I had a conversation with my childhood best friend (let’s call her E) a week ago, and at one point she started talking about the things we take for granted. And because we were both feeling vulnerable at that point, because I’d been keeping it to myself for half a year, having her at the other end of the line at that time, both of us being on the topic of taking simple things for granted because they’re so simple, had me spilling everything I’d bottled up since June.
I lost my then-remaining grandparents in June, just three weeks from each other. I know these things happen, they’re not that unexpected, that they would happen sooner or later, but it was just like E had said, they’re part of the many normal, everyday things we take for granted. Family dinners, being fussed over, silly squabbles over the dining table, seeing my grandparents every year when I go back, they’re all things I take for granted because there’s nothing particularly novel about them.
Last year, because I was on exchange, because I was in England for the first time, I told my parents I’d give the annual return to Burma a miss. I’d thought, I go back every year anyway, and I’m not missing much. I see my relatives every year. I’m not missing much. I’ll see my grandparents again next December. It’s just one time. It’s just one more year. I was too busy immersing myself in the freedom and novelty of this new country, this new environment, of travelling solo, of seeing new places, that I took taking the ordinary for granted to new extremes. I’d forgotten that the reason we visit every year is for my grandparents, because we don’t know when the last time will be. I didn’t think December 2015 would be my last time.
The whole of last semester (Year 3 Sem 2), I didn’t see my mum much; not because I was always at school (I wasn’t) but because she had to keep going back to look after her ailing mother. It was a period when I was feeling particularly stressed, having just got back from England and missing it there, not being able to fully enjoy being with my whole family again after 3 months away because one of us was missing, having to come home to a bunch of chores that I had to split with my sister, having to figure out what to cook for the family almost every night when I had been so looking forward to my mum’s cooked dinners whenever I thought about my return to Singapore. Then I thought about the fact that I’d be in Year 4 in August, and how I don’t think I could handle this if my mum is still missing from home, juggling school work and chores and my part-time job. I think I must have grudged my grandmother at that point. I wondered why she couldn’t get better. I wondered why my mum had to keep going back if it didn’t make my grandmother get any better. I resented everything. I wondered if I could last the rest of my time as an undergraduate this way.
Over my year-end break, my parents brought my youngest sister to Burma with them. Very unexpectedly, our cousin dropped the news that our grandfather had passed away, after just a few days of falling ill. He was 94.
Towards the end of June, when our whole family was finally back under the same roof, my mum received a call from our aunt. She had to go back to Burma yet again. After less than a week of being back in Singapore. Of course I was displeased. I wondered again how much longer this would have to go on. My mum said our grandmother’s condition was worsening, but I asked aloud wasn’t it always fluctuating between getting worse and getting better.
The next morning, I woke up to my mum crying. At 7 o’clock, the call came that my grandmother, too, had passed away. I know it’s ridiculous and illogical, but a part of me felt like it was my sentiment the previous night that killed her. I wanted to call someone but I didn’t want to bring in people outside my family. It was 7 o’clock; too early for my friends to be awake during the vacation. I wanted to just cry my heart out, but I didn’t want to, in front of my mum, who’d just lost her own mother. I felt so helpless and useless, that all I could do was accompany my mum to the airport as she went to send her own mother off. More than that, I felt guilty. I’d taken for granted both time and grandparents. They’d been around for so long, a part of me simply assumed they’d always be around. I’d thought I could catch them one last time. I thought those extra two weeks in England couldn’t hurt, because there was always next year. ‘Next year’ didn’t come the way I’d assumed it would.
In December 2016, my grandmother was in Burma, waiting for the granddaughter who never returned. But I don’t want to remember my December of 2017 as the December I don’t have my grandmother waiting for my return. I don’t want to remember her as the fading 82-year-old I never got to say goodbye to, because she didn’t want me to see her in that condition in June, so much that she said she wanted to get better before she saw me again. Even if she never did. And I never got back in time. I never felt sorry in time. Time’s a funny thing, isn’t it?
I don’t want to remember my frustration at my grandmother’s fear of foreigners, because her only experiences with them had been nothing short of unpleasant, having lived through the final years of British colonial rule and the Japanese occupation herself. I don’t want to remember her as ailing, fading, waiting. I want to remember the grandmother who took my cousins in because their parents couldn’t raise them. I want to remember the times when, as a child, I ran into her waiting arms on our annual returns. I want to remember watching Swan Lake with her, because she loved that movie, even if she couldn’t understand English. I want to remember all the things I’d taken for granted about her: I want to remember waking up in the middle of the night to her silhouette as she tried to cover me with an extra blanket, because she didn’t want her granddaughter to be cold, trying hard not to wake me up, I want to remember the times she waited excitedly, counting down the days to my return. I want to remember returning to her waiting for me.