By Elizabeth Siak
Much of what I'd heard was from word of mouth, or, put more accurately, from the words of one mouth – that of Mother's. There was the time when she'd gone to your flat for help with child-minding, only to be met with the sight of you sweeping away busily, purposefully, in her direction. She'd left, tot in tow, having received the memo: you, daughter-in-law, and your offspring, are not welcome.
Then there was the time when you remarked, within her earshot, that "the flesh never leaves the bone", by way of explaining your duty to your own daughter, whose children you babysat five days a week, after having traipsed across the island to arrive at her apartment. To Mother, the message was equally clear the second time round: you are not my daughter, and you will never be a daughter to me.
Those tales were from a time before, though, and by the time I was old enough to be aware of the goings-on amongst the adults, you and Mother had learned to keep a cordial distance from each other. It never struck me as odd, at least then, that whilst we visited Gong Gong and Por Por every weekend, we visited you and Ah Ye every few months. I was happy not to question the status quo; the drive to your place was so very long, and really, only Father seemed enthusiastic. Having made our way up by lift, then by foot for another two flights of stairs, he strode ahead while Mother and I trailed behind. He would look for signs of activity through the louvre windows, before tapping against them loudly and announcing, "Mum, I'm back!" I would remove my shoes slowly, as Mother reminded me to greet my elders.
Sometimes Ah Ye would be outside, cigarette in hand, puffing away, while he observed the small approaching party coolly. He was a tiny man, bronzed and lithe, without a care in the world. "You, I might not even recognise in the streets," he once chuckled to himself, after I had mumbled my greetings.
You were always pottering about, piling plate upon plate of food on the table, while the rest of us tucked in. I never told Mother, but I particularly enjoyed your braised mushrooms, batter-laden ku lou yuk and lotus root soap. Mother would remind me, in English, to drink less of the lotus root soap, as it was "cooling", and to stay away from the ku lou yuk, which was much too "heaty". "Eat more," you urged, at the same time, in Cantonese. I was more than happy to oblige you.
After meals, we would gather in the living room, our eyes glued to the television. Often you sat quietly in a corner behind us, legs perched on a seat for one. Sometimes you and Father strode to the kitchen for snatches of private conversation. "Time for her allowance," Mother whispered. She was right – I knew that Father prepared wads of 50-dollar notes in preparation for these visits, and I knew that each time you and Father emerged from the kitchen, there was a faint smile on your lips.
Over time, a lazy pattern settled in place – we would offer greetings, eat, then retreat. There was the matter of my limited command of dialect; there was also the matter of Mother's stories from long ago. I enjoyed the food that you prepared, but I never doubted that I was in Team Mother.
We made our way through a labyrinth of shops, signs and people, and finally arrived at the hospital, a gleaming condominium-like contraption of steel and glass. Up we went in the lift, and soon enough we found ourselves at the air-conditioned ward. I trailed after Father. Over the past year, you had been bounced in and out of hospital, and he had had plenty of time to become acquainted with your environs.
There you were, a few cubicles away from the nursing station, in a room of your own. You lay in bed, a shrivelled, forlorn version of yourself, eyes closed, tiny frame bundled in a blanket.
"Ma, we're here," Father said softly, though it was just us three in the room. "Pei is here to see you."
Your eyes remained closed. You continued to breathe noisily, and your chest heaved, up-down, up-down, its rhythms unaffected by our presence.
"Talk to grandma," Father urged.
Easier said than done, since we've never had an actual conversation, I found myself thinking. Quick… anything… what do you say to the old ladies in the wards? I was used to talking to strangers at work, but I found myself floored by the sight of my as-good-as-comatose grandmother.
I crouched down and offered a "how are you" in Mandarin. Father busied himself by fiddling with your blanket, the unused box of tissues, the vases of artificial flowers. My hand hung limply by my side, no more useful than my mouth.
"We're leaving now, Ma," he mumbled, eventually.
I meet your youngest and only surviving sister. There's a bit of you in her, I think, there's that steely gaze you used to have. Grandaunt is petite, like you, but the years have been kinder to her. Her dyed hair is neatly coiffed, her fine-boned features are accentuated by light make-up, and a scarf is wrapped artfully around her neck. She must have known how chilly funeral parlours can be.
"You must be the doctor grandchild."
I am surprised, to say the least, to hear that you would speak of me.
"Sheau always lived very simply. She never ate delicacies, never took good care of herself." Perhaps Grandaunt is trying to explain your demise, your rapid decline post-dementia. (Perhaps she fears the same fate will befall her but comforts herself with thoughts that her weekly mahjong sessions will keep dementia away.)
It is not just Grandaunt that I am meeting for the first time. Long-lost acquaintances of your children make their way here. Distant relatives stream in. An assortment of your older daughter's friends from church, your newfound brothers and sisters in Christ who were by your side during your baptism, come marching in.
Ah Ye sits alone, uncharacteristically silent.
Soon the pastor makes his way to the podium, and we open little booklets that have been placed on our chairs. Most of us in the front row don't know these songs, but the church entourage more than makes up for our hesitation. They sit behind us, singing heartily, and I find myself hoping that you understand these songs and prayers from wherever you are. I find myself hoping that the people here, our mumbled offerings, the rosewood coffin, will make up for the gulf between you and I, for things left unsaid, for visits left unpaid.QLRS Vol. 20 No. 4 Oct 2021