I have her permission to publish it here.
My late mother had a special relationship with each of her grandchildren. One grandson, the youngest among them, brought her much fun and joy in her latter years.
They were so in tune with each other despite the 73-year gap that it was such a pleasure to see them together. Grandson adored his Nenek and she cherished him with all her heart.
It pleased Mum when he came by and shared with her the things he had done at home and in school. In many ways he had inherited her business acumen and her artistic talent. While in primary school, he had sold pencils and his Star Wars-like drawings to classmates and it took almost a year before his parents found out about this clandestine activity.
My mother would laugh heartily at his tales and when he told how he stood up for what was right, she would beam with pride. This boy belonged to her. He was hers in the twilight of her years.
I was usually around when he came to stay or when the lovely phone conversations between them took place. Those calls always went something like this before the two said their goodbyes and hung up:
Mum: I love you.
Grandson: I love you too, Nenek.
Mum: I love you more than you love me. My love for you is taller than the tallest tree.
Grandson: Nenek, my love for you is higher than the clouds….
And this would go on and on and include dinosaurs, the seas, the stars and planets but invariably Grandson would top it all with “Nenek, I love you to infinity.”
And that was where Mum got stuck, without any answer to give back.
During the December holidays two years ago, he came again to stay for about a week. But this time he found a much frailer grandmother waiting for him.
Several diseases had plagued her body over long, long years and Mum had borne the pain and discomfort with remarkable fortitude. But time had taken its toll on her health and an aging body made it so much harder to battle the diseases.
On the first day of his visit, Grandson looked at Mum’s food and couldn’t believe what she was having – cooked vegetables, rice and chicken all blended finely into a flavoured porridge for her to take in easily.
In his great love for her, he asked, “Can I taste?” and he took a spoonful. The look on his face was telling.
“Poor Nenek,” he said, a sad finality in his voice that could only mean he wished he could do something about it but couldn’t.
The pattern of fun had to be scaled down, with outings no longer a regular feature as in former times. Mum needed help going up and down the stairs and he was always ready to offer a steadying hand. While Mum had her late morning and afternoon naps, he spent his time reading or on the computer or talking to me.
On his fourth day, I decided to take him out for breakfast at a kopitiam, and then for an art class. We had just finished eating when his dad called to ask if he wanted to stay on or follow him back. I passed the phone to him and saw a flash of discomfort on his face.
I caught on when I heard his “ er…er…” and “ I’ll talk to you later.”
“You need privacy,” I said. “I’ll go out and you talk to your father.”
He protested so we stepped out, went to the lift area at the back of the mall and I stood away from him so he could have his private moment. To my astonishment, he went into a remote corner, sat on the floor and spoke in hushed tones, and all I could see was a pair of feet sticking out.
He kept me waiting for about 20 minutes and when I thought I had had enough of this and was about to haul him up, he stepped out. And what I saw was a distraught face.
“What’s the matter?” I asked quickly.
“Nothing,” he said but his voice was choked with emotion.
“Tell me,” I practically begged as my arm went around his shoulder to console him.
Tears streamed down his face and he said brokenly, “I want to go back…but …but I don’t want to hurt you and Nenek.”
This was it? No, the unspoken words said more.
It was very hard for him to stay and see the one he loved so dearly reduced to a pale shadow of her former self – his Nenek, who had told him stories, painted with him, given him clay to work with, taught him songs and sums, and inspired him to better himself.
It was just too much for someone so young to bear. It dawned on me then that a tender heart was breaking under the strain.
Behind the tears was an unspoken longing for the open spaces around his home and its surroundings, where he could wade amidst frolicking fish, climb fruit-laden trees, catch an insect or two and run like the wind down a slippery slope with nothing to rein him in.
He needed to be free and happy, not stay behind the prison walls of our home with its grills and gate and locks. And deep in his heart he must surely yearn to free his Nenek from the prison of her bed and wheelchair and medicine.
He didn’t see the parallels. I did.
I wanted so much for him to understand what I was saying: “Sayang, you are not responsible for Nenek’s happiness and you are not responsible for mine. Whatever you choose to do, Nenek and I will accept happily because we love you. Can you understand that?”
He nodded dumbly. When he was ready, we went off arm in arm for his batik-painting class.
I watched him engrossed in dabbing bright and beautiful colours onto the plain fabric with its waxed lines that ensured colours kept their integrity and didn’t merge into one another.
To me he was himself those bright and beautiful colours and the plain piece of cloth, the situation at home. The waxed lines were boundaries, there to maintain integrity, define safe space, protect him and enable him to enjoy his role as a youngster.
But somewhere along the way, a breach had occurred amidst those boundaries.
The unthinkable had happened – the youngest among us had felt it his responsibility to keep two adults happy, though we had never expected it of him.
And this being responsible for someone else’s happiness has its echoes around the world but with expectations often enforced in the most heartless of ways: a child having to get straight A’s so his parents can be happy; an adolescent forced to pursue a particular field of study to make her parents happy; a man wanting to end a marriage because the wife does not keep him happy; a woman not allowed to follow the faith she believes in because to do so makes her community unhappy. And so it goes on.
In truth, no one can make us happy but we ourselves. Happiness is a choice and that choice rests with us and us alone, no matter what the circumstance.
He left that evening and I could only hope that the breach had been repaired and that he was convinced no child should be made to feel responsible for an adult’s happiness.
A few months later, Mum passed away. It was very hard for us. It always is when a loved one whose life has been such a wonderful testimony to courage, resilience and faith makes an exit.
Almost a year after, I received a stirring poem from my nephew about his Nenek. It had been birthed from the depths of a loving heart that remembered her well. It convinced me that he had found his peace.
On his birthday this year, I called to wish him. In the midst of our conversation, before I knew it, I found myself saying, “I love you more than …” and he responded in the same way he had done with his Nenek.
It was a moment of transition for both of us – the same stage but with one new player.
I took a chance.
“I love you to infinity,” I said, seizing his prized clincher.
Was there anything left to say? Yes, there was.
“I love you to infinity plus one!” he said and it was a voice of triumph.
He had hit upon a continuum of his own making, willing to defy the facts to do just that.
“No such thing,” I declared. “Infinity is infinity.”
On his side I heard very clearly a wonderful chuckle.
Yes, we were on to something new.
He was my mother’s special one in the twilight of her years.
He is mine now.