Grandma’s Wail

09 Jun 2011By Tara Tan, Singapore

It was the final night of my grandfather’s wake. All the guests had long gone home and we were just settling in the living room to keep the final watch. I found myself a little couch in the corner and closed my eyes to listen to the night. It had been a long week. The tears, the drama, the hate had all come tumbling out during the funeral. The final few months had taken its toll and bruised our spirits. But, for now at least, it was quiet and it was silent.

At about 3 am, I was lifted out of a light dreamless sleep by a thin high-pitched wail. It seemed endless, going on and on through the dark night. I got to my feet, my heart hammering, and started to look around the house. I looked through the aged window grilles into the garden. Nothing. I looked into the backyard with the big tree. Nothing. I stepped into the driveway to look at the dark and empty house. Nothing. The sound had stopped. Again, it was quiet and it was silent.

Then all of a sudden, it started up again. I traced the wail to second floor. I knew immediately where it was from and with my heart in my mouth I sped up the stairs into my grandmother’s bedroom and there she was. Standing in a night gown. Her face half-shadowed in the golden flood of light from the bathroom. Her mouth twisted in a look of horror and disbelief.

In the rare moment of clarity, she realised that her beloved husband was gone. She loved him so much; he was her entire life. For over sixty years, they lived and grew old in the same house they built when they got married. Grandma’s dementia had descended sharply as grandpa’s health declined. It was a brutal shock that hit her in the middle of the night, in the cold sobering bathroom light, that her lifelong companion had left her side.

We saw her dementia as some sort of silver lining. She didn’t have to deal with his death entirely. We could distract her with small things, little toys or paintings. Every once in a while, however, clarity would shoot a piercing gaze through her muddled memories and the chilling realisation of my grandfather’s death would hit her again and again and again.

Tara Tan is a writer and director who works with contemporary art and culture. This story also appears on her blog.