Gone in 33 days

I saw my grandma less than two weeks ago. I’m going to see her again today — in a white wooden box.

When I left her all swollen like Humpty Dumpty on May 10 to return to Bangkok for work, I knew it was the last time I’d see her alive. By then, she was on her last legs in a hospice. As I bade her farewell that day, her last words to me were “Let’s have a meal together and you can go back to Bangkok and we’ll go back to Singapore.” Perhaps she thought we were in Hong Kong.

Those were also her final lucid words before pain claimed her for its own, leaving only deep sighing groans and plaintive cries in its wake.

My paternal grandmother was surprisingly healthy for an 84-year-old. No diabetes, no high blood pressure. She wasn’t mobile but she certainly wasn’t in the line for being the First Death in my family.

Over the Easter weekend, she complained of abdominal pain and was warded. She was soon diagnosed as being in the final stage of liver cancer (this was to be recorded as uterine cancer on the death certificate, as that was the origin of the tumours).

Without knowing that she was dying, my grandma decided she wanted to get baptized and be a Christian, saying that she felt at peace whenever she hears about Jesus, a complete turnaround from decades of hostility towards my father’s faith.

By her own admission, she’s very fierce and probably not the nicest person around. Yet God wrought such an amazing transformation in her that, without prompting, she asked for forgiveness from those whom she had wronged and forgave those who had wronged her. Chasms were bridged; broken relationships were mended.

I was never terribly close to her. She was extremely deft with her hands and I always associated her with pyjama trousers, quilt blankets, homemade fishcakes, and crispy peanut puffs for Chinese New Year.

These were also the same things I thanked her for when I got to spend an entire week by her hospital bed earlier this month. I was working most of the time but being physically there meant I could at least serve her in minute ways, like adjusting the angle of her bed every five minutes in search of the ever-elusive comfortable position.

I showed her photos of the shoebox apartment that I rented in Hong Kong (wah, so small!) and the crowds in the city (you should come home) while she dispensed helpful advice (marry a Hokkien man because they take care of their wife).

Those were precious days for the family where her mind remained a steel trap and the pain had yet to engulf her. We returned from each hospital visit marvelling at her quickness and clarity of mind.

My parents had taught her a simple Christian song when she got baptized which went:

主耶稣爱我,主耶稣爱我

主耶稣爱我,因圣经告诉我

She was going through a particularly tough patch when we sang this song with her. When we stopped, she continued singing using her own lyrics:

主耶稣帮我,主耶稣帮我

主耶稣帮我,因圣经告诉我

This will always remain my favourite memory, along with another occasion when she sang Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So out of the blue. She was not trained in music but certainly passed those genes down.

I never knew my grandma loved music. It’s probably going to be one of my biggest regrets that she never got to hear me play the piano when she was alive. I suppose she’d just have to make do with listening from heaven tomorrow. And yes, we’ll be singing her version of “Jesus Loves Me”.

The weakest link

Being the competitive creature that I am, I’ve always played to win. Not that I’ve always won, but I will never put myself in a situation where there’s a possibility that I will come in last. I’ve been known to not study for a subject that I’m certain I will fail in, just so that I can say it’s because I didn’t study, instead of having studied and still failed. Some people call it pride; I call it plain stupidity.

Yet my appetite for new experiences sometimes puts me on a collision course with my competitive streak. Afterall, one can’t be good at everything. So when a friend invited me to be part of a band to play in a celebrity-studded Christian concert before an audience of some 3000 people, I jumped at the chance. Classic example of fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

My friend has never heard me play but assumed that I could. I, on the other hand, mistakenly thought that I could probably manage the keyboard since the piano does the heavy-lifting and no one really hears the keyboard anyway.

The first rehearsal turned everything on its head and my friend must have thought he’s made a most terrible mistake. I couldn’t play, especially when measured against everyone else in the band. Everyone else is a professional musician – producer, songwriter, arranger…. I am the only amateur. And not even a good one at that.

I had six weeks to learn how to use a program called MainStage for its sound patches, transcribe the keyboard parts from 28 songs, and commit them to memory. This was on top of my very full-time job, plus my very full-time volunteer work. Oh and it probably didn’t help that my memory’s like a sieve with huge holes.

Image

Tools of the trade

I was ready to give up because I hated being the weakest link. I didn’t like being the only one who couldn’t get the chords right and the one that the entire band had to wait for while someone helped me fix the reverb or delay on my sound patches because I was so clueless.

But I abhorred giving up too, perhaps only slightly more than being the “loser”, so I buckled down and worked my butt off. I practised daily if I could, and I tried to find time to memorise the chords at every chance (though I must say that driving and recalling chords don’t go very well together). I even put my practice before the latest Grey’s Anatomy episode – that was how serious I was!

Having to confront my own ineptness at every rehearsal is both frustrating and painful, but it’s taught me to be a kinder person. I hope I will always remember to be patient and encouraging – much like how the other band members have been to me – to those who struggle in areas that I excel in.

It’s one week to the concert now, and I’ve only just started telling friends that I’m involved in it, simply because I live in constant resignation that I will be voted out of the band. The last time I checked, I’m still playing. So this is my tongue-in-cheek prayer:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Your concert come, your will be done at the hall as in heaven

Give me this day my daily chord

Forgive me my wrong notes

As I forgive my fingers that betray me

Lead me not into forgetfulness

But deliver me from all nerves.

For yours is the music, the rhythm and the patches

Forever and ever

Amen

Planning my own funeral

When a friend — who works out at the gym and pops multivites daily — falls over and dies from a cerebral haemorrhage, it’s difficult not to start thinking of your own mortality. He was just 31, smart, capable, and just got his doctorate three months ago. Then he went to meet his Maker.

It was very surreal to attend both a wedding and a funeral in the same church within a span of just 32 hours. If you think about it, your wedding and your funeral are probably the only two occasions where you can actually gather your friends en masse for a 1.5-hour ceremony — if you don’t count your kid’s wedding, that is.

And since I won’t be planning my wedding any time soon, seems like a good idea to start planning my funeral, though i haven’t made any plans to check out soon. Morbid as it sounds, I can think of so many advantages to planning your funeral especially if it were a sudden death. You get to choose how you want your funeral to be, instead of someone else deciding for you. I know of a pastor who has even printed his funeral bulletin!

Off the top of my head, here’s my preliminary funeral plan:

1. Jazz music please. No depressing dirges.

2. Bright colourful flowers welcomed — sunflowers, gerberas. White roses and lilies banned.

3. Orange coffin!

4. I’ve sounded out some friends to preach at my funeral, but judging from the non-response, I’d probably have to record my own voice-from-the-grave sermon.

5. Guests wear anything but black.

That should be enough to go on for now… Or perhaps I should start listing out the food to be served too. 🙂