‘A grandparent's love is purer and cleaner and easier than a parent's. You share their genes, but you are not torn from their body. You are an extension of their story, but there is no pressure to be its culmination. You come into their lives when they are in their fifties and sixties, when they are relaxed with the story of their life: they know who they are.’
- Johann Hari, The Independent
Our maternal grandmother, Sithy Kadeeja Waffarn, was born on May 20, 1924 and passed away peacefully on May 1 this year at the age of 84. She led a full and fruitful life through a century that included World Wars, men landing on the moon, and the election of the first black president of the United States. And throughout her time on this planet, she raised two children (Dr. Feizal Waffarn and Mrs. Fathima Aziz), saw four grand-children grow from babies to adults, and got to see her first great-grandson Tahir Aziz. And all of us loved her dearly, for her kind heart, her twinkling sense of humour, her quiet independence, her grace and her grit.
Her father, the patriarch of an extended family was S.L.M. Mohideen (aka "Times" Mohideen from the then prominent news daily the Times of Ceylon) and her mother’s name was Sithy Ayesha Mohideen (called Zafeera by everyone). Sithy Khadeeja was the oldest daughter of a family of four siblings -- Abdee, Ariff and Noor Shuhaiba. The extended family lived in the ancestral home at 19 Collingwood Place. The house was built in 1942 by her father.
She married Dr. Abdul Rahman Muhammad Waffarn on March 8, 1943 and he passed away on November 2, 1967. Fiercely independent, she resisted any appeal to move out of her small, modest apartment at Number 19 Collingwood Place in Wellawatte, the place where she had lived in right up to the moment of an accident that made her bed-ridden at the age of 80.
The neighbourhood changed around her. Gone are the street vendors who sold dry goods, fish, kerosene, and firewood from hand carts or bullock carts. Once quiet and sleepy, with a close-knit community of neighbours from many different backgrounds – Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher – it is now a bustling suburb crammed with densely-packed high rise apartments, the noise and traffic making it a difficult environment to live in. But she enjoyed its rhythms, her decades-long friendships with her neighbours, her memories of so many wonderful family functions taking place in the house.
My brother and I, with two working parents, spent a lot of quality time with my grandmother. She would look after us when we came home from school, make us lunch and talk to us while we ate ; she would watch us come in with dirty hands and faces after playing cricket in the neighbourhood streets and admonish us to clean up.
She was a constant source of gentle wisdom, never arguing a point with us, but rather sweetly leaving us with a thought or idea that, upon reflection, would help us see a better way of handling a situation or approaching a problem. Our notions of civility and respect, of how to behave like gentlemen, were deeply influenced by her gentle counsel.
Not that she was conflict averse – she would give holy hell to the domestic help when she wasn’t getting her way, and we frequently had a parade of cooks, cleaners and others who would come in hopefully and then leave in a couple of months, leaving my poor mother to find yet another unsuspecting victim willing to take the plunge. But she would go from stern scoldings on the state of the Sunday lunch to joking with us with a twinkle of the eye, testament to her lightness of touch and sense of humour. And every Ramadan and Hajj Festival, she would spoil us rotten by making us individual bowls of Wattalappam that my brother and I would devour, much to the detriment of our dental cavities, no doubt.
She was a sociable being and loved being out and about with her relatives, at prayer meetings and family functions; she was constantly in the midst of a throng of people, listening intently, cracking the odd joke, and enjoying the sociability of the gathering. It meant a lot to us that even when she was wheelchair-ridden, she attended my brother’s wedding, getting pride of place on the day as she arrived, nervous but determined to be there.
She was a deeply religious person, who recited the Quran every day, and had a deep and abiding faith in God; and her spirituality also took concrete form in the charity work she did, notably with the Fathima Welfare Centre for Orphans, which was run by the All Ceylon Muslim Women's Association of which she was the President in 1995/96.
On another note - we live at a time when medical science has achieved the goal of letting people live for much longer than ever before. But this advancement comes at a price; sometimes the mind outlasts the body, trapped in a prison of its own skin; and sometimes it is the mind that becomes untethered, ravaged by senility, while the body soldiers on, bowed but unbroken. The children – and grand-children – of these prisoners of age have to deal with an increasingly difficult situation. One where the desire to preserve and honour the lives of those who raised them needs to be balanced with the realities and stresses of looking after individuals whose physical and mental needs are beyond their capabilities to address.
In the West, the solution, though unpalatable, is simple: put them into an old people’s home to spend the rest of their days. In Asia, with its strong traditions of family and respect for elders, this is a worst case solution (though one which is increasingly being required) and instead the sons and daughters take on the duty of sharing a home with someone who frequently requires full time support and care. My parents have been quiet heroes in this respect; sacrificing much to ensure that my grandmother had a comfortable home, round the clock nursing care, and an atmosphere of love right until the moment of her passing away. They did this for the last four and a half years, giving up their own time and space and independence to unselfishly work towards keeping her happy and engaged just as much as when she was not bed-ridden and immobile.
The fact that my grandmother was able to spend her last afternoon in the garden, enjoying the plants and trees….the fact that her first great grandson was there the day before she died, to kiss her repeatedly as he sang nursery rhymes for her…these are all hard-won simple pleasures. And for our parents, dedication and commitment - and for the dedication and commitment of all the families out there who chose to go down this route – we salute them.
Our maternal grandmother Sithy Kadeeja Waffarn led a full and fruitful life. And we loved her dearly.
It is up to us to fulfil her dreams now.