FACTS OF LIFE by Laetitia Keok

Male emperor penguins protect their eggs from the harsh Antarctic elements by balancing them on their feet.

When I tell you this, you lift me up and balance me on your feet. I am four and weigh nothing. You are a mountain of a man. With my tiny feet stacked atop your larger feet, you hold my hands and start taking wide, steady steps. We pass the balcony, and I feel the warmth of sunlight as it filters through the glass door to fall onto our bodies. Our shadows dance on the floor tiles like puppets. Then, I am flying. Past my mother’s old room that is now my aunt’s. Woosh. Past the cot that my baby sister is sleeping in. Woosh. And I am not afraid of falling—it doesn’t even cross my mind. We waddle across the living room, my cousins cheering softly in the background. Soon I am yelling directions, “停!左!等!右!” and we are zigzagging around the sofa and the stool and the bright red toy car that I have long outgrown, but that you’d fixed anyway. I keep my eyes on the floor—I am your guide, telling you to swerve to avoid the cracks in the floor, to turn at the right corners. When I look up, there is light everywhere—the room melts away and we are in Antarctica, inventing our own little penguin waltz. It is a long time before I am willing to walk on my own again, and I tell everyone this is how I learnt to do it: safe in your arms, fearless. 

Only I am not fearless yet. I am six and it is my first day of primary school. You walk me to the gate, but I refuse to go in. I am afraid of the sickly cream-coloured walls and the pillars thicker than the width of both our bodies. But mostly I am afraid for you to leave. “Let’s walk for a bit more before I go in,” I say. “One more round, before you have to go.” You shake your head, but let me lead you to the zebra crossing and then back to the bus stop across the school compound. We circle the bush with the small white flowers once, then twice. You say “最后一次”, but we circle it another time. I cling onto your shirt sleeve. When you finally get me to step through the school gates, the walls and the pillars meld into a blur in my eyes. I am crying. I am reaching for your hand and grabbing air. I am begging for one more round, and always one more round. 

Even as a child I knew to ask for more time. 

 

There’s a line in Terese Marie Mailhot’s heart berries that says “Time seems measured by grief and anticipatory grief”.

The summer I spent chasing all 311 episodes of 《天下父母心》 with you was also the summer I realised you were not invincible. A light in the house had blown a fuse, and you were going to change it. I helped you get a ladder from the storeroom, and as I watched you climb it, I was terrified. I could not shake off an image of you falling. I imagined all the bones you could break, and all the hard edges that could break you. In my mind, I heard the dull crack of your spine, your neck, your hips. I let you get to the third rung, then made you get off. As I scaled the ladder in your place, you smiled and said, “Qi, see? Isn’t this easy? It’s good to learn now, I won’t be here forever to do it, you know.” I knew. I knew before you said it and it made me afraid. 

At night, fifteen minutes into episode 201, you dozed off. As I watched the glow of the television tint your skin a ghostly purple, I traced the rise and fall of your chest and braced for the hitch in your breath, but there was none.  

In so many ways, I have already grieved you.

 

In Parkinson’s disease, certain nerve cells in the brain gradually break down or die. Early signs may be mild and go unnoticed.

At first, we do not notice the tremors. Then, they are all we see—you, earthquaking into yourself. 

Here is how a body forgets itself: everything you can no longer bite into, the stiff of your feet, the hunch of your back, the tremble of your arms. You have always been quiet, but you no longer talk during meals because you’d choke if you did. You blink less. Your stride narrows. 

Once, when I asked you how you’d lost half of your middle finger on your right hand, you told me you had been peeling an apple, when you’d accidentally sliced it off. I was fascinated. I thumbed the almost smooth ridge of skin that pulled itself over your remaining knuckle. “Did it make things frustrating?” I asked. “Like you suddenly couldn’t do so many things?” You ruffled my hair, chuckled, and said no, you’d just decided you didn’t need that finger.

But you will need your body, and you will not have it. It will no longer feel like yours. You will have trouble swallowing, talking, walking. You will need a wheelchair. I cannot imagine it, but you will grow unsteady. This time, there will be things you can no longer do. 

 

There is no known cure for Parkinson’s. It is a disease that is chronic and worsens over time.

The day you are admitted, I see my mother cry for the first time in years. I learn we are all afraid—there is no such thing as fearless. She had woken me up in the morning before going to you. After she left, I sat in bed, and time swelled all around me. I had slept through it. You were in pain and I had slept through it. You were in pain and I should have felt it, somehow. Except I hadn’t. And I had slept through it all. 

When I was younger, to correct my posture, my mother made me stand up straight against the kitchen wall. “Hold it for sixty seconds”, she would say. You laughed and counted the seconds with me. 

Now, I count with you as you relearn your hands, finger first. One, thumb to index finger. Two, thumb to (half a) middle finger. Three, thumb to ring finger. Four, thumb to pinkie. I show you how to make a fist and unfurl it. Now, you memorise the motions to stand up safely, and I watch as it takes you multiple tries. I watch you learn to move sideways to navigate space, “like a crab”, you say. We waddle across the living room—I am your guide. I remind you to not look down, to take larger strides—“往前看,大步一点”. When I feel the ridges of the anti-slip mat in the bathroom dig into the soles of my feet, I know it must hurt for you, too, and learn you are a patient man.

Your body forgets, but mine remembers. I remember it all. Your feet, warm under mine. Your hands, always gentle. I remember that day, from years ago, when we walked eleven blocks and two traffic lights to pick my cousin up from kindergarten. I had slipped my hand into yours and thought, how I will miss you when you are gone.


Laetitia Keok is a writer and editor from Singapore. Her work has been published in Diode Poetry Journal, Hobart Pulp and Wildness Journal, among others. You can find her at laetitia-k.com

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