A short 2-minute video of Grandpa (1918-2013) just sitting at the table doing his daily stuff. Might seem a little mundane, but it's little things like these you miss most: often overlooked and taken for granted, but representative of a person's existence.
For example, the little packet of Ensure Plus: we started to let him take this milk regularly to supplement his diet when he started to eat lesser and lesser. At the beginning, he enjoyed this milk and could finish the entire packet in one sitting, but then started drinking lesser and lesser again. As you would see in this video, all he did was take a few sips. At another point in the video, he rejects eating the leftovers of his food, of which only one or two mouthfuls were taken.
That action of cleaning the table with the ball of tissue paper: grandpa was someone who loved cleanliness. Any little spot on the table, little droplet of water, would be cleaned off immediately. He had a tray on his right side which would always contain a box of tissue paper. Somewhere in the background in one point, grandma walks down the stairs carrying a few boxes to place in his room.
Apologies, but this is gonna be long.
The past few days have been a little hectic for my family. My mum and my aunts had been taking turns sleeping on a bed beside my grandfather's since he gave us a false alarm around 2 months ago. Two Saturdays ago, he developed a fever and my mum noticed tremors when he moved his arms. We called in a doctor, who diagnosed it as mild pneumonia and prescribed some oral medication. There were events that happened last Wednesday while I was at work, but did not learn about till late at night when my mum came home. Apparently, they had noticed him breathing unusually effortlessly that morning, and during the day had called in the same doctor, who recommended bringing in an oxygen concentrator. A nurse was also called in to do suctioning for him in order to remove large amounts of whitish sputum produced. "I have 2 sisters residing in Australia, when should they come back? They might only be able to fly in next week if they need to settle leave and other matters", my mum asked. "It would be good if they could fly in immediately", the doctor replied, "but I could provide him with an antibiotic jab to help him fight off the infection in the meantime." With that, my aunts booked the earliest flight home, but there I was with some hope that he would be able to make it for a few days more.
Thursday morning: Just like any other weekday, I was lying deep asleep in bed. But that morning, I was awoken by the prolonged ringing of the phone. I groggily opened my eyes, but still found myself clear-headed enough to figure that a phone call this early in the morning could not be any good. True enough, it was my aunt calling to inform us that grandpa had passed on peacefully.
I remember grandpa, or "ah gong" as we called him ("grandpa" in Hokkien, a Mandarin dialect), as a fairly reserved man. We had never been as close to him as we should have, due to the language barrier (while grandma could speak Mandarin, grandpa could only speak and understand Hokkien). As a result, we never really communicated with him beyond the courteous "Hi Ah Gong", "How are you", "Have you eaten", and other similar greetings. At the weekly family gatherings where we would all go over to our grandparents' place for dinner, grandma would be busy in the kitchen preparing dishes for us, while grandma would be seated in the living room, reading newspapers or watching the news. The rest of the family would be engaged in conversation, catching up with each other. When my grandparents shifted over to my aunt's house back in 2006 (if I remember correctly), different people came on different days, gatherings were not "weekly" now and were not as lively as before, except on special occasions such as Chinese New Year and birthday celebrations. The same thing still continued, but there was a difference: my aunt's house was much larger than my grandparents'. When grandpa was left alone, it was obvious. He would be sitting at the dining table while most of everyone was chatting in some other part of the house, or they could be chatting at the table but grandpa was hardly ever part of the conversation. As kids, we would all be hanging out at the balcony on the 2nd storey. When I got old enough to realise this, I made it a point to sit beside grandpa most times I went over to visit. I would attempt small talk, albeit fairly unsuccessfully due to my limited Hokkien, but at the very least, grandpa would not be the only person sitting at the table. Not to say that this was any fault of the rest of the family: my aunts and uncles are all filial children, who would go to any lengths to make sure our grandparents get the best. It is just natural that in the process of catching up with the rest of the family, others do somewhat get overlooked. The closest analogy I can give would be the concept of opportunity cost in economics.
The past few days have been a period of reminiscing for the family as well. My mum, uncles and aunts telling us with enthusiasm how strict a disciplinarian grandpa was. And this is evident in their character: there are a couple of them who are somewhat eccentric, whom the general public may choose to shy away from if they were to approach you on the street. But they are all upright people who would never choose to commit an action knowing that it would harm another. Grandpa was the kind of man who considered character above all else. One of my aunts would tell us that grandpa, despite being born in times when bigamy was common and no one batted an eyelid if you got a second wife, had been extremely faithful to grandma. An uncle, in his primary school days, had lied about going over to a friend's house to study but ended up playing cards. My mum played the role of a whistleblower. A raging grandpa went over to my uncle, "picked him up and threw him onto the floor" (in the words of my mum). After that, my mum decided to keep quiet about any similar incidents, if any. Thou shalt not gamble while grandpa is around. I fondly recall one time a number of years ago when some of my cousins and I were playing UNO - grandpa associated the UNO cards with poker cards and scolded our parents for allowing us to play with them.
The first argument I recall having with grandpa was about what "teacher" was in Mandarin. In Hokkien, "teacher" is "sin sih". In primary 2, I told him "teacher" in Mandarin was "老师". He had insisted that the Mandarin version was "先生", a phrase which more correctly means "gentleman", and I became very angry indeed. Thankfully, I don't recall having any further arguments with grandpa, except for being very upset when he tried to stop us from playing UNO as mentioned above.
The first time grandpa and I had a longer conversation than usual was a few months ago. He was lying in bed, and had refused to eat any food for a few days. By this time, he was hardly recognising me. "I cannot eat, because I have to leave more for my descendants", he told my mum. "If I eat now, they won't have anything to eat next time." I had gone to his bedside in an attempt to coax him. He told me that he didn't have any money to buy food. "Ah gong, do you know who I am?" I asked.
"You called me ah gong, you must be my granddaughter."
"Ah gong, I'll treat you to a meal."
"I won't have any money to pay you back."
"It's ok, you're my ah gong, it's only right that I buy you food."
It took a while before he agreed for "Milo and biscuits". He turned to the maid and asked her if she was hungry, and said I should also provide her with Milo and biscuits. I agreed, and in turn grandpa also agreed to get up and eat something.
The second, and unfortunately also the last, time we had a conversation of a similar length was around a month later. In that conversation, grandpa had spoken animatedly about bringing my uncle (aunt's husband) and my dad along with him abroad and making a lot of money. "When I returned to China, many people suddenly approached me, asking to borrow sums of money for this and that. 'My son is getting married', 'I need money for my parents', each of them came with different excuses, but they only wanted my money. One of them came to my shop and asked if he could take a carton of provisions and pay me later. 'No!', I told him. I only make this small amount of profit from this, if you don't pay me, I'll be making a big loss. I didn't let him take it." He was obviously confused at that point of time, but I am still thankful to have been able to have a proper chat with grandpa, though one-third of the time I probably did not comprehend his Hokkien. Grandpa did indeed open a provision shop a number of years after arriving in Singapore from China, but he definitely did not take my uncle and dad abroad with him and made a lot of money.
In 2011, grandpa was walking with a quad stick, and able to climb the stairs to his room on the 2nd storey of my aunt's house. After his 2nd fall while attempting to climb the stairs, we decided to move him to a room on the first storey. In the short span of two years, he had gone on to use a walking frame, before becoming too weak to really stand and was mostly pushed around on a mobile commode and wheelchair. A man who used to handwrite with brush and ink in Chinese calligraphy for invitation cards, had become unable to even recall how to write his name with a pen. He became more and more bed-bound and we even had to purchase a pressure-relief mattress for him. In his last days, he wasn't getting up, and had even developed mild pressure sores. We had borrowed a hospital bed and moved it in for him a day or two before he went. Now, the funeral is over, his body cremated and ashes collected. Most of the family are Buddhists, and this exactly is an example of the concept of impermanence.
Grandpa passed on in the early hours of 24th October, 2013. On his face was a peaceful, toothless smile (he didn't have his dentures on). I like to think that this was his last gift to us.