It was late October.
That morning, the azaleas bloomed, a brilliant red against the whitewashed walls outside the hospital ward. Inside, the last drops of the saline still dripped along the tube that had been turned off, so that they were unable to find their way into your body.
I had just walked out from the ward. The sun had risen early, already glaring. I shielded my eyes with a hand, squinting. I had forgotten how bright, how fiery the tropical sun could be. I had forgotten my dark glasses, my parasol, my sun lotion.
In fact, I had forgotten many things, Mother. I had forgotten the cups of rich, steamy Milo on the breakfast table early morning to see us, the children, off to school every day. I had forgotten how you had hunched over your old Singer, night after night in the dim gaslight, to conjure up one after another, my day dresses, school uniforms, pyjamas. I had forgotten also, the peonies and chrysanthemum on my pillow cases, the fine threads of toned red and green on pale linen. I did not know then, into the cups of the hot beverage, into every piece of the garments, you quietly stirred or stitched a secret in codes you would never reveal, only waiting to be decoded by us.
I had forgotten too many things, Mother. I could have blamed my years of being a wanderer, of living in a cold country – the chill winds, a fourteen-hour flight between us, half a globe away – but, could I?
The truth is, I had chosen to remember instead the red, swollen marks of caning on my calves, the burning sensation that seeped into my young flesh. How the minds trick us, Mother. The memories of pain always preside over those more worthy, deeper feelings.
I was young then, too young to comprehend your rage, to reason and find out the source of it. In my childish mind, I was the cause of your anger. I did not know then the culprit was the centuries-old corrupt beliefs of an ancient culture. Confucianism, so it is called. Those beliefs were ingrained in Grandpa, in Father – as in the generations of men before them – so that it was right, to them, to load you down with endless chores, endless demands in voices loud and stern. And like the women of your generation and beyond, you bowed your head low and took them all in. Inside you, though, they rumbled, those orders and reprimands, growing into a resentment that would burst into fury. That would then be transferred to the cane you picked up – when I came home late from an afternoon of basketball games in school; when my clumsy hands dropped a plate, a bowl, a cup; when I was too slow in folding away the garments you sewn for a local shop for extra cash. Your anger shifted to me, through the stick you lashed onto my body. It drove us apart.
I had also chosen to be a wanderer: drifting away from home, away from you. It was such a delight that year, when I finally left the southern town to the university on a small island in the far north. With that move, a line was irrevocably drawn between us. In a place where my past was unknown to all, I was thrilled to open the door to a different realm: new activities, new friends, new knowledge. The distance further widened with my subsequent relocations, for work or studies, from Penang to Kuala Lumpur and later, Glasgow, a city so alien that even to have a glimpse of it in the world news was rare. My occasional letters and postcards failed to bring to life the seasons, the lochs and rivers, and to tell the stark difference between the barren bens and the dense, luxuriant tropical forests.
You had never had an insight into my world.
Over the years, I travelled to places with people and their cultures beyond my knowledge. In Siklis, a hilltop dwelling in Nepal, I danced with the villagers in a ceremony to honour the head of the village’s seventieth birthday. On another hilltop, this time a remote town in Sicily, Palazzolo Acreide, I paced the street lined with volcanic stones and recollected the history and the cultures, retracting the footsteps of the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans and the Spanish. Another time, in other ancient city with a culture I am originated from, I tried to visualise my ancestors’ journey. I saw them trudging westwards from an inland mountainous village in the south to the port-city before embarking on a turbulent ride across the South China Sea. It was then memories of the past began to resurface.
I had left home long enough then. My teenage angst had long subsided. Wandering in a foreign place at times unsettled me. From one place to another, regardless where I was, something was inherently missing. I was an outsider peeping into others’ homes. There was never a door to enter into. There was never another pair of eyes to look back at me.
Somewhere inside me, though, I knew where I could find that gaze I longed for.
My last day in Szechuan that fated autumn, as I drifted along the paths lined with long stalks of bamboo, the news came to me. You had fallen off your wheelchair, blood clogging in your brains. It had been seven days.
That night, I sat by your bed in the hospital, watching closely as you drifted in and out of consciousness. I wanted to talk to you, I wanted to tell you I had decoded your secret, I wanted to ask if you knew mine, too; but instead I began to recite a mantra of compassion in a low murmur.
You opened your eyes and for a few moments, you gazed at me.
I know. You blinked.
I wrapped your hand in mine.
Yes, Mother. I know, too.