Marlboro Reds hang heavy in the corner of this old home. They colonise the twelve Ringgit smoke that usually presides.
It’s not my home, though. I’ve stayed here four or perhaps five times. It’s not the Sheraton, or even a Meriton – you could fill a book with all the amenities the house lacks – but it’ll last the four seasons and the price isn’t PAX.
Beads of holy plastic thread through my fingers as the prayers are passed, round and round. Heady perfumes of char kway teow sing to me from the kitchen, over the oscillating sounds of Our Father and Hail Mary. The aroma beckons like sirens on the rocks, and I, the chubby, Asiatic Odysseus, twist and turn in agony against the ropes of the rosary that binds me. My auntie stands over my mother’s mother, my Ah Mah, her own rosary in hand. The crucifix sways above my Ah Mah like the pendulum in a grandmother clock, marking time.
If you ignore the pipes and tubes and the steel frame, you might think her napping. Slow droplets trickle down against clear plastic. Only the IV drip sheds tears for the mother of mothers who lies powerlessly, with aubergine bruises inflicted by immobility. Ours is a family that prays together, but cries alone.
The doctor thinks she can still hear. I recall, when I was back home – my home – they would hold the phone to my head. Just talk to her, they said.
But what could I have said to the giver of my mother’s life? To someone I had met – perhaps – all of three times? What words would suffice to comfort a life on the line – a life held up against the reaper’s scythe?
When at first I spoke to my Ah Mah, each sentence marched out like a dutiful soldier, unfeeling. Before long they grew riddled with unfamiliar emotions, crashing like waves against the rocks. Ancient memories re-surfaced, taking the form of in-jokes and foolish promises. I spoke with all of the Herculean might I could muster, feeding words that I hoped would make her stronger. I pleaded with the hound of Hades, to turn this gentle soul away from infernal gates.
All of the fathers were smokers, except mine. For them, each cigarette dulled the pain – holding stress and sadness at bay. In the old house, the smoke sat in the air shrouding sorrow with a numbing miasma. But the wispy clouds were a small comfort to me, a reminder that I was amongst family.
My father’s father was guilty of the same crime; my Ah Kong, who I had never met. He would later cross my mind with each drag of a Winnie Blue, a little stick of incense for a lost ancestor. I smoke in memory of a man I could not remember. It was, I suppose, an empty gesture.
We did not linger in the old house forever, even if we had desired so. We packed up. We flew home. I wasn’t certain when she had finally passed.
We went back for her funeral. We packed up. We flew home.
The longer time goes on and the older I become, the more I seem to remember, like roots that tunnel ever deeper. Just as Odysseus set sail for Ithaca and arrived home ten long years later, I’ve kept the thought of her with me, ten long years later. I remember her between steaming strands of kway teow, in portraits of the Divine Mother Mary and in that single and last Glory Be before we got to eat.