malay. Cheesy, I know, but it was tradition. ‘Jee’ was my nickname.
When I got home from school, grandmother would always be there, sometimes watching television or praying in her room, and sometimes cooking up a storm in the kitchen. She was an amazing cook. I loved coming home, especially to the smell of asam pedas wafting from the kitchen – my favourite dish.
At other times, she would be on the phone, having long conversations with one of her many friends or relatives. Occasionally, she would call me to her room, and ask me to write down a new number or an address for her. As I did this, she would unfailingly include me in the conversation, no matter how many times I told her it was odd for a third person to partake in a two-way conversation.
“Your aunt’s moving, dear,” she would say in Malay, “to Tampines. Isn’t that lovely? Jee says that’s very nice. Jee’s primary four now, isn’t that right? What’s your favourite subject, your aunt wants to know.” As the years went by and her eyesight went, my handwriting got steadily larger until one phone number took up one A4-sized paper.
She was there when I had my first argument with my parents. I ran crying into her room, and she just listened and held me in her arms as I blubbered. She had this way of calming me down, and it was not five minutes later that I was back in my parents’ room with a remorseful apology.
Every weekend, she would leave to stay with my aunt or my uncle, and I’d have a great time with my family, going for picnics at the park and roller-skating by the beach, secure in the knowledge that I’d see her again on Sunday night.
It was an idyllic childhood free from worries, and in my mind it seems to stretch on endlessly, a parade of perfect days. However, as in all good things, it didn’t last forever.
Then it happened
She began showing signs of dementia eight years ago, after the death of her eldest son. I was ten and didn’t grasp the gravity of the situation.
My siblings and I stayed in the car as my parents and my grandmother went into the hospital to see my uncle for the last time. She was by his side as he took his last breath, and she stayed there holding his hand for a long time after.
After the funeral, there was no immediate change. Everything remained mostly the same, except that grandmother was quieter. She seemed withdrawn. I told myself she was just tired. She slept a lot.
Around that time, I started to get caught up with school. I’d stay late for remedial classes, and when I got home I’d have a pile of homework and practice papers to do, in preparation for PSLE.
Once I graduated from primary school and entered secondary school, it got even more hectic. My life was a whirl of friends and supplementary classes and CCAs. I vaguely remember my mother telling me to stay home more often and take care of my grandmother. I hadn’t realized it then, but dementia had already started to wrap its claws around her.
It started small. Misplaced glasses, keys, missing hairpins. Then she forgot how to make coffee. She stirred her drinks with a fork. She poured soup into a cup.
The first time grandmother made a mistake in the kitchen, my parents said nothing, only exchanging worried glances. Then followed the bad burn when she spilled hot soup. After that, my mother made her stop cooking.
Soon after, she forgot our names. My sister and I decided it was really dementia when she started talking to her own reflection in the mirror. Living with my grandmother was a lesson in patience and endurance. By the time I was fourteen, my grandmother and I were capable of having the same conversation seven times in an hour.
Child of the family
No matter how impatient we got with her, we could never stay mad. She had turned into the child of our family. We fed her, we bathed her, and when she wasn’t driving us nuts, we doted on her. In fact, after her dementia, we started to take a whole new pleasure in her company.
There are those blessed times when she’s in a good mood; she smiles and laughs at everything and anything in the world. Though sometimes we’d be bemused at the things she chose to laugh at, mostly we’d be tickled by her amusement, delighted by the smile lighting up her face. Her happiness is contagious – when she’s in a good mood, everyone’s in a good mood.
Then there are the times when she’s not in a good mood. She’d snap at us for little things and mutter furiously to herself, swear words falling out of her mouth every five seconds. Sometimes I’d get cross when she swears, knowing that those were words she would never ordinarily use 2, but even then I still can’t stay mad. That steely glint in her eye when she pins someone down with her “death glare” is both scary and entertaining, and often I have to hide my smile before she barks: “What are you laughing at?!”
It’s not easy taking care of her. It requires a truckload of patience and an unwavering ability to focus and multitask. Balancing our own lives with hers can be an awful headache, and a strain sometimes, but it has to be done. We deal with it, because without her, where would we be? Our lives are tied to hers.
When her journey on this earth ends, I don’t want to remember how difficult it was, or how frustrating it got. I want to remember her beauty, and her grace. I want to remember her as the person she was – resilient, loving, gentle. She dedicated her whole life to her family. The least we could do in return is to ensure that she spends the rest of it in comfort.
Love you forever, Nan.
Singapore Memory Project