The death of a loved one is an event that I constantly anticipate with silent dreary. I always knew that I would have to say goodbye to her some day - I just never knew when the moment would arrive or how a hundred times more hard-hitting the devastation would feel.
My grandmother’s name was Chik Sariah binti Mahmud. She is my mother’s mother and was born on 25 August 1924 during a distant time when our country was still under British colonialization and known as its former name, Malaya.
Grandma’s first name was particularly cute because it was short for ‘yang paling kecik’ (the smallest) – true enough she was the youngest of three siblings. Grandmothers in Malay culture go by many a name – Wan, Tok, Nenek, to list but a few. Our family however lovingly called grandma ‘Opah,’ a term commonly used by folks in the state of Perak where my grandmother was raised.
Influenced by my passion for Indonesia, I was excited when Opah eventually revealed to me that her grandfather had migrated to Malaya from Bukit Tinggi in Sumatra, confirming that some Indonesian blood did indeed run through my veins, however diluted it was.
I am Opah’s third grandchild out of the seventeen that she had, and I remember her as being the loveliest of grandmothers. Whenever we greeted her with our hand-kissing salam, Opah would never let us pass without giving us the strongest hug an elderly woman’s arms could muster and literally showering our cheeks with kisses.
When Opah told stories she did it with much love and gusto, marinating her words generously with highly-fueled enthusiasm and cheerful laughter. I never tire of listening to Opah recall moments like when my mother and her siblings got into scores of trouble during their childhood for sneaking off to the nearby river to swim (understandably so as it was crocodile-infested!), or of the quirky tale of her own eccentric father fleeing to Thailand after feeling embarrassed about losing his grocery business to the great Pahang flood of the early 20th century, leaving her mother to raise the family single-handedly. Stories like these were first-grade grandmother material, hands down.
My relationship with Opah grew even closer when she and I started sharing a room after our family moved from Alor Setar back to Petaling Jaya – I was about nine at this time. Opah was always seen thumbing through her tasbih beads, her mouth silently reciting zikir and verses from the Qu’ran. It was during this period of my childhood that I indulged in many sessions of communal prayer with her. Opah always said that if you prayed with an imam, the pahala rewards would increase 27 times over, and thus I secretly appointed her my favorite prayer lead. Whenever Opah said her prayers, she had this signature throat-clearing gesture that I sometimes still hear today whenever my memory wanders off in nostalgia.
Opah was especially generous to her grandchildren and was best known for giving out above market rates when it came to Hari Raya money. In the 1980s RM50 was a lot of dough, and it still is today by conventional standards. Money never stuck to this dear old lady, Opah was always giving it away in some shape or form. Every month whenever she headed off to the bank with my youngest aunt, Mak Su, to collect my late grandfather’s pension money, Opah would always return with a big bar of Cadbury chocolate to appease my brother and me.
Opah had a green thumb and loved gardening. We used to have aloe vera plants tended by her which she swears have the best curative value when it came to healing scars – just cut a bit of aloe vera leaf and rub it on said wound, she says. Also, there was a kenanga tree in the house compound from which Opah liked to pick the flowers and fit a few into her serkap (head cover). She loved the fragrance the kenanga flowers gave off and wanted her hair to smell just like it. Till this very day I strongly associate the aroma of kenanga flowers with Opah.
Being elderly doesn’t mean one stops paying attention to their physical appearance. Opah was always mindful about her facade and took preventive measures to make her feel and look younger. She ate well (minimal sugar intake, lots of water, regularly fasted) and her favorite brand of lotion was Nivea - it was common to see her applying it over her hands and feet to avoid dry skin and cracked heels. When I was reaching my tween years and had starting picking up the art of applying facial moisturizer, Opah was the wise guru who told me that one should always apply the stuff in an upward motion on the face heading towards the cheekbones. Never downwards, she is quick to say, as this practice will drag your face down and make you look older much quicker. Thanks to this simple habit I think I’ve done a pretty decent job so far shaving off at least 7 years from my real age.
In today’s age where people having living great grandparents become increasingly common, Opah had her humble share of seven cicit. Admittedly this is a minute number compared to some Malay great grandparents who could boast of having more than thirty great grandkids. Opah however was nonetheless proud of my nieces and nephews and gave them the same kind treatment as she did to us. The little rascals called Opah ‘Yang’, which is short for ‘moyang’ (great grandparent). In her good-natured way, Opah liked to joke that the ‘Yang’ actually stood for ‘Sayang’, which we all knew was absolutely true. She was indeed our lovely ‘Sayang’ and so much more.
It was August 16th, Wednesday morning, 7 o’clock. I received a phone call which I groggily answered. It was Mother, sounding curt and calm. She briskly informed me that Opah, who was living in Perak with my uncle’s family, had fallen down while brushing her teeth in the wee hours. Opah had apparently wanted to fast again that morning but was rudely interrupted by the tragic turn of event.
“It does not look good,” added Mother grimly. She wanted me to accompany my father and her to go see Opah immediately.
The details of the exact situation were severely lacking at this point in time but it was enough to awaken me from my sleepy state. My heart began sinking rapidly.
After a hurried shower, we sped off on the Northbound PLUS highway and began roaring steadily towards to capital state of Ipoh, 3 hours away from KL, where my grandmother was admitted to hospital. On my MP3 player, the headphones stuck to my ears kept blaring a song by rock group Puddle of Mudd, Blurry, which I set to run on repeat mode. The angsty nature of the tune and lyrics fitted so well with what I was feeling at the moment: sad, angry, confused and blurry.
When we finally arrived in Ipoh, I began to hate it for what it was – a confusing labyrinth city of one way streets with too many hospitals. We spent nearly another hour trying to look for the alleged General Hospital, precious time that we couldn’t afford to waste.
At last we arrived at the hospital after much asking around. We marathoned our way to the emergency ward and found out that Opah, in her healthy state and all, had experienced a stroke. There was a blood clot to her brain and any chance of recovery was practically nullified. Surgery would have been pointless as the doctors gave us a survival rate of zero percent.
How does one argue with zero percent?
I nearly couldn’t bear to go into the ward to see Opah for I was afraid of what I might see. I had to pluck every sense of courage I had and together I braved it with my mother. And there she was, surrounded by my aunts, uncles and cousins, lying unconsciously with a life preservation tube stuffed down her throat. My heart shattered as I saw my precious Opah was clinging on to her life, no longer able to move as her motor skills are affected by the damage to her brain.
I started to cry. Even more so when I saw that Opah had tears streaming down the sides of her veiny temple, as though she knew what lay ahead of her but could not express it in any other way.
I took a moment to whisper into Opah’s ear, “Opah, Farah ada kat sini Opah, I am here.” I kissed her cool forehead with quivering lips as I watched her chest heave up and down with the force of an artifical life tool.
My mother, who had just minutes ago been collectively cool and relatively calm, also had lost her composure and started to weep softly between the hugs amongst her sisters.
There was only one thing to do, and that was to bring Opah back to PJ to my mother’s house. My mom and her sister were the chosen ones to accompany Opah back in the ambulance that literally rallied back to Klang Valley district.
Dad and I turned the car around and started to head for home, silently praying for my Opah’s soul throughout the journey. The skies turned an ugly dark grey and started to pour heavily, as though the heavens too were crying for my dear grandmother.
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