Nana’s hands, strong and smooth, picked us up off the ground when our knees were cut and our feelings bruised. Her constant hands would lift us up and carry us until our cries were sniffles and the pain but a far distant memory. Her affectionate hands, her warm hands, fed us, bathed us, and rubbed our bellies – the only medicine we ever needed.
And now, holding her fragile shaking hands in mine, I see the times have been unkind to nana’s magic hands. In the wrinkled, rough crinkles of the hands that raised us, I find traces of the destructive eraser inside her mind, rubbing out her memories, one by one, day by day.
Her once enveloping, embracing hands now passively ask, “Who are you? Do I know you?” wondering why mine are holding hers so tight, not willing to let them go.
Why can’t my hands be magic like hers used to be?
Why can’t my hands bring back the memories that the eraser keeps wiping away?
I hand her a pouch with a small pearl bracelet I’ve bought for her, and hope the bright round jewels can bring some life back into her weathered hands. Nana takes the pouch and her hands study it inquisitively.
Her weak fingers try to open the button but they’re not strong enough to pry it open. So I click it open for her then watch as her shaking fingers unsuccessfully fumble at the little zipper. And it feels like I’m watching a painful slow-motion clip on constant replay.
I guide her fingers so we can open the zipper together and finally I get the chance to ordain the pearl bracelet on nana’s frail wrist.
The loud shiny pearls look foreign on her small trembling hand, but I think it looks beautiful. I want for her to be proud and show it off to the other grannies in the hospital ward, but nana’s already forgotten about the bracelet.
Instead, like a child, she is more interested in the pouch the gift came in – and spends the next little while engrossed in the act of slowly opening and closing the zipper, opening and closing it, then opening and closing it again.
Our chatty nana who once loved to gossip now has no words. Her eyes feel like dark pools of the night sky with no moon or stars. I look and I see her, but nana is nowhere to be found.
Oh nana, where are you??
In attempt to lure the real nana out of the imposter with empty eyes, I start making my buggy fish faces and do my crazy cross-eyes. That always makes her laugh.
Come on nana – I know you’re in there somewhere.
But I get nothing more than a slight cock of the head in annoyance, then a dismissive look away. My heart aches in disappointment, in confusion, and in fear.
I can’t give up yet.
I jump up and start doing my funny dance, the one where I shake my arms and wiggle my legs like a monkey drunk on soju. That has never failed to get her in hysterics before.
As nana sees this intoxicated dancing monkey appear before her eyes, she suddenly cracks a smile and mumbles, “hmm seeing you dance like that, you must be…” only to trail off before she can recall a name that I can argue is mine.
“Nana, do you not know who I am?? Do you not remember me?!” I demand, fighting back the tears. She briefly scans my face looking for clues, then gives up with a few shakes of her head.
My heart shatters so hard I hear it echo into the hallway of the hospital. My tears well up until nana is no more than a blur of grey hair and stucco-coloured hospital scrubs. And I don’t know what to do. So I shake my winter boots off and climb into her hospital bed, curling up into a little ball at her feet.
Suddenly I have a wave of nostalgia for when my sisters and I would snuggle up to nana in bed like a litter of sleepy kittens. I bury my face into nana’s side, my burst dam of tears soaking through her hospital gown, smudging nana’s name the nurse has written on it.
I don’t know why but seeing her name scribbled on her clothes makes me angry.
Angry on behalf of nana’s pride.
Angry at mortality.
Angry at the disease eating away at nana’s mind.
I burrow my head underneath her hand, longing for her soft touch that used to stroke my hair and pat my shoulder. Oh how I yearn for that reassuring constant rhythm. Instead, nana’s hand remains still, as if she’s forgotten the beat of the song.
But at least there on my shoulder her hand remains, and there underneath her unmoving hand I fall asleep, with broken dreams of distant smiles and laughter.
When I open my eyes, I see nana is fast asleep, softly snoring with her hands neatly crossed over her chest. I sit up beside her, watching her sleep, wishing I could somehow connect a cable from my heart to hers, and from my mind to hers, so that she might remember what only I seem to be able to remember.
While lost in my thoughts of invisible cables, nana awakes from her slumber and looks over at me. Then the most beautiful thing happens.
She sees me.
Suddenly she is different, and her eyes are full of stars and planets and the Milky Way. There is warmth radiating from every pore in her body and all of a sudden, my nana is back.
“Is that you? Is that really you?!” nana whispers.
“How did you get so big and grown up??” she demands, grasping my gaze with fervour and beating my chest with her small bony hands.
It’s my turn to be at a loss of words. Instead, I just hold her head in my hands and kiss her forehead with mine. And as our invisible heart cables connect, I feel a wash of indescribable relief and joy.
The moment lasts only a minute, maybe two, and then she is gone again – vanishing as quickly as she appeared. As I see the shimmering lights leave her eyes and the warmth leave her hands, I am overwhelmed with a physical ache all over my body, which I assume must be sadness.
I see her dry chapped hands and I take out my hand lotion to give her a massage. Her mind might not understand, but I want her hands to feel the warmth of the bond we share. That much I can still do for her.
But as I gently grab her hand, she does the unexpected. She abruptly pulls away, hissing – and instead throws me a fiercely angry glare and raises her hand to hit me.
I gasp and coil back like an abused child, unable to register what has just happened. Nana has never once hit us our entire lives, not even when we threw tantrums or pushed her to her limits as naughty little kids.
I feel sick and I have to bite my lip and look away because I don’t know how to deal with this dull ache building at the pit of my stomach. I tell myself this isn’t my nana acting this way – it’s the eraser in her mind telling her to be like this. But that doesn’t seem to console me, and I feel burdened with confusion and sorrow.
The rest of the day she is still here in body, but I’m not sure where my nana is hiding. I see glimpses of her come back as we skype my sister and she recognises her face for a second. And when some young girls run around the ward, she cracks a smile – perhaps remembering how my sisters and I at that age used to run around and play too.
But mostly, she’s not really there. She just looks out into space and I wonder what world she’s visiting now. And whether she is happy floating about in those alternative worlds.
I hope with all my might that wherever she is, she isn’t hurting and that she is surrounded by her versions of our shared memories – a place where laughter and love is abound and there is no such thing as time, pain or endings.
Before I know it, it’s time to go and I am scared to leave and scared to stay.
What if next time she doesn’t recognise me at all, not even for those rare minutes she comes out to say hello?
What if next time, it’s me that doesn’t recognise her?
What if there isn’t a next time?
It’s all just too much and uncle is calling me in a hurry to get leaving right now. I give her a big hug and kiss her, and hug and kiss her again. I use all the might I have in my body to put on a huge grin and tell her that I’ll be back soon and that she has to be a good girl while I’m gone.
I tell her I’m off, but my feet don’t move, and I can’t seem to walk away from the frail little woman sitting in that big metallic wheelchair.
I finally turn away from her and start to move towards the door when suddenly I feel a small hand grab my wrist. I swivel back to face her and I see my nana looking back at me with her starry moonlit eyes, full of desperate hope.
“Are you leaving so soon? Do you have to leave already?” she whispers.
I want to scream and cry and tear everything apart with my bare hands.
Why bring her back just in time for goodbye? Why not bring her back while we’re watching korean dramas so we can gossip and laugh and make fun of the characters? Why not bring her back while we’re drinking makguli so we can make funny faces at each other as we turn red from the booze?
WHY bring her back just when she has to watch me leave??
I breathe in and take a moment to compose myself. I have to be strong so that nana can lean on me, just like we used to lean on her when we were kids.
I kneel down to face her in her wheelchair, take her fragile hands in mine and kiss her all over her face like a slobbery dog. She chuckles, and my heart paints a Monet at the feat of making her laugh.
I raise my open palm in front of her, to receive nana’s signature high-five goodbye. And sure enough, she jovially slaps my palm and sings “bye byeee!” in her high-pitched lull, her eyes open wide and expectant.
That’s about all my heart can possibly take.
With that, I can do nothing but run out of the hospital ward leaving a trail of bittersweet tears behind me, and with nana’s longing gaze burning a scar on my back.
I know there is an eraser inside nana’s mind that is slowly eating away at her worldly memories until there will be nothing left. But not even this horrible disease can take away what she has gifted to us, which we in turn will pass down to our own children and grandchildren.
Nana’s hands, comforting and reliable, helped mould us into the women we are today. Her patient, unconditional hands taught us that there is no limit to love, and that we are all put on this earth to know love, to be loved, and perhaps most importantly – to spread love.
23 November 2014
Ansan, South Korea