My Grandfather, the Activist

“Done with the printing?” Came this obnoxious voice down the hall.

No, I wasn’t done.

“Yup, I’m sending it over!” I hollered.

I went into overdrive, searching out the documents, pulling out files, converting word documents into PDFs. The walls of the office were closing in on me. There wasn’t much else to do but work.

I pressed print and stood up. Turned to rush for the printer. My arm hit something warm, and there was the sound of porcelain on plastic. The smell of coffee rose from my desk.

On the bus home is when I consolidate my day, which often turns into a pity session where I analyse the shortcomings in my life. As a child I had great dreams, great ambitions. I looked to my grandfather as a role model. My parents were never home, and he brought me up since young. He opened a photo developing shop at Johor Bahru near the Border. He spent his time taking photographs in the morning and tending to his shop in the afternoon. He was an enthusiast, a family man. But above all he was an activist.

Why activist, you may ask? Well, in my books an activist would be someone who inspires another to fight a similar cause. I sat for many years during hot stuffy afternoons watching him develop photos, place them in albums. Some of his clients would smile and wave at me, telling me how “guai” I was. What I admired about him wasn’t the shop, or the photographs. It might have been at first, but after so long I realise it was always that glint of happiness that he couldn’t quite hold back in the pursuit of his craft. He smiled when a customer came in, took deep excited breaths when framing photographs and packaging them. He inspired me to fight for a life I could be proud of. Well, at first.

Standing in a skirt full of coffee stains and covering the deed with a half crumpled newspaper, I felt that in many ways I had let him down. I had let myself down.

We live in Singapore now. A land of better opportunities, as my parents put it. And besides, Grandpa was getting old.

“How was your day?” I asked him in Chinese. He sat on the couch, flipping through television channels. Baggy white shirt, head full of ivory hair, he looked up at me. The house smelled damp.

“Who are you?” He replied.

“Your granddaughter. I’m your granddaughter.” I took a deep breath. “Anyway, I got you some stuff to eat.”

We sat around the dinner table after some moving about. The television was still turned on. I opened the packets of warm food, and I watched as his eyes lit and he immediately reached out with his bare hands.

“No, I’ll get you fork and spoon!” I strode to the kitchen with the set of utensils for him and a pair of chopsticks for myself.

He was already stuffing food into his mouth. I placed the utensils in his hands and he grudgingly obliged.

“You know during the war we didn’t even have bowls.” He reminisced.

“This isn’t the war, grandpa. This is 2016.”

“Who said anything about war?”

I continued eating as my grandfather went on about wartime rations for the sixtieth time this month. He took large swallows, and spat bones out with huge chunks of food. Soon I would have to remove these bones for him.

“How was your day?” I ventured.

“Who are you? Everyday I am here I feel more trapped.”

“How was your day?”

“It is a life of suffering.” It’s funny how phrases sound normal in Chinese but when translated sound pretentiously philosophical.

As I was washing the dishes I noticed again the coffee stains on my skirt. I noticed that it had faded away and was in gradually lighter shades of brown as time went by. I noticed that this was my life. I had to take care of the same man who cradled me when I was a senseless child. It only made sense that I did. I had to work a dead end job every day to make sure we made ends meet, serving coffee and printing meaningless documents. It only made sense that I did. And most of all, it only made sense that I came home to a man who didn’t recognise me, whose look of betrayal stung me every time. It was almost as if he was truly disappointed in what had become of me. That he, a young man struggling in the seventies could have found a job that he truly loved whilst me, a prosperous millennial, could only settle for second best.

And when you settle for second best that’s exactly what you get.

Rooftops

My father told me when I was younger that if you went on a rooftop in the dead of night and made a wish, that in the morning the wish would come true. Now that I think about it, I wasn’t so sure why he said that. Feeding a naive child such a notion must not have been the wisest thing to do.

Sure enough, on the day grandpa passed away I attempted just that. I snuck out of my room in the dead of night and climbed the railing of my house’s balcony. Reaching out for the edge of the roof, my foot slipped on the railing and I fell 2 stories. I broke both my legs that night, and passed out immediately. Right before I fainted, however, I heard grandpa calling my name from above. I swore I did. It was so clear, the way his voice cut through the air as I passed out. I was so sure I could have saved him had I just made it onto the roof and made a wish.

My father was visibly shaken after the incident, and implored my mother not to scold me. “I fed him tales before he slept, I will take responsibility for what happened,” he said. My mother had just lost her own father, and could not endure the possibility of losing her son as well. She did not talk to any of us until after Grandpa was cremated. I sat in the hospital and thought of what would have happened had I successfully climbed up the roof. Grandpa would be back, I was sure of that, and I would not be in the state I was in. It took me a few years before I snapped out of it and stopped blaming myself for my family’s grief. I must have imagined the voice of my grandfather that night.

Many years later, my own father died. After I put my own kids to bed, I found myself climbing to a rooftop again. Of course, I had no hopes of reviving my father, but just knew that this was something I had to do. I made sure not to slip this time, though. Thankfully, modern housing made the task of climbing to the roof safer. There was a thin ladder that led up to the top, and unlike the slanted apex roof of my old home, this was a flat roof.

When I was finally at the top I sat down on the cleanest patch of ground I could find, and just took some time to breathe. It was the peculiar time that one knew not whether to call morning or night. I realised then that I hadn’t had time for myself the past week with relatives coming to offer their condolences, and my children needing attention of their own as well. I sat there, the moon casting its faint glow all over me, shrouding me in pallor. I thought of why, in our quietest moments, we tend to think the most coherent thoughts. It was as if my mind became suddenly active, an arrow flying straight to the bullseye. I quickly conjured up a small list of things I wish I could have told my father.

I was startled by a rustling below, and crawled over to the edge, carefully. It was my neighbours son, coming home late into the night. I spied on him from above, as he made his way to the front door. It was probably a raunchy night of drinks, I thought.

And then came my wildest realisation. It was my father all this time. He had been on the rooftop all those years ago, the same way I was on the rooftop now. That was the only way I was noticed and brought to the hospital in the dead of night. That was the only way I could have heard my name being called out from above as I passed out. It wasn’t grandpa after all. And if not for him I would have been left unconscious until the morning. Nobody would have noticed me there, except that he did. And so we sat there, on different rooftops, 20 years apart. But we were sharing something special, I was sure of that. I could very much feel him there, beside me. Just silently hoping.

Later that night, I opened the door to my son’s bedroom, and watched him as he slept. There he was, my son. Then I finally understood why my father told me those bedtime stories. Because he wanted me to imagine a world where people didn’t die and we had no regrets about the things we didn’t say. I knew then, what I had to do.

I closed the door, and went off to bed. I thought of just the story to tell him, a story about rooftops. But it would have to wait for tomorrow night.