You Are Always Here, All The Time
By O Thiam Chin
You don't need a lot of things after what happened, always telling me to put them away. You don't say this, of course, not in words or nods or gestures; all this is lost to you now. Every time I bring you an old book or a CD, you would reject it. You only have to close your eyes, and it is enough to tell me what to do with them. The dust has settled over the shelves of books in the study room; some of them have been there since we moved in, and some have yellowed, crumbling. You have no need for them anymore.
These days, you seem to be contented with the computer and the cats. They circle round your bed in the living room all the time; there are six of them, picked up from the streets in the neighbourhood. They have gotten used to the life in the apartment, and we have come to depend on them. You like it when they jump onto the bed and lie beside you. You don't like the touch of anything rough – the corners of a pillow, the edges of freshly-laundered pajamas, the tubes around your face – but these cats, you like their caresses, the brush of their short-cropped fur against your skin. Your eyes say it all; you close them, and your pleasure is evident across your facial features. Yes, pleasure. It is hard to tell sometimes whether you can still feel it, but when the cats are with you, it is hard to refute this fact. The cats have found the right spots to rest their bodies against yours – the small of your back, your ankles, near the stomach, the bay of your arms. You let them lie next to you for hours at a stretch as they nap and yawn and curl themselves in. Even as they wander round the flat, there is always one or two close to you, within touch or sight, even at night when everyone has retreated to their rooms.
Words – you had so little of them before what happened; and now, you have none. You were always so quiet, back in the days when everything was taken for what it was, always the same for as long as we live. The words were there one day, and then, they were not. Now you open your mouth, and there are only grunts, soft or loud, incomprehensive. Do you think about your voice, how it was like? Do you still remember how you pronounced certain words, leaving out the 's' or 'ed'? Maybe you have forgotten, or perhaps thought it was best not to remember. The words you used now are the words displayed on the computer screen, words you blink into existence, with a special visual-communication programme the people of the hospice had set up on your computer. It was not easy, at your age, but you were determined and resolute, as ever. In you, some things never change. You blink, and the words appear on the screen. A letter, a short word or two, and then, much later, a simple sentence. Yes. No. Thanks. How Are You? I'm Good. I Like To Have Some. OK. You take a long time to blink a reply; you work out the words slowly, patiently, always eager to give a full answer. You move your eyes across the word pad on the computer and the cursor follows the movements. You blink, the letter appears, and then you blink again. Over time, you got used to using your eyes to talk, to master this painstaking language of blinks, to build your life around unspoken words.
Most of the time, you work on the computer, between your milk-and-morphine meals and short periods of sleep. You update your blog, upload the photographs, design greeting cards for different festive days – Easter, Christmas, Lunar New Year – and even write programme software, something you had enjoyed doing in your last job, in a different life, eleven years ago, as an IT specialist. You would spend days on a programme and when it finally worked, you would put it on your blog, for anyone to use. You reply to emails and keep up-to-date with the latest news online, The Straits Times or The New York Times. You have joined different support groups for people with the same condition as you. You read their stories and were inspired, touched by their lives, by their strength and resilience, by their courage to recreate new lives out of old ones. You couldn't see that your life is just as good and inspiring as theirs. You read the latest developments in the field of medicine for your condition, and would cut out the hopeful parts and put them on your blog, hoping others would take comfort in them, just like you had.
Locked-in, locked away in a body that has failed you, your life lived only on the inside, hidden from the world, filled with so many things, as real and vital and vivid, as anything outside. In your mind, in that intensely private world, you are more alive than anything, even though you can't move a finger or turn your head without any assistance. You would lie there, motionless, and the next day, on your blog, there would be an update on your life, where you would talk about how you had spent your day, yesterday, with so much details, so many ideas, full of plans and hope, that it is impossible not to think about the different paths and journeys you take every day, inwardly, towards the heart of your being, towards something invisible but real. You are not locked in, not then, not now. You can never be.
Yes, it took a long time to get to this point, to be where you are now. Back then, you were angry, at your condition, at the inability to move or talk or do anything with your hands, at me, at our sons, and when you finally came round to it, at God. You raged against what he had done, what you had done, his silence, your helplessness, your undeserved fate. Your eyes went crazy with derision, with a wildness, primal and restless, and the tears stayed pooled in the deep eye-sockets where your flesh had hollowed out. They streamed down your face when they finally overflowed. You couldn't wipe them away, and so, your grief and rage were open for all to see. You couldn't turn your face away, to hide or pretend otherwise, and your helplessness was all the more hard to bear for all of us. Everything was done to relieve the pain, to bring some comfort, to make it bearable, and to a great extent, you found solace in them. What couldn't be done – your anger at God – was left alone.
But then – and this was after some years – something happened. Something broke in you. Your eyes softened, became almost at ease. The mention of God started appearing again in your writings, in the words you used. The tone of your words had calmed, becoming less urgent, softer and more accepting, and they were no longer about fate or pain or grievance, but about grace and love and looking to the future, but mostly it is about grace.
Sometimes when the boys come to sit beside you, on the bed, you would brighten up and start to blink at the screen, trying to make conversation. The words would come slowly. How was your day? What did you do? Have you eaten? You would listen to their replies and ramblings, and then you would ask some more. Nothing in their lives seems un-interesting to you, or insignificant. Sometimes even before the words appear on the screen, they would have gotten bored, or distracted, ready to move away, to slip into their rooms, to their own worlds. You would let them go and they would leave quietly. You would then close your eyes, not to sleep, no, but to think, to hold still against the changes in the boys that you could do nothing about. You have watched them grow over the years – nineteen and twenty-one now – and they are not the young boys they used to be, who were contented to be by your side, attentive to what you had to say, stretching their heads to your face, their faces stricken with awe. It's a truth of life: Sons will always outgrow their fathers. Knowing what you know now, you would close your eyes for a long time.
Some nights, you stirred in your sleep and your eyelids would flutter with the movements of your dream. What did you dream about? You used to share these dreams with me, in the early days of our life together. Dreams about your childhood in the kampong, your student days in the university, and your trips overseas, to Egypt, China or Tokyo, the days and weeks spent in these countries, moving and leaving and arriving. The sights, you exclaimed, the sights, they simply filled you up, these holy cities and derelict towns taking site in you, becoming part of you. Are these cities what you were dreaming about during those nights, your endless journey through them, walking on solid ground, breathing in the raw dusty air? You gave no indication the next day, nothing about what you had dreamt or where you had been. You have always been a solo traveller, a quiet observer.
You like to flip through the albums, all the photographs scanned and saved on your computer. You would take hours to peruse them, sometimes going through an entire album very slowly, sometimes in random, leaping from one particular photograph to another, like the skipping of memories, one leading to another, in a loose thread of hidden meanings. Photographs of the boys when they were toddlers, the cats, the picture of us at East Coast Park, backlit by the setting sun, our faces straining with an untested happiness. Sometimes you would look at the old photographs of your younger self – at the park, behind a desk, standing, sitting, smiling, laughing, as a boy, a young man, a husband, a father – staring at them as if you wanted to make contact with the man in these photographs, to see into him, and to fathom the long distance that had separated both of you since then. You would have stared at these photographs for hours if you could hold up. But the effort exhausts you completely, this act of remembrance, of forgetting. You would switch off the screen, but still, your eyes would linger on the darkness of its surface that reflected back a distorted image of you lying on the bed.
You were hopeful, once, in the early years of your condition, of a recovery, a miracle. You attended a special service in church, sitting among the walking and the afflicted, listening to the message roaring from the pulpit, of healing and deliverance and the promises of God. The blind shall see, and the lame walk. Ask and you shall be given. Ask. It is as simple as that, to utter the words, and you would be given. You must have asked, quietly and fervently, immobile in the wheelchair, hardly able to lift your eyes above the pulpit, drips of saliva dribbling into the napkin under your chin. You must have hoped against every single ache of hope, for the words to be true, for His will to be done, because you finally did get what you hoped for. You managed to move your head to the side and clasp your hands together as if in prayer. Your eyes brimmed with tears and fire.
But hope, sometimes, makes a fool of us all. You moved one day, and then the next day, you were where you had begun, and it seemed like nothing had, and would ever, changed. You had hoped, and you had been given, very briefly, and now it was taken, and that was all that was. Even after this, you still went back to church and still attended the healing services. You went to church and you hoped, and when you couldn't go anymore – you couldn't keep your body upright anymore, your limbs have weakened considerably, your health failing – you kept the hope to yourself, tiny and manageable. Hope, as they said, is always the last thing to die.
Eleven years. A long decade and a year. How the years have worn you down with their passing. You have become weaker, more fragile, and your skin paler and lighter, milk-white, almost luminous. Your hair has turned grey, thinning in patches, but your eyebrows are still black, caterpillar-like. Your fingers no longer possessed the strength they used to have; now they hold a different kind of strength, one that is gentle and soft, pliant and quiet. The years took away some, but still, you are still you, and you are always here, all the time.
But more, more than just being here, you are – and I know this is true, I know – becoming more of yourself, the true nature of who you are, what you are really meant to be. The silence surrounding you, in you, has a way of refining and sharpening you, making you into a man that is taking shape, growing and transforming within, inside you, inside this second womb. How much have you changed? How much would never change, no matter what you do?
Would you, one day, emerge from it, like a newborn, like a young man, screaming, hoarse with hope, blue with life and blood and hunger? Would you then live a second life, a life you truly desire?QLRS Vol. 10 No. 4 Oct 2011