My shriveled hands lay in my lap as I stare out of the window. It’s just low enough for me to see the tops of the rose bush outside. The bland yellow walls are meant to be calming but they make me angry. Soft music is piped in through speakers; a TV blares in the corner. I ignore all of this, trying to focus my energy on watching for my family to arrive. They’ll be here soon to take me away. One of the residents shouts, jolting me from my reverie. It’s noisy here; I don’t like it.
Someone taps me on the shoulder. I look up and see a smiling face. Sifting through my memory, I can’t fit the face to a name. Nevertheless, I smile back as my mother always taught me. One can never be too sure so it’s best to be polite to everyone.
She pulls a chair next to my wheelchair. Her face is open and friendly but when I look at her more closely, I can see the forced smile, the tightness around her eyes. She doesn’t want to be here so why is she? Who is she?
“Ma,” she says, her smile widening. “How are you today?”
I wave a listless hand in the air. “Fine.” I can see my answer isn’t enough for her because her eyes lower. “I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name — who are you?”
She lifts her eyes to mine, horror-stricken for a second before she blinks. Sighing, she says, “Ma, it’s me. It’s Bai Tuh.”
The name triggers a memory in my mind, but before I can grab hold of it, it falls through the gaps. I force a smile on my face. “Of course. Bai Tuh. How nice of you to come visit me.”
Relief brightens her face and she grasps my hand. “Of course, ma, I’ll always come visit you.”
I pat her hand with reassurance. “Do you know, I also have a daughter named Bai Tuh. She seems to be your age.” Looking around, I continue, “She is supposed to come visit me today but she hasn’t come by yet.”
I look back to Bai Tuh who has a crestfallen expression. “Ma, I’m your daughter. Ni de nu er, remember?”
To hide my mistake, I take her hand, laying it against my cheek. “Of course I remember.”
“Look, Ma, I brought your favourite: zhoo gen kok kok. You’re hungry, right?” She pulls off the Tupperware lid and steam rises, tickling my nostrils. She takes a tiny spoonful and guides the spoon to my mouth. The kok kok is crunchy but soft enough for me to gnaw on before swallowing. The salty flavour bursts in my mouth; the zhoo is comforting and warm in my belly. Bai Tuh keeps up a stream of chatter while she feeds me.
Before long, she starts packing the containers. My stomach churns and panic rises within me. I grab hold of her hand, gripping it tight.
A pained look spreads across her face. “Ma, I have to go.”
“Don’t leave me here. Please.” I pull her towards me; she almost falls into my lap. Tears well in the corners of my eyes. “You can’t leave me here. You’re supposed to take care of me. You’re my daughter and you’re supposed to CARE FOR ME. Ni gang liu wo zai zeli?”
Her expression at my surprisingly strong grip is almost comical. We struggle for power until she pushes me away, stumbling back a little, her cheeks flushing. Residents raise their bobbling heads to see what the commotion is while a nurse makes her way towards us.
“Is everything all right here?” the nurse asks.
Bai Tuh nods, turning away to surreptitiously wipe her tears. Forcing a bright smile on her face, she says to the nurse, “Of course. Thank you.”
The nurse wags a finger at me. “Now, Mrs. Lim, your daughter has to leave so we should say good-bye, yes?” Her saccharine smile washes over me and I bite back a reply. Plastering a pleasant smile on my face and nodding, I reach for my daughter’s hand. The nurse stands back, a satisfied look on her face. Giving me a wary look but not wanting to make a scene, Bai Tuh gives me her hand. I pet it, smiling at her. Her shoulders sag and she steps closer. I wait until the nurse turns her back before I bite her hand.
She hisses and yanks her hand away, rubbing the red spot. The nurse rushes to her side. “Do you need anything?” she asks her, who shakes her head. The nurse tuts. “It’s a good thing she didn’t have her full dentures in or we’d have to bandage that up right now.”
Bai Tuh nods, her cheeks reddening. They exchange words, ones I can’t hear. It doesn’t matter. I look out the window once more, the sun searing the sky orange as it dips below the horizon.
Someone puts a hand on my shoulder. I look up and it’s my daughter. “Ma, I have to go, okay? Please…I’m sorry.”
My hands grip into tiny fists in my lap. “You promised to look after me. You promised. Ni da ing wo.” Guilt drapes across her face and a fire starts within me. I lean in to fan the flames. “You’re leaving me here to die. Is that what you want? So you don’t have to worry about me anymore?”
Every word drains the colour from her face. She shakes her head, a flush rising from her neck. “Ma, of course not.” She squeezes my hand. Her voice wavers as she continues, “Ma, I…I had to put you here because you need twenty-four hour care. That’s something I, my family, can’t do. We just…we can’t have you waking us at three a.m. anymore. We even had to put locks on our doors.”
I scoff, shoving her hand away. “I would never do anything like that. Why would I bother any of you?”
She shakes her head. “Ma, there have been too many times when you wake Babe up all because you thought the nightlight was going to blow up. Baba needs his sleep but you keep waking him. Edmund needs his sleep, he has to work so hard, Ma, and you waking us up every night isn’t helping.” She grabs my hand. “If I could have you live with us, I would. But not when you’re like this. Not when you won’t let us sleep.”
I pull my hand away, glaring at her. “How can you tell such lies about me? I don’t do that.” She protests but I talk over her. “I would never do anything like that to you. You’re my family. You, Edmund, Steve, Babe, Long — you’re my family. You are all I have. I have nothing else. If I don’t have you to care for me, then who…” my voice trails off, my lower lip trembles. Bai Tuh blinks and tears roll down her cheeks.
“Ma…” she lowers her head. She wipes her cheeks, raising her red eyes to mine. “I’m sorry, Ma, I have to go. I’ll be back soon and Hon will come by tomorrow, okay?” Pressing a swift kiss on my forehead, she slips out of the room. My hands reach for her but miss by inches.
Lowering my arms, I stare out of the window once more. The sky is inky black. The nurse appears by my side. “Mrs. Lim, why don’t we go back to your room, hmm? You must be tired after all that excitement.” I don’t answer; she doesn’t wait for one. I glare at the other residents as she wheels me past: several can barely hold their heads up, others look lost – their tethered souls leaving an emaciated pound of flesh behind. She helps me into bed and I lay there, the corners of my mouth turning down. She talks to me but I don’t understand what she’s saying. I slap her hand away when she pulls the blanket towards my neck. Her hands clench but she doesn’t say anything, giving me a tight smile before leaving my room, muttering something under her breath.
The lights are still on but the room is devoid of any personality. I haven’t put any personal items in here though they tell me I’ve been here for some time. I don’t care. I’m not meant to be here. I know my family will come and take me away. I just have to be patient and wait for them to come.
They will come because they know how important my family is to me.