Monday, July 28, 2008


We all have regrets in life. Over the past two days, I have had many but defined these down to the following:

1) I regret not spending more time with my grandmother, even when I promised myself I would.
2) I regret not buying her more of those cherries she loved.
3) I regret not buying her those adult diapers she was always fretting about, even when I said I would.
4) I regret not sitting down with her and listening to all her old stories, writing them down for records' sake.
5) I regret ever being impatient even when I visit with her, always being in a hurry to leave. I never knew what to say after the first five minutes. And I never had the patience to sit for hours and just listen. Or just sit in silence and just be.

And now all that has come to an end. With the passing of one, regrets are born.

They are not new. I have written about them before I think. And I have read about them. Other people have expressed similar regrets.

Why do we never learn from the regrets of others? To regret is always sad. We always read the sad stories of others, promise ourselves not to go the same road, and yet, promptly we do. At least, I do. It seems I never learn.

On Sunday morning, at 1.10am, my last remaining grandmother died peacefully in the arms of her eldest daughter - my mother, and the one, in popo's last words: "the one I love the most".

It was a gentle death. And there are far, far worse ways to go. I'm glad she went peacefully and lovingly, having told her daughter she loved her.

I saw her on Saturday morning - unknowingly, for the last time.

It was Saturday like any other Saturday. Market day in the Lorong 1 market, sitting for breakfast with mom. Popo came along in her wheelchair, pushed by Desi the maid. I thought she looked paler than usual, and she complained of itch. I thought it was pruritis, a sign that her kidneys are failing and said so to mom, suggesting that tests be done, but then concluding what was the point? She was 85 and we've known that her organs are quietly failing one by one ever since she was admitted to the hospital late last year for a heart attack. We just sighed and said: matter of time. Little did we know how near that time would be.

Unusually for us, most of my children were there, except Isaac and Trin. Isaac had prelim oral exams in school and at that early hour of the morning, Trin was still sleeping. But everyone else, to our surprise, had gotten up early and insisted on coming with KH and I to the market.

So that morning, we sat there, having breakfast and popo, sitting with us. I can't remember what we talked about. It just seemed like a usual, normal market day. But that's life eh? Death strikes on normal days and never lets on that it was in fact a special day and that she had less than 24 hours left to live.

Our conversation was prosaic - going up to the food centre for breakfast and kopi, she wanted to eat Indian rojak and they were considering wheeling her to Toa Payoh Central for some R&R. I remember her smiling and caressing Owain's face briefly. She said something about is he still drinking breastmilk and I say no he's stopped but the baby at home still is. She asked how old the baby is and I said she's going to be three. And she shook her head disapprovingly, pursed her lips and said cannot you know, so long no good.

Sitting here now, I'm trying hard to remember this last conversation but nothing really stands out. My goodbye was not special either. I just waved, called a casual 'okay bye, I'll see you later' and left.

Why didn't I give her a hug? I didn't know. That she was going that very night. But we all never really know, do we?

Yesterday she lay in her coffin, dressed in her sarong kebaya, my mother's kasut manek on her feet, I gazed at her. And I could almost feel her in that non-existent last hug: her frail bones, the stooped shoulders, the baby powder smell, the pat of her hands.

It felt so real that for a moment, I could not believe she was gone. All I could hear was the Rediffusion in the morning, her chasing me to get up, wash up and change into my school uniform and get ready for school, her walking me down to wait for the bus. The clacking of mahong tiles. Her babi-chin. An A-frame hut on a beach. A veiled head in church. Praying before the Immaculate Heart.

Are those my only memories? She took care of me while my parents worked, for most of my younger childhood. Why can I not remember anything more of that time?

Instead, all that comes to mind is a vague memory of the prosaic - the day-to-day. The day-to-day never sticks out. But it is the day-to-day that forms us and makes us who we are - like the tide that flows over the rocks every day. The ebb and flow shapes and polishes the rocks. Popo was the ebb and flow of my day-to-day as I was growing up.

There is nothing unique, special or outstanding to remember about those days. But they were still part of the big picture that makes me who I am, that defines me. And maybe, despite the lack of earthshaking memories and events, these were equally as, if not more important.

I must try to remember more. It will be all I have left of her.

These elusive memories, and those wretched regrets.

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