Old Grandmother Tales

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Old Grandmother Tales

I must first get all the necessities out of the way.

I’m not the type to beat around the bush so here goes.

I have an uncle. He has only one arm. I’ve never really asked how that happened – my policy is to never ask questions that you don’t want to hear the answers to – but from the bits and pieces I’ve collected over the years, there was The Incident. And he had to amputate an arm.

Once upon a time, I use to sneak glances at his empty socket – which he would hide under his never ending supplies of buttoned and collared t-shirts. It was only when I grew older I realized this was because he couldn’t pull the normal tees over his head - which, to my nine year old self, was a wondrous thing. The sleeve would swing back and forth with no direction, flapping, a lonely flag stuck on a pole. I stared at it in guilty curiosity, and pleaded with my small little heart to the God I had not known back then to never take my limbs away.

Now, I talk to my uncle like I would any other. And, pointedly ignore the empty socket. My eyes would glaze from his face straight to his feet. I guess I think by ignoring what isn't there would make him more normal. Because facing up to something foreign and “abnormal” scares me.

He never married. This I accepted without question. But now, when I asked myself why I readily accepted this knowledge without further curiosity - even to my nine year old self - I instinctively answered, “because he only has one arm.”


But that was the answer life has grown me up to believe. That abnormal people don’t get to have the things normal people take advantage of.

I may look over my uncle’s “handicap” but that doesn’t mean I don’t notice his difficulties. How sometimes he has to struggle to open locks with no other hand holding it steady. How when we set the table, we have to make conscious effort to take away the fork and just set the spoon. How he avoids social gatherings like a plague, running away from people too “polite” to ask but not polite enough to abstain from staring. Sort of like when it takes all your conscious effort to not stare at that teenage kid in a wheelchair or look away from that man with only one leg in the mall.

But just as I notice his “handicap” I notice his “extraordinary capabilities” too. How when I was five, and because I badgered him to, he managed to haul me up and carry me the entire duration of a wedding dinner (and that was no easy feat. I was, well. A fat kid. Even my dad refused to carry me because it hurt his back, so instead would bribe me with chocolates and sweets to relieve his own guilt, which you know, didn’t really help my weight issue). How my uncle cried when he saw my sister when she was born – she was born too early and too small because the umbilical cord got twisted a month or two before she came. All my family relatives cried. The hospital staff tried to lessen the pain but not one of them believed my sister would survive the night - and my uncle immediately went home and prayed to the god he believed in to keep my sister alive. In return, he would give up meat – Chinese people are very big on meat – everyday for lunch. My sister is now 16 years and 7 months old and loud and annoying. And my uncle has faithfully kept his end of the bargain.

Why the sudden nostalgic memories you wonder?

It was the after dinner conversation – or rather supper conversation tonight. The family was gathered around the table all eating kacang putih. Ngen Ngen (Grandmother), Ye Ye (Grandfather), Sam Ku (Third aunt from paternal side), Papa (Dad), Mummy (Mum – haha) and me.

“…a Hakka girl wanted to marry him” My grandmother was saying referring to my uncle.
(Entire conversation was carried out in Chinese but I’m translating to English for reader’s benefit. And also in my part because I can’t type Chinese.)

“But - not me! It wasn’t me who said anything.” My grandma quickly protested to no one but silent accusations she imagined “It was YOUR grandmother who told him not to marry Hakka women. Cannot be trusted she said.” My grandmother chirruped out to her kids. “And of course, he listenend.”

“And this all happened after Kor’s (brother’s) arms…incident” my dad mused quietly aloud.

“She was a beautiful girl too,” My aunt sat lost in thought of the memory of something-that-could-have-been, “such a beautiful girl.”

“She understood, when they all told her that she can’t marry him.” My grandmother added. I quietly and probably rather unfairly wondered which was stronger; my grandmother's own love for her son’s happiness, or her own love for the traditions passed down from her own family (such as not marrying a woman from a “tribe” other than your own).

The conversation slowly moved on to less painful recollections.

I left the table.

And now I wonder out loud.

About my uncle.

I think one of my biggest fear, is to grow old alone. With all the wisdom a naïve nineteen year old can possibly have garnered, growing up alone with no one to share it with seems a pointless life to me. By nature, I am a very emotional and a very social person. Being isolated – not wanted nor needed by anyone – seems a very empty life. And what more, love, is the carrot of my life. The thing that keeps me going. The one reason for doing the things that I do.

When I was nine, I carried the notion that when my uncle lost his arm, he just as quickly adopted the natural fact of life; he lost his right to all normal people can take for granted. He took his arm, or his lack of one, and accepted everything else; inability to use both utensils at the same time, losing the choice of types of clothing he could wear, difficulties tying shoe laces and unlocking locks, zero possibility of driving a car, losing his own independence, and the worst of all; to lose any hope of love and accept that from now on ‘til forever, he would grow old, alone. And lonely.

And for the next ten years, I never once challenged this notion. For no reason other than that my uncle’s problem was not my problem. I wasn’t in any way affected so why should I ask questions that may rock the boat and cause my own discomfort? To my knowledge, he has never complained. Never whined. Never pitied himself. And that was enough for me.

But now I wonder.

He was 22 when he lost his arm. I realize with a jolt that when you’re 22 years old, you have the future – or rather, the possibilities of what the future has - in your hands. It’s the start of something. It’s the start of everything else in your life. That’s what he had. He could be anything. Anyone. Anywhere.

Then The Incident happened. And he withdrew from everything. He ran away from all the looks of pity. Hid himself from his own shame. I guess, those must be pretty dark days. Anyone would have turned bitter. He was young. Full of hopes and dreams. But it was all chopped away. With his arm. Left with a stump. Unable to do anything anymore. Having to depend on people again. Just when you spread your wings to fly, one wing is cut off, and you return back to your nest – a failure. Watching as all the other birds take flight – all your siblings – leaving the nest, giving one last pitiful glance back at you but then soaring into the wide open sky, free.

A promise life whispered to you suddenly snatched away.

It made me think, if a girl, and such a beautiful girl at that could still love you, even if you don’t have an arm, wouldn’t that be the epitome of love? Wouldn’t you fall in love right back and still salvage some of what life has promised you?

But thinking back, in my uncle’s days, filial piety was mandatory, and traditions were laws set in stone. And maybe, just maybe, he felt he didn’t deserve the love this beautiful Hakka girl could give. What could she see in him? How could she look at him without being repulsed? He must have thought unwilling to let himself believe.

And maybe, just maybe, he loved her back. Loved her enough to let her go. What could he do with one arm? How could he get a respectable job? Put food on the family? She deserved someone so much better than him. She deserved a better life than anything he could offer.

It makes me feel, excruciating to think about this. My uncle is now 60. He is robust. He still loves fiercely with everything he can, he buys candy for his younger nieces everytime he comes to the house for visits. Even when I was nine, I instinctively saw my uncle’s inner strength, because I believed fiercely that even though my uncle only had one arm, he would survive, and he wouldn’t grow old and frail and sit in a wheelchair like everyone else you saw that was “abnormal.”

I don’t think I can lie and pretend and say that even though my uncle only has one arm, that doesn’t make him “abnormal.” He is.

I’m not going to say that he's not “disabled.” He is.

And I’m not going to try to be pious and say that I pity him. Because I’m not and I do.

What I AM going to say is that I have a greater disability. That I am more disabled. That I pity myself more.
My uncle has one less limb than I do but he can do far greater things than I can. Things more important than tying shoelaces. Or wearing normal tees.

My uncle stayed strong, for his family, for himself when The Incident happened. I cry myself to sleep just because one person – one unworthy person – hurt me, and remain bitter about it, unwilling to let go.
He can love even when he has lost his “right” to and not only that, but he loves in such huge amounts that he changes lives; life of a girl who remembered that even when she was five and fat an no one wanted to carry her, her uncle did. The life or another who he made a life-long vow to keep. And the right to live a better life to one, beautiful mysterious Hakka girl. Whilst I, take advantage of the love people readily give me, stomping on their hearts and greedily asking for more and never giving more of my own less making myself vulnerable.

Dear Lord,
He’s my uncle.
A silent, unsung hero.
In Jesus name I pray. Amen.

Romans 8:26
We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.


  1. Hahah, thanks Andy. It took so much emotional energy to write this that I fell into such a deep sleep right after!
    But seriously thanks, your comment meant a lot.

  2. Someone beat me to it!

    But yeah, this is an excellent post, Karlyn. One of the best- if not, The Best- from you I've read so far. And it looks like a lot of hard work to write, but you did it! Maybe, if you're interested, you should get it published out there. People really appreciate this kind of thing. Inspire more.

  3. Ohman Lerry yeah it was so hard to write all that. But the dinner conversation really got to me. I guess this is the result of one whole year's worth of pent up written energy - all my other posts are too short notes that never really went anywhere else other than the surface.

    Thanks Lerry. You made my heart smile. And I never really thought about publishing that. I don't even know where to start. but maybe. Thanks =]