There are no memories of my childhood without her. Not a day goes by — in the six years since I’ve left her — that I do not think about her. I really wish that I had time to visit her more often. This time, unlike any other visit, I’m meeting her “on the pretext of” an interview in order to put together an assignment. 

I have given her a call after school today to remind her of my visit, lest she forgets. She lives in a three-room HDB flat at Block 462 along Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10. The block stands on a slight rise just on the edge of the Ang Mo Kio estate close to the Central Expressway which is bordered on one side by rows of private houses and the other by a terrace of identical HDB blocks. Being very familiar with the place, I head straight for the corner unit on level 2 and knock on its door. In a brief lull of the afternoon traffic, I hear the approaching of footfalls. The door opens a crack and a hazel eye peeks out. She’s Nainai, my paternal grandmother. The door swings open and there she is, all 5’ 2” of her. Small build, wizened face, dark skin, thinning hair with a back slightly hunched. “Nainai!” I croak, too choked up to say anything more. With arms wrapped around her ever-shrinking frame and a whiff of the familiar scent of her favourite Olay cream, I know I am home. 

Nainai has lived in Ang Mo Kio for close to forty years. Elated at the birth of her first grandchild, she offered to take care of me when my Mama’s maternity leave had ended. Since then, I had been under her care until I was eight when Mama decided to take a lighter workload in order to spend more time with my younger sister and me.

As I walk through the door, I begin to sense the feeling of coldness overcome me. The house is long and narrow, perhaps only fourteen feet wide at the front, but it stretches some thirty feet back like a giant shoe box. From my earliest memories, the house has aged – it is badly in need of improvements. The dingy brick walls are streaked by the drippage from the leaky pipes that run along the ceiling. The massive window grill, half revealing the dirt-stained windows, is rotting away. On top of the lifted panes, dusty worn curtains hang slack like things exhausted by the afternoon heat. The interior, however, hasn’t changed much. The furniture and the artwork on the walls created by Gugu (Papa’s sister) for her O-level Art, the stacks of old magazines, the china displayed in the living room’s cabinet, look exactly the same as they did six years ago. The house feels preserved, like an abandoned movie-set, a place waiting for life to come. Since I left her, the old TV set opposite the sofa on which she usually sits has been Nainai’s only connection to the outside world. The phone doesn’t ring and the door stays shut unless the home nurse is making her call, or the delivery man stops by with the tingkat meals. 

We both sit down, me on my favourite stool placed right before her usual spot on the sofa. The five-seater sofa in the living room looks messy at first glance. Other than the portion that Nainai sits on, the rest of it is fully covered with old newspapers, magazines and items that Nainai uses frequently. Because of weak legs, she has stacked these items all around her so that they are within arm’s length. I want her to sit up and talk but she habitually slouches in the sofa. She takes a good look at me, raises a feeble hand and strokes my back softly like I’m a kitten. “You have grown so much, Yaya (my nickname),” utters Nainai. Staring at her, a sudden wave of sadness hit me. My eyes burn. Only a while ago, my Nainai was robust. She would visit the market rain or shine and had always kept herself busy — cooking, shopping at NTUC or socialising at the Residents’ Committee Centre’s Karaoke sessions. Recently, old age and a slew of health problems are claiming her bit by bit. She now has the resigned look of one who knows that at her age life has stopped giving and only takes away. 

This is not the Nainai that I knew. She deserves a much better life than the one that was handed to her.

Having fought cancer for close to thirty years, Nainai is contented with the life she’s lived. She exclaims, “I’m seventy-one but not afraid of growing old. To me, every new wrinkle is a mark of victory — my prize for having beaten cancer.” In fact, Papa has always encouraged my sister and me to “Be like Nainai — She’s a fighter, a survivor.” 

  Nainai was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was forty-three. Back then, my younger Gugu was only four. “My first thoughts were of my children. They were still young and I knew then that it was not an option to leave them,” Nainai relates. Then, she was gripped with a great sense of urgency that she had to find a solution quickly if she was to stand any chance of surviving. “So, when the doctor told me the fastest way was to remove the affected breast, I agreed to it immediately,” Nainai recounts while holding my arm as she notices my uneasiness. 

  “The hardest part of battling cancer was coping with the chemo sessions, they really tired me out, “Nainai adds. 

“But, I heard you continue to do all household chores single handedly while undergoing chemo,” I say. 

“No choice. We were too poor to get a helper. In fact, I started doing housework the day after I was discharged from the hospital,” Nainai says.

Nainai’s sole motivation then was her love for her children. Gugu always tells me that “Nainai’s love has always been a sustaining force for the family”. For Nainai, family should always stay as one, no matter what. She always told me, “For anyone, whether they like it or not, family is their foundation and without family, there will be nothing to support you. You will just be this lost soul with no one to lean on.” That’s her only reason for what she did then. 

My Nainai has taught me the importance and value of family, resilience, and to stand up for what you believe in. She has shaped my life in more ways than I can explain, and I am forever grateful for all she has taught me. She has inspired me to do what I love (like coming to SOTA), and I wouldn’t be half the person I am if it wasn’t for her.

Nainai stands up suddenly, remembering that she has not made me my favourite Ribena drink. As I watch her small frame wobble up to the kitchen, I wonder how she is dealing with the ailing process. 

No one knows how much time she has left. My heart sinks when I think I may soon lose the woman who has raised me up to who I am today.  

(Thank you Nainai, I love you.)   

A shot of Nainai and me taken in her living room with one of Gugu’s artworks hanging on the wall. 

A clear facial shot of Nainai.

A full length shot of Nainai sitting at her usual position on the sofa in the living room. 

Low Enya (Class of 2022) is a Film student from the second batch of Literary Arts students (2017-2020).