Forever (6 Letters) - an Essay by Sofia Bening
An essay about birds, crosswords, my country's mascot, and what they all have to do with the loss of my grandfather.
My grandfather was a scarecrow. But he didn’t know it. His days were spent reclined in a red leather chair, a thin white shirt and dark brown sarong hugging his emaciated frame. On his lap would either be a crumpled issue of Berita Harian from three days ago, a fraying book of crossword puzzles, or our old cat Toby.
The hours would pass, the world around him would begrudgingly fry underneath the merciless Singapore sun, and he’d still be there in his chair next to the windows, wizened and deep in thoughts that no one could hear, occasionally reaching for his mug of lukewarm teh or loudly saying Toby’s name, although I’m not sure if the latter was a beckoning or a reminder.
His morning routine was always the same: wake up, take a shower, go to his red chair. For a while he would join us at the table before retiring to his favorite spot. “Good morning,” he’d crow, his voice rich and creaky with the woody, quivering timbre of old age. He’d sit and gawk as food was placed in front of him, and every morning it was the same: “Wow, for me?” he’d ask, incredulous, like he couldn’t fathom that a meal had been prepared just for him. And every morning after eating his food he’d amble up the stairs, always making sure to give us a friendly smile and say thank you, like a satisfied patron leaving a restaurant. After some time, he couldn’t descend the stairs to join us at the table anymore, and we’d have to bring his breakfast to his red chair. My grandfather would stare at the measly portion of kaya toast and now every morning he’d say to me, “I can’t eat all that,” opting instead to furrow his brows at the black and white squares of a crossword puzzle, ignoring how his wristwatch freely slid down his wisp of an arm.
There are always birds around our apartment. Sometimes they’re loud enough to jolt me out of my sleep. Recently I’ve learned that they’re mynas, Javan mynas to be exact. These birds are black with white accents, a yellow beak, yellow legs and yellow eyes. And they’re everywhere. One time I saw one nick a whole drumstick off a person’s plate when they were looking elsewhere. Another time I saw one dragging a balloon down a street in Little India. Another time I saw a bunch of them picking at the corpse of one of their friends. A town council tried to shoo them off a tree by slathering the branches with an unpleasant, spicy gel, but the mynas fought back by putting leaves and twigs on top of it. These birds fear nothing and no one.
Eventually, my dad had to intervene with my grandfather’s refusal to eat. He’d sit beside him, watching him try to force pieces of bread into his brittle matchstick body. My dad would be patient and pleading on some days, frustrated and firm on others, while my grandfather would laugh, confused, because he can’t imagine that he’d ever enjoyed the stuff on this plate ever before. “Please, you have to eat, pa,” my dad begged, tiredness dripping from his voice. “It’s marmalade toast, your favorite.”
“Favorite,” my grandfather repeated, probably visualizing the word in black and white squares.
When I was young I was afraid of the Merlion. The Merlion is our country’s national mascot, a frightening fusion of a fish and a lion. A famous 30-foot statue of it looms over the Singapore River, yawning, its toothed mouth spewing gallons of water back where they came from. I never liked this creature. “Don’t be scared, girl,” my teacher told me on one of our field trips to ogle at the giant nightmare. “The Merlion is a symbol of progress.” The statue watches over Singapore’s flashiest shrines to wealth and opulence. My teacher said that it’s smiling because of how far we’ve come as a country.
I’ve always thought that it looks extremely pissed off. I’d be mad too if I had the head of a lion and the body of a fish. Imagine having the urge to hunt and roam the grassy plains, only to realize that the best you can do is wiggle and flop around in the dirt.
The birds came in torrents after my grandfather died. Once the red chair was empty, black and yellow mynas began thronging to our windows. They’d actually enter the apartment, hopping about on our floors, screeching and chirping until one of us would curse at them, flailing our arms about in an attempt to frighten them off, although nothing we did ever deterred them from returning over and over again. I felt like I was in a Hitchcock movie, although the Hitchcock movie failed to unveil the true terror that lies in the wake of a flock of birds: shit. It was cruel. It was sick. It was everywhere.
As I scrubbed more bird shit from the lid of my childhood toy box I couldn’t help but wonder if this was one of those things where a relative dies and they come visit you in the form of an animal to try to tell you something important. I’d read on the Internet about a woman whose mother died and everyday a bright blue butterfly would keep her company in her garden, always landing on her hand and staying there as the sun set. Well, grandpa, I don’t know what you’re saying but if you’re disappointed in me, I’m getting it loud and clear.
Towards the end of his life my grandfather’s dementia made it impossible for him to do nearly anything without help. My father devoted nearly all his time to taking care of his dad, including helping him take showers. My grandfather didn’t seem to remember how to do that anymore. I’d hear my father, exasperated and worn, over the sound of gushing, flowing water, going over all the steps of showering, giving instructions like one would to an infant. Reminding his dad how to dispense the shampoo, where it goes, rub it into your hair, yes, your hair pa, wait pa, where are you going, don’t go to the toilet you still haven’t rinsed the shampoo, you need to rinse the shampoo. THE SHAMPOO.
Later that night my father sighed, “If I ever get like that, if you see me even start to get like that, pull the plug for me.” My mother would get angry and teary-eyed, begging him not to talk about such things. I knew that both of them were full of fear. One feared death while the other feared living like death had already come.
I thought that mynas feared nothing and no one. I think I was wrong, because not even jets of water, not even our cats, not even swattings by rolled-up newspapers could keep them out of our house like my grandfather did. Our apartment’s fearsome scarecrow. I’d sit on the sofa next to his red chair, watching him do his crosswords. I watched him fill boxes letter by letter. “Grandpa, do you want anything to drink?” I asked. He turned to look at me, mildly surprised, a small smile on his face like he’d just ran into an old friend. “Drink, grandpa, do you want tea?” I asked. He returned to his puzzle. I helped him with one of the words. “Smart girl,” he said like he did since I was a toddler. Within a few minutes I had to help him walk to the bathroom; his feet shuffled listlessly and my hand around his waist felt nothing but bone. We passed by the cat. “Toby,” my grandfather stated. Head of a lion, body of a fish.
I still can’t do crosswords as fast as my grandfather did.
If you ever visit the Merlion statue on the Singapore river, you just might see a group of mynas atop its head. I wonder what they think about when they’re up there. Are they scared at all? Thousands of tourists and visitors flock to the statue every day, their cacophonous yells and the sound of their camera shutters battling with the roars of the Merlion’s gushing water. But the mynas stay put.
I’ve tried sitting in my grandfather’s red chair, taking his place as our apartment’s scarecrow, but the damned birds still come. My grandfather once wandered off on his own and after a two-hour search I found him at another apartment block, staring at the elevator that led to a home that wasn’t ours. “I wanted to go up,” he explained when I found him. “But I thought I’d wait for you and we could go home together.”
I wonder if my grandfather ever felt fear in the last few months of his life. We definitely did: whether it was the fear that he might slip and fall, that he’d become unable to eat and drink, that he’d sleep the wrong way and silently choke. But I think our biggest fear was that he’d forget who we were. He didn’t. Moments before he passed away on his hospital bed I held his hand and although he couldn’t speak, there was a smile in his eyes like he’d just seen an old friend.
Maybe he didn’t feel fear because although the little things didn’t make sense to him anymore, like forks and knives, like fine-toothed combs, like paper clips and magnets, we still did. Maybe when he looked at us he saw our names fill up black and white boxes in his mind.
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Photo courtesy of Ludomił Sawicki.