My paternal grandmother passed away last week. She was 103 years old.
She came from China on a ship when she was a mere girl, but the Thai she would speak for the rest of her life bore the heavy accent of her country of birth. We were never particularly close since she didn't live in Bangkok. In fact the only time she ever left her home in the countryside for any length of time was when the threat of an explosion in a nearby oil refinery prompted local residents to evacuate.
She received neither a silver-spoon upbringing nor much of an education, but she was a shining example of hard work, kindness and dedication to family. When my grandfather (whom I never knew; he passed away before I reached my first birthday) became an opium addict, my grandmother had to raise 10 kids on her own on very little money.
Despite her Chinese heritage, she didn't prefer boys over girls. She actually adored girls, telling us that, as an infant in China, her mother (my great-grandma) had saved her life by keeping her tied to her bosom at all times, preventing other family members from disposing of what was regarded as an unwanted girl child. During my limited time with the woman, I never heard her chiding any of the kids, or nagging, as many elderly people are wont to do.
At her funeral we weren't allowed to wear black clothing since there is a Chinese belief that when a centenarian dies, it is a cause for great celebration because that person will immediately ascend to heaven and become a saint.
My grandmother was survived by only three of her 10 children. I don't think she ever wanted to live as long as she did. As she grew older, declarations about wishing to die became more frequent. As a kid, I used to get confused when I'd hear her eagerly praying for death to come as soon as possible. I thought it odd that anyone would want to die when everybody around me seemed to be hoping for a long life, especially with all the news about advances in medical technology that would keep us all alive much longer than ever before.
Maybe my grandma's attitude was influenced by another Chinese belief which holds that the longer a parent lives, the shorter the life his or her children will have. And as grandma's children started to expire from various causes, it was heart-wrenching to see how their deaths ate away at her.
My dad and his siblings would try to keep the bad news from her, but she wasn't an easy person to fool. Or perhaps her death wish was due to the fact that she had accomplished all she wanted to do in this life. The members of her family were all doing well, to a greater or lesser extent. She had fulfilled her motherly _ and her grandmotherly _ duties. She even had a few great-great-grandchildren.
The aches and pains of her ageing body must have felt alien to someone like her who had worked hard in the fields for her entire adult life. This past year was especially difficult as she began to slip further and further away from us. What was once a very able body, now could no longer even control its natural fluids. A person whose memory had once been photographic could no longer even recall her own name. All her bleak requests for a rapid descent into oblivion suddenly started to make sense to me.
I'd like to think that she felt she'd had her share of happiness in this life. Knowing her character, though, she was probably content with the way things had turned out, satisfied with the cards that fate had dealt her. Reflecting on my own life, I wonder if there will ever be a time that I think I've had enough of something. We live in a world of excess, of people always wanting more; nothing is ever enough.
We're taught to constantly move forward without pausing. We're raised to excel in some field of endeavour, not to stop, inspect our lives and take inventory. Take a simple thing like buying new handbags; I can never stop doing that, and we're not even talking life-or-death matters here!
How much do we want out of life? When is it enough? How long do we want to live? What do we do with the time given to us?
Still, I didn't set out to write this article merely to say: "Hooray, Grandma, you've got your wish now!" The loss of a grandparent is difficult no matter how prepared you were for her passing nor how far you'd grown apart.
It's hard to see your own parent bottling up grief. It's hard to see yourself bottling up grief. It's chastening to realise that you're now a little more disconnected from your own past, separated from a relative from whom you could have learned so much more. There are so many questions I wanted to ask my grandma about our family history, about my grandfather's opium addiction. Now it's too late.
And it's my own fault. I never said "enough" and looked to what I already had. Farewell, Grandma! You're now officially recognised as the saint that you've always been.
Onsiri Pravattiyagul writes about music and popular culture for Life.
About the author
- Writer: Onsiri Pravattiyagul
Position: Entertainment Editor