June 24, 2009

Ah Gong and I

Let’s just say I don’t do death.

I’ve never had to deal with it, never thought about it, possibly because I never had a pet, and never had family or friends who’d passed on or contracted anything major. People lived, in my family, and lived quite long.

Especially my grandma and grandpa, who seemed to just go on and on. If that’s a skewed perspective of old age that might be because I have seen them go on everyday from the moment I was born: they have lived with us forever.

Ah Gong was always in the next room. He never laughed; he sniggered, he chuckled slyly, he was grumpy as hell — in the most endearing way possible. He was a traditional Chinese man — born in China in 1930, adopted then brought to Malaysia, saw his adopted father beaten to death by Japanese soldiers during the war — who, for most intents and purposes, kept his feelings (and thoughts) to himself, avoiding actions or words of affection like the plague, but was the sort of man you warmed to anyway.

I like to think he waited for me long enough, given how well-timed the whole incident was — he only fell drastically sick when I was due to return, and I at least managed a week or so with him, despite his sedate state, despite how he was barely there at all. I had expected my trip to the Middle East and London this last time to be like any other — I’d be back, he’d pretend he barely cared, but he’d get quite quickly to the only way he seems to know how to show any love: verbal-sparring with me in our secret language, Teochew.

Instead, I got back this time and found the house strangely empty. No Ah Gong pottering about finding things to amuse himself, no Ah Gong waking me up with 8 alarm clocks and 1 mobile phone call, no Ah Gong to play hide and seek with when it came to the subject of how cigarettes mysteriously appear in my bag all the time, in increasingly strange (or secret) compartments or methods of concealment. He always found them, he always out-talked me, he was always right, he figured out stuff quicker than I could think, and he laughed and smirked because he liked being right much more than the fact that I was doing what I shouldn’t. In his last days Ah Gong sat mostly on his wheelchair, his mind still sharp and observant, and his temperament still endearingly grumpy.

But life and love doesn’t go on and on, I’ve come to find the hard way, and as he lies there I can imagine him saying: every single time you go abroad you buy me a clock, and the one time you haven’t I’ve really gone.

In Mandarin to “gift a clock” can also mean to send someone off at their funeral. It’s thus taboo to give your elders time-keeping devices of any sort. But we had a special relationship based on the two great loves of his life: torchlights and alarm clocks. He never said I love you, or I care about you, but when he did, he gave you a torch. Or two.