I was only 9 years old when my grandaunt passed away from old age. During that time, I was too young to understand what was life and death. My grandaunt loved me unconditionally from the day I was born- she was about 82 years old and insisted to personally take care of me instead of sending me to the sitter. She said (in Cantonese and I translate to English), “a child looking up the sky grows up very fast. Day and night will pass very quickly and before you know it, she would be all grown up. Please let me take care of her.”
Within a month of taking care of me, the naughty and mischievous baby, her straight back became bent. As my mom worked in shifts as a nurse and my dad worked afternoon till midnight, she was constantly worried how the old lady and the baby fared at home. There was no telephone. Did the old lady fall, or the baby fall, or both fall at the same time?
When my brother came along, he was sent to the sitter. My grandaunt could not care for both anymore. Today, I wondered why my grandaunt held on to me and not sent me to the sitter instead.
Why I want to share with you this story is because our family will pay our yearly visits to her and I am again reminded of this wonderful lady who loved me unconditionally… even though as a child I exploited her love by making lots of demands- but she loved me all the same. It has been more than 20 years and yet my mom faithfully make the yearly visit to see her, buy paper items and prepare food to give to her in accordance to the Chinese olden customs.
My mom and me are not related by blood to my grandaunt. My mom was born as the 7th daughter where the family had all girls. So my maternal grandma sold my mom to this grandaunt for about RM20 (those days were big money) because there were just too much of girls to take care off.
My grandaunt came from China and worked as a servant. She also made a vow of celibacy and remained unmarried till the day she died. Because she was not married, she choose to adopt girls. She adopted my mom because she was attracted by my mom’s alert eyes- even though mom that time was just a baby.
She gave my mom an education- even though she was a servant earning RM60 per month (less than USD20), she somehow managed to put my mom through an education. All of her other servant friends (who also undertook similar vows in celibacy) except for one criticized and say why put a girl through education? Let her work as a servant would be more profitable- furthermore, she’s not even related by blood. These people also have the idea that if you give a girl English education, she would likely run off and marry a foreigner (mat salleh) and never to be seen again. My grandaunt chose to listen to the one person who told her that she should give my mom an education in exchange for hope that my mom will take care of her in her olden days. In the end, the naysayers who said that my mom should not be given an education spent their last days in old folks home.
Still, my grandaunt took the risk and did not even allow my mom to work part time as a servant for money because she did not want my mom to be influenced and stop schooling. Life was tough- there was not enough food in the house because the family was too poor. Mom had to either scrap through the bottom of the rice pot for the little overnight rice that got stuck in the pot or climb up the guava tree and help herself to the fruit. She also learnt to recognize what type of berries that can be eaten. At school, while her schoolmates had pocket money to buy food, my mom had none. So all she did was to go to the school toilet and fill her stomach up with pipe water.
They used to rear pigs to sell them to the market and my mom and her adopted brother will be scouting the neighborhood’s bins for leftovers. Sometimes, when they passed by dustin of expat families, there will be leftover bread with butter on them that were thrown out. My mom ate them too because they never had bread in the house.
My grandaunt’s own mother passed away when my mother was about 18, the year that my mom was due to sit for her Senior Cambridge. It was then the reality hit my mom that the only way to get out of poverty is an education. At the grave of my greataunt’s mom, my mom prayed that may she passed her Senior Cambridge and get a good job so that she can take care of my grandaunt.
My mom was not the type who liked to study. How to study when your stomach is always empty and you have to worry where to find money to pay for the monthly school fees of RM5? Everyone thought there is no way mom would pass. But mom made a resolve to get up early every morning about few months before the exam to study. Mom was lucky- a number of the chapters that she had focused on came out in the exams. So she passed her Senior Cambridge (but I always think that the prayers helped).
My mom took care of my grandaunt till the day my grandaunt died. There was a huge generation gap of over 50 years between them- so their way of thinking was very different- old fashioned Chinese way of thinking as opposed to Westernized education. Naturally they always quarreled because of different point of views because both are strong headed and stubborn. Even though they don’t hug or express affection, the bond and love had always been there. As a trained staffnurse, my mom was tempted to go to UK to study when she was still single. But one look at my lonely and frail grandaunt and my mom decided against it. My mom made her choices and never regret any of them.
My grandaunt had a fall when she was about 93 and never quite recover from that fall. She was bedridden for about a week before she passed away in her sleep- I remember with a tear in her closed eyes.
About 7 days after she passed away, I had a dream of her. She came back to see me and we were playing at the jackfruit tree (we used to have a jackfruit tree outside our house when I was young). Then in my dream, I saw morning approaching and my grandaunt told me to go back inside the house. I asked her how about her? Isn’t she coming along with me? She told me, “no, I have to go somewhere else.” And so I went back into the house and shortly after woke up from my sleep.
Till today I still remember the dream even though it has been decades ago. When I told my mom about the dream, tears welled up in her eyes. That time, as I have mentioned, I was too young to understand what dying was all about. Then some years later, I dreamt once before Ching Ming (paying respect to her at the grave) that she wanted some soya bean drink. When I told my mom that, she rushed to the market to buy the soya milk as part of the food offering.
The real story of my grandaunt above illustrates that we need not necessary be related in blood to have the bond of love. Love and caring transcends culture, generation gap, language barriers, money, education, race and religion.
Asian culture greatly value filial piety even though in recent years it is fast disappearing. Loving and caring for the one who have cared for us is one of the most important thing in life we should be doing, not out of the sense of duty, but out of genuine love and gratitude that when we had been young and helpless, we were being taken care off. No doubt, our parents or guardians may have their own internal issues- like inability to express love, getting angry at us, etc, but yet, a portion of their hard earned money went into raising us up. As they are old, the fear of being alone and unwanted terrifies them. Forgive them for whatever wrong they have done- don’t stick to past stories of old hurt… because these self righteous belief will hold us back and make us miserable in life.
Everybody tries to make the best of what they have to be happy. Forgive them and we will forgive ourselves.