I want this thing about me to explain everything. My mother died when I was eight. There, there you have it. You can stop looking me over, checking for bruises, lumps, faded paper or cracked glue. I am answered. We have found what broke me and now I can be loved whole, with the knowledge of the pieces that aren’t there and how to survive their absence.
I HAVEN’T DECIDED WHAT’S BETTER: KEEPING MEMORIES WITH GHOSTS OF MEANING OR MAKING MEMORIES OUT OF NOTHING.
I still like thinking about the apartment building we lived in. Redbud. I can’t recall the number of our old unit, but I can remember the glass and metal front door that led to the staircase that led to us. To home. When we first got there it was winter, and I’d wake up to the shy creeping frost on my bedroom window. My legs sunk knee deep into the thick snow that carpeted the front lawn of that apartment building, snow stacked high on the shiny crayon coloured playground equipment. I was seven years old going on eight and just under four feet tall.
I had a mattress on the floor, a cardboard box of Barbies in the wardrobe, a Pocahontas calendar on the wall and a desk with nothing but stationery and a tangle of hair ties and barrettes. Let would pat me to sleep, his firm rhythm on my back an indulgent, tender lullaby. You would do the same to me every time I came home from school. I’d burst into your room, as you were resting, still in your telekung, in between Zuhur and Asar prayers. I’d jump onto the bed next to you and burrow my face into the crook of your armpit, rest my cheek on the soft flab of your upper arm. You’d trace patterns on my back, never for long enough, before telling me to get cleaned up.
The snow melted and summer came before you died. We had gotten back from our Disneyworld trip that day, and we were packing for Mexico that night before we went to bed. You had a pain in your head and Let offered to give you a massage. “Kenapa sakit sangat?” you asked. Why does it hurt so much? Let told you to sit on the floor so he could get behind you and massage your head. Just as he did so, you went limp and fell to the floor. He grabbed a pillow from the bed and put it under your head. When you started foaming at the mouth, he called 911. Later he would tell me that you were probably already dead in his arms.
That night was the first time I rode in a police car. I was giddy and could not contain my excitement at being awake so late, riding in a car that had a siren. Our family friend was waiting for me in the fluorescent-lit lobby of her building, in a long pink dressing gown. It was something you never would have worn; you had died that night in a baggy t-shirt and kain batik. I slept in the room of her older daughter, once my hero long forgotten. She had a necklace made of engraved beads that spelled her name, and she could move her head side to side without moving her neck or shoulders.
I made a crude comic strip in my head, stick figures doing nothing when suddenly I asked myself “Do you think Mama is dead?” I knew that my answer was yes but I didn’t really know what that meant. My roommate called out from the other side of the room, “Are you awake?” I couldn’t think of what to say back, and in the silence we slept.
It felt like I stayed at their house for weeks, but according to Let it took five days from the night you died to us coming home to Malaysia with your body. I was outside with the neighbourhood kids, stuffing dead grass into a pair of old pants and a long sleeved shirt, trying to make a scarecrow for their apartment building. It was then they picked me up, Auntie Faridah and Uncle Charles. Back at the apartment, they told me to wait in my room for Let. I sat at my desk and arranged my scrunchies, and using a marker I crossed out all the days I had missed on my calendar.
It was the first time I had seen Let cry. We were sitting on my mattress, and after he told me, he took off his glasses. I remember feeling embarrassed for him, but as he hugged me and we fell to the bed, I cried too. It felt wrong not to.
I look up the apartment building on Google Maps for the first time, and Google tells me I lived in Redbud Hill Apartments, on East Lingelbach Lane. I use Street View and Satellite View to get a better look of the place, and I can see the playground set in the front courtyard, and the same glass doors. I wonder which one leads to our apartment. I zoom in, and zoom in, and zoom in.
Nothing in the grainy pixels tells me of the woman who died one night when a blood vessel burst in her head, flooding her cranium, dislodging her brain. A ship afloat, as her daughter lay sleeping in the next room.
You have your mother’s hair. Do I? None of your siblings have as much hair as you do. You have her eyebrows too. Oh, I see what you mean. But you told me once that my curls were from you, not her. You and I have her laugh. Really? People say. I don’t think I know my own laugh well enough to call it my own, let alone someone else’s. You and Kakak have her brains. I wonder if you know the irony of what you’re saying.
When I think of your funeral, I conjure up a TV screen, and there is static video footage of me.
A TV crew had descended on the airport when we arrived with your coffin, and they tailed us back to Kedah, your hometown, Let’s hometown, where all the family waited for your return.
They had followed you because you appeared on a morning talk show in 1994, Nona on TV3. Seeing you nestled onscreen on that beige and pink set was a new kind of glamour. You brought us back knick-knacks from the station: the white logo-printed mugs and key chains we had for years and years after. Kakak said you spoke about true love, and that’s why that segment was so popular. I didn’t care then what you were there for, it boggled the mind to think that my mom was on TV talking about anything at all, and that people responded so well they sent the cameras to your funeral.
Their crew caught me in my pastel pink overall shorts, worn over a red and white striped sleeveless shirt. I saw this image a few weeks after everything had happened. Me and Mencik paused in front of the TV, our gaping reverie broken when Tok came downstairs and discovered we had not taped the segment as we had promised – she dressed us down like only that woman could. I remember thinking then how silly adults could be about unimportant things.
Those shorts were a scandal. Maksu, upholding our family’s matrilineal capacity for trivial things, had dispatched Kakak and I to the bathroom of the mosque, to which the cemetery was attached. She was to dress me in a baju kurung, something more traditional, more modest. Less Western. My limbs had other plans, though. They didn’t spend the last 9 months growing in that Indiana air for nothing. Kakak and I could only laugh at the marks the elastic waistband left on my belly as she pulled the too short, too tight skirt off.
You were the one who picked all my clothes. The button down denim shirts with red corduroy collars and cuffs, the patchwork jeans, the scratchy organza lined dresses. The puffy magenta winter coat that made me roll onto the platform at the top of the playground slide, it was so big and unwieldy. My first month back at school that year, an orphan home again, Let forgot to get me a new pinafore and I sat all gangly-limbed and shy, the girl with the shortest skirt in class.
It was said there were throngs of people at the funeral, but I can only remember them at the edges of everything. There was me in my get-up and then there were the piles of people next to your grave, swaying on the woven mats and newspapers, chanting prayers from little booklets. The freshly dug earth was violently ochre, laced with the kemboja petals trampled underfoot. They lowered you down into the grave, a white bundle, and then my memory cuts out.
I’ve always hated going to that cemetery, but it scares me that with every rare visit, it gets harder and harder for me to find your grave. The tree with the protruding root and low hanging bough, the one I used like a road sign, seemed to move every year. Closer, farther, closer still. The path eroded beyond recognition from the slow processions, the tombstones fallen and crumbling, falling down in the way of the living.
The plaque marking your tombstone fell off within the first year, a case of cheap glue. For a while I would look for the white wooden frame marking the edges of your grave, but that rotted through and had to be taken away. You had a small tree planted behind each tombstone, at the head and the foot, but so did many of your neighbours. Your brother, dead within two years of you, was buried a few plots away but his grave deteriorated into anonymity as steadily as yours. I couldn’t depend on the geography of that place, ever shifting, as if the dead below were restless. Or maybe it was just me. Scared of praying over a grave of a woman I don’t even know.
When Let remarried and Kakak left for Scotland, I ended up with most of the photo albums. You and Let always encouraged me to collect things. He taught me how to soak an envelope in a bowl of water to detach stamps, and he would always put a coin for me in every penny-stamping machine we came across. When we were in Florida, we stopped by huge warehouses full of seashells. Baskets and baskets of them, tokens of the ocean without having to be even near a beach. There was a place in Disneyworld that replicated the jewel mines of the seven dwarves, and there was a small area where you could buy shiny, smooth and glittering stones. You got me a small bag of them, the prize being a glitter-glued hunk of rock.
Sometimes it felt like cheating, this wholesale purchase of memories. You were a fan of mementos, of preserving keepsakes but what you really wanted was proof. Evidence of having been, having lived, having passed through. These days when I travel, I still buy postcards and save ticket stubs. To have the thing is to preserve it and everything one can remember about it. We were collecting keys for a world that had no doors.
I couldn’t figure out what to do with them when I got older. On our way to Florida we had stopped at Atlanta. It was the year of the Summer Olympics, and Coca-Cola had set up a fairground of some sort. You bought me pencils imprinted with the Coca-Cola red and their smiling polar bear. You told me, quite sternly, never to sharpen the pencils and never to use them. You said they could be worth something, because of what they represented.
I have several boxes of these things – coins, key chains, stones, magnets, stationery, postcards, ticket stubs – and I would periodically take them all out and rearrange them, sorting them into different containers and assigning them labels. There didn’t seem to be much else to do with these things but to take them out and remember them, so that I wouldn’t forget that I had them in the first place.
One of my superstitions is that the minute you throw away something is when the need arises for it. It seems safer to hold on to the pieces, even if I don’t know what the puzzle looks like.
I think I threw away those pencils, unsharpened.
YOU ARE NOT IN ITALICS BECAUSE I AM DONE WHISPERING ABOUT YOU.
I had a crush on N for two years without telling him. He asked me to move some wooden flats with him once, because no one else had wanted to. I broke down in the middle of the last series of steps, wedged to a brick wall while navigating a tricky corner. I can’t, I told him. I wasn’t strong enough to keep moving. Downstairs, at the sliding doors, we had stopped so I could shift the weight of those heavy slabs, and the razor edges of the flats, all splintered teeth, dragged across his palm. I think of that today and I crush my eyelids together, thinking of fresh blood and raw skin, wincing at the thought of how weak I felt, how weak I was.
Omar was the first boy I ever liked. I liked him so much I turned him into an imaginary friend. I would imagine him waiting for me on the monkey bars during the meal break at kindergarten, wanting me to play. I’d bring him home and chat to him in corners, behind doors, as I descended the staircase. In real life, we never actually spoke. Being a year younger, I was invisible to him. So I kept him in my garden, making a friend who couldn’t see me into a friend I couldn’t actually see.
I wonder if I’ll see him at our friend’s wedding later this year; I imagine him and her teaming up to surprise me, after all this time, a reunion. “I have a cousin down in the city who would be happy to drive you. He’ll pick you up at your house, but you should probably wait outside.” He’d be uncharacteristically early, leaning against some nondescript car (last I heard he had learnt to drive). I’d be wearing a pretty dress, and my hair would be cooperative. I’d see him and I’d be shocked, but my face would slip into a wry smile, my head cocked to the side, maybe one hand on my hip. “Didn’t know you and Fiona were cousins.”
Here I am pretending that my friend’s name is Fiona, just like I am pretending that he would reply with his own dry smile, bewitched by me, interested, attracted and completely alien. We’d drive to wherever this wedding was and our hands could somehow end up on each other’s knees, squeezing. He’ll bring up how he knew, knew I had liked him, knew I had told Fiona, had sat in the office holding the phone with both my hands, wondering if he was going to walk in on a particularly salient sentence, telling her I was going to tell him, that it would be awkward but that I wanted to be brave.
Zahir was the first boy I liked who liked me back. We just didn’t know it at the time. We spent Year 6 calling each other names and stealing each other’s pencils. Two years later, both of us in separate schools, he called me and asked me out on a date, and I sat there, breathless on my father’s bed, cradling the phone with both hands. I said yes, knowing I had no way to get to the mall we had set as our meeting place. I didn’t even bother asking my dad for a ride. The day of our date passed and I kept orbiting around the phone, moving away, moving closer. Guilted. Willing it not to ring.
“I think you should wait. Go on your holiday, and see how you feel after a bit more time.” This was Fiona’s wisdom. I had called upon it and now my gut rejected it.
Because there had been nothing but time. I had waited two years. I spent all of second year in uni writing his name on pieces of paper I wouldn’t claim, a furtive diarist and a coward. I spoke his name aloud in a poem I read at the last class I would ever have outdoors, but erased it when it came time to hand it in. I wrote story after story about the time we listened to Motown at the bus stop when it was raining, one earbud apiece, the bus stop I still can’t pass to this day without expecting to see him. There had been nothing but conjured pieces of memories he probably didn’t share.
I had built this boy into a relationship too big for my brain but too small to fit anywhere in the real world.
Ashraf had a crush on me for 6 months, apparently, before we became friends. We were in a public relations class together at college, and we had to organize an event to raise awareness about gender issues. The first time I met him, I supervised him while he folded t-shirts for our gift packs. He was surprisingly bad at something so simple. And then at the event, as we took group photos on stage, his friends pushed him towards me, and cackled behind their hands.
After that summer he disappeared. Took off for the woods. Apparently he was like that. He had some issues, some secrets. Someone got around to telling me this some months after, but by then I had decided it was the adult thing not to know. My insides were already steeped with his brokenness. Why couldn’t he have told me himself, I wondered, as if he owed me anything at all. Secretly, I wanted to know everything about him, belatedly if that was all I could get, so I could lay claim on some part of him without feeling like a fool.
It was then that he sent a box back to the office with all the stuff he had held on to. The key that opened every door in the building, discs of software, computer cables. A letter.
I spotted Ashraf’s beanied head in the computer lab and saw that he was updating his blog. After a bit of stalking, I found him online and I read an old post where he made a reference to a girl he had been infatuated with, but never bothered talking to. Then he referenced the lyrics of ‘1987’ by Saul Williams, the last line of which contained the name of my blog at the time. She cut the stems and placed them gently down my throat / and these two lips might soon eclipse your brightest hopes.
We were all clearly idiots then, head stuck too far up our own laptops. I emailed him my number. I was excited by this boy who liked me, excited to find out what it was in me he was attracted to. I suggested a date; I didn’t yet know if I liked him back.
He mentioned me. He had sent money, on his and Fiona’s behalf, for a gift, a thank you for all I had done. All my hard work. All that heavy lifting I couldn’t do. He mentioned a scarf he had seen me looking at, which typically, I couldn’t remember. I contemplated buying a swimsuit I had my eye on, but how weird would that have been? It was arbitrary. If I had the money now, I would have wanted to spend it on rain boots. A coat. Black jeans. Something unmemorable that his money could not claim. I ended up hiding it in my bank account, eating my thank you for lunches and dinners (grocery list: pasta, eggs, milk, bread, tomatoes).
I didn’t like Ashraf that way, as it turned out. We ended up friends. In 2008 he came to the airport to see me off to Melbourne. I didn’t hug him goodbye and this spurred a heated email exchange about how I still see him as “the boy who had a crush on me” instead of as a friend. He wasn’t wrong. It’s hard not to want to keep those things in my back pocket, just in case. As a reminder of when things happened, of when things happened to me.
INVENTORY: A GHOST MOTHER, A LOVE-THAT-NEVER-WAS AND A HALF-WRITTEN 20- SOMETHING IDENTITY CRISIS.
I mourn N like I’ve mourned no one else except for you. All that potential, all those back roads and underground canals. One of the things I am, I think, is indecisive. I do not like killing possibilities. I seem to like the idea of having every door open for me to explore as opposed to picking one and going through it. With him, I had to choose between knowing the actual him and not having him at all or making a photocopy of who I thought he was, something that I could keep reproducing. Losing nothing.
I could put everything I knew about him and every encounter we had into a regular sized box. The things I felt and thought and dreamed about however, I seem to still be writing about, three years strong. I remember details, but there aren’t many. The blue and purple hoodie and blue jelly thongs I wore on the day it rained on us. The two times he hugged me. The first time we met. The way he played with his hair. He wrote a recipe for Brazilian fish soup on the back of a shopping list once, I remember calling his handwriting ugly and hating myself for it.
My list of personal memories of you also fit into a box too small. I try adding to it – I have started asking questions, hoping to borrow the memories of others. I know how you and Let met now, and how you met your first husband. I know about the short conversation you and Let had in the car after you saw Auntie Maznah and her young boy, Sam. A year later you had me. Kakak told me about the phone calls you made to her, and the last time she saw you. Abang remembers that the last time he spoke to you on the phone, it had turned into a terse argument about the car.
Let said your worst trait was your anxiety. How dependent you were on him, paranoid about deciding things on your own. Abang remembers your temper; I think we all do. Kakak talks about how high your standards were, how strict you were about them, and everything else. “She used to hate it when I was being dumb.”
I put these pieces side by side, and I wonder, how do you build a person out of these things? How do you resurrect them, whole, with these useless scraps after they’re gone? I thought that if I came up with the questions, I would have done my part. I thought that answers were out there, all of them, sitting and waiting for me and all I had to do was decide to find them.
You are my mother. You would think you deserve more than to be compared to a boy I spent two years not having a relationship with.
I asked both Kakak and Abang if they would bring you back for a day, given the chance. I wanted to know because I was scared of my own answer. I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure I wanted you in my new life; I didn’t want you to see who I am now. So much of me grew around your absence, so much of me you haven’t touched or seen or shaped. I wonder if it was meant to be, how I couldn’t have grown into whatever this body holds if you and I lived on the same plane.
I did, however, want to go back. To somehow visit that year before I turned eight, or earlier, and see you as I remember you, see you in the time before I started forgetting.
Or maybe what I want is to go back before then, to when I wasn’t in the picture and to see who you were. What kind of girl you were as a teenager, and how it was for you to become a woman. There’s a sense that in your past lies my future, but I also know I pine for simpler things. To know if you chewed your fingernails like I do, what your childhood ambitions were, what your favourite books were, if you preferred chocolates to flowers.
There are photos of me posing next to your corpse. We had been allowed to see you, before they put you in the coffin to fly home with us. I was wearing a dark blue polo shirt and my hair was a mess. I can’t remember who was in charge of brushing it in those first few weeks without you.
I don’t know why Let took pictures, and I don’t know why he was so insistent on me being in them. But even now as I sit disturbed at the thought of photographing a dead body, a real dead body that was once my mother, I forgive him my confusion. He had tears in his eyes as he put me next to the metal table, as he put the camera to his face and as the flash went off. He cried as he dabbed minyak attar at your neck, and as he leant in to kiss you on the cheek.
I did not want to touch you. At the hospital, Auntie Faridah had asked if I wanted to give you one last kiss and my mouth dried up as I shook my head. Here again, I tried to stay away from you.
The room was dark, save for the bright light above the slab you lied on. I kept smiling in the photos, unsure of what to do with my face. When I suppressed the smile, I knew I looked too morose, play-acting a sadness I could see but not yet feel.
These photos fascinate me. They make me sad and I wish they didn’t exist. Let had given me the camera at one point, and my small fingers struggled to grip it properly, to press the button without shaking. Him bent over you, whispering his goodbyes and click click I went, trying to keep it all in frame. There we were, father, mother, child. An awkward composition of lives set loose and asunder. I think of the time we went to see Mickey Mouse and the horrified expression of fear on my face as they took an official picture. Let scolded me for my surliness, for ruining a moment we had paid to preserve.
I want these things about me to explain why my mother died when I was eight. There, there you have it. Now we can start looking, shining light into the cracks, running our fingers over this smooth perfect lie and finding the bumps. I am cracked open and pregnant with questions I have been too scared to ask. I will find the pieces of this broken mess and then I will be whole, wrapped up and glued together with everything there is to know between now and then.
Amen, amen, amen.
‘I Am Answered’ was part of the project Syar undertook for her Honours year after three years of doing a Bachelor in Creative Arts in Melbourne’s LaTrobe University. ‘The Resilience of Echoes’ revolved around exploring memory and impermanence in relation to death, and how the relatively new and emerging genre of electronic literature possessed certain features that were ideal for hosting such an exploration, without flattening the dynamic, non-static and nebulous nature of memory.