“What We Are” By Agnes Chew8 min read

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Illustration by Katya Roxas

He was walking briskly along the travelator, pulling his suitcase behind him, when the thought appeared in his mind—what if it were possible to determine the exact date of our deaths?

Would he opt to remain in oblivion, living as human beings have done since time immemorial, or would he choose to find out, thereafter keeping the numerals cemented in his mind, day after day, celebrating its pre-anniversary each year as though it were his birthday, each one marking the accumulation of life, a temporary escape from death?

What would his grandmother have done?

His grandmother used to make frequent trips to Waterloo Street to seek advice from a famous fortune teller. From her, the rest of the family came to know which were supposed to be the good years, and which, not so good. Depending on the year, date and timing of their births, each family member would come to know what he or she should watch out for, what to avoid and specific colours or talismans to wear or carry with them to boost their luck. These nuggets of information found their way to them on Sunday evenings, shortly after stepping through the metal gates of his grandparents’ two-room flat in Pasir Ris for their weekly dinners. 

Perhaps in doing so, his grandmother was attempting to grasp just those numerals, from which to protect the family.

Why then, did the famed fortune teller fail to protect her from her own?

The fourth of August was the day his grandmother passed away, at the age of seventy-four. When it happened, he had been in Frankfurt. It was afternoon; the heat was stifling.

The night before, he had called. His grandfather had held the phone gently to his grandmother’s ear, his grandmother who was too weak to speak.

“Ah Ma,” he began.

He wanted to say something, anything—to encourage his grandmother, to lift her spirits, to make things more bearable in some way.

But he said nothing.

They stayed on the line for five minutes and fourteen seconds, listening to the sounds of their own breathing—he, on a bed in a nondescript hotel room; his grandfather, by Ah Ma’s side; Ah Ma, by then barely conscious.

Twelve months before it happened, his grandparents had decided to retire in a year’s time—after a lifetime of labouring as hawkers, tirelessly waking up at three in the morning to prepare the ingredients for the hundreds of helpings of wanton mee they would serve over the course of each day. This entailed making broth, chopping vegetables, roasting strips of glazed pork shoulder over charcoal, preparing minced meat filling to be wrapped into dumplings to be served with portions of handmade egg noodles, cooked according to their customers’ preferences.

As a child, he had marvelled at the way his grandmother could always recall the usual orders of their patrons—two portions, dry, extra fried wontons, extra pickled green chilli; one portion, soup, no chilli. His favourite was dry noodles with crispy wantons deep-fried to a glorious golden brown. He had marvelled at the way his grandfather received the orders from his grandmother and assembled the portions so quickly and seemingly effortlessly—cooking the noodles in boiling water, tossing them in a mixture of savoury sauces, before adding thin slices of char siew, wantons and blanched greens to the beds of springy noodles.

That Sunday his grandfather announced their retirement plans to the rest of the family, he could almost hear the sense of relief permeating the air. He listened as his grandparents spoke of their upcoming plans to close down the stall, and their preliminary ideas of places they would travel to. The thought of no longer being able to taste his grandparents’ noodle dish which he had grown up eating weighed on him, but he shared in their quiet anticipation of the times ahead. In his head, he reminded himself to savour more of their wanton mee while he still could.

Ten months before it happened, his grandmother got diagnosed with colon cancer.

The diagnosis arrived suddenly, after a bout of acute abdominal pain one afternoon which led to a visit to the local clinic and subsequently urgent admission to Changi General Hospital. It was stage four when they found out; it was too late.

Initially, the family had put on an act, wanting to keep the news from his grandmother. They gathered around her hospital bed, relating stories, anecdotes and possible remedies, as though it were simply an upset stomach his grandmother was having that would soon go away. He remembered the way his grandmother lay in bed—frail, quiet, nodding at their words.

Later, they found out that the doctor had gone ahead to tell his grandmother on her fourth day of hospitalisation that she only had one month left to live.

Nine months before it happened, he was due to leave for a one-year posting to his company’s Frankfurt office. It was a highly-coveted and long-awaited opportunity, one he attempted to defer but couldn’t.

So much could happen in a year. The possibility of growth; the possibility of loss. His grandmother had urged him to go, reassuring him that she would be fine.

Over a decade ago, the father of a close friend of his had been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. They had been given a year then. But the year found ways to stretch itself. These days, he often saw photos of his friend’s father on social media, smiling and playing with his grandchildren.

There were so many possibilities.

Two days after it happened, he returned to Singapore to see the void deck of his grandparents’ block transformed. Yellow tentage was everywhere. White chairs circled tables covered in white plastic sheets, on which paper plates of boiled sweets, peanuts and melon seeds lay. Various floral arrangements and wreaths bearing messages of condolence were lined up to one side. Then, he saw his grandmother’s face. Or rather, a picture of her face, immortalised in print. It was a familiar one, a joyous moment captured during his uncle’s wedding just last year. The photo had clearly been edited, for the background bore the image of blue skies—someone’s idea of heaven, perhaps.

As the eldest grandson of the deceased, he received a burlap patch that was pinned to the sleeve of his white cotton shirt, complete with black pants. It was the appropriate outfit for mourning, so he was told. There were certain responsibilities he had to bear. He stood silently by the altar, enveloped in swirls of incense, to receive those who had come to pay their last respects, bowing to them and handing out joss sticks and pieces of red thread.

Many attended the wake. Some wept. Others wailed. On the last night of the funeral, as the final rites were performed, he closed his eyes as he followed the footsteps of the others, circling around the casket as the monk’s sutra resounded in his ears. He willed himself to suppress feeling from rising, refusing to let his heartbeat echo the rhythm of the gong. To drown out the prayers, he chanted to himself: This isn’t true. This can’t be true.

The next day at the Mandai Crematorium, his grief prevented him from noticing the way his grandfather picked out the first bone from his grandmother’s ashes, eyes damp with memories of a shared lifetime, whispering, “At the end, this is what we are”, before setting it down softly in the stone urn. In his version of reality, he was taking his grandparents on their first trip around Europe, beginning the harvest of their golden years.

***

He stared at the photo, a fist tightening around his heart.

“Entschuldigung,” he said, excusing himself from the meeting.

Only after he had stepped into the men’s washroom, entered the last cubicle against the taupe wall and locked the door behind him did he allow himself to look at the photo again. It was sent by his sister at 08:37. Or 14:37, in Singapore. The scene was familiar yet foreign. A frail body decked in a pale green hospital gown, lying in what seemed to be an oversized bed, with a painful assortment of tubes snaking in and out of bruised flesh. The face appeared pallid, drained, lacking its usual lustre.

Instead of his grandmother, this time, four years later, the face looking back at him was that of his father’s.

 

 


Agnes Chew is the author of The Desire for Elsewhere, first published by Math Paper Press in 2016. Her writing has been published in Southeast Asia, the UK and US. She holds a MSc in Development Management (Mayling Birney Prize for Best Overall Performance) from the London School of Economics and a double degree in Economics and Business (Magna Cum Laude) from Singapore Management University. Born and raised in Singapore, Agnes has spent time in Vienna, London and Germany, where she is currently based.

Katya Roxas is a Communications and Design Strategist at the University of British Columbia. Katya has experience with branding, content creation and social media and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Multimedia Arts, specializing in graphic design and illustration, and a Diploma in Digital Marketing and Communications. Born and raised in the Philippines, Katya is well-versed with the sacrifices and opportunities that come with being an immigrant. Through her experiences, she strives to break the barriers of cultural misrepresentation by creating honest and inclusive visual expressions.

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