Two grinning faces, actually three, including the portly Malay helper who was pushing my dad’s wheelchair ( probably happy from sighting relief beyond the arrivals gate) waved at us from the luggage carousel. I wrapped my scarf tightly around my shoulders; it wasn’t just the air-conditioning giving me chills.
Ever since we moved to Singapore, we’d been wooing our parents to visit us. Five years later and about a month ago, I and my husband set off one early morning to pick my parents up from the airport.
Even though we keep in touch i.e virtually ‘nudge’ each other everyday when a scrabble move is due, it was thrilling to see my parents in person and most importantly find them emerge out of the immigration gates unscathed and unflustered.
Most first time visitors i’ve met wax lyrical about Singapore’s airport, it being one of the world’s best or at least rave/ rant about inflight food and entertainment, which make the usual post flight conversation, but my parents, and I should’ve known, drove straight to the point. “I can’t download Whattsapp on my tab, how soon can you fix it?” asked my dad as I bent down to embrace him and my mom said she had to pee, urgently.
Back home, unpacking and settling down went unexpectedly smooth. Making a tiny couple’s apartment habitable for 4, that too for a month wasn’t easy but after an extensive and exhaustive bout of spring cleaning (I am backslapping myself as I write this) I had miraculously created space inside wardrobes, bathrooms, bookcase (since my dad travels with at least 6 books) and on the study table. Not only did I arrange for extra mattresses and linen, I also found clever nooks in the house to store these bulky items neatly without making our pad look any smaller.
Icing of the cake – my husband got a leaking pipe replaced the day before our guests arrived, so we were even mould-free. Only if the wooden door to our electrical closet – hoarding space for all displaced items in the house – would hold up for a month without crashing under pressure, we’d pass off as perfectly conscientious hosts.
The door did hold up for a month but circumstances didn’t. The thick pall of haze over Singapore (from forest fires in Indonesia) rendering the air quality ‘unhealthy’ compromised imminent sightseeing plans. A family emergency on my husband’s side needed him to fly out for 2 weeks the next evening, leaving two overeager elderly raging to make the most of their first visit abroad at the hands of their hapless daughter scrambling for plan B.
I didn’t have plan B. What I had instead was this incipient fear. Retired folks like my parents being creatures of habit become petulant once their rhythm is upset. How long until the fascination and wide eyed wonder of the new place started to wear off? Surely the novelty of clean and safe roads, manicured parks, disciplined traffic, cars that didn’t honk and gave way to pedestrians and the miraculous ability to ‘drink water straight from the tap’ couldn’t keep them dazzled for a month? I had to give them a routine and get them to repeat it everyday till it became second nature.
And so I did.
Mornings would be dedicated to tea and Jacob’s cream crackers. My trusty canary yellow teapot which sadly met its end in the line of duty, entertained my guests with countless cups of champagne coloured beverage from Japanese Green Tea, Chamomile to lemongrass, lavender and Chilli Roiboos infusions. While I let the tea steep, my dad, always in white pyjamas and vest when indoors, would sit on the wide window sill and watch the constant retinue of cars, schoolchildren, infants in prams and fancy dogs being walked by their owners, all the while clutching his Samsung Tablet encased in a lurid orange cover.
If he made a word of considerable points in Scrabble, my level headed father, a man of few words and fewer displays of emotion would pump his fists into the air and let out a victorious cry – ‘yes, yes, yes’. He’d also bite into his biscuits and dribble the crumbs on the floor. I started skipping all the double and triple words just to watch him get animated every morning, and then clean the floor inconspicuously with a brush and a dust picker.
My mom would sit on the sofa, propped against two cushions, sip her tea and either continue to read a particular travel article on Antarctica she’s been following or fiddle with her phone like the rest of us. Meanwhile I’d check the hourly psi readings and declare if it would be safe to venture out of the house. If all was fine, we’d quickly pick a place to visit and I’d try to convince dad to come with us and eventually get into an argument because he wouldn’t want to exhaust me by pushing his wheelchair and I wouldn’t want to leave him behind. Some days he let me win and some days I let him win, especially when I and mom wanted to go shopping.
There were days when our mornings would stretch longer and take on a didactic tone with my dad drifting into a discourse about religion, spirituality and life in general and how to live it, occasionally concluding in pithy sentences drawn from the Gita, Vedas or his life’s experiences. My mom, having heard these before would contribute background score to his soliloquy in the form of soft snoring sounds.
On the days we stayed in, I’d cook an elaborate lunch, usually cuisines my parents were new to, from Greek Lemon Chicken, to Indonesian Red curry, Vietnamese Rice paper rolls to SriLankan Prawns. They’d always fuss over the dish when I laid it down on the table, saying how beautiful it looked and how good it smelled and then surreptitiously grab some ketchup for added flavour until I started sweetening my dishes more than my taste buds would allow. We were getting along perfectly well.
Around 3 in the afternoon, come rain or shine, my dad would hobble to a quiet corner in the house, spread a mat on the floor, set the timer for an hour and sit down to meditate. Though on several occasions I’ve found him in a state – shoulders slumped, back relaxed, head tilted forward, taking deep slow breaths – that could only indicate post-lunch dip, when confronted he would fervently deny the accusation and counter it each time with some iteration of ‘I could not have dozed off. I was alert the whole time’. I sketched him in the said posture one afternoon to tease him and also to prove my point but then didn’t have the heart to show it to him.
Nearly 10 years ago, a severe cerebral haemorrhage had permanently incapacitated my dad, rendering him unfit not just for his day job as a mechanical engineer at a Steel Plant but for performing simple tasks like buttoning his shirt or wearing a shoe. Then again, I haven’t met a more positive person who’s picked himself up from deathbed and constructed a life without regrets. Years of care, support and physiotherapy may have improved his situation by a minuscule percentage, the rest was his own doing, with sheer will power and conviction. I couldn’t trample on that, not even in good humour!
Unless the haze was terrible, on most evenings I would take my parents to the neighbourhood park, where they’d spend a little time on a wooden bench watching people go about their businesses, and then walk another 150 meters to the mall to lounge at a cafe, listen to jazz, drink lattes, read books and most importantly, at least for my dad – play scrabble until dinner. Back home, we’d huddle on the sofa, put on a Satyajit Ray flick on Youtube and end the day in the throes of monochromatic Kolkata.
After my husband was back we did manage to take them around Singapore, and though it was precious to watch my parents get excited at every sight just as we did when we moved in here, it is the rhythm of our days together – the little tasks that cumulatively formed our routine – that I’ve come to miss the most after they left. Goodbyes are hard and this one was too, but then again, ‘distance’ – however menacing it is in the beginning, is restorative eventually. With each passing day our memory fades out the disagreeable and holds in light only the best of times. Like when I taught my dad the phrase ‘ni hao‘ (‘How are you?’ in Mandarin) one day and he went crazy with it by testing it out on every unsuspecting cab driver, shop assistant, waiter and school kid that crossed his path till the end of their trip. It was incredibly funny!