by Drago Tan
The day starts for her like the way it had for 20 years now. She sits up in her bed, looking at the grey of the morning light barely shining through her windows. She pulls back the curtain separating her and my sister. She moves in the dark, quietly, to avoid waking my sister and left the room with a thin smile.
As soon as she brushes her teeth and changes the tea on the altar, she goes to prepare breakfast for whoever was in the house. She smiles as she cracks 4 eggs into the frying pan. She leaves it out on the table with a net over it.
My father wakes to most of the egg waiting for him. My sister and I had a little for ourselves but was reminded to leave more for our father.
“It’s too much again!” he said in Hokkien when he sat down to eat. I’m assuming he never meant offence. He had always claimed that he loves his mother.
“I was afraid you wouldn’t have enough to eat…” she replied in the same dialect. As soon as he was full, he grunted and moved to pack his things for his weekly trip to where his ‘business’ was based. I never really believe he travelled for only his business. He has a history of flipping my family over like a mattress. Since he always brings home money for us, i did not question it He left the house as I did.
“Oh before I forget, I’m not coming back this weekend. I have business to take care of with my manufacturers,” he told me.
As she watched her son, granddaughters and grandson burst into action, going about their day, she watched silently, nibbling on the meal she made herself. She sighed despairingly at the sight of the unfinished egg and as the house slowly emptied one by one to just her, she stood up to begin her pointless and painful week once again, reluctantly accepting the life thrown on her. Since she had rid herself of a loved one that treated her like vermin many decades ago and had been forced abandon her own family in China decades before that, a purpose in life was an ancient concept long forgotten.
So the week began.
She thought of her life
And how much of it she chose
Here, two roads did not diverge in a yellow wood for a traveller.
Instead, she was on a single road
As a slave,
With the trees naked
And the ground packed with white
While knowing there’s no other way.
She thought of this with a sigh:
One road laid bare,
With this one seeing its end.
Even with a road of difference,
It’s one she will never see.
Every Thursday is a miraculous day. Somehow my sisters’ schedules line up and they get to come home together. I don’t imagine they had done this on purpose. They are very busy people. It can’t be helped.
To most, it wouldn’t mean much, but to her, it means that she gets to see her grandchildren. All week long the people in the same house wakes up and leave within the hour, only to resurface towards the last thirty minutes of her waking. Even if there were people home, like me, we usually have no contact. Instead, we disappear into our rooms for hours at a time.
I came home at six to the familiar scent of her cooking. She’s a vegetarian so she only cooks one thing. She cooks every night for herself only more often than not. My sisters strolls in after a while, greeting by hugging her on her wooden rocking chair and kissing the crown of her head. She then moved swiftly into the kitchen to start the fires and prepare the table with a jaunty step. She usually cooks only that small bit for herself, but today, like most Thursdays, she had prepared a mountain of each of the three dishes she cooked.
I occasionally ate her cooking, mostly on Thursdays when there were more people than just the two of us. She had cooked too much as usual, but we only ever bring it up when she couldn’t hear us. It was always difficult to finish, but out of respect, out of love, this deed is always done.
I sat opposite her and my sisters beside her tried to make small talk with her. She replies with a loudness in her voice that is usually asleep. She laughed and smiled throughout the night and after dinner we would sometimes hang around her at the television just to accompany her.
At the end of nights like that, I could see how she went to bed: smiling, content and a heart full of joy. As she prepared her bed, she was torn by the thought of her happiness being stolen from her the next moment she opens her eyes. She often wished that all nights would be like Thursday nights so she could go without regrets and fulfilled. Somehow, luck never seems to be on her side, as if God himself had nothing better to do but to torment those below Him.
So this is how I saw her go to sleep that night:
She would take out her hearing aid,
Sit on her bed and stretch.
She would lie on her back
With a smile for a moment,
And a pained furrowing of her brows the next.
She would go gentle into that good night,
without rage against the dying of the light.
As she wakes once again, she drags her worn body off her hard mattress and into her room slippers. She walks dragging her feet, in a slouching manner with her sagging to the ground.
It is her favourite day of the week, I assume, despite all. Every Saturday is the day she gets to see her son. She had gone out at the crack of dawn to the market to get fresh ingredients. She always wants to cook for him when he comes home. She left her slippers in the corner of the room, in an all too familiar manner. I went with her once to the market on a Saturday. She would speak with enthusiasm and excitement as she haggled with stall owners and bustled with what few friends she could see, if she was lucky.
I went about my day without much attention for something I knew inside and out.
I came home that night to see something different. His shoes weren’t obstructing the gate and the stench of poorly hid cigarettes was missing. It just occured to me that he was going to Korea for that weekend on something for his ‘business’. My sister sharing the same room as me asked what happened to her and why she seemed so sad. With a wave of despair, she tut-tutted in pain for the oldest in the family.
My grandmother sat on her usual chair at the dining table. Except this time, she ate cold noodles out of a plastic cup. The ingredients she bought that day sat like an anchor, weighing the counter down, untouched, as if mocking her.
As I gathered my food and sat beside her,
I looked at her and she merely glanced at me.
In that one glance,
You could hear her screams for love
In that one glance,
you could see her age, her wisdom.
In that one glance,
you could feel her tire,
feel her let go.
She stared at the plain wall
And ate without haste or pain.
In that one glance,
She simply existed.
The road not taken, 1916 (Robert Frost)
Do not go gently into that good night, 1914 (Dylan Thomas)