Christmas 1973

I was 7 when Grandma became very ill. She had been diagnosed with lung cancer and the doctor had told her that if she stopped smoking, she would have another five years to live. If not, she would die within the year. For Grandma, who had been a heavy smoker all her life, this was a very bleak ultimatum indeed. But she took it in her stride, and went cold turkey.

jade pendant

I have never worn the pendant, as I am a Christian. The pendant is very similar to this image of a jade Buddha pendant courtesy of

Grandma lived normally as far as any 7-year old could tell for the next few years. In 1973, she commissioned tiny jade carvings of little Buddhas for all her then 18 grandchildren – 3 had yet to be born – and gifted them to us on her birthday. Mum said that Grandma had done this so that we would remember her by them. Grandma was not a practising Buddhist, but she had come from a long line of ancestral worshippers who seemed also to embrace some Buddhist tenets.

Then, Grandma fell very ill. She collapsed from that same terminal cancer the doctor had warned her about. Soon, she was bedridden. Chinese customs of respect for our elders usually dictate that we should greet all our elders on arrival at their homes, simply by addressing them by their familial designations to ourselves. However, by this time, our elders were at pains to keep all youngsters from the sick room, since Grandma had started to hallucinate from all the drugs she was taking and they did not want us to see her in such a bad way.

We continued to visit Grandma and Grandpa weekly, as we had done so as far back as I could remember. My mother and each of our 7 aunts and aunts-in-law had designed a rotor amongst themselves in order to help care for Grandma with the help of my grandparents’ live-in maid. Thus, we saw little of Mum during the next 8-9 months.

On Christmas Day, everyone gathered at our grandparents’ as usual for Christmas dinner. As usual, Mum and our aunts took their turns to stay with Grandma. In order to relieve the female elders from Grandma’s care, my cousins, older than I by a decade or more, went into her room to sit with her. I, 12 at that time, snuck in with them.

An hour later, we trooped out of the bedroom where Grandma was breathing gently and regularly. Then, around mid-afternoon, one of our aunts sounded the alarm that Grandma seemed to be suffering acute pain. Poor Grandma was by now riddled with cancer, not just of the lungs, but also of her stomach, her lymph nodes, and most crucially, her liver. The doctor was summoned and all went quiet again.

At 5 pm, us kids were summoned from the garden where we had been playing football. We were told that dinner was soon to be ready, and we should shower and change for the meal. As we walked towards the bathroom, which was next to our grandparents’ room, Sis said she could feel a cold spot. An aunt said she could see a face and a beckoning hand. I wanted to turn tail and run from that bathroom. It felt so eerie, and I don’t think I have ever washed so quickly before.

Then, just before dinner was served, one of my aunts came out of the bedroom and said Grandma had passed away. It was Christmas Day – and Grandma had left us. It was almost exactly 5 years to the day that the doctor had told her she had left to live if she were to leave off the cigarettes. Then Mum told me that Grandma had had a premonition of her death, which was why she had commissioned all those little jade pendants for her grandchildren – so we would always remember her.

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