I am sitting at 爷爷’s (paternal grandfather) wake, the night before his cremation. In front of the coffin the priests – in their yellow robes and with loud musical instruments – are performing rites before we the family members join in, on the other side on tables covered with translucent trashbags the relatives are snacking on peanuts and sipping on soft drinks, and in the corner the elders are tallying pek kim (condolence money) and folding incense paper into little ingot-like crafts for the rites and rituals to come.
In the distance, I hear the shuffling of mahjong tiles and playing cards too.
爷爷 passed away in the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) on Monday night. He was 88. He passed at 10.30pm, half an hour after we had gotten home from the hospital. He was hospitalised the afternoon before – for the second time in the same month (the first was on my birthday) – and because he had trouble breathing he was hooked up to a respirator, and because he had trouble sleeping he was given a dose of morphine. Even though he continued to heave for every breath he slept a little more easily, and on Monday for the second evening in a row I sat by his bedside with a book in hand.
Two nights ago on Tuesday I was on vigil duty, and at 4am on Wednesday morning I walked from the wake – held at a basketball court along Boon Keng Road, where 爷爷 and 奶奶 (paternal grandmother) have their flat – to Kempas Road, where they used to own a provision shop. This is the same route we used to take between the flat and the shop, but the neighbourhood around Kempas Road has since been demolished and redeveloped. Because we have dinner at the shop every weeknight (and now at the flat), I have fond memories of the neighbourhood through my primary school days: sneaking a sweet or two before going home, helping to serve beer and peanuts to patrons, heading to the playground and stationery shops across the street, showering with little buckets and mixing boiled water from the kettle with icy tap water to get warm water, and watching 爷爷 cycle back from Little India with cartons of soft drinks on his bike.
He was a man of few words, with 奶奶 tending to matters in the household: cooking, caring for her children and grandchildren, and making pineapple tarts or love letters over Chinese New Year. But 爷爷 was always there.
婆婆 (maternal grandmother) passed in 2007. I don’t remember how a younger me felt, yet I remember exactly how I found out. We were in Melbourne, Australia for a community problem-solving competition, and at the closing ceremony it was announced that our team of four was the regional champions, and was therefore headed to Michigan, United States in 2008 for the international competition. After receiving the trophies and posing for a few photographs on stage I was excited to share the good news with my parents.
Instead, I got the text message from my father.
I was closer to 婆婆 in an earlier phase of my life. Before entering primary school my nursery and kindergarten was along Ang Mo Kio Street 31, and since the centre was a five-minute walk to and from 婆婆’s flat she fetched me home and saw to my needs. I saw her less when I enrolled into primary school, spending more time with 爷爷 and 奶奶 after school, yet I still visited her on Saturdays: either with my mother in the late morning when we were done at the wet market (a visit which always ended with the hilarious sight at the lift of my mother trying to shove a wad of cash into 婆婆’s hands, 婆婆 pushing it back, and me holding the lift door open), or with my parents and relatives in the evening when the family came together for dinner, with a Jackie Chan flick in the background.
Over the years and after a bad fall she grew more frail, and following a small tussle within the family she also had to stay with my different 舅舅s (uncles) and 姨姨s (aunties), a few weeks or months at each home. Both my mother and father had work, so accommodating 婆婆 in similar fashion was not possible. She did, however, stay with us over the occasional weekend, during which we would share a room and she would sleep on my bed. I remember working through Saturday nights with the table lamp on when she had turned in, during a self-absorbed phase when I was only obsessed with getting my work done.
Earlier in the same year she passed, 契爷 (godfather) passed too.
On a late afternoon in April 2013 I went back to University Town to stay over for the reading week, and when I spied a police car and an ambulance at the drive-through of Cinnamon College I texted friends speculating about what might have happened. At that point none of us knew or expected the news about Peter to follow.
Although we were junior college classmates for two years, in university we rarely conversed until we attended a Futures Thinking workshop together over the winter break in 2012. Riddled with insecurities it felt necessary for me to distance myself from my conceited and misguided past self, to start with a fresh eye for the future. So I kept to myself.
It was especially surreal, because just a few days ago we had a brief conversation about the workshop, talking about whether we had managed to apply any of the skills or knowledge learnt. It took some time before Peter’s passing sank in, and right after those of us who were in Singapore began reaching out to classmates and friends who were overseas – through Facebook messages, texts, and emails – and collecting pek kim in the process. In a frantic fashion I drew up a Google spreadsheet tallying the sums and withdrew over a thousand dollars at the automatic teller next to Starbucks, headed over with Samuel to the wake on a Thursday afternoon before my marketing examination the next day, and found ourselves at a loss of words when we arrived and met with his parents.
At SGH on Sunday night, it was the first time I ever saw 奶奶 tear. By that time 爷爷 already had a mask over his face. She looked down, nudged him on his left arm, and asked him how he was feeling. He was in great discomfort. She walked out of the ward, asked to be left alone, and wiped away her tears in the corridor. He closed his eyes, gasping for air.
An hour before she arrived, when I got to the hospital after dinner with a friend, I placed my hand gingerly over his and called out 爷爷. He turned. And he nodded. That was the last time we made eye contact too.
Life moves on. It has to. Except getting used to absence will always take some time.