My first memories of my maternal grandmother, or Por Por as I called her, probably began with soup. She was Hakka but cooked a delicious Cantonese soup – and many other dishes as well. As a child, I would keep asking for seconds.
My parents and I used to visit her over the weekend in her previous home which she had lived in for decades. Then she moved much further away, we saw less of her and over the last few years her health deteriorated.
Those thoughts went through my head at the dinner table last night, when my parents informed me that Por Por was in her final hours and that we’d be going to the hospital to visit her right after our meal.
The waitress brought in the soup of the day.
I tasted the soup and commented, “It’s like Por Por’s soup.” Nobody else said a word.
By the time we got to the Intensive Care Unit, most of my cousins, aunts and uncles were there. They were all in tears. It was the sight of everyone, reunited and sorrowful, that moved me most. My oldest cousins were the most affected because she brought them up, and they all lived under one roof – even after moving house.
I and my sister, not being able to speak Cantonese, would miss out on the dining table conversations and had to rely on other people to translate the punchlines for us. As such, we didn’t feel as great an attachment to the gatherings. My Por Por did speak English as well but often the conversation among the entire family would be in Cantonese.
However, I remember with fondness the time I drove Por Por to her favourite Tekkah Market where she bought ingredients for cooking, and she took me and my sister to a favourite hawker hangout to eat. That was perhaps the most memorable time she spent, just with us.
For the past few Chinese New Years, I’d visit her. I’d make the long drive up to Ang Moh Kio with my mum and paternal grandmother to deliver foodstuffs. It was sweet, seeing my two grandmothers ask about each other. Usually they would both say something nice about me and my sister, and I would squirm politely. Over the years she had to use a walking stick. In her last year she was already in a wheelchair.
Every time we made the visit, I took photos of my grandmothers together, knowing that as the years went by there’d be a less likely chance of seeing them together again. A few days after that, my paternal grandmother would tell me that Por Por had taken a taxi all the way down to return the favour. It is in both my grandmothers’ natures to give, no matter how trouble they might go through.
Recently my paternal grandmother heard about my Por Por’s recent health problems and told me that Por Por had once said she would live on to see me get married. To that, I replied that Por Por would have a very long life! At least she lived long enough to have a great-granddaughter, with another on the way.
My little neice was too young to comprehend the graveness of the situation late last night as the whole family gathered around Por Por, who was being pumped with Adrenaline. The doctor had already told us she was in her last hours. As I saw the little girl scampering about, I recalled the time my own great-grandmothers died. I was the first great-grandchild for both of them, and had the rare opportunity to know them for the first several years of my life. When they died, I knew the fact but was too young to feel much emotion. Likewise for my neice.
The last thing we tried doing was to keep Por Por’s heart beating by talking to her. Every time one of us called her and identified ourselves, her heart rate would pick up. Still, it was at best half the rate of a healthy person her age. Her heart rate picked up the most when her great-granddaughter called her, not surprisingly.
We left the hospital close to midnight, asking the other relatives to call us when it happened. At 2am my mother received the phone call and I heard the news when I woke up this morning.
It will be a solemn Chinese New Year for us.