Wednesday, September 07, 2005 A.D.
Passing Lights
There is a distracting lump in my throat, although right now I can afford to ignore it because of another lump that just so happens to be in the more distracting region of my right eye. I swallow the last of the largish breakfast banana (the lump in my throat) and turn my attention to the odd chunk in my eye that feels like a flap of eyelid folded wrongly. My cornea feels scraped to its core, thanks to the reflexive proddings of my little finger, and despite the unwelcome secretions, it doesn't seem likely for the mysterious lump to dissolve within the next hour. Bright little lights are waltzing like fireflies wherever I look. It seems as if I have been crying from one eye, and I can very well do so if I can afford myself the luxury with both eyes. Later, perhaps... these things take some time to digest.

I woke up an hour earlier than usual today and refused to budge from where I lay because I desperately wanted that extra hour of sleep. Not fifteen minutes later, my dad entered my room and told me to get out of bed, adding that my grandmother had gone. OK, I thought. My grandmother (his mother who lives with us) was going away again on a provincial trip and we were going to see her off. I remembered then that most of my family had just gotten in from the province. It just wouldn't make sense for her to leave this soon. I then thought about my other grandmother, immediately rushing out to see how my mom was.

I remember my grandmother as a warm and gracious lady who gave the impression that she was taller than she really was (although she was already quite tall by generational standards). Her gentle presence commanded respect. Even when she was old, she still maintained a posture that one can only learn today from beauty queen charm schools. She also walked with a meek confidence before she became bedridden. I look back and realize that she had very few by way of vanities, with the little exception that she always wanted to look her best. She somehow kept creases off her clothes all the time (including her pajamas) and she always wore her hair neatly, having it done on a weekly basis.

She was a simple woman who found joy in simple things. In many ways, she was very much what one would expect of a typical Chinese grandmother, but in many ways, also different. She was a practicing Buddhist who stuck to mainly fish and vegetables as a diet of preference. She ate with chopsticks from a bowl and enjoyed traditional Chinese edibles. Despite this, she also loved sour cream and onion flavored Pringles, and being generous to a fault, she made sure that my brother and I got a steady supply of green Pringles from her weekly Unimart trips. People more often than not typically associate being stingy with the Chinese stereotype and I won't disprove them. In many cases, however, those people confuse stinginess with economy, and my grandmother wasn't stingy - she was an economist. She didn't work with the laws of supply and demand - or at least not in the textbook sense - although she always knew just how much to give and when. She never overdid things but she never held back. She rarely spoke unless she had something meaningful to say (and she always spoke with a gentle voice when she did). She didn't spoil her grandchildren (that's us) rotten even if we kept receiving gifts from her regularly, like sour cream Pringles and orange jelly candy (which she also liked). Thinking about it, I never recalled an instance where I received a telling-down from her, partly because I somehow knew how to behave with her around, and partly because she had always been really patient with us. I don't think that she had it in her to hurt a fly. She did scold my brother this one time, but that doesn't really count because the idiot's nose was too runny for his own good. She was almost hysterical, and I learned that day that my grandmother practiced cleanliness religiously. The crease-free pajamas should have clued me in. Then again, she probably disliked flies and could have had possibly hurt a fair number in her lifetime. She was a perfectionist, like my mom minus the crease-free pajamas.

Her lifestyle did work wonders. Her diet and stress-free disposition, among other things, ensured that she was always in the pink of health. She knew how to take care of herself, evidenced by her conscientious yearly checkups. She walked straighter than a ruler even during her 80s and had no dietary restrictions (not that she would have had harbored guilty pleasures anyway). The odd thing was that for years, despite her clean bill, she actually lived with asthma and a heart condition. She also survived a short bout with breast cancer in the 1970s and had a hip joint replaced four years ago after she shattered it getting out of bed. Other than being slightly senile, being hard of hearing and having anterograde amnesia (i.e. she couldn't remember new experiences), she was healthier than most people half her age. The recent years saw her going in and out of the hospital, resulting from old age more than anything, and despite nail-biting odds, she always came through. She was very much a resilient individual who shocked even her nurses (she was named after a type of jade after all) and the instances of her passing surprised us, to say the least.

Just this morning, she started complaining about a slight pain in her abdomen. This was probably related to the digestive problems that she got treated for during her hospital stay not two weeks ago. She was brought to the same hospital once more for tests, and as she was being wheeled in, she even managed to wave weakly at the nurses from her wheelchair, like a contestant probably would at a kiddie pageant. Her blood pressure had spiked and then dropped at staggering levels in just a few hours. Her heart stopped just when she was connected to the cardiac monitor and further attempts at reviving her proved futile. My grandmother always came through despite the odds, and that she just went away in a short instant, it seemed to me as if she simply just finally lost the will to live. She joins my grandfather finally, who went ahead of her two Septembers ago practically a century old. We didn't let her know of his passing then, something that we could only do because of her amnesia, though it hardly matters at the moment. She knows now.

I can't possibly say that I was particularly close to my grandmother though, not in the traditional sense. Firstly, we didn't share the same house, and at most, we only got weekly visits. Secondly, there was the language barrier. I was smart enough as a child to shut up just to avoid embarrassing mistakes in Chinese conversations, where a slight lapse in intonation could mean the difference between having beautiful toes and having an opium habit (that's an exaggeration, by the way, but one I subscribed to as a kid, hence my fear of the Chinese language). I didn't even know my grandparents' names when I was given the grade two assignment of drawing my family tree (I never really needed to call them by their names anyway). The language barrier worked for us though because we were good economists. Words are only as good as what they actually convey after all, and the nature of our relationship didn't really demand much wordage. She never needed to tell me that she loved me because I always knew, and it was enough. Among the countless gifts I received from her, I distinctly remember two. First was the customary watch that I still wear since I received it more than ten years ago. She always gifted her grandchildren with an expensive timepiece, as way of a rite of passage whenever one of us turned sixteen. I remember, secondly, the Family Computer that she bought for me and my brother when she learned that we didn't have one, this despite four years of pleading with my mom, who saw the Family Computer as a non-educational tool and thus, evilly unnecessary (or make that unnecessarily evil).

I spent a good deal of time with my grandmother four Septembers ago, right after 9/11. She was just recovering from her hip-replacement surgery, and we thought that it would be good for her to revisit her place of birth in China. My aunt owned an apartment in Xiamen and we stayed there with her - me, my mom, my aunt (who owned the place), and my two uncles (i.e. the four siblings and me). That trip was a memorable one in that I never found the urge to explore the city, finding it better just to stay at home with my family. It felt like a retreat of sorts. We usually got invited out to dinner by relatives though, where with typical mainland exaggeration, we were force fed like French geese. The local delicacy was a kind of sea creature (they call it a worm, but I believe it's some form of seaweed). These were boiled until the protein got broken down into gelatin. The resulting jelly, with the segmented worms suspended in it, was then left to congeal in molds, chilled, and then cut up in cubic chunks to be eaten like sushi, dipped in Kikkoman and wasabi. I had already gotten used to this common appetizer at that point due to all the special dinners we got invited to. During the start of the meal, we casually ate the chunks until my grandmother attempted to get a piece from the table, at which we all got alarmed. My uncle asked her if she could handle eating something that cold on an empty stomach. She looked at all of us with the amusement of a kid just given a dare and said defensively that she always ate worm jelly when she was younger. Finding it amusing ourselves, we let her have a piece and thought nothing of it. My grandmother at that time could only walk slowly and with a cane because of her hip replacement. She was partially deaf as well, and was already living with asthma and amnesia. The meal went on smoothly until dessert, when she started complaining of stomach cramps, undoubtedly brought forth by the cold worm jelly. Her stomachache got worse until she started having an asthma attack in the restaurant, which was when we realized that we left her inhaler at home. Panicking, we hailed a cab to head for home at once. My eldest uncle tried to distract my grandmother from her stomach cramps by continuously talking in the cab to her annoyance. It was a quick drive, luckily, and we reached the apartment complex in less than ten minutes. Because my grandmother could only manage very little steps, my aunt went ahead to get the inhaler upstairs while the rest of us slowly made our way to the building entrance. My uncle then asked my grandmother if her stomach was still hurting, to which she loudly replied in the manner of an impatient child, "Are you an idiot? How can you even ask about a stomachache when I'm obviously having an asthma attack?" Turned out, thanks to short-term memory loss, she did get distracted from her stomachache after all. We all found it funny of course, and after being slightly surprised at our sudden laughter, my grandmother also managed a questioning smile through her wheezes, as if she heard an inside joke she didn't get.

In that regard, I think smiling was one of my grandmother's defense mechanisms. Just last Sunday when we visited her, I saw her taking sharp breaths while rubbing a part of her belly. She didn't yet notice me at that time, but I thought that she looked like she was in some kind of pain. I waved for her to notice me and she waved back, smiling as if it was the most comfortable thing for her to do at that point, probably not wanting to let me know how she had been suffering. I stepped aside to leave and saw her rubbing her belly once again, like a child who could not keep a secret. That was the last time I saw her alive. She was definitely hurting, and she was also probably in pain when she waved at her nurses this morning, but that never stopped her from attempting to make others happy in her own simple ways.

My grandmother was 92 years old, and not counting in-laws, she left four children, fourteen grandchildren and nine great-grandkids. She lived through many of the 20th century's historical events, affected in particular by the Cultural Revolution, which saw her being separated from my grandfather for fifteen years. She survived breast cancer long before it became popular by way of Kylie Minogue and Olivia Newton-John. I remember her fondly as someone who always overcame the odds without making a big deal out of it and as someone who found joy in other people's happiness. She lived, in many ways, a full life. I can't possibly aspire to even live to be 92, definitely not with my diet or the slouch that my defeatist posture has already adapted. Needless to say, I am going to miss her dearly. In a weird way, this dark moment allowed me to see clearer just how much I felt her radiance, in the way that stars merely appear brighter with dark skies, waltzing fireflies made daytime-invisible by limitless pinpoints joining in the somber dance.

So far, I've written two eulogies in my life, and as much as possible, I sincerely hope that I don't get to write more. Eulogies are tricky, I figured, because the right words always have to be chosen. I don't want to fall into the trap of making an overly sentimental eulogy because those kinds are only appreciated by personal acquaintances. On the other hand, I don't want to make an overly clinical one either. It's really about the words, more than anything, because it's not at all difficult to think up topics when they just lend themselves to the piece naturally. Fleshing out words is an easy task given a rich inkwell, and I realize in conclusion, that we actually write our own eulogies, and other people merely word them out in the end. I live hoping that someone will take the time to word mine out in the future, because - having been enriched with the experience of knowing my grandmother - I already know how I want my life to be written.

Good night Ahma. I'll see you in the morning.

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Ma'am Doreen would have been proud of such sincere and beautiful writing. Warmest regards to your mom and the rest of your family.
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