The old man came by for coffee the other day. He was impressed by the coffee machine that has replaced my old moka pot. Normally, he would sit by the pond and enjoy the serenity of the sound of gentle water falling on pebbles. But, the gleaming machine caught his eyes as he wandered into the kitchen to say ‘Hi’ to The Mrs. The Mrs showed no interest in the minutiae of the workings of a coffee machine. She was only there to see if her cappuccino was ready and whether I had added enough cocoa powder to hers. The old man was asking me why I got the Delonghi and not the Breville Oracle Touch.
“You’d want to get a darker, more consistent crema that’s thicker, richer, and more complex, right?” he asked. “You told me the Breville has a dual boiler, and that means the coffee won’t be under-extracted and therefore won’t be sour and salty with a thin, barely-there finish, remember?” “I was so sure you’d go for the Breville,” he added.
“So many questions but one simple answer will tell you why,” The Mrs muttered to herself loudly enough so that the old man could hear her.
“Yeah, it’s an early Christmas pressie from our neighbour,” I said.
“The Chap is ultra generous but you just can’t pick something that is 3X the price,” The Mrs explained.
The Chap had come by earlier that morning with the gift. He normally kept his hair short, always preferring a crew cut that made him look fashionable like someone from mainland China in the 80s. But, he had just returned from a fortnight’s golfing holiday in New Zealand playing in famous courses like the Te Arai Links. His hair had grown long enough to be spiky, giving him the aura of a punk rock-star. His beaming face with its gibbous eyes and broad smile was the epitome of happiness, as if the Kiwi sunshine and fresh air he absorbed in recent weeks had given him a booster shot of happy hormones. As he unboxed the espresso machine, he rattled off all the main features of the Delonghi like a salesman in a Myer store. “See this here? For maximum efficiency, you must remember to descale it, blah-blah-blah-blah,” he continued, pushing this or that forcefully without any concern of them breaking, pressing one button or the other a bit too roughly, totally oblivious that my attention span was short. The joy of giving, I thought to myself. Could Santa actually be happier than a kid in a lolly shop, I wondered.
I said to the old man,”Wilson was wrong, you know.”
“Ask and Ye shall receive. Seek and Ye shall find,” our devout friend often said. “Don’t you agree it is truer to say, ‘Give and you’ll be happier?'” I asked. Don’t ask and don’t seek. Just give. When we ask or wish for something, we run the risk of being disappointed – usually, we don’t get what we want or who we want. Giving is easier. A sure winner. Giving brings joy to both giver and receiver. Everyone is happy. That was what The Chap taught me.
“Great coffee,” the old man said, after slurping the last drop from his cup.
“Want another one?” I offered.
“Sure, why not.”
When I handed him another cup filled with badly frothed milk, he asked, “How’s your mum?” I ignored his question, bothered by the extra water added to his coffee during the steaming and frothing process, I said, “I didn’t know frothing milk needs skill!”
“No love heart,” the old man said cynically, while making no attempt to hide his disappointment at the heavy coat of cocoa on the thin layer of froth.
How is my mum? I kept asking myself. The old man’s question disturbed me and for a moment, I forgot what I was going to do or say next. Visibly disturbed, I excused myself and left the old man to enjoy his coffee by himself.
How is my mum? She’s well, I suppose, for her age. For your age. I used to be bothered by those three words when used on me. I was annoyed when my doctor said “You’re fine, for your age.” I was equally pissed off when my optician said “Your eyes are healthy, for your age.” Ma is 99. Anyone will say she’s great, for her age.
Elegant, feminine and graceful, Ma cultivated a sophisticated poise. Maybe that is unfair. Deprived of formal education, she grew up in a coconut plantation in Bagan Datoh where her dad worked as a laundryman for the wealthy owner during British colonial rule. She never met any of the family members, not even the English lady of the manor. She was a kampong girl whose world was rather small and secluded, and the people in it were mostly ignorant and unschooled, happy to be near coconut trees and paddy fields. No, she didn’t cultivate poise, she was born refined and respectable.
Although without a formal education, Ma taught herself to read and write in Chinese. She can get by with some English words too. Ei-c-keling for ice-cream, ma-kah-way for microwave oven, pang-sai for Burnside, our suburb. After all, she has lived in Australia since 1988 and follows mainstream news ardently on TV, mainly for their weather forecasts. Prior to the advent of weather apps on mobile phones, she was our “weather girl”, the go-to authority whenever we needed the latest weather report. She doesn’t use a mobile phone, so the radio and TV are still her sources for weather updates. “Why the preoccupation with the weather?” the old man asked. “Maybe it’s to do with her involvement in the laundry business,” I suggested. Pa was also a laundryman. Firm, authoritative but considerate and kind, she has been our family’s matriarch. She was the eldest child in her family and she grew up the quickest during the war years to help support her siblings. “So, she earned some respect and recognition too amongst your cousins,” the old man deduced.
Ma was infallible, incapable of being wrong about dates, anniversaries and historical events. Her memory was like a hard disc drive or in today’s parlance, a blockchain that is forever verifiable and non-editable. She remembered everyone’s special days – our birthdays, wedding anniversaries, when we first left home, when and for how long we returned for our summer holidays, the dates and circumstances of her friends’ deaths, and so on. She was a great source of information about prices. Indeed, I do wonder if she was the only source in the whole world for grocery prices in Penang for much of the 20th century and Adelaide’s grocery prices since 1988.
But, she is succumbing to dementia. “Rather rapidly,” I said to the old man. Ma, to me, is in Stage 5 Dementia. The old man agreed. We ought to discuss how to cope with Stage 6 before she gets there. Let’s get up to speed with this. I urged a sister just a few days ago. She was still not understanding or unwilling to accept the gravity of Ma’s decline, I felt. In recent years, I had implored them not to argue with Ma (unnecessary or otherwise) – there is simply no need to prove her wrong, that the recollection of her history was inaccurate or that her accusations were unfounded or hurtful.
She is our mother. She is very old. Her mental state is declining rapidly. She can’t help it, dementia makes her confused, delusional, suspicious, even distrusting. Ma was trying to figure out how to put on her vest and jacket one night whilst preparing for bedtime. She was at it again the next morning. She kept turning her vest this way and that way and gesturing to swing the garment over her head repeatedly. “She was probably recalling how she was dressed in her childhood,” I suggested.
“It’s like a puzzle for her. Not sure why….” a sibling replied.
“Get up to speed, it’s called dementia,” I said. That was a terrible mistake.
I suggested to my sibling that a proper understanding of dementia is necessary for us so that we can care for her appropriately, with extra compassion and understanding.
“I know,” she said. “But, don’t be rude.”
“No rudeness intended. I can’t help how other people perceive words,” I replied.
“You’re assuming and telling me about Ma’s dementia. Haha. Ridiculous,” she said, her ‘haha’ sounding fake.
“’Words are the source of misunderstandings’—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince. I love this book, simple yet enlightening,” I said, attempting in vain to explain that she misunderstood me.
“We need to exercise decorum and maintain some goodwill. Even more so when the family has to work together to care for our mum,” she continued lecturing me.
“Absolutely! For me, there was nothing derogatory about asking someone to get up to speed – used often enough in a commercial environment. As I said, no rudeness intended. But I can’t help it if others are over-sensitive or intentionally misunderstand. Words are dangerous if people wish to interpret them negatively.”
“When you tell someone “to get up to speed”, you are implying that they are a bit slow, i.e. ‘stupid’. If you fail to see that, you may be suffering the onset of dementia. No rudeness intended,” another sister joined in the fray.
The old man understood what I was saying. “Yeah, give them this scenario of a business meeting,” he suggested. “Before we start the meeting, I’m going to get you up to speed with the latest developments.”
Who would be offended by that? There is no implication of slowness or stupidity, just a suggestion to get up to speed, get informed.
“Please get up to speed with ‘Get up to speed’,” I replied to the other sibling.
A third sibling chimed in. “Piss off.”
Piss off just means, ooh, go away, I don’t need this information. That was the suggestion.
“Yeah, it’s usually quite harmless amongst friends, but it depends on the inflection or tone or intention,” I said.
The conversation was spiralling out of control. My intention was for everyone to be on the same page, so that we understand what is happening to our mother. She can’t help it if she thinks someone is stealing from her or some of us are trying to push her to a nursing home. She can’t help it if she thinks everyone is wrong and she is the only one who is right. Dementia is cruel to the patient, robbing her of her memory and sanity, rendering her child-like at times. She can be easily irritable, frustrated with her inability to communicate when words stop at the tip of her tongue or memories fade; she can be angry, slamming the table with previously unseen violence and force; often she is even delusional and suspicious of our intentions and behaviour. Why do we need to be offended by someone who is exhibiting all the symptoms of dementia? It’s dementia, for sure.
Ma’s often lazy to get up from bed in the mornings these days. I don’t blame her. Why get up and face the cold when we can snuggle in the warmth under the soft doona? “A full bladder and an empty stomach forces one to get up,” she lamented.
Last Saturday, I cooked her sar hor fun, one of her favourite Penang street foods. She took a small bite and looked at me somewhat coyly and hesitantly. Maybe with a wee bit of a pitiful look too. I don’t know why but this isn’t suitable for me,” she said, pushing away her plate. She pushed away a serving of her favourite Hakka too-kah also. Not so long ago, she requested The Mrs cook for her that signature dish; she loved the extra stickiness the gelatin of pork trotters left on her lips. We could have been easily upset. We could have felt unappreciated – that the effort we made to buy the ingredients and cook her a superb lunch was all for nothing. But, how wrong would we have been? I looked at Ma and she was simply adorable. Child-like and cute, she was waiting to be served the durian that was displayed on the middle of the table. “Where’s the ei-c-keling?” she asked.