A Tale of 2 Grandmothers

Two weekends ago, my parents went for a short getaway and left their mums in our care. Well, sort of. Actually, our tasks were pretty simple. We were to take Grandma Ong (Dad’s mum) out for dinner on Saturday and Sunday, and to visit Grandma Chua (Mum’s mum) in hospital and update them about her recovery.

Grandma Chua was sent to the Emergency Room on Thursday, one day before my parents were due to travel, for severe vomitting and inability to eat. Initial blood tests revealed dangerously low levels of potassium and sodium, and she was immediately warded. Things didn’t look too good according to my mum who went to the hospital. When I visited grandma the following day (Friday) after work, she was drowsy from the medication and weak from not having eaten any solid food for the past two days. Still, I was taken aback to see how diminished she became and even more horrified that she was unable to recognise me.

I went back to see Grandma Chua on Sunday again, where I found her to be more lucid and knew who I was this time round. However, she was still not her usual chatty self and she appeared to be in rather low spirits. I was told by that she was due to be discharged as her potassium levels etc. have gone up even though she still had no appetite. Not sure what I could help with, I texted a friend who did some work in the area of elderly nutrition to find out how we could help her regain her health and strength, and was told that when elderly refused to eat, the root cause was usually emotional rather than physical. I could only sigh, knowing the complexity of the family situation. 

That evening, my siblings and I took Grandma Ong out for dinner at Paradise Dynasty. During dinner, we asked casually how she took care of dinner yesterday as none of us were available to take her out for dinner last evening. She perkily told us that she walked to a nearby hawker centre where she ate some rather tasty claypot rice and only paid $9 for it. We were pretty impressed by both her willingness to spend on food as well as her resourcefulness, for Grandma Ong was almost completely blind. And her words made me think.

You see, Grandma Ong and Grandma Chua could not be more different even though they share the same name and are approximately the same age. When Grandma Ong wanted something, she would make no bones about it and she certainly would not wait to be asked before she expressed her needs or desires. Grandma Chua on the other hand was someone who seldom shared her thoughts, much less her needs or desires. It usually took much prodding before her children could get her to talk about what was wrong or what was needed.

Unlike Grandma Ong who knew how to pamper herself, Grandma Chua would often deprive herself, of even the basic needs in life. She was known to be often eating leftovers and literally cai fan, where she would buy one serving of vegetables to go with one serving of rice. She would often buy 2 packets of food during lunch and save the second pack for dinner, which she would consume without reheating. Of course, one might ask why didn’t her children (or grandchildren like me who were all in the know) do anything. I must be honest and claim no defense. But there is another question that I really want to ask, why isn’t she treating herself better? Like Grandma Ong, for example. 

In case you were wondering, both my grandmothers do not need to worry about finances.

I have been thinking a lot about my two grandmas after that fateful weekend, and I often asked myself: when I grow to be as old as they are (80s going to 90s), who do I want to be? Grandma Ong who appears demanding and sometimes unreasonable, but gets her needs met; or Grandma Chua who appears kind and friendly, but often suffering in silence and neglect? I remember both grandmas as the most loving grannies anyone could have. There was no doubt that they loved their children and grandchildren. But, do they love themselves? How did self-love, or the lack of, affected their lives?

I have been telling my parents since their return from the vacation, that they needed to encourage Grandma Chua to treat herself better, to learn to pamper herself and to enjoy life. The truth is, if you don’t take care of yourself, and don’t inculcate the habit of self-care, no one will. Even the people closest to us, whether it is our spouse, child or bestie, would not be able to give us all the attention, care and concern that we desire. There would be times when they fail or reject us. And what are we to do then?

As I looked back the last couple of years, my cousins and I busy with our own lives, my parents, uncles and aunties had their hands full managing their households and careers, nobody had a lot of time for Grandma Ong. Instead of mopping around, Grandma Ong chose to make friends in her neighbourhood, take up new hobbies and today has such a packed social calendar watching Cantonese operas and participating in line dance events that she does not always have time for us. In fact, her children (and grandchildren) needed to queue and take turns to take her out for dinner.

Then I look at myself and my friends around me. Today, some of us give of ourselves to work, others to their spouses and children, yet others to causes they believe it. Many of us while living busy lives, do not appear to know how to take care of ourselves, or maybe I should say, love ourselves. Only a rare handful of my friends have somehow managed to be successful while taking very good care of themselves. These observations prompted me to share this tale, as a reminder to self of the importance of self-care and self-love, and as an opportunity to reflect on the kind of life we want to live. 

May we all learn to be kinder to ourselves as we learn to be kind to each other. 

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