Ageing, alone

Photos and text by Cynthia Choo Xin Le

Gong gong eats an apple with my cousin and his grandson — four-year-old Ivan Choo. While gong gong uses dentures, Ivan’s adult teeth are only just beginning to grow out, making their eating speeds much the same despite the drastic difference in age.

Gong gong eats an apple with my cousin and his grandson — four-year-old Ivan Choo. While gong gong uses dentures, Ivan’s adult teeth are only just beginning to grow out, making their eating speeds much the same despite the drastic difference in age.

Pictures of my cousins adorn the walls of my gong gong’s (grandfather) three-room flat.

Photo albums line the shelves in his closet, in the compartment right beneath his medication. Among the collection of group photos, a lone portrait of gong gong when he was younger stands out.

It is hung right above his bed.

Below the frame, gong gong sleeps soundly as the afternoon idles away — his usual routine after the replays of serial dramas on television fail to keep him awake.

Before lying down, gong gong had joked that he seldom realises that there is a bag collecting his stool until it is time for him to “poop”. Gong gong underwent a colostomy last year to remove part of his large intestine due to a benign tumour. Since then, he has been relying on Certam, his domestic worker, to change his stoma bag. He uses an average of two bags a day but on days where he eats less, Certam only has to change the bag once.

Before lying down, gong gong had joked that he seldom realises that there is a bag collecting his stool until it is time for him to “poop”. Gong gong underwent a colostomy last year to remove part of his large intestine due to a benign tumour. Since then, he has been relying on Certam, his domestic worker, to change his stoma bag. He uses an average of two bags a day but on days where he eats less, Certam only has to change the bag once.

That was about two months after gong gong underwent a colostomy in July, rendering him bedridden for a month.

Earlier, he had also suffered from a stroke that caused him to have difficulty moving the left side of his body.

Since then, he has had to adapt to moving around with a walking stick, maneuvering about on an electric wheelchair, and daily reminders that his stool was collecting in a pouch attached directly to his large intestines.

“Follow me, follow me,” said gong gong. I only realised 15 minutes later that gong gong was referring to the brand of the hair gel he uses every day. His favourite, he insisted. The narrow aisles of the supermarket are no challenge for gong gong as he has learnt how to swiftly navigate his electric wheelchair, which he took less than a month to master. “It’s very easy if you know how to drive a car, I learnt it very quickly,” he said in Mandarin.

“Follow me, follow me,” said gong gong. I only realised 15 minutes later that gong gong was referring to the brand of the hair gel he uses every day. His favourite, he insisted. The narrow aisles of the supermarket are no challenge for gong gong as he has learnt how to swiftly navigate his electric wheelchair, which he took less than a month to master. “It’s very easy if you know how to drive a car, I learnt it very quickly,” he said in Mandarin.

“It’s been a while since I left the house, I want to go out with my children,” gong gong had said to my dad.

My relatives often talk about the physical challenges gong gong faces, but I often think he has had a more difficult time adapting emotionally — to being alone.