On Monday the 26th of August, my paternal grandmother left this earth to be with God. Now, all my grandparents have passed on. To the casual observer, my grandmother was just another elderly lady, passing on in relative peace. The same could be said of my maternal grandmother, who left us at Easter last year after suffering from many ailments for a long time.
To someone who knew a little more of their lives, though, these women were extraordinary, in a way that I can only dream of being.
The last time I saw my paternal grandmother, she was clearly in a lot of pain. She could not breathe without great difficulty, let alone respond to my clumsy attempts at Kristang: “Bai drumi, Grandma. Bai drumi.”
The last time I saw her, she was diminished, in every sense of the word. Her spirit was tired, and her body had served her for far too long – ‘tired’ would have been a massive understatement. It was a far cry from the laughing, giggly Grandma I had seen when she was in better health.
I’ve been told I bear an uncanny resemblance to Grandma in some photos of her when she was much younger; I can only wish that the resemblance included her strength. She had left everything that was familiar and dear to her in the Portuguese settlement in Malacca (where she grew up) and moved to Singapore, only to lose her husband and have 11 children to take care of.
In her lifetime, she brought 11 children into this world. Now, that alone is nothing to sneeze at; but she also had to bring up her children single-handedly after my grandfather passed away. My father was ten years old at the time.
The more I think about it, the more impossible it seems. Grandma did not have the luxury of education or wealth to help her provide for her many children. Bringing up children as a single mother is difficult, even for educated, economically empowered women today. I cannot begin to understand how she managed to raise 11 children by herself.
Yet, she didn’t give any of them up for adoption or abandon them, as some mothers might have done. With steely resolve that I can only dream of emulating, she soldiered on, and managed to bring up all of her children. She did not complain, or moan about injustice, although the extreme adversity of her situation gave her every right to!
She did not, as many of us, might have done, abandon her faith in bitterness at God, for her lot in life. She remained devout and faithful right until the end, and I think that maybe, just maybe, this was why she looked so very sweet and peaceful even after her spirit had left her flesh.
I try to put myself in her shoes. What would I have done? What if I didn’t have the luxury of literacy? If I’d married the man I loved and given him 11 children, only to have him die, leaving me alone and without a means of livelihood? Panic, fear, and despair would probably be quite high on the list of responses.
My maternal grandmother possessed a similar steely spirit; she suffered from various ailments for most of her life, and she too, illiterate and unemployed, had to bury her husband many years before her time on earth was up. Yet she did not complain, she did not grow bitter, and she did not lose her faith, right until the end. Would I have reacted in the same way? I’ve had my share of suffering and horrible things happen to me, perhaps more than the average 27-year-old female in Singapore, but I did not deal with them with even a fraction of the strength and grace of both my grandmothers.
The tiny, fragile woman that I saw when visiting Grandma – both grandmothers, in fact – before they passed on was quite the opposite of what they were in spirit: They were giants.
They were wonderwomen, superheroes, in my eyes. They were not the kind you’d see in a comic book; no laser beams or spiffy superhero suits. No, their weapons were simpler, but much more effective: grace in adversity, unflinching determination, and astounding strength. Not economic strength, or social status, which is how we’ve been conditioned to view power, but strength of character – strength that never gave way, no matter what fate flung at them. Their shields? Faith. They didn’t have MBAs, but they had something far better: wisdom. They understood that although their situations were full of hardship and pain, there was something better, something amazing, in fact, waiting for them at the end of the road.
They have both reached the end of their roads; my road still stretches far, far into the horizon. It is probably impossible to fully live up to the grace and strength of these incredible women. It is likely that I will stumble many times where they would have gone on without a murmur of complaint. I don’t know if I’ll ever be even half the superwoman that both my grandmothers were. I do know this, though. Every time I feel weak and despair of whatever it is I’m facing, I will think of my grandmothers, and I will tell myself: This is where you came from. They are a part of you, and their strength, too, is a part of you. Do them proud.
– In loving memory of Margaret De Silva (nee Pereira) and Patsy Pinto (nee Sequeira)