“I was called Big brother and Grandma, Big sister. After we were married and was blessed with our first child, I was called ‘Father’ and your Grandma, ‘Mother’. When the children got older and were later married they gave birth to princesses and princess. ‘Father’ became Tok Bak and ‘Mother’ became Tok Mak. As the grandchildren grew they graced us with many adorable and delightful great-grandchildren. Proudly, I was upgraded to ‘Tok Nyang Bak’ and my wife, ‘Tok Nyang Mak’. These, my grandchildren, are the ladders of time that we have been through.”
A letter for my dearest grandchildren by Md Taib Abu Talib-
Tokbak crouched down beside me and placed his hands beside mine, “Oh my, look at those hands.”He exclaimed.
Silently, I compared them both and pinched his skin lightly, I then proceed to pinch mine. It took time for his skin to settle back to its original position, and this intrigued the 7 year old me. He gave me a deep grumbling laugh when he saw the curious expression I made.
“Ah, Tokbak is very old sweetheart. That is why you see all these lines and veins coming out. Over the years, our skin loses its elasticity. Quite the sight eh.”
Smiling he pinched my cheeks and I grimaced. Patting my head softly, he then held my hand and we continued our walk in the vicinity of my neighborhood. As we walked, I kept glancing up at him, somehow afraid that he would disappear any moment. My grandfather had that effect of making people worry about his presence, since he does not believe in staying at one place for long.
He was looking ahead at the trees above us, rustling in the wind and when he whispered, “Beautiful.” Confused, I asked what was. Tokbak looked down at me and grinned, “The creation of God. Didn’t you know that all single living and non living thing in the world are constantly praying to their creator? If you close your eyes and listen carefully, you can hear them.”
He shut his eyes and I followed in pursuit. Obediently, I held on to his hand and continued to shut my eyes even though at that time I was unable to understand what was being said. After a moment we started walking again and I hesitantly opened my eyes. His footsteps were silent compared to mine and I had to slow down my pace whenever we took a walk. I very much enjoyed spending time with him. His silence, gesture, and voice were comforting to me. He would tell me tales of my forefathers. How my great, great, great grandfather was Daeng Marewah, who was one of the 5 Bugis Wanderers that became historical figures in the political development of Malaya.
My grandparents had a huge backyard and a shed Tokbak build by himself. He planted anything that was possible at the time and committed greatly in these hobbies. Occasionally, I would find him outside, sitting beside one of his potted plants whispering words of encouragement.
Tokbak was his own vigilant nurse. He kept his medication systematically in an old toolbox. Occasionally he would sit cross leg and examine each medicine and comment loudly on its usage. Holding up a black medical bottle he would exclaim, ‘Tokbak needs to take these. It will help me poo, while this one keeps me from back pain.’ The comments would end with him chuckling as though it was a joke.
Writing and documenting were things he was extremely good at. He loved creating portfolios of his family members. My grandmother would forcibly throw tons of his journals because it multiplied too quickly. My grandparents led a very simple life, he was a school teacher who married a 14 year old orphan and with that, voluntarily became the father to his brother and sister in-laws. He was generally patient in many things, but my grandmother would at times infuriate him. In retaliation he would leave her a goodbye note, pack his bags and buy a bus ticket from Johor to Kuala Lumpur.
Tokbak changed drastically when his soul-mate died. He was in his late eighties and had lost the ability to write. It was painful to see life ebbing away in this once great being. His children decided it was best for him to stay in a small Singaporean apartment with a nurse by his side. Year by year, parts of his organs stop working, but yet he was ecstatic whenever we came. If he remembers me he would grin proudly and say out my name, “Ah ha! Yaas Min!”
In most days, he would scream at night and points to a corner while calling out my grandmother’s name. Some would call him mad, but all I saw was fear. He was frightened with the people around him who became strangers to his failing memory. He was terrified of not knowing the time of prayers and fear of walking to and fro to the washroom. When could no longer walk, he would spend his days on bed, dead but not quite yet. With every visit, I could see how he was futilely trying to hold onto who he was.
Slowly, he stopped talking and made lesser effort to move. The man we knew no longer existed.
I was in my second year in University when my father texted that Tokbak had left for an eternity.
The perplexing thing was how he managed to compile some of his writings into a book before his death. It was a farewell gift for us. ‘Warkah untuk Cucuku Sayang’ tore at the base of my heart and it still does. He left knowing that his words will stay with his family.
Saying goodbyes were never meant to be easy, but failing to say it when you had the chance damages your integrity.
I never got to say goodbye and writing this will be my farewell gift to you.
So Assalamuaikum Md Taib Abu Talib, and it is a great honor to be called your granddaughter.