“I liked his smile. Whatever you felt sorry about faded away when you were with him.”
It was my mother, talking about her father-in-law. My grandfather.
Through the whole time the nuts were being popped into mouths. Packet drinks and water distributed, plastic straws poked into flimsy aluminium openings.
Our shirts were as plain as a blank page. What was there left to tell the world?
My grandmother played mahjong with a few close relatives. She looked at her tile and chucked it away with disgust. She took a new tile the next round, feeling it with her thumb. She chucked it away with disgust as well.
She was not the first to learn of his death.
“Eat some ngor hiang, we ordered specially from that stall in Serangoon.”
I liked his smile.
“Yes, Ah Yi. I tried already.”
“Offer your friends.” She pushed a plate of savoury rolls to my chest.
“They’re not here today.”
“Ok, fine. If you’re hungry please eat.”
Whatever you felt sorry about faded away when you were with him. Was this true?
Just yesterday, Grandmother found out about Ah Gong’s death as she was ladling soup at her stall at a school canteen.
“Don’t worry,” was her first response. “We finish selling all the fishball soup, then we go see him.”
What was there left to tell the world? He was already gone when the news reached her. Discharged from hospital, everyone thought he would at least persevere for the next few months. When all is said and done, the doctors in white coats can only give percentages. Death doesn’t need an excuse.
And so they sold the soup, her hawker assistant and her. She ladled carefully, served the soup with heart. It was her job. She was going to finish for the afternoon. Death was making its rounds, winding in and out of dark, spindly spaces, some lonely, many filled with immense outpourings of love and comfort. But one thing was for sure, death left her stall untouched that afternoon. Food was being served continuously, customers satisfied.
The nuts continued cracking. Popped into mouths.
“What are you working as?” Spoke a distant relative. I didn’t even know his name.
“I’m looking towards journalism.”
He smiled at me, a smile that reeked of the days to come. “Good luck. I hope you don’t drop out. I heard it’s tough.”
“I’ll be ok. I always find a way. I’m hopelessly lazy, but I find a way.”
“There’s only one way to find out is there?”
Funny that we talk about these things at a funeral, I thought.
But of course, funerals are the perfect time for this kind of talk.
My mother looked at my grandmother’s tiles and complimented them. She was on a way to a winning combination, a high scoring one too.
The fluorescent lights buzzed above.
My mother huddled alongside me. She looked on at grandma, as did I.
“That’s Ah Gong and Ah Ma. They weren’t the most agreeable couple. 51 years of marriage and they stuck together through it all.”
She smiled. I reached out to hold her hand.
“They were used to long silences, days at a time, living their lives, not exchanging a word.”
She squeezed my hand.
“But I’m afraid that this time, the silence will be too much.”
She looked on at the casket on our left. A moth flew past my line of vision, landing on the edge of the overhanging fluorescent lamp.
I observed the moth. The brown of its back was elegant and obviously furry, like little feathers. It hung on the edge, then inched closer, closer to the light. It was almost there.
“Ah boy, come here,” yelled my grandmother. Mother pushed me forward by placing her palm on the small of my back. I walked forth.
The fluorescent lights buzzed with maddening urgency.
“Which tile should I throw? I don’t want you to think, just pick.” I looked at the options: There was the north tile, and the three-bamboo tile, both being fresh on the board. This deep into the game, it was risky to discard either.
I paused to think. There was an increasing buzz from above. I placed my hand on her shoulder. It was frail, the bones almost hollow. She might have been meant for flight.
Eventually she discarded the three-bamboo tile. Nobody declared a win, and the game continued.
“You slow lah boy. Your grandfather sure scold me for thinking so long,” she chuckled. I let go of her shoulder.
Yesterday when Grandma finally saw his body her legs gave way. All of us had to hold her up. Time itself seemed to stand still. 51 years summarised in a moment of grief. Who would have expected anything less? Mother was right. The silence, when cast all at once, might just have been too great.
The peanuts were de-shelled, popped into mouths. “Who wants ngor hiang?” announced my aunt for the fourth time.
The moth crawled closer to the light.
The distant relative stepped up and piled some of the ngor hiang onto his plate. He doused them with copious amounts of sweet sauce, thoroughly lathering the rolls.
I stepped forward and took two rolls onto a plate, offering one to grandma. The distant relative was chomping luxuriantly, unapologetically, swallowing in quick succession, one roll followed by the next.
Grandma initially refused, but her trembling hand did eventually pick up a roll as the tiles were being shuffled.
She placed the ngor hiang in her mouth, absentmindedly, taking tentative chews. I watched her closely. The way she ate it gave the impression of tremendous strength, reluctance yet perseverance all at once. Where does one find such strength? Does time make one strong or does it just turn you numb?
There was a buzz from above, the wild crackling of sorts. I was the only one who noticed it.
The moth fell from the ceiling and landed softly on the ground, burnt and expired, motionless in its demise.
The nuts continued cracking, popped into mouths.
This is a fictional short story, inspired by real life events unrelated to my family.