‘You’re her favourite grandchild’

Aaron Koay on the complicated relationship he had with one of the key figures in his life

Aaron’s grandparents settled in Malaysia after fleeing Chaozhou in the Southern part of China. Photograph: Getty

Aaron’s grandparents settled in Malaysia after fleeing Chaozhou in the Southern part of China. Photograph: Getty


A little more than a year ago, I was looking at my phone when a message from my mother came through on WhatsApp: “Your nanny has returned to the kingdom of heaven.”

That’s when I realised something they never tell you when you study abroad - especially when you’re studying some ten thousand kilometres away from home: that you could miss out on key events in the lives of your loved ones.

It seems to me that many have a simple, nourishing and loving relationship with their grandparents. My relationship with my grandmother, however, was maybe a little bit more complicated.

My grandmother took on a great responsibility in raising me when I was young because my parents were too busy providing for us. My early days of childhood were spent in a little rustic wooden house painted light blue on the outside.

This little house was where my father’s parents took root in Malaysia after fleeing Chaozhou in the Southern part of China. From what I could gather from my grandmother, their migration was a desperate attempt at self-preservation from war, poverty and hunger.

Aaron Koay
Aaron Koay

My grandmother didn’t speak much Mandarin, my mother tongue. Instead, she spoke Teochew, a Southern Chinese dialect which she tried hard to teach me since I was little. I, however, was never a good student. Despite her age, she was always a chatterbox in stark contrast to my quietness. Our conversations, for many years, revolved around me awkwardly guessing her words and saying “Yes, I know.”

As my parents were often travelling and inundated with work, I spent a lot of my teenage years alone with her. But the then irascible me would often get annoyed at having to listen to the same old stories being told over and over again; I would lock myself in the study just to get some silence.

My grandmother was a cause of tension in my family, particularly with my parents and sister.

“You’re her favourite grandchild”, my mother would say to me. I never thought I was in any way more deserving of her love than anyone else; I always tried to stay out of whatever conflicts were happening under the roof. But I did secretly resent my grandmother for the unrest she caused.

Penang International Airport is one of the busiest airports in Malaysia Photograph: Getty.
Penang International Airport is one of the busiest airports in Malaysia Photograph: Getty.

When I was eighteen, I finally moved out. In fact, I chose to move far, far away from home. Since I started college in Dublin, I would see my family once a year at most. Every time I’m home, however, my grandmother would ask me to stay. “What’s the point? Just stay here and help your dad out with his business”, she would insist. I just shrugged it all off.

In the house that I perceived to be too quiet and lonely, I now realised perhaps she had been sharing the same feelings. With the early passing of my grandfather with whom I never met, my parents’ frequent travelling for work and her friends and family living far, far away, all she was seeking was maybe a little company from her grandson. I didn’t understand that, but I was just a teenager with a troubled mind.

When I was home to visit my family one year, I woke up in the middle of the night for no apparent reason. Wide awake, I could hear my heart echoing in my chest. Something must be wrong, I thought. I got up and walked towards the stairs, as if it was calling me, and there I found my grandmother. She had fallen down the stairs. She survived but was never the same again. She went downhill after that.

A few days later she had a fit right in front of me and my mother. That was it, I thought. But she was a strong woman.

She was lying on the couch when she weakly called me to her. She took a golden ring off her ring finger and said to me, “Keep this.” She always came to send me off in the Penang airport, but not that year. She was far too frail. Before we left, I gave her a hug as she cried and planted a kiss on my cheek.

The last time I saw my grandmother she was bedridden and now lived in a care home. I could see joy in her soul through her turbid eyes when I arrived. Corrupted by dementia, yet she held me with her bony hands and asked: “Have you eaten? Are you staying? Are you going to be married soon? I don’t have much time left.”

‘Severe head injury due to alleged fall’ was what it says on my grandmother’s death certificate. Only this time, I wasn’t there to catch her.

I didn’t actually keep my grandmother’s ring. I thought I was not deserving enough of her love. A few days after she gave it to me, I passed it on to my mother and said, “It should go with her when she goes.”

But now, I wish I did.

* Aaron Koay is a PhD student at Trinity College Dublin