Grandmother’s Garden

15 Jun 2011By Gilbert Koh (Mr Wang Says So), Singapore

My grandmother had dementia, in the last few years of her life. I was a kid then. I still remember clearly how emotionally and physically exhausting it was for my family to care for her, in those days.

By then she was already bed-ridden. My grandmother would have a meal (or a bath), and then an hour later, she would have completely forgotten that she had already had her meal (or her bath). And she would moan in agony, saying things like how come we didn’t love her anymore and wouldn’t let her eat nor bathe for days.

One thing she constantly worried about was who would care for her beloved garden, after she died. To give her the comfort and reassurance that her garden would be okay, I took over the regular gardening duties. To me, looking after the garden felt like something that I could do, to help her die more peacefully.

Here is a poem I wrote about those days. This poem appears in my book Two Baby Hands, and was also previously published in Singa, a now-defunct publication of the NUS Centre for the Fine Arts.

Grandmother’s Garden

In later years, she sat here rarely. Most of the time,
she lay on her bed in a darkened room where
the air was musty and sunlight never shone.

As well as I could, I kept it growing
for her. She could no longer do it for herself.
Yet her life was linked to this place.

I watered her orchids of golden shower,
unchoked her potted plants from weeds. With a stone
I crushed the life from snails and fed them
to the earth. After storms, I helped fallen shrubs
to climb to light again.

Sometimes a sunbird would come to sip nectar
from my grandmother’s flowers, and every New Year
the kumquat branches would fill with orange fruit.
In the years that passed, not a single bonsai died.
A tree can live forever.

She would go more easily, I sensed,
if she knew that the life here would endure,
long after she herself had left.

That was a simple yet effective poem (I think). Much later I looked back and explored my memories of those days, and produced another poem – short, but much more challenging and psychologically complex.

This later poem, entitled Not Home, was about my anxieties (as a child) that one day, my grandmother might be dying at home and I would be all alone at home with her, not knowing what to do. This is a right-brained poem, laced with magical thinking, irrational guilt, subconscious associations and a child’s fearful imagination:

Not Home

I was eight, and alone.
Waiting in the garden I talked
to trees. Seeds sprouted.
Crickets sang. In the house
Grandma lay dying.
Caught an insect, held it
in my hand. Plucked a leg off,
as I softly sang. Very cruel,
very bad. Surely Papa would
come home, if I were bad.
Make me hurt, for being bad.
One more leg then, and another.
Time crawled. I lost count.
Finally there were no more legs,
but Papa wasn’t home.
I dropped the useless insect
on the ground. In the house
Grandma went on dying.
On and on her body twitched,
till I crushed it with a stone.
Papa wasn’t home.

Gilbert Koh blogs at Mr Wang Says So. He is a Singaporean lawyer whose poems have been published in various anthologies and literary journals.