I wonder

28 Sep 2011By Tan Cai Xin Angela, Singapore

I was never Ah-Ma’s favourite grandchild. But I was close to her because my parents divorced and my younger brother and I were bundled off to stay with Ah-Ma as they were afraid Mum would ‘snatch’ us back to Malaysia.

She was there for us when we were sick, brought us to the doctor’s, took care of our medication, made sure we ate the correct foods – not too heaty – mainly the water from plain porridge (called “Um”) which the women of her generation and the generation before hers believed to be nutritional and nourishing for the weakened body.

She was there to sign our report cards and test papers when Dad couldn’t come over due to his other commitments.

She was there to offer prayers to the deities and seek blessings for us to do well in our examinations.

She was there to open the door for us when we came home late from partying.

She was there to help us cover up when Dad called and we weren’t at home.

She was always there.


Her dementia lasted 6 years and to this day I wonder if I caused it.

Ah-Gong had been admitted to TTSH 1 for the umpteenth time due to the infections from the bedsores he got from the poor level of care he received at the nursing home.

He had a multitude of illnesses from Hepatitis B (Ah-Ma always made sure he had his own set of cutlery and never shared anything with us), high blood pressure and high cholesterol, diabetes, together with the fall that broke his pelvic bone that rendered him pretty immobile. Ah-Gong was a big man and none of us were able to care for him properly.

I remember coming home from school to see splotches of poop on the floor all the way from his room to the bathroom in the kitchen. I had to clean up. I was angry and scolded Ah-Gong for creating the mess because he refused to wear his ‘Pampers’ 2. I complained to Ah-Ma and she ‘caned’ Ah-Gong.

Ah-Gong laughed, what was left of his teeth made a toothy grin. That was probably one of the only times I ever saw Ah-Gong laugh and this kind of interaction between them. I’m not even sure if anybody else in the family ever saw that before and I’ll never forget that scene.


Ah-Ma had hated Ah-Gong for his moment of folly when he was younger. As the wife of an heir to an inheritance of a goldsmith shop, Ah-Ma was deemed the Towkay-neo 3. But alas, the good times did not last. Ah-Gong got cheated of his inheritance, cheating on Ah-Ma in the process and incurred a sizable debt from loan sharks. She probably felt humiliated, to fall from being ‘Towkay-neo” to being debt-ridden, not even of her own doing.

She was the eldest daughter in the family, and many of my relatives would later tell me stories of how Ah-Ma used to take care of them long before, during the only times where we would meet and sit down for long periods of time with nothing else to do; the funeral wakes of other granduncles and grandaunts.

Ah-Ma had to bring up the entire family by selling noodles at a school canteen, making about $10 (after paying for supplies) a day, of which she would give $1 to each of her 7 sons and $3 to Ah-Gong for him to “learn how to be a bus conductor”.

Ah-Ma made sure all of us knew about Ah-Gong’s misdeeds and repeated this story over and over again while we were growing up.


The decision was made between the sons that Ah-Gong should be sent to a nursing home.

“This time it’s critical,” the doctor warned. “Do you want us to resuscitate him if he should not be able to make it?”

Without even considering, Dad agreed. I pulled Dad aside, “You see Ah-Gong now, he must be feeling terrible with all the tubes and needles sticking into him. If he really wants to go then let him go lor. Why bring him back and make him suffer again?” Dad agreed with what I said too and told the doctor so.

I was tasked with being with Ah-Gong at night in the hospital. I would go home and shower and change in the morning and return in the afternoon.

One afternoon, Ah-Ma decided to go to the hospital with me to visit Ah-Gong. That was the first time she had asked to do that, and sadly, the last time she would ever be able to do that.

Ah-Gong looked like he was getting well. Gone were his feeding tubes. His spirits were high, and there was a twinkle in his eyes.

“Is my Ah-Gong getting better?” I asked the nurse. “Your Ah-Gong ah… He pulled out the feeding tube and refused to let us put it back in. Later we have to put it back in for him when it’s feeding time.” she replied.

This was probably what people mean when they say that the dying will have a last burst of energy before they go. Nobody realised that was happening to Ah-Gong.

It was some celebration of Tua Pek Kong’s 4 birthday or something. I was supposed to accompany Ah-Ma to the temple. Dad called, “The hospital just called, Ah-Gong left. We’re going to go collect him now. Don’t tell Ah-Ma. Just accompany her to the temple.”

Everybody was at home when we got back. The entire extended family. “Why is everybody here?” Ah-Ma asked. Nobody told her. Everybody ignored her.

Just then, there was a call and everybody was to go downstairs to wait for Ah-Gong. And everybody left, leaving Ah-Ma and me.

Ah-Ma turned on me. Cornered, I had no choice. “Ah-Gong passed away…”

Ah-Ma snapped. How she howled. How she lamented her sad life, her life that she wasted on Ah-Gong and how he had brought her nothing but suffering.


It came swiftly, just 2 or 3 days into the wake.

Mum was one of Ah-Ma’s favourite daughters-in-law. They used to chat on the telephone for hours, so much so that Mum had Dad install a telephone extension (before the invention of the cordless telephone) so that she could bring the phone to the toilet while Ah-Ma rattled on and on, so much so that every time Mum came to visit us, Ah-Ma would ask her not to go back to JB 5, but to stay over for the night.

But now, Ah-Ma could not recognize Mum, “Eh you come already ar? Who are you huh? You take a seat. I need to go buy breakfast for C.L. they all (my cousins whom we were staying with, whom Ah-Ma doted on).” That was about 3 in the afternoon.

Ah-Ma went missing. We couldn’t find her. She hadn’t changed and didn’t bring anything with her. It couldn’t be. She was a formidable lady who made sure she looked good everywhere she went. Her clothes were from OG 6, her cosmetics Kose and Mary Quant, her perfume Anais-Anais. She wouldn’t have gone out without bringing one of us kids along.

We waited till evening and decided to go to the Neighbourhood Police Post 7. An old lady matching her description had been found wandering in the neighbourhood, unable to give her particulars. They had brought her to Tanglin Police Station. We rushed there, ‘Dua-pek’ (Eldest Uncle), Dad and myself.

Ah-Ma came out of the Holding Room. She cried like a lost child. She knew us but did not know us. It was heart breaking.


It was a one-sided battle. And there was nothing to fight it with. Somebody had recommended a famous (now defunct) hospital, very costly. Dad and I sent her there. She wanted to go home with us but it was for her own good. All she received were electric shocks 8. It got worse.

As time went by, she turned into a former shell of herself. She needed 24/7 care, and this time, we decided to hire help, having learnt from our past mistake of sending Ah-Gong to a home.

I moved out, and, each time I visited, it felt like a knife twisting in my heart. There was no soul left in Ah-Ma. Her eyes were vacant. Blank. Perhaps it was better for her – to not know pain, feelings, emotions, memories – not know anything at all.


It was Ah-Ma’s birthday. Despite her condition, the entire extended family came for dinner, even though she didn’t know what was going on.

Mum had told me of her dream. She had dreamt that there was a big celebration and Ah-Ma was well and her old chatty self. It seemed like a farewell party of sort.

Mum told me to suggest to Dad and my uncles that we should skip the birthday gathering this year and donate the money for it to some good cause instead. I didn’t have the guts to speak up, for they had always taught us that ‘children should not interfere in the affairs of the grownups’ and I was afraid that should something really happen, the blame would be on me and Mum.

Ah-Ma’s birthday was on Wednesday but the celebration was brought forward to the Sunday before so that nobody would have to rush back from school or work. We had Cze Char 9 at a coffeeshop. It was about 8pm. Ah-Ma was dozing off from medication. ‘Zee-pek’ (2nd Uncle) and family were late. Dad was pissed and railed at them,” So late then come! Mum going to sleep already! This year celebrate last time, next year don’t celebrate already!”

Dinner went on and as usual, and I told the helper to have her meal while I fed Ah-Ma. I remember feeding her shark’s fin soup and Mee Sua 10, which I had mashed into a paste as she was unable to chew.

It was time to cut the birthday cake. Everybody was full and nobody wanted to eat it at all.

Frustrated, I blurted, “This year don’t eat, next time no more already…” I stopped myself as soon as I realized what I was saying but ‘Zee-mm’ (2nd Aunt, 2nd Uncle’s wife) heard me. “How can you say this kind of things?” she asked, probably almost as shocked as I was. “Dad say next year don’t want to celebrate already,” I countered guiltily.

I was out the next day when H.J., my cousin called, “Eh C.X, you got ‘Nnoh-chek’s (5th Uncle, my dad) telephone number anot?”. ”Why leh? ” I asked. “Ah-Ma like not feeling well leh…” I quickly gave my cousin Dad’s telephone number and somehow, something told me that I had to go over immediately.

I told my friend so and rushed to the roadside to wait for a cab but there were none. My phone rang just as a cab stopped in front of me. “C.X, Ah-Ma left already…”


Until today I wonder.

Would things have been different if I hadn’t been the one who broke the news of Ah-Gong’s demise? Could somebody else have told her instead of me? Should I have waited for somebody else to tell her? Would it have been gentler on her? Would she not have snapped the way she had and deteriorated so rapidly?

Maybe. Just maybe.

1 Tan Tock Seng Hospital; a general acute-care hospital in Singapore.
2 A popular brand of diapers.
3 Proprietress.
4 大伯公; A Malaysian Chinese God.
5 Johor Bahru, Malaysia.
6 An established department store in Singapore.
7 A small police station in Singapore for community policing.
8 Electroconvulsive therapy is a psychiatric treatment for severe depression. According to Wikipedia, “immediately following treatment the most common adverse effects are confusion and memory loss”.
9 煮炒; literally “cook & fry”; an eatery serving Chinese cuisine à la carte.
10 Mee Sua is a thin variety of salted Chinese noodles made from wheat noodles, typically served during festivities.