Friday, July 24, 2015
In Loving Memory
My wonderful readers: a couple of weeks ago, just one day shy of her 101st (!) birthday, my grandma peacefully slipped away into that permanent darkness which we - the living - call death. She waited until my aunt and her beloved live-in carer, Ruby (who remained steadfastly by my grandma's side for 14 (!) years) had gone home, and silently succumbed; her heartbeat first forming jagged triangles, then finally, a straight line.
She never wanted to trouble anyone. That is who she was.
Her tastes were pure and simple. I remember her getting ready for a nice dinner out with our family, and the way she looked when she emerged from her room with her neatly permed hair - so soft and perfectly arranged, that my dad would stand behind her 4'7 (or so) frame and pretend to air-comb it, much to our laughter and delight. She'd insert two simple pearl studs into her earlobes, her black trousers pressed and her silk blouses elegantly buttoned up to the neck; her nails always unpolished, or with the faintest hint of shine.
She adored her children and her grandchildren, but she wasn't without an edge: once, having suffered a sudden bout of separation anxiety from my parents (who were on Hong Kong island) during a sleepover with my cousins in Kowloon, I cried hysterically and demanded that they come and pick me up. They did. But not without racking up an extraordinary cab fare. When I returned to my grandma's apartment, I expected her to greet me with a hug and with sympathy. Instead, she narrowed her eyes at me and clucked her tongue, saying, "What a wimp! Totally useless! Boo hoo hoo hoo," she said, mimicking crying. She dismissed me with a wave of her hand and I dried my tears, feeling ashamed and embarrassed.
Another time, when I was small, my dad and I were out walking in Happy Valley, when we saw her in front of us on her way to the market. Thinking that it was the funniest thing ever, to run into my grandma on the street, we chased after her, with me calling out loudly, "Mar Mar! Mar Mar!" Strangers turned to look. But she couldn't hear us, and though she shuffled a bit when she walked (she must have been in her late 70s), she was fast. And we never caught up with her - giving up instead, and gleefully bringing it up when we saw her back at her apartment. "Hai meh? [Oh really?]" she'd say with surprise when we told her. It became an on-going joke, her fast-walking.
Every morning, she'd get up and do her "exercises" on the balcony, around 6 a.m. or so - arms swinging back and forth, touching her toes, knees raised. I'd watch her through a window, as the heat and the humidity of a Hong Kong summer came seeping into the air-conditioned apartment; the birds she kept on the roof terrace chirping as I went to say, 'good morning'.
I loved her. So much.
She was gentle, and had the kindest eyes, which would light up with surprise when she saw us - especially when her memory began to fade, and she'd forgotten we had arrived a few days before. But she was also the strongest woman I knew.
She'd make us pray to the kitchen god before we could have dinner, my knees rubbing against the hard tiles of her kitchen, my hands clasped in hers, as she'd mutter a prayer under her breath and wave the incense stick once, twice, three times, before depositing it into the small shrine behind the door. She'd prepare a lavish meal for us - fish, crab, vegetables - before setting aside a small, humble bowl of rice and leftover fish for herself, finishing it in a few minutes or so before politely saying, "I am going to retire in the living room now. Eat slowly. Marn, marn sic, ah." Then slowly, she'd shuffle off, and I'd watch her back retreating down that familiar hallway, her slippers making a shht-shht-shht sound against the floor.
Later, when dementia began to set in, I'd sit with her in the living room - cars honking outside in Happy Valley, traffic racing by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the city coming alive - watching TV. A commercial would come on for fresh buns and I'd say, "I love those!" outloud to no one in particular. "You like those buns, ah, Chak-mei?" she'd say, addressing me in my Chinese name. She'd shuffle off to another room and return slowly, placing $600 Hong Kong dollars in my hand, her mind completely lost to the value of money. "Take this money and buy some fresh buns for yourself." "Thank you, thank you, Mar Mar!" I'd exclaim, discreetly passing the wad of cash behind her back to my father, who'd replace it immediately, without her noticing.
My parents are attending her funeral and wake this week in Hong Kong, although my brother and I are absent from the mourning ceremonies, our distance numbing us from the grief.
Traditional Chinese funeral rites are elaborate and ritualistic, lasting for several days and culminating in one big feast to "comfort" the mourners, as my mother explained to me in an email.
But long before her death, I had a dream about my grandma. In real life, she'd already been living in the assisted-living hospital for several years - her quality of life severely hampered by the stroke she'd suffered years before.
In my dream, she came to visit me in England, with that familiar twinkle in her eye. Except, there were two versions of her: one shorter and younger, the other, the present Mar Mar I knew. "Mar Mar!" I sat bolt upright in my dream. "What are you doing here?" "We're going on a journey!" she said, laughing. "I wanted to say goodbye before we left!" In my heart, even in my dream, I knew what that meant, and I began to cry. "Don't go, Mar Mar, please don't go!" I begged, holding her hand. "Silly," she admonished me in Chinese. "Mar Mar is old and useless now!" A phrase she used to repeat to me all the time. Reluctantly, I let go of her hand. I woke with my pillow wet with tears.
I'll never forget the last conversation I had with my grandma: we were sitting on her couch in her apartment in Happy Valley, explaining to her (again) that we were leaving the next day. She was sad and tearful. "Your mom and dad and brother are going home to Seattle?" she asked, child-like. I nodded. "But you're not going with them?" she asked, confused. "No, Mar Mar," I said gently. "I live in England, remember?" "On your own?" she asked. "With no family there?" I shook my head.
"Well, that's very brave," she said, impressed. "That's very brave, indeed. You bring such pride to the Tung family name," she said, her eyes glistening.
In the span of a few years, I went from being a "wimp" in my grandma's books, to being "brave".
Now that's something, isn't it? A memory I'll cherish forever.