I’ve already forgotten my first memory of my grandmother, but that is probably because I had always lived with her, or at least be in close proximity to her. In my mind, there isn’t an ‘enter, stage right’ with her or memories reserved for holidays. She was always there somewhere in the back of my mind.
But what I do remember very clearly was when I was about five. We learned in kindergarten that vegetables are good, and, you know, it was something that adults always went on about with children. I was not a vegetable-eater. I liked meat and carbs and sugar like every other five-year-old, but I thought I’d give it a go. Don’t knock it ’till you try it, right? So I asked my grandmother to make clear pork soup with cabbage and carrot, the only dish with vegetables I knew I wasn’t going to gag on, and she did. For a week, she did. And I learned how to eat vegetables before reverting back to high-carb high-meat diet again.
Now, my grandmother was not the best cook of them all, but if ‘clean food’ was a thing back then, she would have been right in the trend. She was always health conscious, probably the most health conscious of all of us. Come to think of it, my grandmother had always been ahead of the trend: eat healthy, exercise, be interested in the world, be interested in education. She followed televised courses long before MOOC becomes a thing.
One of the reasons all her three children have post-secondary degrees is because my grandmother believed education is important even though she didn’t have any formal education. She told me once that someone convinced her that knowledge was going to be the way of the future, but I’ve always thought she was probably miffed that she didn’t really get to go to school even if she didn’t really remember it. Poverty and the changing world were probably factors as well. Regardless, it doesn’t take away the fact that she saw it coming and made sure none of her children was left behind. And in doing so, she had set the courses of their lives, and the courses of their children’s lives in an upward direction.
So I guess it is not a surprise that for this woman who valued vitality and knowledge would be scared of something like dementia. She always called it Alzheimer’s, but probably because that was the type of dementia her friends and acquaintances came across or had the misfortune of experiencing. She had always told me, when the topic ever came up, something along the line of ‘I’d rather die than having to go through it’.
So, imagine my horror when I learned that she developed one.
It was two years ago, and the disease progressed fast. I was half the world away, pursuing my own education and vitality, so all I know was from what my family told me. My thought kept going back to the fact that her ultimate nightmare had come true and how horrifying that must be for her.
Meeting her after her condition stabilized was a little unsettling because she was still herself but at the same time not quite herself. She lost her mobility and much of her vitality. She also kept reverting back to her mother-tongue, Teochew, and I was left at a loss in most of our conversation. My solace was that the disease didn’t take everything away, but it was a small solace in the face of reality that dementia is not a curable disease, and it takes something she and I hold more precious than life itself.
So, in someway, her passing is a relief. We will grieve her loss, but doing so in full knowledge that she is finally free of the terror. I’ve been told that she passed peacefully just the way she always said she wanted to go, and in that knowledge, at least, there is small comfort for us.
If how we should remember someone is a result of the sum total of our memory of him or her, then I’ll remember my grandmother as a learner. I’ll remember that she was a hard worker, and I’ll remember her concerns for all her children and her grandchildren. I’ll remember that she was progressive for her time even when I found her traditional for my time. I’ll remember the soup she made for me. And most importantly, I’ll remember that where I am and who I am is a consequence of where she was and who she was.
And in that sense, her story has not quite ended yet.
P.S. Grandma, I love you.