Lone Wolf

The day I wore my best clothes was also the day I first saw an ashen face.

I always thought I knew what it meant. Extremely pale; drained of colour; pallid.

But what it really means is to expect to see a face, but see cardboard instead. Not a nice tan cardboard with fleshy overtones and dark virile undersides. The cheap thin kind of cardboard that comes at the back of notepads, put there for nothing but to signify an end to the sheets of blank paper.

Best clothes were not best clothes by my definition. Heavy, long folds concealing the crooks of the knees and dead weight in trinkets on my neck. 

But it's Chinese New Year, and gimmicks are key. 

"You look like a two-layer cake," was my brother's quick assessment.

"It's called colour-blocking!" I scowled. 

"The sugar-made necklace looks delicious by the way," the chubby basketball player winked playfully at me.

Gentle reassurance came in the form of my little sister, "I think you look nice." 
She pulled at the bottom of my skirt, and as I turned did a little dance in a dress resembling a ballerina's costume.
"I think you look nice too." 

And with that, we stepped hand-in-hand into the bustle of Grandmother's four-room flat. 

As our parents busied themselves furnishing the already-full table with the food they had brought for Reunion Dinner, we settled onto the lone sofa of the flat, a cream prosthetic dream, and in many ways as falliable as the food. It seemed to be degenerating, or melting, under the heavy weight of the stuffiness in the room. The three of us grandchildren filled the sofa easily. 
Amidst the whirlwind of aunts and uncles and cousins and my parents, digital chatter rose, binding them all together in conversation.

"An LCD screen! The shutter is so quick ah?" 
"What model? Aiyah iPhone 4-- everyone also have."
"What's your temple run highscore?"

Dinner was a two session event, there just was not enough space at the table, and far too much food. My mother said this was because Grandmother had cooked though everyone else had said they would bring food for Reunion Dinner, so exerting herself would not be necessary. But listening did not seem to be her strong suit.

Television and board games guided the interval between dinner and lo hei, the event to herald the new year with good fortune.
The adults', unsatisfied with such trivial entertainment, supplemented the television's racket with loud and boisterous gibberish about politics. 
"Why are adults so interested in politics?" was my question to the burly, silent youth next to me.
First Cousin chuckled darkly, "Wait till you grow up and the government is stealing your money."
The whole family filed into the tiny kitchen and gathered round the tiny table, shoulder to shoulder in a smothering circle of laughter. It was noisy as a zoo is before feeding time.
My grandmother sat unresponsive at the door of the kitchen as everyone in the house bustled in. Noticeably, Third Uncle, dressed all in black and bellowing his political awareness to the tiles at the end of the kitchen, convinced that every government policy or lack thereof was a conspiracy-- sweeping his hands as one sweeps a scythe, he commanded the attention of the room. 
Then I saw it. 

The ashen face.
On my grandmother.

Father was already there, quiet, but throbbing vein in his forehead and clenched jaw, anticipating something. 
When his whispers to Grandmother no longer bore response, and her breathing laboured like nails on a chalkboard, he rose Grandmother by her elbow, First Cousin rushing over to her aid.

She lay in a dark room. Eyes staring blank at the ceiling, a fervent manual fan at her beck and call, operated by a son.
I have never been so happy to have a fourth-year medical student in the family.
Second Cousin took Grandmother's purple-veined hands in her soft, manicured ones and measured her pulse. A low murmur was both her medium of observation and reassurance of Father.

Outside the room, effervescent life went on.

I thought, eyes glued to my grandmother's limp form, that being a doctor must be a beautiful thing if it means not being scared, if it means being able to do something for my grandmother. 
Shouts of prosperity heralding the new year blasted from the kitchen. 

It must be a sad thing to be a grandmother, I thought. When born, people are taken care of by parents, and in their adult years, they take care of their parents. But being a child is to be unaware of how dependent you are on parents, unaware of the purposelessness of your life, unaware of how you're just waiting. Yet to be an elderly parent is to be aware of how dependent you are on your children, aware of the purposelessness of your life, aware of how you're just waiting. 

Seven pots were on the stove in the kitchen. Grandmother's entire day in the oil in each of the pots, the blackened stove and dished in the sink. 
She did not have to.
But she could only. 
What is health when you're living without purpose? And what better purpose than the one time you can provide food for your family? Provide as you did in their toddlerhood, in their teens and early adulthood.

First Cousin came to stand next to me. 
In the wake of darkness, we stood in silence.
He commented without making eye contact, "Nice dress."
Then he left to partake in lo hei.

Grandmother, not wanting to fuss, left little pause before she got up and bustling. Still frail, and ashen, but with the quiet insistence I see in Father, she shooed us out of the kitchen and opened the door. Her gait was heavy, as if the oppressive heat weighed her steps. But her wave was animated.

I felt the very strong need to feel my grandmother, my withered granny, and not have her slip through my hold. A goodbye hug and two-palm handshake left bewilderment. All withered skin and mulberry veins and loose flesh. 
Where has time gone?

Grandmother smiled at me. It was a smile that made me weep inside, as if all the world melted away and there was only me and my granny, as if she would do anything to make sure my tiniest preference was met, because I was the sole light in her life, as if if the rest of the world was chasing my head for a bounty, she would be on my side.

Grandmother's darkened silhouette against the door, frozen in time by my memory, tilted her head, leaving half her face to the light. Eternal fatigue, eternal incomprehension.

We hurried into the weeping night, having to conceal all electronic gadgets, all discussion of how to exercise the right to vote curbed by the wind whipping our faces. 
The ominous roar of the car unsettled the once-peaceful night as we went on our ways.

The End

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