“Ama, let’s eat.”
I made my way to the dining table, one hand feeling the wall while shuffling slowly in my rubber slippers. My granddaughter Ling Ling was already there, dishing out soup and rice for the both of us.
Was her name Ling Ling, or Ning Ning? I thought to myself as I eased into my favourite seat.
This is embarrassing. I can’t remember her name. I should just keep quiet and not address her by name.
I know she’s recently returned home for holiday. She works overseas now, but where? Was it Australia? England? I believe she’s a doctor, but I’m not so sure; am I getting her confused with my daughter? I can’t remember anything for sure now...
Anyway, my granddaughter has been home with me, my daughter and son-in-law for a couple of weeks. She keeps me company, cooks the meals while her parents work. She has other siblings too -- Older? Younger? Sigh, my memory fails me now. -- but they’re elsewhere. I sometimes see and talk to them on the flat screen. They call it an “Ipad”, like a telephone with moving pictures. I don’t know how to use an Ipad though. Have to rely on my daughter to set it up for me.
My granddaughter handed me my kitchen scissors. Now these I know what to do with.
I gingerly snipped at my veggies, cutting the bok choy into smaller, mushier pieces. Most people younger than me marvel at how dextrous I am despite having arthritic 95-year-old fingers, especially when we go to restaurants. They don’t understand that my mouth tires from chewing, hence the need for scissors.
I’ve been more tired lately though. Age is finally catching up to me…
I don’t remember my Ama being this...slow. And quiet.
Mum told me how she shuffles more now and doesn’t speak as much as she used to. I didn’t quite believe her at first. After all, Ama seemed her usual self when I called on Facetime.
Growing up, Ama was a force to be reckoned with.
She was a professional housewife, able to run a household efficiently, complete with impeccable cleaning and delicious hearty meals all done before bedtime. I suppose she’s had many years of experience to master those skills.
Ama always had a sharp mind and quick wit, despite being unable to complete her education due to the Second World War. She would debate, banter and joke with her grandchildren, with the semi-regular nagging and scolding all Asian matriarchs are prone to do while they overfeed their families. Her overall fitness has even allowed her to travel interstate and overseas well into her 80’s.
And beat her granddaughter at a game of table tennis. It’s laughable that a teenager would be defeated by a grandmother’s well-timed smashes.
But who’s this lady sitting opposite me at lunchtime? She looks more like the shriveled, forlorn patients I’ve met on the geriatric ward than the spritely Ama I remember. Stooped back, wispy silvery curls she’s long given up on dyeing black, cotton pyjamas draped loosely on an increasingly thin frame. My Ama was shrinking in front of my eyes.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to have returned home for my annual leave. It’s just the fact of how much time has passed hit me like a ton of bricks, as I watched Ama slowly cut and chew the food on her plate.
I wonder what she’s thinking...if she’s thinking at all…
Ama’s cognition was never called into question until the recent six months or so. Being motivated, street smart and witty have always been her strengths. Now the dreaded D-word triad of “Dementia / Deteriorating / Dying” were the elephants in the room, spoken of in hushed tones lest her deaf ears picked up our fears.
It started with bizarre behaviour like cutting the straps of her slippers with garden shears, or insisting that the drains and roads needed to be weeded. I couldn’t believe it when Mum sent a photo of Ama bent double and plucking dandelions growing from the cracks on the tar road.
Then Ama was admitted to hospital for a broken hip. Everything gradually slid downhill from there.
She started to forget the stove was on, or where she kept her savings. She forgot her towels when she was showering. Soon she needed extra prompting to even have a shower, use the toilet, eat her meals and take her medication. She can still feed herself, but you’d have to put every dish and utensil in front of her, with whatever little drive and motivation she has more or less gone. Going out for walks outside was now out of the question, let alone travel.
Mum mentioned that Ama’s also become more reserved now. And after eating in silence for a bit, I concur with Mum.
It was unsettling. Where was the banter and conversation?
So I started waffling about essentially any topic to fill the silence. It wasn’t the same though, with Ama’s once expressive face now staring blankly and me having to repeat myself multiple times just so she heard what I said.
And I was struggling to maintain interesting conversation. Talking with Ama seemed heaps easier when I was younger. Was it because children have no inhibitions with sharing? Was it because the generational gap had widened by dementia and difference in life stage?
I wished Mum was home to spare us the awkwardness. She should be back anytime soon for lunch now.
I noticed my food was untouched. It was probably best I stopped talking and ate before it got cold.
I looked up, mouth stuffed with rice.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” Ama asked me in Mandarin.
Now I wished Ama had stayed quiet.
“What happened to Bill?”
Far out, she remembers.
My mind flashbacked to the last time I came home for the holidays. I’d told Ama that I started dating a friend from work. I’d refrained from telling her that the relationship didn’t work out.
“Bill and I...are no longer together.” I said slowly. It was weird having to raise my voice to report my love life to my grandmother, just so she heard what I said.
Ama’s expression was unreadable. She tilted her head slightly. “Why?”
Why what, Ma’am…
“Why aren’t you together no more?”
“We wanted different things...and we were going in different directions in life.” Ama stared wordlessly back at me.
I lowered my gaze as tears started brimming in my eyes. What a way to put a downer on a lovely lunch, Ama!
But when I looked back up, I saw that Ama’s eyes were wet too.
She looked like she wanted to say something, but was struggling to find the words. A few blinks, a twitching of her nose and a sigh, and she continued nibbling at her lunch.
Ama didn’t speak till after we had lunch. A question that seemed out of place, but enough for me to know that despite her fading mind, Ama still cared very much for me.
I never mastered speaking fluent English. All my life I got by with basic sentences, but could never progress to the oratorial level of my children and grandchildren. They chatter away among themselves, thinking I don’t understand their “feefat feefair”. That’s what English sounds to a non-native speaker like me. But I comprehend through listening over the years. My tongue and lips simply aren’t articulate enough to form my replies.
So I appreciate it when Ling Ling tries to speak with me in Hokkien and Mandarin. She’s a kindhearted and clever girl. I’m very proud of her.
I couldn’t answer much though, as she chatted with me over lunch. It was a shame; I really would’ve liked to join in conversation, but somehow my slow mind and depleted energy has found it difficult to coordinate food and chats.
I managed to ask her about her boyfriend Phil. She told me that they had broken up. Something about them walking in different places or directions.
Well, then it was better that the relationship ended. Before anyone else got hurt.
Ling Ling looked sad after that though. She was picking at her food distractedly.
I was sad because she was sad. I think she saw my eyes become wet.
Soggy bok choy tastes dreadful. I couldn’t finish the rest of it.
Ling Ling still looked sad when she was washing up the dishes. Far too sad and too skinny for a young girl like her to be.
I would like to make her feel better.
My shuffling footsteps are slow but I eventually reach the kitchen sink. Ling Ling turned to look at me as I asked:
“Have you eaten?”