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Oct 03

Lawrence (1917 – 2003)

Word arrived that my grandfather passed away in Singapore last week. Mum went back to visit him a couple months ago. After a doctor’s report came through early last week that he only had a few days to live, Mum had booked a flight straight away. Unfortunately, the doctors overestimated how much time he had left to live (something extremely unusual given their usual conservative estimates), and he succumbed to lung cancer on Wednesday. Mum’s flight left on Thursday.

This is not an obituary. Obituaries are written by people who know the deceased well. This is more like a diary entry, because it seemed fitting to write something to record the sad event. Like most grandchildren who are born overseas, I never was especially close to my grandfather. Didn’t see him enough. When I did see him, communication difficulties were the main issue, even when I grew old enough to be reasonably conversant with adults. It didn’t help that he was quite hard of hearing and I almost had to shout to get my words across.

It was ironic in a way. His command of English was by no means perfect, but he was still more or less fluent, which is a bonus with Asians of his generation. By all accounts, he knew how to speak six or seven different languages/dialects, which to me is absolutely amazing.

In contrast, I only know a single language – the product of years of growing up in a country town public school in the mid-80s where everyone still went around calling Asians “ching-chong Chinaman!” and then pushing up the corners of their eyes to make them slanty. (Relatives keep chiding me for not picking up my mother tongue when I was young. But why would a 6-year old, the only Asian in the class, learn Cantonese when it’s something that would serve no useful purpose other than to make you seem even more alien from your peers? No thanks, I’ll stick to English. 6-year olds simply don’t have the foresight to see past that kind of relentless teasing. My remedy back then to those situations was a well placed fist-to-the-face that saw me get hauled up in front of the Principal on several occasions where he pulled out the old “sticks and stones” aphorism. Nonetheless, I found that the brawls were quite effective in stopping all the racist teasing!)

I was in Singapore by myself in early 2001, and Mum had demanded that I pay a visit to my grandfather out of respect. Always a strongly independent person, he lived alone, by choice. Well, almost alone. There was quite a stir because a mainland Chinese girl – a student, supposedly – had recently moved in, renting out a room in his flat. Most of the family were convinced that she was after his money, and tried to get him to kick her out. However, he refused to turn her away because he appreciated her “companionship”.

Anyway, I was quite reluctant to visit him. Not out of disrespect, but mainly because of awkwardness. I would be there by myself for a few hours. What would I talk to him about? What would he say to me? I’d never had a conversation with him in my life. The whole prospect was unusually daunting. And this was my own grandfather no less!

A few hours later, another relative dropped by to pick me up. Of course, it wasn’t as bad as I had feared. Sure the conversation at times ground to a halt. There were periods of silence. There were times when he seemed to zone out for a few minutes, perhaps lost in thought. But it wasn’t as if we had nothing to talk about. I’d just come in from Europe, and that sparked off a round of stories from him about his travels when he was young. Old people always have stories to tell. (And there was one moment when the phone rang and I witnessed the most unexpected sight of an 80-something year old answering a mobile phone!) Don’t get me wrong, I still felt awkward, but I was glad that I had dropped by.

When Mum called up later to check how everything was, word got back to me that my grandfather had enjoyed the visit immensely, and it occurred to me just how important companionship was to the widower. To me it was just an awkward couple of hours, but to him it was much more. And in that light, it didn’t seem so awkward anymore. I’ll miss him dearly.