On the day my grandmother turned sixty-seven, we found her sprawled in her living room—eyes wide open, mouth gaping, hands half-clutching the golden knob of a wardrobe she was trying to open. Her floral blouse was smeared with coffee stains, and her body smelled of stale urine. She did not budge when we barged into her house, or tried in the slightest to resist the uncomfortable position into which she had fallen. She lay there, numb, and in total silence, head resting on the tiled floor, gaze glued to the ceiling.
Shortly after rushing her to the hospital, we discovered that her stroke had apparently taken a heavy toll on her body. Her legs and arms were paralyzed, and her throat was blocked, forcing her to feed solely on warm milk and intravenous fluids. She lost control over her bowel movements and would just wet her bed all night, making my father change her hospital bedding twice or thrice a day. I was fifteen at the time, and watching her body shrivel to just bone, her eyeballs seemingly bulge out of their sockets, and her cheekbones jut out from underneath her skin, was upsetting. I had never seen someone teeter on the tightrope of life and death before. My grandmother, who used to be so full of life, suddenly looked empty, hollow, ailing, dissolving. Taking care of her in the hospital was like treasuring an oyster that you know will never yield any pearl. All that lays bare on your bruised palm is just shell. Just shell.
Although the news of her condition came as a shock, my grandmother had actually started showing her symptoms quite early on. Her face, which used to glisten with a radiant, toothless smile, suddenly became sullen and slightly contorted: the right side stiffened whilst the left drooped low. Her gait also changed: she started bending sideways with her right shoulder crooked like it was weighed down by an imaginary, heavy sack of rice. When walking, she moved her trembling left leg forward a beat late as if she was testing the ground before climbing a stair, or as if her left leg was somehow shorter than the right that she needed time to firmly anchor her step. During my monthly visit to her house with my family, I would often catch her taking hasty glimpses at me from her bedroom window—her eyes squinting and her brow wrinkled in puzzlement—as if she was trying to remember my name or why there was a young man sitting in her living room. The most visible symptom of all was her stuttering: her clunky repetition of the word bagus, which she would say to praise my father, who bears an uncanny resemblance to my deceased grandfather. In her eyes, they both were one and the same. They even share the same first names.
In the beginning, my father kept neglecting the symptoms that I thought were mildly worrying. “Old age” was his go-to diagnosis, a perfunctory conclusion that sounded reasonable to me at first. My grandmother’s scoliosis, he said, was a testament to the years she spent working in her paddy field helping my grandfather cut, haul, thresh, and bag crops during harvest season. Her quivering left leg was perhaps due to the weakening phase of her body, which was common among people of her age. My grandmother’s sister, who was only two years younger, suffered from that tremor, too. It mattered not actually whether she remembered my name, for she always referred to me with my father’s name anyway. As for her smile, we had not seen it blossom for two years since my grandfather’s death; her glum visage was nothing more than a physical manifestation of her grief.
Where we live, in Indonesia, stroke—or brain attack—is sadly one of the leading causes of death among the elderly. One is said to have a stroke when the supply of blood to their brain is cut short, either because there is an accumulating blood clot that clogs their blood vessels, called ischemic stroke, or because the blood vessels rupture, leaking blood to the brain area and essentially drowning it, which, in medical terms, is named hemorrhagic stroke. For the most part, the latter type of stroke is usually the lethal one, accounting for more deaths than the former. In my grandmother’s case, it was the first one that slowly corroded her life; although in the end, what took her away was the second.
To think that my grandmother’s death caused an uptick in our country’s stroke statistics made me feel uneasy. For most people, their stroke is a byproduct of a bad lifestyle, which often includes smoking, drinking, lack of exercise, obesity due to unchecked binge eating, etc. But my grandmother stayed far away from that lane of self-imposed misery. Raised in an agrarian family that constantly forced her to do laborious work, she led a perfectly healthy and active life—at least until a few months before her last day. Her diet was always wholesome: low carb, high protein, with stewed vegetables. She never missed taking the vitamins that my father kept stacking on her bedside table. She always walked wherever she went, or rode her rusty bike if the place was unreachable by foot. She drank a lot of water and hardly added more than a spoonful of sugar to her tea: her life was seemingly destined to span a long period of time.
It was no sooner than my grandfather passed away that she started developing an addiction to coffee. All of a sudden, she breathed, excreted, bled, and became one with coffee. It was her fuel, her pretext to stay up at night and sit on her patio, doused in silver moonlight, overlooking the expanse of her paddy field where each grain screamed the name of my grandfather. Mur, Mur, Mur. It did not bother her that her heart was pounding fast. Instead, in a sickly plaintive manner, she would press her hand against her chest and intone a silent hymn matched to the thumping of her heart, her lover’s heart, the one that had stopped reverberating long ago, the one whose sound she could no longer make out, the one that made hers want to stop beating, too. We did not watch her weep that often, but we knew from her wistful gaze that she was silently slipping into an emotional tailspin, portending an impending crash that none of us could avert. She started retracting herself from social events in her neighborhood, stopped meandering along the riverside before sundown, lost her buoyancy and garrulity, and crawled inwards under her skin where no one spoke to her and where all she could hear was the dulcet hum of Mur, Mur, Mur.
Upon her arrival at the hospital, the doctor, whilst showing the CT scan of my grandmother’s brain, berated my father for not heeding the symptoms earlier, even more for letting my grandmother stay in her house by herself. He said that my father should have taken my grandmother’s speech impediment or her tilted posture as a red flag. Stroke, he explained, could become fatal if unattended. What would have happened if on the day she tumbled over, my father had not been there? With her throat clogged, she could have died. Her body would have rotted until someone finally smelled the foul odor and broke into her house. The graphic imagery that our doctor painted brought my father to tears. He should have stopped the coffee and stripped my grandmother’s home of any trace of caffeine. He should have just forcefully relocated her to our house. Staying put in her home alone was my grandmother’s idea. She had not wanted to leave her patio and her dry paddy field, deflecting any form of persuasion or compromise.
After the meeting, we learned that the risk of stroke is extremely high for people who resort to a life of idleness, which my grandmother gleefully embraced. The risk is even greater if the person also has high blood pressure or diabetes, in which case, the figure would double or even triple. My grandmother’s addiction to coffee, which caused frequent spikes in her blood pressure and which almost plagued her with diabetes, checked all the wrong boxes for her. Her unwillingness to engage with the rest of the world did not do her good, either. The doctor kept reminding my father how fortunate he was that his mother’s body could stave off the effect of caffeine, which, had it been inflicted on someone else who was just as old, would have given them a deadly heart attack. At the rate of five to six cups of coffee per day, coupled with very little food and a sudden halt to any form of exercise, my grandmother’s short-term immunity to heart attack was pretty admirable, though her body was not strong enough to evade a looming stroke.
Upon hearing this, my father became fixated on accusing her coffee intake as the main cause, excluding other possibilities. Blame the coffee, curse the insomnia, put an end to her silly addiction—it was his way of redeeming his mistake. Yet he knew, deep down, coffee was not the root of the problem. Nor was it the stroke itself. My grandmother was dying of grief. She had ceased to exist long before her body began to weaken. Time had stopped operating on her watch the minute my grandfather bid the world his goodbye. The doctor might have talked about how my grandmother’s loss of short-term memory (in which I did not exist and where all men were named after my grandfather) was the consequence of her malady. Her stroke meant that the blood vessels in her brain were jammed with plaque fragments. But these fragments were not initially formed in her brain; they were formed in her heart and later travelled to her brain. My grandmother’s heart, her swollen, stone-hard heart, the one she trained to drum every night—this selfsame heart was sending a message to her brain: how much it longed to blossom. How much it wanted the brain to stop reminding my grandmother of her lover’s absence. How desperately it desired the brain to envelop my grandmother’s consciousness in the cloudy memory of my grandfather and to drown itself in the sea of blood she used to share with him, the blood that made my father, that eventually made me.
And though none of us wanted it, the brain eventually acquiesced to the heart. The collapse, after two weeks, caused my grandmother’s blood vessels to burst and her blood to spurt, forming a puddle around her brain. Our doctor, seeing how severe my grandmother’s condition was, softly pleaded to my father to guide her in her farewell, in saying the kalima shahadat: I bear witness that none is worthy but Allah, the One alone, without partner, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and Messenger. My father was in tears, clenching his fist, but my grandmother, who could only mime the shahadat by blinking her eye, kept tugging on my father’s shirt. It was her last message, her way of explaining: she wanted to apologize for tumbling over on the day she turned sixty-seven. All she had meant to do was open her wardrobe, reach for my grandfather’s shirt—the one that looked like my father’s—and whisper into it the prayer she had been repeating in her head. Mur, Mur, Mur. I want to be home. I am not home.
Artwork by Madabhusi Raman Anand