The horizon bends
You tickle the water with your toes,
urging the tide in with
that thins the breeze. It whispers through fingers, both yours and mine,
gentle and faint,
so when the horizon squints, I laugh lightly,
lightly, I borrow your laughter,
to say nothing.
These are the soft tidal waves, grass growing overlong. Forgive me, I slide past your words at times,
you tell me too much.
I caress your hair in the day, and in the evening, where my hand hovers to catch the damp.
Between the winds,
you are quiet.
Nyai penat?1 I ask.
Yes, you say, yes.
Nyai nak minum air?2
Nyai nak tengok TV?3
Nyai dah cukup makan?4
Over and over, I hover,
the waves drawing in,
back and forth.
Mapping for more detail, I cast the line,
though not much holds. I am trying
to catch the moon.
Tell me, when does the tide come in?
Let it be sea breeze that catches your hair,
to graze the quiet pearls that
droop from your ears.
1 Grandmother, are you tired?
2 Grandmother, are you thirsty?
3 How about some TV?
4 Will you eat a bit more?
The narrative of my grandmother’s wellbeing is woven into our household’s life. She has lived with our family for the past five years.
We grew familiar with the contours of her health. In old age, my grandmother, Hasnah Surib, has a host of chronic ailments that attend her. A hip fracture that has left her bed-bound, coupled with the trifecta of diabetes, lupus and Parkinson’s. The combination of factors made her care complicated, but we managed. As her caregivers, we thought we knew what was best for her. We knew what the priorities were — to keep her in good health.
On the eve of New Year’s Day, she developed a fever that would not go down. Based on her history, it was likely a UTI that could get serious fast.
Though she was conscious, she could not answer when asked, “Nyai, how are you doing? Can we bring you go hospital? Nyai, we call ambulance, okay?” She was shaking, but using all her energy trying to hold herself still. She refused to answer us, refused to look at us. Her mouth was set angry, frustrated and thin. She was processing a roll of emotions that we could not interpret.
Correction — not willing to interpret.
So we called the ambulance. We were crossing the line, we were going against her wishes, implied as it was. It was scary to see her in that condition. But it was also far more inconceivable, more frightening to consider any other alternative, not for a household that for years geared its motions towards aiding and maintaining her health.
The next day, I visited her at the hospital. Just as I was about to leave for the night, she grumbled. I paused, and sat down beside her again, and asked her, “Nyai, when mama and I called for the ambulance.. how do you feel about it?” She paused for a good moment, tussling with her choice of words before it burst out, “I already said, I don’t want to come back to the hospital.”
“Well, okay… if we didn’t bring you to the hospital, you would have gotten worse. And not worse, like the fever not going away. Like worse-worse.” Dead-worse, I tried to signal with my eyes.
She shook her head, exasperated. She knows, she said, she was ready. She no longer wanted to be brought to the hospitals, where well-meaning nurses poked at her with needles struggling to find a vein, in a cold ward away from the familiarities of her room. When the time came, she wanted to be at home, where family would already be gathered. In her words, she was ready to be plucked by the angels.
In the following months, it became very clear that steering her care plan towards palliative care would be a massive endeavour of practical and emotional commitment. Every turn became a point of negotiation and friction, and I struggled to keep my grandmother’s wishes at its centre.
It is to respect my grandmother’s stubborn nature that we spend some nights worrying about her vitals, talking through various protocols in the event of multiple possibilities. It is to respect the clarity of her mind that we arranged nurses who would work out the Advanced Care Plan to her specific desires.
It is the humdrum of living a daily flowchart. It is the slow rollercoaster ride with stretches of gentle boredom, punctuated high anxiety and unpredictability. It is planning, in full knowledge of the likely futility that plans may fall by the wayside at any given point.
But it is also mornings of being able to have breakfast with my grandmother. It is the intimacy of getting to know the contours of her wakefulness, when it is just a usual nap, or when it pulls us in and calls for closer attention. Sometimes I’m still uncertain how well I know my grandmother. The converse holds true as well. But I am okay with that. I am familiar with the tremble of her hands, and the occasional flutter of her heart.