equivocality — Jeff Ngan's collection of thoughts, experiences, and projects, inspired by pretty much everything
28 Apr 10

Grandma died

The details are scant, as I only found out second-hand through Darren. They say she was on painkillers and went peace­fully in the hos­pi­tal. It was her pain that scared me most; bet­ter to pass on than live with suf­fer­ing through can­cer and chemother­apy at her age, I always thought.

It brings me com­fort to know that Mina, her trusty and loyal maid, was there with her when she died. Also, to know my aunt will be able to go back home to a nor­mal life, instead of dot­ing on my grand­mother indef­i­nitely after giv­ing up her law prac­tice and leav­ing her hus­band and daugh­ter in Canada.

I called my dad, and he seems to be tak­ing it as well as I am. I learned all my Chinese idioms for death by lis­ten­ing to what he’d say in these sit­u­a­tions. One is some­thing like, “She’s passed her body”, which always sounded very spir­i­tual to me and plays on the Chinese belief that our spir­its pass from this world into an ances­tral realm. Another has some­thing to do with becom­ing “fra­grant” or the smell of incense. But when he asked if I knew, he said, “Did you hear that grandma went?”

I just hope my cousin Priscilla is alright. She’s a pint-sized woman (even by Asian stan­dards) who more than makes up for her small stature with a razor sharp tongue and wit, but she was the most ador­ing grand­child I’d ever met when it came to our ma ma.

All of grandma’s kids were already in Hong Kong to be with her1 — many of them fly­ing in from dif­fer­ent parts of Canada — which is a tes­ta­ment to how impor­tant she was. She was the uni­fy­ing force who tied the fam­ily together. Siblings would make peace with each other out of respect for her, and the peace has lasted.

I’m not sad. I was already sad when I was in Hong Kong last year, on the day I left her. Back then, I made my peace, never expect­ing to have the chance to see her again. Instead, I’m glad to have been able to let her know how much she meant to me (even though I wasn’t sure if she remem­bered, with the sever­ity of her Alzheimer’s), to hear her tell her story in her own words, and to cap­ture her voice and char­ac­ter on video.

When I see her smil­ing and hear her voice, I see an inno­cence about her I wasn’t used to see­ing. She was always a strong, classy lady.

  1. The excep­tions being my dad and Darren’s dad, who were fly­ing out yes­ter­day and next week respec­tively, until they heard the news. They’re chang­ing flight plans for the funeral. []
06 Apr 09

Leaving Grandma

Grandma’s kids are lined up to visit over the next few months, each stay­ing with her a few weeks at a time. An uncle flew in a few days before my dad and I left, and another aunt has arrived since.

Grandma says the house will be empty when my uncle leaves, com­pletely for­get­ting that my aunt who’s already there has given up her life to be with her indef­i­nitely. We joke that she’s just another maid to grandma now. Her mem­ory remains patchy; some­times she’s lucid, some­times she’s lost.

I won­der if she’ll even remem­ber if I was here.

Leaving was hard. My aunt hugged me long, told me she’d miss me through the lump in her throat, and promptly went to the bed­room to com­pose her­self. Knowing it was the last time I was going to see her, I hugged and kissed my grandma as much as I could. It was an effort not to cry. Even the maid wiped a tear from her eye with the back of her hand, but none of the other men did, and I won­der if they would have, had they not been in the pres­ence of other men.

As we were leav­ing, she handed me a red enve­lope, and told us to visit her again soon. It was a relief to know that she’s still uncon­scious of her ter­mi­nal con­di­tion, but the reminder that I would never see her again broke my heart.

What a strange feel­ing it is to know that she’s still alive on the other side of the world, while I’m here, unable to be with her. For now, I’m happy and relieved that I had the chance to express myself to her, and film her, and cap­ture her image.

29 Mar 09

Grandma and Her Parrot

Grandma loves her par­rot. We carry it around for her, and she sleeps with it on her bed­side table. Whenever she talks to it, I can never really tell if she really is talk­ing to her par­rot in an act of senil­ity, or whether she does it to humour us.

A note on the trans­la­tion: The name “Fat Bird” is really “Fat Woman Parrot” in Chinese. The word “par­rot” is a homonym for the last part of grandma’s name, so “Fat Woman Parrot” sounds like it’s refer­ring to her as well. That’s how she got her nick­name as “Fat Woman”.

This is grandma on a good day. I love to see her smile and laugh.

27 Mar 09

Grandma's Story

I’ve been try­ing to get a bet­ter idea of grandma’s life, so I’ve been ask­ing her as many ques­tions as pos­si­ble in the last three weeks. Her mind tends to drift and she gets lost on sub­jects; lit­tle snip­pets from the rest of my fam­ily sort of fill in the blanks. I’ll add more if I can get any­thing else out of her.

Grandma was born in Hong Kong, but she fled to Chiu Chow dur­ing the Japanese inva­sion by climb­ing a moun­tain with her only son slung on her back. For some rea­son, she feels a lot of pride about Chiu Chow even though she wasn’t born in that city, and always points out peo­ple from there1. As a result, she can speak both Cantonese and the Chiu Chow dialect.

Read the rest of this entry »

  1. She says she rec­og­nizes them by their faces. []
20 Mar 09

A Different Kind of Understanding

The doc­tor told us she has another 5–6 months. Her colon is so enlarged from the tumor that it’s thicker than her spine, and the pro­ce­dure was just a tem­po­rary solu­tion to pre­vent fur­ther blockages.

How strange it is to “know” how much time there is left. I guess that’s why they call it a dead­line. I had already assumed that this would going to be the last time I could see her, but that won’t make it any eas­ier when I have to leave.

I’m grate­ful to the peo­ple who have been send­ing me their regards. It’s a nice com­fort. One of the best pieces of advice came from Charlotte, who told me to “not leave any­thing at all unsaid to her…leave no ques­tions unan­swered, and to not with­hold any affec­tion you feel for her”.

I had come to Hong Kong with the inten­tion of telling my grandma how impor­tant she was to me. Finding the right words in Chinese to express exactly what I wanted to say.

But try­ing to speak with her has made me real­ize that she doesn’t care about any of that. She’s a very prac­ti­cal woman, almost to the point of tact­less­ness. For almost her entire life, mar­ried at 14 and as a sin­gle par­ent of seven kids, she’s had no time for words or feelings.

I’m here, and that’s how she under­stands how I feel.

19 Mar 09

Here, Scared

Grandma’s at the hos­pi­tal. She woke up this morn­ing with pain all over her body, but more severely in her lower abdomen. They quickly drove her to the doc­tor, and it turns out there’s been a block­age in her colon. This after­noon they per­formed a pro­ce­dure to expand the colon, and it went through with­out any com­pli­ca­tions. She’s rest­ing at the hos­pi­tal for the night, and my fam­ily is tak­ing shifts to stay with her.

I’ve been stuck at home all day. Everyone else has been at the hos­pi­tal and they decided to leave me behind. I’m on immune sup­press­ing med­ica­tions and the hos­pi­tal is full of germs; get­ting sick myself is the last thing I need, espe­cially when it means that I wouldn’t be able to see my grandma, as her immune sys­tem is even lower than mine right now. I would only be in the way if I was there anyway.

I’m scared. I’ve never dealt with any kind of sick­ness like this before. The only peo­ple in my fam­ily who have passed away were always far away in Hong Kong.

And now I’m here.

15 Mar 09

Another Day With Grandma

Grandma and her adopted son

My aunt tells me that my grand­mother is a very still sleeper. Sometimes she gets scared when they’re lying in bed together, because my grandma doesn’t seem to breathe or move at all. I find myself hop­ing that she goes this way, pain­lessly and peace­fully in her sleep.

But every morn­ing, when she slowly walks out from her bed­room, I’m relieved and happy that she’s with us another day.

14 Mar 09

Having It Maid

It’s the maid’s day off.

To be hon­est, her brief absence has shown that I already got used to hav­ing her around.

But then again, it’s not hard to get used to such a lux­ury. You wake up and feel like eat­ing some­thing, and she’ll have it ready by the time you’re dressed and fin­ished brush­ing your teeth. She draws your bath water. She irons your clothes while you wait. She picks up the gro­ceries for din­ner when you decide what to eat. Some of the dishes are so com­pli­cated that she begins cook­ing the night before, and has her niece (my aunt and uncle’s maid) come over to help.

Nothing needs to be said when it comes to chores around the house. When a meal is fin­ished, every­one gets up and heads to the liv­ing room. The next time you come back, the dishes are gone and the table wiped clean1. I fold my sheets before leav­ing the house, and when I get back they’re refolded, only neater.

My grand­mother has a his­tory of live-in ser­vants, although there haven’t been any wet nurses, gar­den­ers, or chauf­feurs for a while. Ever since her chil­dren grew up and left the house (or coun­try), she’s only needed one maid at a time. It seems to be a great rela­tion­ship, as there’s a respect that goes both ways; the maid is extremely good at her job, and we treat her like fam­ily. When the last maid died after 30 years of ser­vice, all her funeral arrange­ments were taken care of. In the last years of her life she had gone blind from dia­betes, and was then served her­self. That’s how we found the cur­rent maid, who’s been with my grandma ever since.

One of my favourite rit­u­als2 is the way the maid is given din­ner. After all the food is cooked, the maid lays the dishes out on the din­ner table, but doesn’t take any for her­self. So my grandma will take a plate, pile food onto it, and bring it to her.

  1. Admittedly, this was the hard­est thing for me to get used to. Something in me would keep scream­ing, “PUT THE DISHES IN THE SINK”. []
  2. And as a Taoist, I’m gen­er­ally deri­sive of rit­u­als. []
11 Mar 09

Being Strong For My Grandmother

The can­cer has spread to her bones and sev­eral major organs now. We asked the doc­tor not to tell her, but we can’t do any­thing against his moral oblig­a­tion to inform the patient. Either way, she doesn’t know how seri­ous it is, whether it’s from shock and denial, or mem­ory loss.

But she’s awake, and aware, and feel­ing no pain, which is good enough for me. The most we can do now is to try to make the rest of her life as enjoy­able as possible.

She thinks she’s going to be fine. Keeps telling me that she’ll take me to a nearby park when she’s bet­ter. As much as it hurts me to know this won’t be pos­si­ble any­more, it’s reliev­ing to know she’s so obliv­i­ous. We don’t let our­selves cry around her, for fear that she may real­ize how bad it is.

Her face is more sal­low, her fin­gers and legs ema­ci­ated, but she still has her thick, black hair1. Aside from a dis­tended stom­ach, it’s hard to tell that she has such a grim prognosis.

But by far the hard­est part is hav­ing to cod­dle her like a child to take her med­ica­tion. Telling her she’s a good girl if she swal­lows her pills and reward­ing her with ice-cream. That we’re only strict because we care about her. It tears me in half when she gives such a painful look of dis­taste with every pill we hand her, 18 a day.

She used to be so strong. Now we have to be strong for her.

  1. I used to have even more”, she tells me. []
11 Mar 09

Walks With Grandma

walks down the street

Thumbnail: School alley
Thumbnail: Building roads
Thumbnail: Convenience store
Thumbnail: Foliage
Thumbnail: Neon sign
Thumbnail: Store parrots
Thumbnail: Parrots
Thumbnail: Schoolgirls
Thumbnail: Villas sign
Thumbnail: Holding hands

In the last few weeks, she’s been too weak to leave the house, but we can take her for walks in the after­noon now. Going around the block takes half an hour and leaves her legs shak­ing, but she’s happy to be out. Before we go, she gets dressed and puts on her makeup and does her hair. Even now, she retains the class and dig­nity I’ve always admired in her.

10 Mar 09

The Worth Of A Good Night's Sleep

My aunt — the youngest child of my grand­mother — has been here for weeks. She stopped tak­ing her clients at work, and has been over­see­ing my grandmother’s treat­ments, as well as mak­ing deci­sions on her behalf.

They sleep in the same bed now, which I think is adorable, like regress­ing to some child­hood time, except the roles have been reversed. Yesterday, she told me my grand­mother had the best the night of sleep in a long time. She attrib­utes it to my grandmother’s hap­pi­ness that my dad and I are here.

This has already made the entire trip worth it.

09 Mar 09

Last Chance For Grandma

I’m on a plane some­where over the Pacific Ocean, in the mid­dle of this 16000km jour­ney. 18 hours of flight time, one lay­over in Chicago, and two meals.

My grand­mother in Hong Kong is dying. She’s been diag­nosed with colon can­cer, and started chemother­apy last week, slip­ping in and out of aware­ness due to the can­cer, the treat­ment, the med­ica­tions, or all three. So when my dad told me a few days ago that he was book­ing a ticket to fly out to see her, I had to take the oppor­tu­nity to go with him.

This is the woman to whom I mailed the first pay­cheque from my first job. The woman who gave me the jade neck­lace I never take off. The woman who came to Canada by her­self to find an edu­ca­tion for my dad, when the only English word she knew was “delay”. The woman who taught me how to hold chop­sticks prop­erly. The woman I’ve looked up to my entire life.

I don’t know how I’ll react when I see her, because I don’t know what con­di­tion she’s in. The details have been vague.

Awareness is a big thing. I want to be there. I want her to be aware. I want her to know how impor­tant she is to me.

The cir­cum­stances aren’t great, but I’m thank­ful to have this oppor­tu­nity to go. I’ll be able to bond with my dad. I’ll get a chance to see my uncles and aunts and cousins. I was going to go last year, but the trip was can­celed due to unfore­seen circumstances.

In a way, the tim­ing is right. I already have my pass­port. I was able to get more than three weeks off work. My col­i­tis has been diag­nosed, and I’m tak­ing med­ica­tion that will allow me to eat very well and not worry1. I have all the cam­era gear I need2. And I’ve been feel­ing so jaded with life lately, it’ll be good to get away, a lit­tle bit of much needed exile.

Before dri­ving to Toronto, I dropped Dolly off at Joel’s house3 The fish has a delayed feed­ing tablet. Extra pre­scrip­tions have been filled. The plants have been watered. Projects have been put on hold, both paid and unpaid, and plans have been can­celed. Even Naveed called me dur­ing the drive, and invited me to Rosella’s first birth­day party, but I’ll have to miss it. I don’t like to do things so last minute, but I have no choice.

This will be the first time I’ve ever gone when it wasn’t Christmas. It’ll be warmer, that’s for sure, and I’m going from a bru­tal Canadian win­ter to rel­a­tively trop­i­cal climes.

As a woman in her 80s4 with such a diag­no­sis on a dif­fer­ent con­ti­nent, it’ll prob­a­bly be the last chance for me to see her.

It feels like soon isn’t soon enough.

  1. I have yet to cal­cu­late the adjust­ment for the tim­ing of my med­ica­tions, since Hong Kong is 13 hours ahead, and the dosage for one of them is care­fully tapered over sev­eral weeks. []
  2. The last time I went to Hong Kong, I wasn’t into pho­tog­ra­phy yet, so I bor­rowed my dad’s cam­era and didn’t know how to use it. []
  3. He owes me a favour for tak­ing care of Sprocket for six weeks while he was in Australia last year. It’ll be inter­est­ing to see how she han­dles liv­ing in some­one else’s home, along with Sprocket and another dog. []
  4. No one really knows how old she is, because they didn’t keep birth records in Hong Kong for girls when she was born. I’m guess­ing some­where around late 80s. She just tells every­one that her birth­day is on Christmas to make it eas­ier. []