Once in a while I am asked to write something which I find most difficult to do. Recently I was requested by
to write a piece for Mother's Day.
Here I reproduce the whole article.
Mak’s latest picture on Flikr did a lot to put my mind at peace. She is a picture of contentment as she watches the antics of her children and grandchildren at one of the many and frequent family gatherings. I found myself clicking on it many times to see her smile as it helps to take away a little of the guilt gnawing away at my conscience.Pix by Nadya Shahabuddin.
It is the look that I want to frame forever and keep in the deep recesses of my mind. It is the look that helps erase the sad picture of confusion and helplessness as she searches for her glasses, handbag and her false teeth that she frequently misplaces. Old age has rendered this once formidable woman helpless and frustrated and more often than not confused. We have yet to hear any of us utter the dreaded word Alzheimer’s to explain her predicament.
Similarly, tucked away in my mental album are recordings of our Skype sessions together. She sits in the front room of my sister’s house in Bangi, while I sit in my lounge in London; both of us connected and communicating, courtesy of modern day technology. Once in a while she reaches out to touch the screen, caressing my face;
“Anak Mak,” she’d lament again and again as it dawns on her the distance that separates us.
Other than that I have numerous collections of MiniDVs clearly labelled, “With Mak during raya”, “Mak in 2001/2002”, and many more. In most, Mak is her busy, healthy self in the kitchen doing what she loves doing best: cooking for the family. We sit around the big table in the house that Pak built for her, while she fusses about, cooking every dish that we mentioned. A mother’s pride is being able to serve what her children crave for.
“I found some fresh crabs at the market today,” she’d say after sneaking out in the wee hours of the morning after subuh before the crowd descends upon Alor Setar’s wet market. Thus, there’d be sambal tumis ketam for me, banana spadix for abang, fresh fish on the grill for the rest of the family. She knows each of our favourites and would refrain from eating or cooking them if one of us is away.
Technology has made separation and distance a lot easier but it does not necessarily ease the pangs nor erase the guilt of being away. Mak had made it very easy for the absent child to feel less guilty. At the airport 29 years ago, she waved me goodbye as I clung on to her and hugged her for what was to be only a three-year separation.
“You are now someone’s wife and you have to go with him,” she said bravely, pushing me gently towards my husband waiting at the departure lounge. When three years looked set to stretch to thirty years, she never once said, “Come back.” Last year, too weak to see me off at the airport, she said, “Go. You don’t want to miss the plane. The children are waiting in London.” She still has the knack of making things easy, without making you feel guilty. No emotional blackmail that we lesser mortals tend to employ in times of desperation and selfishness.
Communication via Skype is the only way we could talk to each other; her grandchildren fit her with a set of earphone and microphone, without which she couldn’t hear. Normal phone conversations are almost always painfully frustrating. Her impaired hearing means that she answers questions I never asked and repeated questions I had answered several times before.
This experience always leaves me punishing myself with a list of unanswered questions: when Mak could still hear, did I tell her enough that I love her, have I asked her for her forgiveness and blessings? When Mak could still see clearly, did I show my appreciation of her dedication and undivided love to her children, when she could walk, did I accompany her enough to places she wanted to go?
A punishing routine like this need not necessarily absolve or lessen the guilt of a frequently absent daughter. The punishing ritual usually finds its way into an online journal expressed in a form, which I could never verbalised. Ever.
The few precious moments I had with Mak during my trips home have left some mental pictures that will forever be there. There was the time I rushed to her bedside in the hospital after being told that she has the big C. Being away for too long, I was scared that emotionally I couldn’t cope being with her alone. My sisters had left me to change her diapers, an experience that left both of us in tears and laughter. I had put it the wrong way round and after three wasted diapers, I called for the nurse to help.
Mothering Mak is a painful yet humbling experience. It is painful not because I didn’t want to do it, but because I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that this once strong person, who had changed my diapers without as much as a moan, is now a child herself. Once, walking her to the bathroom, she nearly collapsed. Her sarung fell unceremoniously to the floor, leaving her naked and vulnerable. On her face, etched a painful look; one that said, you shouldn’t see me like this. And once, when I was supposed to care for her as she slept, she rolled off the bed and I found her clutching her head. I held her in my lap and consoled her the way she must have done to ease the pain every time I hurt myself as a child.
In happier times, she’d regale us with stories of her journeys to Mecca; recalling the experience on the Bunga Raya as she sailed the rough seas. Cleary etched on her mind as if it happened yesterday, was the busy Port of Aden, where she recalled vendors in small boats approaching their ship with their goods.
“They’d hoist a basket at the end of a long pole to show you what they have on offer and if you wanted to buy, you just put your money in the basket”, she told me as I was preparing to leave for my own flight to Mecca. She remembers the smell of salted fish that she and her cabinmates fried to eat with piping hot rice, and the sight of bodies being lowered into the sea as pilgrims died during the voyage before reaching their destination.
All these that happened forty years ago, are clearly etched in her mind. Not forgotten was also the fact that I cried on my first day at school.
That Mak’s memories can be selective is undeniable. Sitting at the dinner table with her one afternoon, she fretted about going home to the house that Pak built for her in Alor Setar. A subject she brings up on a daily basis.
“I am not well,” she had said. “I want to go home.”
“If you are not well, why go home as there’s no one to look after you there,” I reminded her.
“You can look after me,” she said looking straight into my eyes.
“I have some work to finish here,” I pleaded.
“When you were small and not well, I looked after you,” she countered my plea, hitting me where it really hurt. That was the only time she tried this emotional blackmail.
I had no answer to that and when none of us had answers for her frequent requests to go home to the house that Pak built for her, we resort to lying, an art that had been perfected over the years. Exploiting her failing memory, we had to tell her that she had just returned from the place where she thinks her chickens and duck run free in the compound which once had colourful bougainvilleas and orchids of different species. She wants to be there when passers-by stop and admire her flowers.
Although trips back to the old house have been frequent, she is now too frail to make the journey. A drive back, even with many stops, would tire her. Even the short flight back would take its toll on her health.
So, a small garden with plants from her precious plot is recreated in each of her offsprings house in Bangi and Kajang to make her feel at home. She’d be satisfied for a while and then she’d ask again, taking out her old bag to pack and repack her clothes.
All these reports are relayed to me eight thousand miles away via sms, skype and chats and these would nag at my conscience until I buy that flight ticket back. And until that happens, I pray that if Mak’s failing memory made her forget everything else, she would still remember her daughter who used to cling on to her kebaya sleeves, the one she waited for patiently after school on the old iron swing outside the house that Pak built, and the one she sang syaers and pantuns to when she was small. For all the distance that divides us, Mak is forever in my mind.