On our way to a temple in Kuala Lumpur, I ask Mum, “Why are you so Chinese?” She said our ancestral Chinese culture must be preserved because it’s always been part of our identity.
I asked, “Why should we follow if we don’t even know what we’re doing most of the time?” She said it’s been passed on for generations, so we must follow. I got mad, and our quarrel reached a high intensity. I told her that I’ll not continue going to temples when it’s my turn. She was mad and stopped talking to me.
The temple was red, white, and gold. Statues of different Gods were placed above all mortals: the calm and merciful Guan Yin in white, the fiercely loyal warrior Guan Gong in red, the bald and plump Smiling Buddha in gold.
You can smell the smoke at the temple from a distance: our eyes pinched, our nose blocked. Mum passed me 15 joss sticks for prayers, I refused. I told her I’m not going to do anything that doesn’t make sense. The smoke from the temple made my eyes sore, and my clothes smelled like burnt charcoal.
I said: “Do you even know this is Taoism and not Buddhism?” She replied: “Just pray, your Ah Ma isn’t getting any better.”
Ah Ma is my grandmother, and her sickness is indeed getting worse. She is now in a wheelchair, face pale, and hardly managing a word. But I walk away, telling her that this will not help Ah Ma in any way.
Alone with Ah Ma
That evening, I was alone with Ah Ma. She yelled for me. “Take me back home now!” she said. I told her that her home in Ipoh was too far away, and no one could look after her there, so she had best stay here.
She said: “I don’t care, I want to go back now.” I told her there is no car anyway. She told me she’ll use her ‘lousy car’ to go, and pointed to her wheelchair.
“But the wheelchair can’t go on the highway, Ah Ma,” I said. She said it can. I explained many times that the wheelchair can’t take her to Ipoh – we need a car. But she insisted that she could, and she must go back now.
This exchange carried on for three hours. I finally realised that she was hallucinating. As the days went by, her body degenerated, her mind weakened. Basic human functions became Herculean challenges.
One day I asked if she has eaten dinner, she only stared at me. Slightly afraid, she asked the question every grandchild would dread to hear: “Who are you?” I went and sat beside her, held her hand in mine, and told her my name with a choking voice.
Her palm was rough, but her hand was soft. Slender fingers, small bones, sharp nails – elegance of a woman. This was the hand that held her children; this was the hand that held her husband; this was the hand that collected stories.
I looked into her eyes: they used to be full of life and vigour, now empty. But the slight hazel still radiated her wrinkled face, reminding me of the young woman she once was. What used to be perfume that draws the men were now the smell of Johnson’s pink lotion and her favourite Aiken powder.
Her legs were filled with stitches and bruises from falling many times. She never wanted to use a crutch because she doesn’t want to depend on anything – she never did.
She took care of all 12 siblings when she was young; as an adult she had to work three jobs after her husband died at age 45. And when she finally had a little bit of money, she fell sick.
To sit on a wheelchair now – helpless – was a greater injury to her pride than a physical pain to her body. This strong woman had to endure a final hardship in a full life of suffering.
I looked at her in silence, her tiresome eyes stop to wander. The ticking clock filled the sound of the quiet room. I gave her one gentle peck on her forehead. That was the last time I got to see her.
Nine years since she died
Now I stare at a black-and-white photo of her. It’s been nine years since Ah Ma died. In my head I ask: did she think a life without enjoyment was fair? Why her, why not someone else? Was it worth it, after all? Did we make her proud? I want to talk to her, but I can’t.
I took three joss sticks from the container and lit them up. When ember forms at the tip, I swing the joss sticks at once; warm smoke blows upwards. In that moment, I understood the emotions behind Chinese culture.
I lit up the joss sticks not because a prayer could change anything. I pray because I don’t know how else I could repay her. I pray because I want her to know I admired what she’s done for the family, and I hope she can finally rest well. It is thank you, it is sorry, it is also a please-forgive-me.
The smoke of grey precipice forms different shapes. I imagine a shape of a smile – Ah Ma’s smile.
WRITER: JAMES CHAI