The taste of death

She burned a hole through the cool membrane I was creating for myself, a temporary sanctuary I was settling into, in preparation for my impending public examination, the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia. It was hotter than any sambal belacan that she had ever made and more spicy than her best laksa. She had a character tougher than the chicken livers which none of us in the household had ever wanted to eat – but she did anyway, for she also led a remarkably frugal existence. My family members had bitter times aplenty with her whining and intolerable antics, until we were practically immune to it. Maybe that was why we didn’t mind chomping up the stir-fried bitter gourd dishes she made. However her death left an abhorrent taste in my mouth, and on the tongues of many others. Like a bowl of petai gone bad.

My late grandaunt, whom I call ‘apo’, is far from the sweet-little-grandmother picture that is portrayed in storybooks and fairy tales. She isn’t even my grandmother. Most people know their grandaunts as ‘that vague figure of a relative’ that happens to be the mother of their mother’s cousin. Or some relative who lives in Penang. Some distant relative. I don’t. She was the grandmother of my childhood, my diaper-changer, my pacifier. I was one of the many children in the Tee family that she witnessed trade-in black pinafores for blue ones, and nagged for not listening to her. I was the best kind of ‘manja-pot’, because I knew exactly when to grow out of my childish antics. She was like the smelly pillow I used to chim every night.

Apo used to rattle on about how adorable I was when I was a baby, and liked to recollect the times when I missed ‘seven’ in my arduous struggle to count from 1 to 20. It seemed as if only she savoured my childhood moments, like someone stopping to pick up sea shells, not minding that she was far behind. Whenever she told me about the mispronunciations I used to make when I was a toddler, her face would light up in delight. Those were one of the many times when her plain Jane face was undoubtedly pleasing to look at. Almost like a real fairytale grandmother.

To say that she was economical would be a huge understatement. Apo was a terrible, terrible hoarder. She kept stacks of unusable items, things that she kept insisting ‘eh sai eong la’ (‘still can be used). This sparked many arguments, especially between her and my mother, who acquired her father’s tendency to make sure nothing rots and goes to waste (lots of plastic containers were beginning to turn sticky). I once thought of building a plastic fortress instead of the usual pillow fortress, but decided otherwise when I thought of apo’s bouts of rage.

My grandaunt picked fights. Oh boy, she did. And these were not just ordinary fights, because she knew little of surrender. She often spoke badly of people behind their backs, making people uneasy with her complaints about each family member. Everybody was aware of it. As the Malays would put it, she had a mulut laser. Her bitterness was sometimes contagious, which was the worst part. Thankfully I never learned the ‘dark art’ of backstabbing. All we could do is to shake our heads in unison and wait for each storm to pass. We understood the reasons behind her behaviour. Her actions were definitely inexcusable, only because we knew that she had an unhappy past, one that involved a failed arranged marriage and a disowned daughter.

‘Mai hao siang gak lu eh lao peh si liao’ (‘Don’t cry as if your father just died’)

She taught me that being too emotional never rewarded anyone. She cooked and cleaned willingly for all of her brother’s descendants, as a sign of graciousness for taking her in and saving her from possible homelessness. If there was a respectable equivalent of the word ‘asshole’, she was one.

A few days ago, I found myself holding her cold, bony hands and telling her that Yok Yi and Benjamin (my cousins, both no more than 3 years) were waiting for her, that she needed to wait for them to come home. My uncle and I were kneeling on the tikar, making futile attempts at saving her from imminent death. I did what I was told, and tried to circulate blood through her body by massaging her palms and body. Her sarong was falling off of her stomach, showing the bloated tummy that formed during the past few days in her sickly condition. Apo’s face was falling. Her body was failing her. And the rest does not need to be said.

My apo, the rebel, the hoarder, my pseudo-grandmother, is gone.

I am still recovering from the initial shock as I become more aware that my days are equally numbered. I yearn to feel her presence, but my actions betray me as I clear her personal belongings and pack them up in bags ready for disposal, or to be given away for charity. I feel weary and mentally exhausted from going through the motions of a traditional Buddhist wake and seek momentary respite in sugar. I have lost a grandmother – that is what I shall tell people from now on. I have lost my chow chow (smelly pillow). My apo.

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