Saturday, June 20, 2009


There were three other women in the ward when my grandmother was in hospital. All of them old and frail, with problems that seemed beyond repair. The Chinese lady across from her told my mother desparingly: "I have three sons. None of them will come to see me or feed me lunch. And yet all of you come to see your mother all the time."

The dignified matriach in the bed next door with the six daughters wore her hair severe and neat and her embroidered jackets to bed. But she hardly spoke and ate very little, and her daughters hovered at the bedside around the clock.

The quiet indian lady in the bed diagonally opposite was, perhaps, the weakest of all. She moaned softly in pain, and her bed was a garden party of seemingly endless relatives and friends, their faces all creased with worry. The doctor came and went three times one night and still everyone frowned, gently touching her limbs and whispering words of encouragement.

Yet, it was my grandmother who stayed the longest.

She seemed perfectly healthy, going to the bathroom herself and chattering like a jaybird. But if you looked closer, you noticed that the weight had practically melted off her, that she was eating tiny mouthfuls and breathing in gasps. Her voice was clear, but her thoughts were confused. She constantly asked after people who had died, and looked around the room and asked why her house was filled with so many strangers.

We watched her sleep and in her dreams she talked to my grandfather and cooked and sewed with her liver-spotted hands.

We cried a lot, when she couldn't see us, but we laughed a lot too - you had to, or you would die inside.

She's come home now, and for some reason, she's been graced with her health again. Maybe it's the chemo kicking in, or the fact that she no longer has to suffer tubes and drips. Yesterday morning, she ate two whole soft-boiled eggs and sat in the garden, breathing the fresh air and chatting to everyone.

Today, she sat round the breakfast table and peeled and ate ripe lychees with gusto. She washed her own plate and cup and cracked jokes with the ladies.

There are eight of us living in the house now, sleeping on every available surface, but we try to make it seem as normal as possible. We hardly dare to believe that she may be getting better. At least she is not in pain. Visitors are frequent and regular.

We pretend it is a coincidence that we are buying her favourite food and stuff her with it as much as possible, while crossing our fingers at each other behind her back. We gather around her often to keep her spirits up and make her laugh. We casually let her do little chores to keep up an appearance of normalcy and give her some exercise.

No one ever mentions the word "cancer".

But in the middle of the high spirits and colour that she has regained, we are treading on eggshells more than ever. There is no cure and it never goes away. There is only an asymptomatic grace period and for all we know, she might not even have that.

We don't know yet. But watching her strength return with collective bated breath may be the hardest and most frightening part of all.

You see, it is so dangerous, this thing called hope.


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