Freya Ziyan Lu
Grandpa stopped taking his medicine again.
I go, “We’ve talked about this, Grandpa. We’ve agreed on you taking your meds.”
Doctors conclude that no surgeries are necessary, now that the cancer has spread to his bones. As the eldest sibling, my mother arranges all the hospital visits and medication deliveries. I wish I could help more with the situation but I am away for studies and work abroad most of the year.
Grandpa goes, “We’ve agreed on nothing.”
A sigh comes from Grandma, “I told you, he never listens.”
Mother exchanges a glance with Stepfather. She had a lot to say earlier on the drive and whenever Stepfather suggested giving the old man the freedom of choice she harshly shut him down. Now she is awfully quiet.
I too lack the right words to say.
“I am sitting here and I am breathing, you see? I am not dying,” he goes, “and it is not because of your western medication…"
“Modern medication.” I interrupt.
“No, no, it is because of my strong will to live.”
Stepfather laughs, “True that. Some century-old Eastern wisdom right there.”
But he stops talking immediately, as my mother gives him a contemptuous look. I check the wooden clock on the wall. It’s half past eight. This old-fashioned clock was mounted on the wall before I was born, and has always been in the same spot. It suddenly stopped working properly. Grandpa got it fixed but its second hand had to be removed. It still tells time perfectly.
“Oh you children let him be, just let him be.” Grandma waves her hand twice in the air, “At least this old man still takes his traditional herbal supplements.”
By herbal supplements, Grandma means the few exquisitely packed substances orderly laid on the round end table in the corner of the room: ‘Five Elements Vegetable Soup’ and ‘Caterpillar fungus’ - this refers to an underground caterpillar infected by parasitic fungus. The animal loses their mind by being eaten from the inside out: the caterpillar crawls upwards uncontrollably, until it almost reaches the surface of the soil and then dies in its zombie form. People dig them up in late spring by looking for the fungus that grows out of their heads.
‘Enough now,’ Grandpa shakes his head and closes his eyes, ‘no more pills.
"Grandpa, where’s the candy jar?’ I ask.
"The candy jar, you know, the one that’s always on the end table.” ’That empty jar? It occupies so much space and no one uses it.’ says Grandma, "Do you need it? I’m sure it’s somewhere."
"It’s okay,’ I stand up, ‘I have to go catch the 9 o'clock subway anyway."
I meet Yifan for shaved ice at the new dessert place in the city mall.
She hugs me and looks at the menu, as though I had not just returned from many summers away.
"It's an unusually late time for you to be out, I must say."
"The longer I can stay away from home, the better," Yifan keeps her eyes glued to the menu, "Mother scolds me all day. She wants me to have a boyfriend and get married by next fall. Can’t deal with her."
"Does she still not know what happened?"
"Nope, you joking? She will kill me if I tell her,’ She shrugs."
"Yifan," I reach for her hands.
She finally lifts her eyes from the shaved ice, and I see them bloodshot. I can hardly hear her hoarse voice.
We have been texting a lot and doing voice calls, a lot more often than we used to. Yifan, my best friend since primary school, was in a three-year long secret relationship, one she didn’t tell anyone about, not even me. Recently she found out her lover is in fact married with a ten-months old son. She broke down and confessed that though she found it extremely painful and shameful to be ‘the other woman’ in someone’s marriage, she still could not cut him off. I made sure to check in with her on a daily basis. One day she did not respond at all, I almost called her mother.
She did mention the thought of suicide though, which got me worried again. Her support network seems thin, if existent at all. I talked to her extensively those days about getting therapy and potentially antidepressants too. Before I got on my flight back to China, she finally agreed to go see a doctor about her struggles. I asked her to meet with me after I settled in with my family.
She stares at a big bowl of mango shaved ice in front of her and goes, "My heart is dead. I am dead. I won’t come back to life again."
"Yes you will, Yifan, you are alive."
"My body is alive, perhaps, but what’s the point?" She tamps down the pile of ice with a thin long spoon, Three years. I kept waiting for him to want to go public with our relationship. He was always busy with his work. He promised to take proper care of me...I believed him. I really did."
I wait for a few seconds, then I go, "Yifan, all this, the guy, the love, the pain, the lies... All this will be nothing one day. You will look back on it and laugh. Terrible things happen. Terrible people happen."
“I never felt this way, and I won’t ever again. I won’t, I know it for sure. I wanted to tell you about him earlier. But I always held back because I was afraid that it’was all too good to be true."
"How can I live life without him? Now that I know what love feels like? No one understands. Certainly not my mother. My dad never loved her, that’s why he ran away with his secretary, like in a soap opera! Yet she still can’t wait to set me up with some much older man."
"Yifan. How can someone lie to you like this purposely from the beginning, if they love you? You know he’s not worth it, I mean, you told me that yourself." I look at her silently stabbing a melting pile of ice, "Maybe you need some distractions. Tell me, have you been eating? Did you go see a doctor?"
"Jeez." Yifan pushes the desert aside, ‘Remember when you said I should go get some antidepressant?"
"I went to the hospital and I said to the doctor, I need some antidepressant urgently. So she gave me some... tablets and said I would start feeling better after a few days."
"What did she give you? SSRIs? Lexapro?"
"I don’t remember the name of it, some kind of SSRI. I took it and bloody hell. The doctor said nothing about side effects. I felt so nauseous and dizzy the first day. I tried to continue the med for two more days and it was not getting any better. Worse than hell. I was scared for my life. What kind of medication is this? I don’t even know why you suggested it!"
"Well, I told you this might happen, remember? Side effects vary from person to person. It’s important to gradually build up the dosages and get your body through the initial stage of feeling bad..."
"Yeah, but not this bad!"
I frown, "It’s just that you sounded like the world was truly going to end. Everything was TRULY going to end for you. I’ve known you since we were children, I never heard you say anything like this. I didn’t want you to suffer. At least when I was struggling... when I was struggling about something in the past, antidepressants helped me raise my mood to the baseline, to where I can get out of bed and deal with things."
"What were you struggling with?"
I only now realise that I have not let in Yifan, or even my family, into my darkest days. I remember lying in a small bed in a noisy, shared department in Cologne, shaking ever so slightly with tears washing down my face.
I see myself not eating for three days straight because of how nauseous I felt on SSRIs, hiding away from my toxic housemates.
I see myself imagining a red button which I can press to stop myself from existing, wiping away all memory and emotion.
I see myself pressed into the side of my bed all day long, waiting for the magic of the pills to finally kick in. When they did, I felt I was the most alive person on this planet.
But there is no point in explaining any of the details. I go, "It’s just a culmination of bad choices, abusive relationships, an unhealthy corporate environment, things like that."
"It can’t possibly be worse than me right now, the love of my life has a wife,and a baby, he is ten months old, think about it."
I sigh. "It’s ten thirty, Yifan, the mall is about to close."
The candy shop is the most colourful place in the entire mall. I am mesmerised by the sheer varieties of sweets and their plastic packaging and so is Yifan. The cashiers are tidying up the counter as they prepare to close for the day. For such a colourful place to be so dead and quiet, it is almost sinister, like an empty amusement park with all the lights on and facilities running.
Soon enough we arrive at the wall of candy jars in the innermost part of the store.
"I didn’t know they still sold candy jars," Yifan goes, "I am not really in the mood for sweets after the shaved ice."
"No look," I interrupt her, "Do they remind you of anything? Do you remember the time we were kids and would always meet at the little shop outside school? They used to sell snacks and sweets kids were into. Hot strips, lollipops, crackers, bubble gums, everything."
"You mean the one beside our primary school? Yes, I remember it. A shabby place really, now that I think about it."
"I know, I know, but it was a magical place to me., to us all, remember the day we pulled together our pocket money to buy something special there?"
"Yes! We went through the whole selection of snacks and settled on this big beautiful glass jar of candies, that jar, you remember? It was bigger than any of the jars on this wall we are looking at. It had so many different sweets in it, and chocolate even. It looked like it could have lasted us forever."
"Sure, your favourite were the White Bunnies."
“The White Bunny, yes!" I can still taste that milky flavour on my tongue, even though I’ve not had them for years, "I remember you deliberately didn’t eat those from the jar so I could have them." We brought the jar every time we went out after Graduation Day, and took turns bringing it home at the end of the day. We used to really savour the sweets. It was hard, because we both had a sweet tooth. But it was like a little something to look forward to each morning.
"Even when the jar was empty in the end we would still buy new sweets to fill it. We did that, remember? And we kept doing that for a while. Can you imagine us doing it now? Two grown adult women sharing a big jar of candies?"
‘‘That jar must be long gone. It was left at yours in the end, no?"
I think of the empty candy jar that used to sit on my grandparents’ round end table in the living room. I must have left it there, I used to live with my grandparents when I was a child before my mother got remarried with my stepfather. I saw it at its original place on the table every time I visited them, empty and alone, until Grandpa got sick.
Yifan continues, "I don’t remember having it, I never saw another candy jar like it again. That little shop close to our primary school closed down years ago."
"I really thought the candy jar would survive, Yifan. I thought it would always be filled with sweets no matter where we moved to. I thought that was the beginning of greater joy and adventures for us in life" I take a deep breath, "But it was happiness, right then, right there."
Grandpa is sitting at the dinner table alone when I get home.
The wall clock shows it’s almost midnight. I check my phone again to confirm the time. It’s hard to tell how long he has been sitting there.
I go, "Grandpa, were you waiting for me?"
Grandpa stands up, slowly walks into the kitchen, and when he reappears he has a glass jar of little white pills in his hands.
"My candy jar!" I gasp, but I immediately cover my mouth because Grandma is already asleep. My mother didn’t want me to stay with my grandparents for the weekend becauseI could disturb them by coming back late.
Grandpa puts the jar down on the table, and sits down, "The jar was empty and useless, but I did not throw it away. You all think I flushed all the Casodex tablets down the toilet. Wrong."
It is really a very ordinary jar with a clear glass body, and a fitted top lid with a yellowish plastic seal. The seal probably appears more yellow now because of its age. I would not give it a second look if I saw it somewhere in a store.
Grandpa continues, "I have not taken any of the pills your mother sent me, even when you all thought I did. You see, here is the proof. I want you to see it for yourselves. You should take the jar back to your parents’ house. Show them. They will finally believe me."
I can tell how proud my grandpa feels about this little surprise. I can almost see a smirk on his face, the same one he must have had when he pretended to swallow his pills in front of my grandma, but the jar of pills is his way of saying, "You see, I never need medication!" All the check-ups my mother took him to showed the results of his health without influence from these medications. Even the doctor hadn’t suspected he wasn’t taking Casodex.
"So?" Grandpa pushes the jar a little further towards me. He sounds firm and ready for any opposition about to come.
"So." I nod. "It’s late. Let’s get some sleep."
I stand up, walk around the table and give Grandpa a quick hug. I gather my belongings but I do not touch the jar on the table, nor do I look at it again. I return to my room and quietly close the door behind me.