My grandma died and my son turned one during circuit breaker
CNA Lifestyle’s Circuit Breaker Diaries series features musings on Singapore life in the time of coronavirus. Here’s how one writer mourned and celebrated within a span of a few days.
My maternal grandmother died of natural causes on Apr 21, at the age of 92, right smack in the middle of Singapore’s “circuit breaker”.
Her funeral was, by necessity, short, quiet and socially distanced. No more than 10 people were allowed in the funeral parlour at any one time. These rules were enforced by a funeral director, the management of the casket services and a National Environment Agency officer who dropped in to check on us every evening.
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I didn’t cry during the funeral. Planning a funeral and going through its rites are usual ways of working through grief – I didn’t feel like I was attending my grandmother’s funeral but some farcical footnote of the Great Covidian Master Narrative. We had been trumped, somehow. And corresponding to the physical distancing was a sense of psychological distancing – I felt like I was witnessing the event through a pane of glass.
This was the world’s tiniest funeral and I got the cheapest seats, where I couldn’t even see her picture.
During the evening prayers, most of us had to spill out of the small funeral parlour onto the road. The solemnity of the occasion was undercut by how ridiculous I felt, standing between cars, wearing a mask, holding a joss stick in the rain. This was the world’s tiniest funeral and I got the cheapest seats, where I couldn’t even see her picture.
The fundamental problem, I think, is that my family did not choose this funeral. Because of the pandemic, the major decisions were not forced upon us exactly, but strongly influenced by our current public health restrictions.
For example, we were advised to hold a Buddhist funeral instead of a Taoist one, because the rites were simpler, with less chanting and no burning of joss paper. Although my family is of fuzzy persuasion along the Buddhist-Taoist spectrum – they basically entered a temple and prayed to whoever they thought could help – when it came to death rites, they tended to the maximalist.
For my grandfather’s send-off 20 years ago, I remember long chanting sessions by priests accompanied by noisy instruments, bags of paper ingots folded during overnight vigils, and burning an entire economy’s worth of consumer goods in paper effigies. On the final day, a brass band, dancing “big head” dolls and a long convoy accompanied his hearse.
The hardest rule to stomach was that only 10 people could attend the cremation at Mandai.
No such pomp for my grandmother. A three-day-two-night affair at a parlour, a single monk chanting for a short time each night, and then it was off to the crematorium. By way of consolation, the funeral director said that a year later, on her death anniversary, we could perform remedial actions, ie, burn as many paper mansions as we wanted.
I’m not so sure. He assumes that in a year, it will be acceptable for more than 10 people to gather in one spot to set fire to paper products. But nobody knows what’s down the road. This funeral – this weird, pandemic-friendly, awkward affair – where everyone stood frozen and apart like park statuary, was it.
The hardest rule to stomach was that only 10 people could attend the cremation at Mandai, the only public crematorium operating during the lockdown. For reasons too complicated to get into here, I wasn’t part of the conclave. Ask me how I feel about that and on different days you’ll get a different answer.
I was very close to my grandmother as a child, and that child remains very powerful inside me. Tyrannically so. From the age of one month to 12, she was my primary carer. I was the oldest grandchild and stayed with her on weekdays and only went home to my parents’ on weekends. Almost every night, I slept on a mattress next to hers. Her four-room flat in Clementi is the home most embedded in my psyche, and remains the setting of many of my dreams.
I console myself that I had already said my goodbyes to her in the relative privacy of her Hougang flat.
I console myself that I had already said my goodbyes to her in the relative privacy of her Hougang flat, where she had passed away. I say “relative”, because there were police officers in the house, ascertaining that there was no foul play.
Of course there wasn’t. She had been 92 and bedridden, and years before that, had already been on the decline. Occasionally she recognised me, but most times she did not. Toward the end, she, too, felt like a stranger to me. When you asked if she was well, she smiled generically, and gave – something she had never done before – a shaky thumbs up.
On her deathbed, her jaw was slack and her lower dentures were askew, as if she was asleep. Her death did not come as a surprise. But what the mind knew and what the body felt were different things.
“Madam,” someone kept saying. “Madam.”
The sounds I made, I heard them faraway.
A policewoman was at my shoulder.
“Please do not touch the body.”
My forehead was on her hand, the one with the crooked little pinky. As a child, I kept asking her how she got it, and she kept saying she didn’t know, which I found incredible. No matter how I tried to straighten it, its tip drooped. Now I have the same problem with the middle finger on my right hand. It’s called a swan neck deformity, from an injured tendon at the last finger joint; and like her, I lived for years with an injury and did not know how I sustained it.
For a week after the funeral, I didn’t think much about my grandmother. I thought that I would grieve, but life went on, caring for an active baby full-time.
For a week after the funeral, I didn’t think much about my grandmother. I thought that I would grieve, but life went on the way it does caring for an active baby full-time, with long hours and short days. There were pockets of freedom organised around his naps, during which I tried to catch up on work, but more often squandered in idle scrolling and sleep.
I did wonder about my numbness. Perhaps I was still dazed by the news? At the time of writing, there are four million people infected and almost 280,000 dead from the coronavirus, not to mention an impending global recession worse than the Great Depression. I’m part of a greater global stupefaction.
Or maybe I was having an easier time accepting her death than I’d thought. I’ve read stories about people who had to say their final goodbyes to their infected loved ones via video conference. I also know someone who couldn’t travel home to the Philippines to attend her mother’s funeral. Devastation was everywhere; mine was barely the worst of it.
Then my son turned one. First, a funeral in lockdown, and now a birthday.
Then my son turned one. First, a funeral in lockdown, and now a birthday. My husband and I sang him a birthday song, and he tasted a bit of his chocolate cake. His birthday presents were a Duplo set we bought long ago but never opened, and 120 per cent of his parents’ attention.
Finally, bedtime. My son is at the age where he gets too distracted to breastfeed for long in the day; but at night he is sweet and clingy, greedy for me. And I am starting to find these moments precious, more so because I know they will come to an end. He slept easily and quickly. All in all, it was a perfect day.
I came out of the bedroom furious with my husband. I accused him of not being supportive during the funeral.
“My priority was to honour my grandmother,” I hissed. “Yours was to not get COVID.”
“She only dies once! Just once!”
When threatened by the unknown, my husband defaults to known fears. “What if you got COVID?” he said. “Did you think about that?”
“I don’t care if I die of COVID!”
False bravado. I can’t even bear the thought of my son’s distress if he doesn’t get his bedtime nursing from me.
And then it hit me.
She must have been so lonely at night. Alone in her coffin in Sin Ming, without anyone to sit with her.
The first time I had woken up from a dream, crying. I was 11. In the dream, my grandmother and I had been lost in a forest with black trees, running away from monsters, but when I emerged, I was alone. The forest closed up and there was no way back. The pain had shocked me awake.
“She must have been so lonely at night,” I choked out, “alone in her coffin in Sin Ming, without anyone to sit with her.”
As a child, I acted tough, but at night I was frightened of everything. Frightened of the red glow from the oil lamp at the altar, ghosts tickling my feet outside of the blanket, the sounds of the forest outside the window, the frogs in the drain going ‘gua gua gua gua’, crying out in Hokkien that they were cold. I had been frightened of everything and her body next to me was the only thing that made me feel safe. I can still smell it, a sweet-oily smell of sweat, cigarettes and garlic.
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After my nightmare, the sheer relief to see her slight figure, with a small, orange blanket that covered only her belly, her hands resting on top of it. That blanket used to be mine, while I took over hers, a larger patchwork quilt. I was a big girl now, almost as tall as her. All snuggling had to be done in secret. I inched as close to her as I could and inhaled that warm, familiar smell, all the time without touching.
Adeline Chia is an art writer-editor based in Singapore and the reviews editor of ArtReview Asia.