Hello there. I am Terry and I am a full-time undergraduate based in Singapore. I take photos, write a blog and design websites.

And no, I'm not a teddy bear.

The Final Goodbye

The Final Goodbye

The Final Goodbye

It was a sunny Monday morning. Life continued as usual after spending the weekend worried about great grandma’s condition. The entire weekend was spent me making internal mind trips to the happier days when great grandma joked, talked, laughed and hugged. I still could not wrap my heart and mind around the truth that she was slowly wasting away on the bed with a feeding tube inserted deep down into her stomach, which she eventually removed herself.

The images of her lying emaciated and with great lethargy and inertia flashed through my mind. My stomach started tugging, churning and turning. My eyes constantly well up when the thought of her crossed my mind. I prayed and hoped she will be okay.

Later in the morning I met up with Mingyun and her other communication module classmates for lunch at canteen two. I left the campus with Mingyun and SJ to get some grocery shopping done. On my way back, I bumped into Jedi on the bus. He was on his way to a scholarship interview in my university.

The bus 179 took a sharp turn when my phone started to toss and turn in my pocket. Maybe it’s Choyee. She always forgets stuff, I thought. I brought the screen close to my face and it was mom on the phone. Without waiting for mom to even complete her first sentence, I knew great grandma was gone. Over the past eight years living in Singapore and away from the comfort of home, mom never called during daytime. When she calls, I am very sure that it must be something requiring my utmost attention.

She passed away today morning, right? I asked. Half of me already knew that we have lost her. The remaining half hoped that she did not just left that very morning. My mom confirmed my greatest fear.

Call uncle. Plan a flight immediately, on Tuesday night. Her wake is on Wednesday. Contact me when you got your flight itinerary. Mom instructed over the phone, short and concise. It’s unusual, for her being a person with many words.

I was carrying a handful of notes heading to the library at that very moment. Alighting from the bus, I bid Jedi good luck and farewell. I climbed the flight of stairs leading up to the library and suddenly I turned around and asked myself what the hell was I thinking. I raced down the stairs, past the lunch crowd and called Choyee on the phone.

My voice was breaking and she gasped when I told her the news. A brisky walk brought me back to the room in no more than a couple of minutes, where I spent the most of the day crying.

The second day

I didn’t have a good sleep. I spent the rest of the night pouring through the photos I have taken during our annual Lunar New Year family gathering. I was incapable of fathoming the fact that my great grandma was very much alive, talking, eating, chuckling and smiling when the photos was taken.

I blamed myself for missing the bus home for the Good Friday weekend. That was when great grandma fell grievously ill and when many of my maternal relatives rushed over to visit her in the hospital. Little did I know, that was the very last chance I could see her alive.

After a short meeting in school for an urgent lab report submission, I skipped the rest of the day and traveled to the airport by 2pm to catch a flight back to Penang.

The Wake

The Wake

In the evening we made our way to my granduncle’s house where her inanimate body, cradled lovingly by the soft silky sheets in the coffin, was placed. Mom saw me walking through the gates and pulled me to the coffin with its top propped open.

Ah Hao (my family affectionately calls me by my second Chinese name) is back, my mom whispered through the glass. There my great grandma laid, quietly and peacefully in the coffin. Only her face was visible, but the sheets could not hide her frail and shriveled body. I cried a little.

Everyone was wearing red though – it’s a Chinese custom to hold a less-mournful funeral for the dead if he/she has five generations or has lived beyond the age of 100. Although my great grandma was officially 97 when she passed away on Monday morning, the Chinese customarily adds 5 years to the deceased age (2 for the heavens, 2 for the earth, and 1 for the deceased). That makes her 102.

We had dinner and two monks attended the wake to lead the prayers. I didn’t quite understand what was all the prayers we were chanting during the prayer session, but I know we were all praying for her peaceful and painless departure with no more unsolved, lingering issues in the mortal realm.

The walk and the cremation

The night melted into morning. I joined my cousin’s family for a simple breakfast before heading for my granduncle’s house for the rites to be held on the third day since great grandma’s passing. Lunch was served shortly after and then we were all ushered into the house to hold another prayer session for her.

That was when everyone started to cry. From far behind I saw my grandma clutching onto a piece of handkerchief, wiping the tears on her face. I have rarely seen my grandma, a stoic and resilient woman, cry. My gaze met my cousin’s. We didn’t utter a single word, but our eyes welled up even more.

Each of us walked up to the coffin to see her for the last time before they close the coffin. Through the glass, I recited a short prayer, bade her goodbye and promised her that my thoughts will be with her forever. Everybody will be fine and she should depart peacefully to the netherworlds.

My brother saw me crying even more and passed me some serviettes. I dabbed the corner of my eyes lightly and looked up at the ceiling in silence. I didn’t want to bawl all over the place because I know that was the last thing my great grandma wanted to see, if she was still lingering there.

Her last meal before the walk

Her last meal before the walk

The coffin was closed after the monks recited another round of prayers. The helpers from the funeral parlour set up an elabourate decoration of food, fruits and wreaths around a huge table. Then came yet another round of prayers underneath the hot sun. I chucked a little seeing how everyone was determined to dodge the blazing sun by hopping among shadows underneath the trees and the tents.

The final walk

The final walk

The helpers from the funeral parlous carefully bundled the coffin to the back of the van. For a short distance, we walked behind the van, a symbolic gesture of accompanying great grandma for her final voyage to a better place. For the next half an hour we spent the time in the rented bus or in our own cars travelling to the crematorium.

The crematorium

The crematorium

The cremation process was quick, perhaps to lessen the pain of bidding goodbye and the feeling of loss seeing a loved one’s organic body being consumed by the flames. The monk sprinkled holy water on us as we watched silently and with great sadness as the coffin was slowly nudged into the crematorium.

I saw grandma crying again, and I can’t help by shed a few tears. It wasn’t easy to let a mother go – a person who have not only gave us life, but also nurtured, taught and cared for us even in harder times. For great grandma, she brought along my grandma and grandaunt (at that time, she had only two daughters) all the way from China, fleeing from the ruthless onslaught of the Japanese army. They hid in the comfort of the tropical jungles of Malaysia, feeding off potatoes and other vegetables with very little rice to share in the little refugee community.

She then gave birth to another two daughters and four sons. She was like the adhesive of the family – the person that brings everyone together during big occasions despite differences, conflicts and family politics. She was the reason why I returned to Penang every Lunar New Year, a huge gathering at my granduncle’s house with more than a hundred relatives attending.

The last couple of years, she spent her time being transferred from one son’s home to another. Unwilling to place her in an old folk’s home, each son shared the responsibility of caring for great grandma. That was when the family politics and differences deepened. I could never understand, even till the day of my own death, that why they were so reluctant in caring for their own biological mother. They still fought over the price of the funeral, and one even placed the blame on my grandmother for choosing the funeral parlour that overcharged them.

Shame, people. Shame. You should be ashamed of yourself for pushing the responsibility onto each other when you, being the sons of my great grandma, should be sharing the burden together as a family. I’m not going to name people here, but you should very well know who you were and how you have treated great grandma. And don’t forget – we, the younger generation, are not blind, nor deaf, nor dumb. We have the eyes to see for ourselves and great grandma herself, although being a victim to dementia and occasional amnesiac episodes, knows the truth very well.

Ignoring that guilty conscience of yours is like muffing your ears when you steal the temple bell. Yes, you can choose to ignore it, but people can, and will, see.

Disclaimer: The personal opinion on family politics are written from a third-party perspective with no personal interest in the matter. The main point is that I will not censor myself simply because I have revealed too much, or have this despicable hidden agenda of further dividing the family apart. The point I am trying to get across is something very simple – filial piety, the core of Asian culture; and responsibility. Don’t anyone ever question my parents’ and my upbringing because of a truthful and factual account I have given. If you do – let’s simply put that you’re admitting to all the wrongdoings you have ever done.

After cremation

The evening after her cremation, my grandmother and mom shared a little more backstory with me. When my mom visited great grandma in the hospital, she was still very much awake and could still muster the strength to speak, albeit very softly. She asked my mom not to called me back from Singapore to visit her because “studying is good for me“. I felt so sad after hearing that – she still remembered and cared for me on her death bed, and she didn’t want her death to inconvenience me in one way or another. But she’s still my great grandma, the person who gave me life indirectly. Without her there wouldn’t be grandma, there wouldn’t be my mom and of course I won’t be penning this entry now.

Grandmother looked very tired and exhausted. Her eyes were almost buried underneath layers of concentric eye bags. She hadn’t slept for nights, so did my other grandaunts, who laboured around the clock to take care of her and handle all the funeral affairs. It kills me to see that a part of her was missing when great grandma died. Her eyes are glassed over and and sometimes soulless. I pray that my grandmother will find the strength to live soon.

For the past two nights I feel like a baby. I would cry by just thinking of her, and I’ve done that a few times when I was penning this entry.

…when we finally know we are dying, and all other sentient beings are dying with us, we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense of the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings.
— Sogyal Rinpoche

Dear great grandma, I will be with you forever regardless of what. I will gather myself together and move on with another chapter of my life. Rest in peace.

Much love, Terry.

p/s: Many thanks to all of you who have left comments expressing your sympathy and condolences over my great grandma’s departure. I couldn’t say how much I thank all of you for your support and help. *hugs*

p/p/s: For a lighthearted and nonetheless meaningful observation of the wake, you can read up my aunt’s entry (in Chinese) – 奔丧记 (it’s hard to provide a direct translation but it roughly means “a personal account of attending a wake”.)

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