In ‘Ward 77’ Singaporean poet Edwin Thumboo embodies the grieving family at the bedside of a loved one with a terminal illness, watching “the slurring we feared to notice turn distinct…inescapable.”

ward 77

by Edwin Thumboo

We watch your eyes, your nails

As you moved among unlisted memories,
As your will absorbed the gradual dissolution.
Feverish, and grown more delicate and choosy
You picked and inspected morsels, fed on them
Intravenously, untying colour and sound,
Losing nothing of the world around.

The doll that cried ‘Hello! Hello!’
And sang Ba Ba black sheep scratchily.
Cost too much, you said. Papa smiled.
Or that time you misplaced a special needle
When Esther crawled all over us.
Mama got mad and lined us up. We hated you
For that. And your first date – how we crowded
Around you after. For such is love.

We watch your eyes, your nails,

One nothing-evening,
When a long lost friend turned up.
Tomboyish, packed with zest, with laughter,
She spoke with her eyes, her fingers,
Of adolescent secrets pledged precisely
At noon under the big, damp banyan tree.
She cheered you much…. depressing
Our gratitude….the pause for breath,
The slurring we feared to notice
Turned distinct….inescapable.

We watch your eyes, your nails….

Look around the room, hoping
To spot a detail we had missed;
Some other thing that needed doing.
A flask to be refilled, perhaps, or
Unwashed cup allowed to stand too long;
The Straits Times loose, unfolded;
Trying to forget, the mass of flowers,
With all the colours of remembrance,
Seeing how the brightest fade first.