Grandfather Stories


I always called my paternal grandfather “Yeye”.

Yeye had worn hearing aids for as long as I can remember. They were part of him.

He didn’t interact with other adults, much. All he needed was Mama (my grandmother) and I, at least according to my four-year-old self.

Yeye loved me very much. He just didn’t tell me as much about himself as I’d have liked.

Telok Intan sunshine would stream in through the mosquito-netted windows, baking the concrete floor outside our home, shining on the orange and purple lilies Mama grew. 

“Hah? Say louder, can? Yeye cannot hear.”, he always said as I sat on his lap in his ratty IKEA chair, playing with his bony, blue-and-green-veined fingers with my stumpy ones. Giggling, I would scrunch my nose up and repeat myself, louder, slower.

And if I said anything cheeky, as I often did, I would be caught in the vice grip of his frail hands and tickled breathless.

Yeye didn’t know many games. The one that he knew the best was Mother-Hen-and-Eagle.

Mama always played with us. I would hold onto her waist (aged four, I couldn’t reach much higher) and she, playing the Mother Hen, would “guard” me while Yeye, the Eagle, would try to catch me.

The three of us could play for ages, spinning, anticipating when Yeye would feint right or left, shrieking and laughing. Then, Mama would stop us and bring out large Tupperware mugs of Milo and homemade youtiao for us to snack on.

When I was seven, Yeye gave me one of his encyclopedias to bring back to Singapore. It was the first of a junior medical series, holding the topics from A to C. I read through Arteries and Bacteria, finishing sections A and B in less than a month, before arriving at C.

As a seven-year-old, I learned about Cancer. 

I asked my parents about Yeye’s hearing aids, and why he seemed so much frailer than other people’s grandparents. They sat me down and told a barely-six-year-old me about cancer, radiation, and why Yeye was Different.

Nose cancer, they told me. That was what Yeye had a long, long time ago. 

Unfortunately, my parents were not very thorough in explaining what nose cancer was. Of course, I don’t blame them. I was only six at the time. 

According to, Nasopharyngeal cancer, or nose cancer, which occurs in the cells lining the area behind the nose and just above the back of the throat, is one of the most common cancers in males. 

Honestly, I still have barely any idea what that means.

When I turned 10, my family didn’t visit Malaysia as much as we used to. Three times a month turned into once a month, which turned into once every three months. Of course, I treasured the visits even more. It was then that Yeye started telling me stories of his life as a child.

“I was a naughty boy, Cheyenne-ah. Never listen to my Mama or Papa. You don’t be like me okay? Be a good girl, listen to Mummy and Papa, take care of your sister. You listen to Yeye okay?” He would say after a story, his hands wrapped with paper-like skin.

At eleven, I sat down with Yeye one day.

It was mid-afternoon, Mum had gone for a haircut, Mama was cooking with my sister, and Papa had gone for a beer with his friends.

“Yeye ah.” I said.

“Ah? Cheyenne?” His voice was gruff, like one of the seven big old dogs he told me he used to have.

“Why are you so quiet around Mummy and Pa and Mama?”

He thought for a while, head tilted to the right, a habit I inherited from him. Finally, he looked at me with his sad, tired eyes and answered.

“It’s easier.”

When I was twelve, just after my PSLE, my mother told my sister and I that we had to go home to Telok Intan and that Yeye was ill with pneumonia.

We were about an hour from home, the sun long set. As we passed one neon-flashing petrol kiosk after another, my mother twisted around in her seat to turn to my sister and I, in the backseat of our small Ford.

“Cheyenne, Kaylyn, Mummy needs to tell you something.” She paused. Even in the dim lights of the sparse streetlamps, I could see her taking a breath.

I waited for her to continue.

“Girls, this morning…this morning, your pa and I decided to take Yeye off life support. He was suffering a lot, we didn’t want him to suffer anymore.”

My sister stopped humming along to the radio. A streetlamp passed us.

“Yeye has passed away. We are going for his wake now.”

The next lamp seemed even brighter, the world darker.

My sister broke into sobs. My first thought was that she had no right to cry, she was never close to him. Meanwhile, I silently sat and stared out of the car window for the next hour, watching signs pass by, a blinding green in the light of too-bright street lamps.  

Yeye always sang to me when I cried, whether from my frequent falling down, or when Mummy scolded and hit me. “Big girls don’t cry,” he would sing, patting my head and smiling at me through his wire glasses.

So I didn’t.

It was only after Yeye passed that I found that, despite my efforts, I had not known him very well at all.

“He was very jovial, liked to go out, meet friends…completely different person from after he got cancer.” My dad said, sitting slack in his green armchair. “He didn’t want to make effort to communicate. He shut himself out.”

That made sense. A loss of motivation and interest in external activities is a common effect of radiotherapy. 

“Your Yeye used to make stereos, you know? After he fell sick, he didn’t want to anymore. We encouraged him, he refused.”

I tried to imagine – my old and fragile granddad, going out with his friends, building stereos, being lively and happy. Tried and failed.

My grandad whom I loved so much shut himself away. I couldn’t help that “coward” was the first thought that came to me. Why shut yourself away? You would’ve been so much happier if you had just tried.

“He was alright, average in school. Didn’t play much. He liked animals. Wanted to go to India, you know, to become, ah, a vet…He was calm, not given to anger.” Said my granduncle in his usual rough, smoker’s voice.

I found it odd – how the version of Yeye my grand-uncle spoke of was more like the one I knew, as opposed to the Yeye my father had described. 

I knew the part of him he wanted me to know. Maybe it was deliberate, maybe not, but I think Yeye just wanted me to be happy. The world judged him because he was old and had cancer and couldn’t hear, but I saw him as funny, loving. My Yeye.

I saw him as someone who I loved and who loved me. What more was there to see?

Cheyenne (Class of 2023) writes both to escape from reality and to embrace it. Her creative process happens almost exclusively at ungodly hours of the night – hunched over a laptop or notebook, doing almost certain permanent damage to her back and eyes.