TEH SU CHING
Ten days after Ah Kong died, I found his Guardian Pharmacy Gold Seniors discount card in my red wallet. Ah Ma had handed me the card while Pops was in Washington and Mum in San Francisco, so that I'd get a discount on adult diapers, food thickener, and glucolin. But I always forgot to flash the card for a discount. I always paid the full price.
A month ago, on a Sunday afternoon, undertakers from Singapore Casket put Ah Kong's body on a stretcher and carried him out the front door. Pops finally cried, and Ah Ma gave my aunt and her husband Ah Kong's Cetaphil body lotion. I helped myself to his green Smith-Corona typewriter. Ah Kong had been losing weight for a month. Saturday, the day before he died, a nurse had come to the house to put a tube into his mouth so that we could tube-feed him his meals. He couldn't swallow anymore, and had started to spit food out. He had been diagnosed with Stage Four lung cancer last year, and given twelve months to live. Thirteen months passed.
My husband has fond memories of his grandma. He remembers conversations he had with her, time spent together, jokes cracked. I have few to no such memories of Ah Kong. I have memories of things he did that I found adorable, but not whole chats I'm grateful for having had. There were no concerted efforts to take Ah Kong and Ah Ma on outings. They rejected our attempts to. Ah Ma preferred to stay at home and watch the TV serials she found more engaging than real life, while Ah Kong enjoyed going out on public transport alone, and meeting strangers who would coo over and admire his chutzpah. Taking care of Ah Kong and Ah Ma was a duty my parents bore. Sometimes they saw it as a burden, never as a source of pride.
That Sunday morning, I decided to bring my laptop to the living room and work there. Before beginning work, I checked on Ah Kong in his room. He was wheezing, his mouth agape. His eyes darted all over the wall behind me, as if he could see things I couldn't, or perhaps they just could not stay focused. There was a gurgling sound coming from the back of his throat. He had lost the strength to swallow a few days before. A handout the hospice workers gave us said this was normal. It told us not to panic, and not to think that sound meant Ah Kong was having difficulty breathing. Ah Ma wept quietly on her bed, alternating her gaze between Ah Kong and their ceiling. I left the room and continued to work in the living room. It was a sunny morning. A light breeze rustled the leaves on the trees outside.
Five pages into my screenplay, Mum called to me. There was an edge in her voice. When I got to the room, Nyah, the more mild-mannered of our two maids, Pops, and Mum stood by Ah Kong's bed. Ah Ma continued crying on hers. To prevent bedsores, Nyah had been helping Mum turn Ah Kong over when the gurgling stopped. Mum said Ah Kong had stopped breathing. His eyes were still half-open, his mouth still agape. Mum and Pops handed me a stethoscope. I had never used one before. I tried to remember how a doctor I had visited in Hong Kong listened to my heartbeat. There were two discs at the base of the rubber tube - one bigger, one smaller. I unbuttoned Ah Kong's shirt and held his cold, limp hand. I placed the bigger disc against his chest, when Mum said, "no, it's the other way around." "Are you sure?" "Yes." I placed the small disc against his chest and tried to listen for sounds. But I wasn't sure what I was listening for. I thought I heard beats, but they were so sporadic and soft. I wasn't sure if what I was hearing was my own pulse.
Nyah began to cry. Pops, Mum, and I didn't know if he was dead, or if he had simply stopped breathing for a minute or two. The handout we got from the hospice had also warned us this could happen. How long would we have to wait before he began breathing again? Would he start blinking again, then, too?
We called the neighbour, a dermatologist, for help. She shone a light into his eyes and placed the bigger disc of her stethoscope against his bare, bony chest. She was grave. "It doesn't look good," she apologised. I began to cry. I sobbed in the kitchen while we waited for the death certificate doctor to come. Mum handed me a tissue and said, "the Buddhists believe crying traps the soul on earth." I told her, "I don't." The nurse who had visited the day before had told us to lie his body flat on the bed. We stretched him out from his half-fetal position, and placed his hands on his sunken stomach, one above the other. I tried to close his eyes repeatedly, but they kept half-open. His mouth stayed open too. My big brother's mother-in-law brought a small blue transistor with a miniature white Buddha figurine on it. Mummy plugged it in. The transistor played a recording of a droning Buddhist chant, with no beginning and no end, next to the body.
When my big brother came back from San Francisco a few days later, he spoke to me about how he felt Ah Kong's last weeks affirmed Buddhism's focus on suffering. "If this experience has taught me anything," he began his reflective monologue. I nodded and listened and sucked on a MINT PLUS strawberry-flavoured sweet, one of the hundreds Singapore Casket had included in its family mourning package.
In Ah Kong's final weeks, he lost his capacity for speech, or rather, he realised he had stopped forming words we could understand, and given up trying to communicate. Ah Ma believes when he moved and smacked his lips, the way he did every time I showed him photographs of my baby nephew, his first great grandson, he was trying to smile. Pops believes Ah Kong waited till Mum got back from San Francisco, before dying the next day. Mum believes Ah Kong is better off dead. I don't know what to believe.
In Ah Kong's cupboard sits a pile of store-brand adult diapers and underpads, a can of Thick 'n' Easy that gave his blended food the consistency of yoghurt, and a powder blue tin of grape-flavored glucolin we mixed with water to make his energy drink. His Gold Seniors discount card expires next March.
Teh Su Ching writes poetry, plays, screenplays, and short stories. Her work has been screened, published, and performed in London, New York, Telluride, Glasgow, Shanghai, and Singapore. Sometimes, she works on the green typewriter she stole from her late grandpa’s room.