by The Dreamer

Today let me tell you the story of my Grandmother.

She was born amongst the ruins of the war ; her first cries overpowered by sirens and her first gasp of breath taken from the stale air of a makeshift bomb shelter. Her mother produced milk from well-water poisoned by the Japanese. The poison ran through her veins and wet the lips of my grandmother. This is why my grandmother walks with a limp – legs bent outward in a bow-shape, calves thin and ankles swollen.

Her father was an opium addict and by the age of six, she was stringing wax candles and scrubbing floors.

When she was sixteen, her hair was combed back with gel and a red cloth cascaded over her face. Her lips were painted crimson for the first time. She was to be married to a stranger. A stranger who roughly tugged the veil off and looked at her with a sidewards glance and said, “I wanted someone skinnier.”

My grandmother was a human once. But she slowly disintegrated and withered away from her status of a woman until finally she was nothing more than a slave – a slave to child-bearing and household chores. Her only accomplishment was her two sons.

She was a brave woman who could squash cockroaches with two fingers; she was a strong woman who bent down to scrub office floors even with a swollen belly. She was someone who worked from 9 to 5, and returned home to buckets of laundry and twenty unforgiving mouths to feed. My grandfather’s unmarried sisters mocked her weight and her acne-scarred face and the way she limped. They snatched her purse and poured out her belongings to check if her past life of poverty would have driven her to steal their less-than-worthy jewellery everyday. They made her sit by their bedside and rub the crevices of their toes with oilment while they rolled their hair into curls.

The hundred dollars she earned per month was pocketed by the family – in return, she was given twenty dollars for her meals.

My grandmother remained silent through it all. She pursed her lips and lowered her head and endured. Until one day, she finally forgot how to speak.

As someone who never felt warmth in her life, she didn’t know what to do with two granddaughters. Granddaughters – Bah! Useless, My grandfather would say. But my grandmother secretly edged plastic bags filled with ribbons and buttons over to us, and we let her stroke our hair and caress our cheeks. She never did utter our names – she forgot how to speak.

Today, I watched as the paramedics rolled her out of her room. She tugged at the sleeve of my mother and shook her head with all her might. Her mouth was open, but no words flowed out – she forgot how to speak. There were tears rolling down her acne-scarred face.

Just an hour before we called the ambulance, I stood silently beside her. She was sprawled on her bed, motionless. Her blood count was close to 2. When I drew closer, I could hear her hemoglobins sighing. They were giving up. She was in pampers and pajamas. She couldn’t eat and her eyelids refused to flutter open. I watched the life leave her body. She opened her mouth to say my name but alas, she forgot how to speak. Her hand reached out to caress my cheek like she used to do, but they slumped back down with a thud.

The maid whispered to my mother: Sometimes grandpa comes into the room and stares at grandma. He tells her, “Stop holding on. Stop trying. Stop taking your medicine. If you want to go, just go. Don’t create so much trouble.”

My grandfather’s unmarried sisters are dead, but their ghosts and their voices still linger around my grandmother.

It is a selfish thing for my grandfather to say. He thinks it is best for her to just let go – but most of the time, my grandfather’s rights are wrong. He never did hold my grandmother’s hand or thank her for bearing sons. She had fed him for decades, and I never saw him reach out a spoonful of porridge to her. And though he tells the maid to stop handing my grandmother her medicine, he never misses a dosage of his own.

Before the paramedics wheeled her away, my grandfather was banging his cane on the floor in disgust. He was saying there is no need, it is too much trouble. Life goes and death comes. Just let her be. 

I can tell why my grandmother forgot how to speak. I can tell why her body is made up of sighs.