Personal Narratives
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Swallowing Sadness

When I was a kid, I couldn’t swallow tablets. Not only could I not swallow them, I had an absolute, throat-constricting fear of them. So, the summer when I developed mumps was a particularly painful summer for both me and my family. My nightly treatment was a war zone: there was me, a stubborn five-year-old with swollen cheeks, distraught with fear at the idea of consuming something I could not chew; my worried mother begging me to try again as I spat out the pill for the fifth time; my frustrated father commanding she hold my nose and force it down.

And then there was my gentle Grandpa who coaxed me from the chaos and took me to the kitchen. He patiently diced the miniscule tablet into microscopic pieces, and replaced my water glass with an apple raspberry juicebox. Then he sat and stroked my back as I shook and sobbed and swallowed until the tablet was gone.

I’m not entirely sure if that memory is mine, or whether it was planted into my mind by adults the way actors replace previously-imagined storybook characters, but whenever I saw my grandparents, Grandpa loved to remind me of it.

I don’t have many memories of my Grandpa. Distance meant I could only see him once every two or three years, and when I did see him, it was like two strangers who used to know each other. I didn’t know much about him either, only that he loved mah-jong, stocks and telling stories.

When we visited, Grandpa would come into our room after lights out, smelling like herbal tea and grey-lead pencils, and tell us stories. Stories with moral lessons, stories with puzzles and riddles, stories about the Japanese, stories about my mother and uncle, and stories about me when I was young, which he’d written down in a little book. The mumps story was his favourite, but he also kept “the time Baya got stuck on the playground slide” and “the time Baya got a paper cut and cried for two hours” in his back pocket. My sister liked to call that book “Times when Baya was a dumbass” but I secretly adored it. It was the closest my Grandpa and I had to a private joke.

Grandpa had beautiful handwriting; even after he had his first stroke and lost most control of his body, he kept a journal, except he liked to write lots of numbers in his instead of words. Yet, as I watched him pencil in his daily dividends with the gentle concentration of a heart surgeon, I wondered if he ever wrote diary entries sometimes. After all, my Grandpa had a favourite book and a favourite film and a favourite day and a favourite thought. Surely, he did.

When my Grandpa passed away late last year, I didn’t feel much. I know how that sounds, and for the first few days, my lack of grief really bothered me. I didn’t have a lot of experience with death, but from what I’d learnt about it through popular culture, it was supposed to feel different to this. I comforted my mother on the phone as she delivered the news, I sat on the back porch with my sister and held her as she cried for the grandfather we shared. Even the clouds wept and wept for my Grandpa’s departure, but I did not cry.

Why was it that I could cry every damn time I watched Titanic, but couldn’t shed a tear for the man whose blood pumped through my veins? It made me question my capacity to love. Was I cold-hearted? Was I missing that gene that makes you love those you’re related to? Sure, I knew that we were all prepared – Grandpa had two strokes and a heart attack before his death. Yet, when I was told he was dying, I didn’t cry because I knew he was still alive. When I was told he was dead, I didn’t cry because I knew he was dying. So at what point was I supposed to cry?

The answer came to me six days later when my mother returned from his side. Among scattered discussions of Grandpa’s life and his will and all the things that needed to be done when someone leaves forever, my mother turned to me and said with a soft chuckle: “Grandpa was pretty delirious in his last few hours.”

“I’m sure,” I replied, for I had been told of the aneurysms in his brain and the morphine in his veins.

“The nurse came to give him his tablets to lower his temperature,” my mother continued with a sad smile, “it was incredibly high, around 42. After taking them painfully, Grandpa muttered: ‘Baya wouldn’t have been able to take all these tablets.’”

My mother held my head as she wept with me, my stoic father stroked my hand and made no sound. And this time, no one was there to take my sadness and dice it into pieces so it would be easier to swallow.

We don’t get taught at school how to grieve. And books only teach us that we’re supposed to feel sad. I needed someone to explain to me that grief can take time, and that often something as permanent and as infinite as death is not an easy idea to comprehend. I needed someone to tell me there is no “supposed to” when it comes to dealing with death, and there was nothing wrong with me being okay. Most importantly, I needed someone to remind me that Grandpa was not just sick and then dying and then dead; he was a man who recorded numbers and recounted stories and was just as alive as me when he taught me to be brave fifteen years ago. Because death doesn’t make enough sense for me to be sad about it, but remembering someone who was patient, loving and alive will always be something I cry about.

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