A few of you know that I'm currently in Hong Kong to say my last goodbye to my grandmother. She passed away on May 2.  This post is part trip journal and part tribute to her.


阿婆 On Our Wedding Day, August 5, 2006


April 28, 2019
I'm 30,000 ft in the air as I write this, on my way to Hong Kong. My maternal grandmother is in palliative care right now in Our Lady of Maryknoll Hospital in Wong Tai Sin, Kowloon.  Her health has been in steady decline since she lost her ability to walk about 7 years ago, and started living in a geriatric home.  She was diagnosed with breast cancer about 11 years ago and had a mastectomy.  The cancer eventually spread to her bones and liver.


Memories from My Childhood
When I was a small child still living in Hong Kong, my parents would drop me off at pre-school, and later on, elementary school, and 阿婆 would pick me up at the end of the school day. I would then spend the afternoon with her until my mother came to pick me up after work. Those afternoons with her make up one my fondest memories of my childhood.

Before she moved to a more modern day apartment, she lived in one of the first public housing projects built in Hong Kong, in today's Lok Fu in Kowloon, which was also where my mother grew up. Her unit (#503 of block 17) was a small rectangular unit with no rooms, kitchen (she had a stove in the hallway/balcony outside), or washroom (a shared washroom was present on each floor), and was no larger than 200 square feet. Her entire family of 5 lived there for many years.  Life there was difficult, but also very interesting.

阿婆 loved playing mahjong, and in many afternoons, she used to play for several hours with me sleeping on her lap. I still have memories of curling up on her lap, looking at the bottom of the mahjong table and listening to the noise of shuffling mahjong.


Life Lessons
Throughout those formative years with her, I learned a number of life lessons.  One of the most vivid memories I had with her happened when I must have been around six or seven years old.  Hearing profanity at that time for me was not uncommon, except I had no concept of profanity.  No one told me that a certain word was a bad word, and so, one day as we were standing near the bus stop where my mom would get off to pick me up, I uttered some profanity in front of 阿婆, not really understanding what I had said. Immediately, her face changed and asked me where I had learned that particular word.  She then went on to give me a lecture on how only rude people would say those words.  I remember feeling horrible and more importantly, learned that one could get into much trouble by inadvertently saying something that wasn't appropriate.  I can't say that I never curse, but I hope most people will agree with me that only during intense moments do profanity come out of my mouth.

She also taught me, through her way of living, that it was ok to enjoy the little things in life.  I remember particularly enjoying cooking instant noodles on a kerosene stove with her, inside her little unit (recall that she had no kitchen inside).  From the lighting of the match, to the sweet smell of burning kerosene, to the wonderful taste of Nissin instant ramen, I loved every moment of this humble life.  To the chagrin of my parents, my afternoon life was often filled with cartoons and less-than-healthy snacks.  I would often get into trouble when my little stomach had been filled with snacks and wouldn't allow for much dinner shortly afterwards.  Now, as a parent, when my kids wouldn't eat at dinner, my first question to Renee or my mother would be, "Did they just have snacks?"

Public Housing in Lo Fu Ngam, Kowloon (circa 1960s)

As you can see in the picture above, the resettlement blocks (as they're called) had long balconies.  阿婆 lived on the sixth floor (don't ask me why the unit number was 503!) and we used to stand at the balcony, look down below and people watch.  One of the most anticipated moments of the day was when the 飛機欖 (an olive based snack) seller came by.  The name 飛機欖 literally means "airplane olive", and why it was called "airplane" was the way it was delivered.  The seller usually had a trumpet and when he came by, he would play it to alert the neighborhood, much like how ice-cream trucks play music in North America.  Kids like myself would then race to the balconies and throw coins down the balcony.  Once he received the money, he would then throw the 飛機欖 up to your floor.  As you can imagine, I loved this whole interaction.  However, I never quite acquired the taste of the 飛機欖 itself.

Another yummy food that used to be sold by street vendors in the neighborhood was 砵仔糕. Mmm....so yummy!  This post is making me hungry!

Now that I am reflecting on this, I realize it has shaped my own way of parenting quite a bit.  Whenever I have a 1-on-1 date with one of our kids, bringing them to Tim Hortons or McDonald's is almost a sure thing.  Perhaps when they're grown, they will remember fondly these little joyful moments with their father.


WWII Stories
In the years leading up to World War II, the Japanese occupied Guangzhou where she lived.  As a young girl, she had learned how to speak Japanese.  I believe she picked it up through working for either a Japanese family or company.  Although she was a bit rusty, she was still able to converse in Japanese well into her seventies.  My favourite dish that she made was Japanese omelette wrapped fried rice.  Although she had never taught me how to make it, I had watched her cook it many a time.  I'm not super great at it, but it is something I can make to impress my guests (or so I think)!  I remember that one year when she was visiting Canada, I surprised her by making the dish for her.  I was expecting her to say, "Oh, you did a good job making the fried rice even though I hadn't taught you."  Instead, what I got was, "The egg is kind of...thick.  Make it thinner next time."  That was a LOL moment!

Omelette Fried Rice Made by Me

The following is a story I like to tell my Canadian friends and it absolutely blows their minds.  If you had met her in her 70s and early 80s, you would agree she looked like one of those typical cute, old Chinese ladies - short in stature, a bit chubby, and has a nice permed hairdo.

Grandma at Adele's Baptism

I've been told when she was much younger and not yet married that she was very attractive.  This did not go unnoticed by a Japanese military personnel stationed where she was living.  Whether he was a lowly ranked soldier or a general is unknown to me, but it would seem that this was not a situation a young woman would want to be in during that time.  She learned that he would come by to where she lived and ask about her.  At that time, my grandfather was married to her older half sister (different mother).  After some discussion with her sister, my grandfather proposed that he marry 阿婆 as well, which would serve as protection for her.  Her attractiveness, I imagine, did not make this proposal a difficult one for my grandfather!  So, 阿婆 became my grandfather's third, simultaneous wife.

Grandma Holding Baby Uncle 志堃 (circa 1948)

This notion of polygamy seems unthinkable now, but if one looks into history, strict monogamy is taught by few religions except Christianity.  As the Western world moves away from its Christian roots, we are now seeing polygamy making a come back, at least in the form of serial polygamy (divorce and remarriage).  I can certainly see polygamy as a next frontier in the ongoing sexual revolution society has been undergoing since the 1960s.


May 1, 2019
Today is May 1, 2019.  It's 10:10 am in the morning Hong Kong time. 阿婆's condition has declined significantly since yesterday morning.  She was very alert and aware yesterday.  When we arrived at the hospital in the morning, she was already awake and stayed that way for a couple of hours. Mom fed her some liquid formula and she enjoyed it. She even managed to look at us and smile.  It was a comforting sight.

Then, at around noon, congee was delivered to the room and Mom tried to feed it to her. Since it was fairly thick, and 阿婆 wasn't able to really swallow, we added some water into her mouth.  That, however, was not such a good idea.  Since she had trouble with swallowing, the congee likely went into her windpipe instead of her esophagus.  She then had some trouble breathing and so, we asked the nurse to try sucking what sounded like phlegm, but was actually the congee, from her throat.  It helped a bit, but since this episode, her condition worsened drastically.  When the nurse came in to do a checkup, she wasn't able to measure her blood oxygen levels.  So, she put an oxygen mask on 阿婆 and turned the oxygen supply to the maximum setting.  The nurse also asked us to call all of our family as things did not look well.

By late afternoon, all immediate family was at the hospital.  My cousin, Ka Pong, who was away in Taiwan, also made it back to see 阿婆.  Renee and the kids also spoke with 阿婆 through the phone, as did my brother Eric and Joanne, his wife.  We all thought that 阿婆 was waiting for everyone to show up before passing on.  However, she did end up surviving the night.


May 3, 2019
阿婆's Last Day
After a quiet day on May 1, Mom and I went back to the hospital on May 2 at around 8:30 am.  When we got there, 阿婆 was awake and fairly alert.  We talked with her and she was sometimes able to respond by nodding or shaking her head.  However, her eyes had that glazed look that wasn't present a few days before.  Since it was just ourselves there at the hospital, we took it easy and relaxed in the hospital room.  Mom then remembered that my dad had not spoken to 阿婆 and asked me to call him.  We put him on the phone and he had quite a funny chat with her, reminiscing the days when they played mahjong with Uncle Paul and Auntie Loretta (Eric's in laws).  When he finished speaking with her, I walked outside and continued chatting with him while Mom stayed inside the room.  After about 5 minutes, Mom came out with a worried look and asked me to go into the room.  When I got there, I saw 阿婆 with an anxious look in her eyes and her mouth opened and shut repeatedly.  We had not seen that in the past few days.  I immediately called my uncle, 志堃, and my cousin Cindy.  Fortunately, Uncle 志堃 was already on his way to the hospital.  Within minutes, he arrived.  阿婆 continued to struggle and at last, closed her eyes and stopped breathing.

I went out to call the nurse and she came in.  She told us that 阿婆 still had a pulse and asked us to get as many family members here as possible.  At around 10:50 am, her pulse had stopped.  The doctor examined her about an hour later and her official time of death was 12:12 pm on May 2, 2019.  The cause of death was pneumonia.  She was 92 years old.

Farewell...But Not For Long
On Sunday, I will be flying back to Toronto.  I feel that this is one of the most important trips I had taken in my life.  My cousin Kelvin (on my father's side) gave me some really good advice when I was still deciding on whether to come back or not.  He said, "人生是一條減數 (Life is a subtraction)."  He recently lost his father and wanted to remind me that as we are past our mid-life, our losses in this life will continue to increase.  So, I thank him for putting things into perspective for me, which allowed me to make the right decision.  I do agree that that is the sad truth that we must all face.  However, I don't believe our bodily deaths are the end of our existence.  It is merely a transition to something greater.

So, 阿婆, farewell...but not for long.  In the face of eternity, what is another 30 to 50 years?  We'll meet again soon enough!
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