personal

We’ll all be old one day

We saw her at the same time as we got off the bus: an older auntie with her legs bent inwards, about to heft a trolley bag up the overhead bridge. The woman in front of me, short-cropped hair, maybe in her late 40’s, beat me to it.

“Auntie, where you going?” she said efficiently, and without waiting to hear the answer, continued. “I carry for you. Come. Never mind.” She swung the trolley up and strode up the stairs like a conqueror, leaving the auntie in the dust. I admired the muscles in her calves.

The bag-carrier ripped her way to the end of the overhead bridge like a CrossFit trainer and set it down to wait patiently. The bow-legged auntie was in her late 70s and moved with placid slowness. I hovered between them both as she limped across the bridge.

“Thanks,” she panted when we finally reached the end. It was hot but not yet noonday, and windy, cars suddenly catching the light as they streamed by below us, silver-bellied as trout. “Is she your mother?” the auntie asked me.

“Oh,” we said, startled. “No, we don’t know each other at all, we just got off the bus together.”

“I’m going to Ang Mo Kio Ave 1 to visit my sister,” the muscularly-calved woman said.

“Thanks, auntie,” the auntie said to her, which tickled me.

“Aiyah,” said the woman, pretending, in the style of Singaporeans, to not have been thanked. “We’ll all be old one day.” And off she charged.

My turn to pick up the purple trolley bag. The auntie’s blouse was purple, too, and her hair was a white fluffy poodle cloud around her head, and her eyes squinted but appeared to gauge me just fine. “I live in block A,” she said. “I live in block B,” I replied, and off we went.

She was in her late 70’s, she said. She was at Block 453 to get Singapore eggs because eggs were not in stock in the market by our blocks, thanks to the Covid-19 panic-buying. Other eggs cannot? I asked. Must be Singapore eggs? She gazed at me with great pity. You don’t know meh, if you eat Malaysia eggs you will get bird flu? I grinned. Oh of course, you’re right, I don’t want to get bird flu.

I began to cut through the blocks–void deck, car park, playground, my usual path. She waved at me. Walk this way, shadier and no stairs. And give me my tongkat. Obediently I turned her trolley and extricated her walking stick, which she used to tap along the ground.

She was chatty. My son got me this tongkat, not bad right? And my daughter lives in Toa Payoh, at THE PEAK, you know where THE PEAK is? I live on 12th floor, you? Facing where, MRT or the road? Very windy right? Oh I come down once every two days lah. Very hard to move around.

You know beneath our block there’s always that nun who comes by in a motorised wheelchair? Then we will chit-chat lor. Oh, and you know that uncle who is tube-fed, comes down with the tube in his nose? (We both draw invisible worms out of our nostrils at this point, identical gestures indicating his tube.) Yeah, sometimes he’s here too. You know he only drinks milk, cannot eat food? Even my husband who is 97 can eat food. He very poor thing leh. Can you imagine not eating food? Oh, there the tube-uncle is.

The uncle goes by holding a little seat cushion and waves. The auntie sucks in a breath and yells, “UNCLE? EAT LUNCH ALREADY?”

The uncle gives her a very long look and waves again. What a question. Ya, ya, eat already.

We continue our journey. It is very slow and has given her plenty of time to get warmed up. Have you eaten lunch? Did your mother cook for you? (I now begin to doubt the veracity of her eyesight.) Oh yeah, you cook at home? Smart, you know how to cook hor. I live with my husband, he’s 97, and my maid, we have a maid. My only criteria is that my maid has to be very strong, ‘cos my husband is bedbound, can’t even turn himself, just lies in bed all day. He has to eat all his food blended. Like baby, you know? Wah, when I see him ah, I quickly pray to god, please come and pick me up soon okay, I don’t want to be so old!

We laugh, we are almost at her lift landing. She beams at me. Want to come up and have a cup of tea? What’s your name? I wave her off, say I have to get home, say I hope I’ll see her again soon.

I had glanced at my watch before I had gotten off the bus and congratulated myself. 11:20 am–I had dropped Chai off at daycare and made my way back home in less than an hour. When the lift doors closed behind this auntie I looked at my watch again. 11:45 am. A walk that would take me five unthinking minutes had stretched almost half an hour as I traversed slopes, shelters, and legs bent by Parkinson’s. Funny how scenes that pass by me, filler scenes, commutes that I fast-forward myself mentally through, fend off with music and books and Pokemon Go games, are the biggest parts of someone else’s day. And the way both women had talked about Ang Mo Kio. 453, Avenue 1, numbers that constituted so much to them but meant little to me. Space and time. Maybe I have hung out with geographers too long.

*

The other day I was at home with Mo when we heard a loud clatter and a scream from next door. A bad clatter, pots hitting the floor. And a bad scream, a woman howling Amma, Amma, her voice ripped as wet paper. We glanced at each other. I leapt up. I barged in next door. She was lying on the floor, crying and screaming. Her ankle was bent in a way that ankles should not be bent.

The first thing I did was to look away from the ankle. Then I turned off the stove and found some small square foot in that tiny two-bedroom kitchen to bend down next to her. I seized her hand. Like my mother-in-law, she wore gold; her hands encircled by gold bracelets, necklaces sinking down her neck. Her eyes were closed, her cries fading.

I bellowed for Mo. He appeared in the doorway with Chai in one arm, a phone in the other, calling the ambulance, giving an address. He disappeared and came back again without Chai. From a distance away, a closed room door away I heard Chai begin to bark in excitement and anxiety.

We know the neighbours fairly well, me and Mo. An old couple. He is always wrapped in a dhoti, a shirtless and bony figure smoking rolled cigarettes in the corridor, and in recent months holding a urostomy bag at his side. He never responded to my greetings and at first I found him irascible and unfriendly before I realised that he was probably just a little awkward and perhaps lonely. She’s friendlier, says hi to Chai when I walk past, often heads down to exercise with the senior activity center, and always has something to tell me–an appointment at Tan Tock Seng, a visit from her daughter in Malaysia, going to the market to get something, husband in the hospital again. Just small things, little cordial bits, like handing a mint to someone.

Sometimes they knock on our door–one year with Deepavali sweets, another time because the TV isn’t working, and another time and another time (their TV knocks out whenever there’s a storm), and once her granddaughter came shyly to borrow five dollars for her EZ-Link card. But suddenly I was holding her hand and brushing her hair off her face. When someone is in pain the five minutes it takes for an ambulance to come are the longest moments to experience.

She drifted, a bit of seaweed. She felt giddy, she said, she fainted. Her ankle hurt, felt very heavy. She had an appointment at the hospital today. She just wanted to cook an egg. I listened and said over and over again, “I know it hurts, I know it hurts.” In a blur somewhere Mo was calling her daughters. The phone calls did not connect. Chai barked and barked.

The medics came and we backed out. Her husband wandered in and out of the chaos, mutely handed us her purse and her IC, terrified. I was so scared he would accidentally trip over her broken ankle. We sat him down on the couch and he trembled. I wrote my phone number and name down on a newspaper on the coffee table. I asked her to unlock her phone for us. We managed to reach, I think, a granddaughter, who sounded breathless and hurried, asked which hospital and how to reach me.

They lifted her on a trolley, her legs stabilised in soft foam. In the end I went with her to the hospital, stopping to quickly grab a laptop and put on some shorts that weren’t pajamas. In the end I sat in the emergency room and pulled out bits and pieces from her purse to find an emergency contact–a namecard from an ayurveda specialist; a PAssioncard attached to a lanyard; a 555 notebook with names and Town Council addresses. I called and texted and held on to her IC and listened as the doctor explained about her blood pressure. I identified myself as her neighbour (this drew some odd looks) and waited as they set the bones and waited until her children could reach the hospital, about four or five hours later. I handed off her purse and went home and sat in front of the television, falling asleep.

*

So here is the thing, right: I can make these links. I can connect an auntie from a bus stop with a heavy load to her doorstep. And in times of crisis I can call an ambulance and fill in for children of elderly parents. I can do these things because I am able-bodied, financially secure, able to flexibly reconfigure my labour, and not beholden to any vulnerable person who depends on my attention and care. I have a surplus of attention and care that I can redirect into the ecology of humans around me. But my circumstances are extraordinary, aren’t they? I experience these things because my times and spaces are not the 9am-6pms of my friends’ worlds. What happens to the people who break their legs when no one is around or the aunties who take an hour to go from bus stop to their home with a trolley filled with a week’s groceries? Or the people with no children? What’ll happen to me?

I don’t mean to be preachy. I have seen care maps of our community–SACs, hospitals, clinics, daycares, therapy centers, nursing homes. And I have even written about it, a little bit. But these encounters give me a new sensitivity to my inevitable inhabitation of a very different world, a continued reminder to attend to missed connections, and, more broadly, to maintain my health and my friendships and my networks. I always forget these things and have to be reminded anew–reminded that I too am headed into a place of fragility and vulnerability, that I will one day depend on the kindness of strangers, and to ask what I can do now in response to what is someday, any day now, to come.

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