Paper skin

Grandmother is dying. This could be the last time I’m seeing her breathing with lucid eyes. She’s a shrivelled human in those outmoded flora clothing on a bed that has the tepid fragrance of antibiotics and porridge. 

She recognises me and mouths the Cantonese pronunciation of my name. I nod and ask her the customary niceties in Cantonese – how have you been, have you eaten, are you hungry. She asks which of her sons is my father and I reply, “Third Brother”. And then the conversation is suffocated to an enduring silence by the fact that I’ve expanded all of my Cantonese vocabulary. 

I wouldn’t have been here otherwise if she wasn’t on her last leg. I begin to reprimand myself: she’s my grandmother, my father’s mother, not just some permanent fixture that I encounter every Chinese New Year. And that is when I suddenly recall that I had been overseas when my grandfather was dying, overseas when they cremated him and in the four years since, I have never paid a visit to his rented box at the columbarium. And my maternal grandparents, well I don’t even know or remember how they look like.

The filial piety gene seems to be one that I’ve failed to inherit from my father and uncles who have cordially rallied around the old woman. They’ve taken turns to bathe her each day, and to feed her comfort food – chicken backsides, century egg porridge, roast duck, mooncakes and what not. Or maybe I’ve gotten the same unfilial gene as my condemned Fourth Uncle. Or maybe I’m not even human. 

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