How I learned to be a woman

It’d been a while since the last time I entered Eyang’s green-painted room—she was already at the hospital then, probably a few weeks left before she’d pass over to the other side. It was weird, to say the least: being in this room without her. It feels wrong. She had been bed-bound for roughly 6-7 years, so ‘visiting Eyang’ is practically a synonym for going to this room.

Today, May 13th, is Eyang’s birthday. It is also a few days after the first-year mark of her passing. If you didn’t already know, she was a parent figure for me, one who shaped me into the woman I am today. I could not have overstated this even if I wanted to. My existence, everything I have achieved in life—it was all her (well, other than my parents, of course).

And it recently dawned on me how I never fully shared her story.

  1. She helped me discover my permanent love of learning
    Legend has it, we were walking home when I saw a Majalah Bobo on a stall, and how I wouldn’t go home without it. So she got me one—it’s the origin story of how I was able to read since I was barely three years old. Reading, as it turns out, is a key that opens the gate to the abundance of knowledge that I have been soaking myself in for the past 30 years. It was the lens through which I inch closer to understanding the world, a well that fuels my journey. But the ‘force’ didn’t happen as a defining ‘moment’, no—rather, throughout my childhood and teenage years, she has consistently guided me through every curiosity, question, idea, and opinion. She never told me to shut my ever-ticking brain. She loved singing to her grandchildren (we know today that it helped stimulate our brains). She made loving learning alright.
  2. She showed me how to be badass
    After I got divorced, she didn’t rush into telling me to find another man ASAP. She casually said, “Nggak apa-apa juga kalau sendiri,” which was not what I expected. Indeed, since her husband (the late Eyang Ngget) passed in 1992, she never remarried. She said she’d rather channel all her love to raising her grandchildren. She didn’t make our existence as a woman to revolve around the men in our lives, that we could lead the life we want. In her more productive years, she was Ketua RW who made changes to how things were done, and she led many of ‘penyuluhan’ sessions for the women in her hometown (and where I was born), Cianjur. Even after she couldn’t walk and had to use wheelchair everywhere, she didn’t want to depend on others if she could afford it.
  3. She introduced me to a God who’s reasonable
    I’d like to think that everyone’s spiritual journey is unique, and largely depends on who first introduced us to God. I was extremely lucky to have done so through Eyang. While I don’t always share her conservative views, in the big picture, she always told us that God would understand. Yes, we shall pray five times a day and fast during Ramadhan, but if we weren’t able to, God would not be petty about it. We could do it later, combine them, or pay in lieu of doing so. When I was 16 and told her I wanted to wear hijab, she asked if I were sure and that it’s okay if I weren’t. She told me I could always do it later, when I would understand better about what it meant, along with all the consequences. (Although she’s very adamant about not wearing sleeveless shirts, because Islam fundamentally required women to dress modestly.)
  4. She enabled me in being competitive
    For every math, language, cerdas cermat, debating, model UN, and what-have-you competition I went to, she would wake up at four, do her shalat subuh, and prayed into a glass of water for me to drink. She wasn’t superstitious per se—she simply believed that prayers matter in determining the outcome, and this ritual manifest the spiritual into the physical world. She’d make sure I drink that glass of water before I left the house. Yes, I ended up winning many times but I also lose; it’s not quite about that—it was more about how I understood that these competitions mattered to her. Even more important than the prayers, she would come with me to the event and sat through it all. It was like she held my hand when I was answering the math sheets, or on the stage, all the way to the end. Her presence made a huge difference.
  5. She taught me to share
    Every family has a different relationship with money. Ours had been one where we didn’t have that much to waste any of it, but also that it was imperative to share and help others when we can. As a child, I have observed her be responsible with every Rupiah that she has, she would note her expenses down and all before the age of excel or apps—but she also never hesitated to share. Whenever we have a little more rezeki, she would allocate ahead for different members of the family. It’s how I knew gift giving was her primary love language. She was always full of gratitude whenever I bought her things—not because she was materialistic, but because she understood the effort that goes into it.

Above anything else, I learned the importance of being consistent. In learning, in being self-reliant, in worship, in working hard, and in sharing. Way before James Clear, my grandmother taught me how creating systems and habits made all the difference. She would know exactly where things are stored and made sure that we put everything back. She always wakes up early, and had a whole routine every single day.

She was the matriarch we all respect, look up to, and love.

I miss you her much, to the extent that I badly hope the afterlife is real because I really want to hug you and kiss your forehead again.

At the risk of sounding ultra cliche, I know that she will live on in our hearts. I know that every now and then, I will ask myself, “What would Eyang do?”

Happy birthday lagi, Eyang sayang. I hope I have done you proud.


The thing about loneliness

I see the irony, all right.

This post was written out of a cafe at the heart of bustling South Jakarta. To my left is a case of youth camaraderie—it was someone’s birthday so there was a (white and pink) cake involved. To my right, are two female best friends giggling while taking each other’s picture just because. Oh, buzzing friendships. Sparks of connection.

For a brief moment, from where I sat, it seemed like there was no such thing as loneliness. But of course there is, because how else would you explain this growing, hollowing feeling inside my chest?

What I know for sure is that it has nothing to do with being alone.

I have loved spending time with myself since I was a little kid. I would always prefer to be left alone with my Kumpulan Cerpen/Dongeng Majalah Bobo than playing with my friends. Growing up, I spent a lot of time being inside my head and was never scared of it. It’s when I am alone that I could be free, exploring every single corner of my mind. A healthy dose of being alone fulfills my soul.

So, is it a byproduct of rejection(s)?

Is it possible that, as a child, I was wholly and utterly protected by my parents’ love, that I thought of the world as this ever-accepting place? Then adulting hits: the inevitability of making mistakes that hurt others, who sometimes forgive, but other times leave. It often means wanting to be with someone(s) who may not see you the way you see them. Who chooses—or is forced—to not be with you. It’s discovering that people have expectations that you do not always meet.

Each time that happens, my heart’s corner chips away, bit by bit, perhaps slowly taking into a whole new shape that fits better with solitude.

Don’t get me wrong. I know we will never be able to please everyone—even ice cream can’t do that. But it does not necessarily mean that I don’t feel a pang of pain after each ‘no’; some cut deeper than others. Not to mention the losses that happened beyond our control: the deaths that took our beloved away.

Ultimately these things lead me to the sobering awareness that during those times I went into my cave of solitude, the world is not always there with open arms when I got out of it. At some point, the cave might have stopped being an option and started becoming an unescapable dead end.

Not having a constant—someone or something to go home to, to belong to—kind of puts the nail in the coffin.

As a child, my first constant was of course my parents and brothers, even today, I know that they will always be there, and I am forever grateful for that. When I entered my teenage years, it became my friends at school and university. Then it became work, what I thought was a lifetime of craft that I love. Then it became, of course, my ex-husband. But since last year, I don’t quite have anything. I was suddenly untethered. Afloat, with no anchor to ground me.

Maybe I lost faith that I could ever belong to anything ever again. Or maybe I’ve gotten too acquainted with the hurt that comes with it.

Now I live in an oscillating state of being afraid—both of belonging and of not belonging.

What will come after this? It feels overwhelming just to hypothesize.

[Just to clarify: it’s not like I don’t have friends who are there for me, whom I cherish and appreciate. But the kind of loneliness I’m talking about runs deeper than just lack of (even really great) companionship.]

Here’s a prescription that a wise friend gave me:

  1. Embrace loneliness as an inseparable part of being. Maybe, just maybe, loneliness has always been sitting there in the corner of your heart (we were born alone after all). It’s just that only as adults do we have the courage, or maybe mental space, to observe and acknowledge it.
  2. Do not take connection with someone for granted, celebrate even the most impermanent/short-lived ones. Once we accept the above, we will see the beauty in those rare moments of being understood. We will treasure those relationships—romantic or otherwise—as memories that make life worth living. When they end, do not resent them, but be grateful that you got to experience them.
  3. Find that constant within you. While everyone would come into and out of your life as they please, know that you could always count on yourself. We have been conditioned, through fairy tales, that we were supposed to find that someone-ever-after, who will complete our soul and being. Speaking from experience, you certainly could still feel lonely while being with someone. Heck, you might be sharing a bed with them and still feel unseen. So here’s to appreciating yourself for being there for you.
  4. That said, let others in, still. Give chance for that spark and connection to happen. I know that putting a heart on your sleeve is scary because you will find yourself hurt. But it’s the only way to make life worth living—by giving friendship, or any other kind of relationship, a shot. You will bleed, from time to time, but every once in a blue moon, you will come out victorious, and it will all be worth it.

Thank you for making my lonely world a little less lonely by reading this. I love you guys so much.

Wijaya IX, 16 Oct 2022

Eyang Iib & Kekuatan Doa (1936-2022)

Katanya, seseorang yang tiada akan tetap hidup dalam memori mereka yang terus mengenangnya. Maka sesungguhnya Eyang Iib akan abadi, karena bukan hanya saya dan keluarga kami, tapi begitu banyak orang yang telah disentuh kebaikan hati beliau insya Allah akan senantiasa mengingat.

Dalam mengingat Eyang, saya terkenang sosok yang senantiasa berdoa. Begitu khusyuk, begitu setia, dan begitu konsisten. Saya mengingat Eyang yang mengenakan mukena yang selalu beliau pakai sejak saya kecil, menengadahkan tangannya untuk meminta dari Allah—dulu pada sajadah beludru birunya, lalu setelah sudah tidak bisa berjalan di atas tempat tidurnya yang ditegakkan—bukan dari ego atau rasa berhak, bukan pula dari ketamakan.

Eyang justru meminta agar bisa lebih banyak memberi.

“Ya Allah, berikanlah kami rejeki agar bisa beribadah lebih baik lagi di jalan-Mu, agar bisa membantu orang di sekitar kami…”

Begitulah hidup Eyang, sebisa mungkin agar menjadi manfaat bagi orang lain.

Dari cerita saudara-saudara, saya belakangan tahu bahwa dulu setelah menikah, Eyang diminta Eyang Husein (suaminya) untuk berhenti mengajar. Tapi siapapun yang mengenal Eyang Iib tahu bahwa mustahil membuat beliau diam di rumah. Meski tidak bekerja, Eyang kemudian aktif berorganisasi di desa, memimpin penyuluhan bagi perempuan-perempuan di Cianjur, bahkan sampai menjadi Ketua RW (pun setelah tulang kaki Eyang patah dan harus menghabiskan banyak waktu di tempat tidur, beliau terus berkegiatan ini-itu). Bagaimana tidak, kalau ibunya dulu juga seorang aktivis pejuang kemerdekaan.

Kalau hari ini saya juga aktif memperjuangkan isu lingkungan dan berorganisasi, itu karena darah mereka mengalir pula di nadi saya.

Eyang selalu membanggakan prestasi cucu-cucunya. Eyang banyak bercerita ke para penjenguknya selama beberapa bulan terakhir hidupnya tentang saya yang sempat diundang ke Istana Bogor untuk ikut diskusi bersama Jokowi. Yang Eyang tidak ceritakan, adalah betapa gigihnya doa-doa beliau untuk kami, dan bahwa aliran doa-doa itu pula lah yang membawa saya, anak-anak, serta cucu-cucunya sampai bisa sejauh ini.

Salah satu memori terawal sekaligus terkuat saya adalah Eyang yang bangun jam 4 pagi untuk berdoa bagi kemenangan saya di lomba-lomba sejak SD—baik itu matematika, IPA, cerdas cermat—tidak ada hari kompetisi di mana saya berangkat meninggalkan rumah tanpa meminum ‘air doa’ dari Eyang.

Ketika sudah tidak tinggal bersama pun, setiap ada kesempatan di mana saya membutuhkan keberuntungan—baik itu lomba, wawancara, atau aplikasi beasiswa maupun kesempatan apapun itu—saya pasti akan telepon Eyang untuk meminta doa beliau.

Hari ini, tanpa Eyang dan doa-doanya, saya merasa lemah—seperti prajurit tanpa baju zirah.

Dari banyak doa yang Eyang sering sampaikan, yang paling berarti dan membekas di hati saya adalah doa agar “Nenk Dhita banyak yang sayang.” Saya sering didoakan orang untuk senantiasa bahagia, atau sukses, atau banyak rezeki. Tapi cuma Eyang yang mendoakan agar banyak yang sayang. Mungkin Eyang tahu bahwa hidup pada akhirnya adalah tentang rasa sayang dan cinta kasih di antara sesama manusia.

Maka beruntunglah kita yang hidupnya telah disentuh cinta kasih Eyang.

Semoga kita bisa meneruskannya ke lebih banyak orang, sebagaimana Eyang harapkan.

Amin ya Rabbal Alamiiin.

Selamanya cucu pertama Eyang,
Nenk Dhyta

The two months that felt like a year

Act I.

I was staring blankly at my screen, fixing this report, when a notification popped up. It was Mom—she said that Eyang’s condition had plunged. I packed for three days and drove to Bogor in a heartbeat. It was the evening a day before Bapak’s death anniversary and I remember having a bad feeling about it. Seeing the road with all the tears in my eyes was difficult—on loudspeaker, my best friend told me to let it all out.

Little did I know, it was barely the beginning of a slow and painful journey called ‘having to watch your loved one lose herself to a chronic disease’.

The first two weeks were pure chaos. We found out that Eyang’s level of toxin shot through the roof because her kidney practically stopped working. My brain was kind enough to spare me from recollecting every little upsetting details, but memories of the ambulance rides (where Eyang won’t let go of my hand), the crowded emergency wards (a mother gave birth that night), and the high care unit room (with their aircons on full blast) remain.

I remember having to make a lot of medical decisions that week—small ones at first (like putting a nasogastric tube to feed her), but peaked at whether they should place a central vena cathether required for hemodialysis treatment, with a possible risk of complication.

The hardest part about trying to do right by her, is defining what right means in the first place: keeping her alive longer, making sure she’s comfortable, trying to decipher what she would want when she was literally too weak to speak.

I remember the shock that went through my spine, imagining the possibility of losing Eyang. I definitely wasn’t ready back then—not after losing Bapak a year before, and being left by Wikan just a few months after that. I remember fearing the pain of losing, perhaps more than losing itself.

I also remember not feeling like a granddaughter but a parent, not only to Eyang but to her son and daughter, who probably were just as worried but didn’t share my overthinking brain. I remember crying a lot, feeling like there’s a new weight on my shoulders I never meant to carry.

In between, I remember feeling grateful for having Pap, Kakak, and friends who got my back through it all.

Act II.

The storm subsided a bit when Eyang started regaining consciousness and explicitly asked to go home, leaving no room for her caretakers to second-guess (how thoughtful of her). At home, she asked us to gather around her bed, thanked and apologized, before going on parting some wisdom (“Jadilah orang berguna untuk sesama. Kalau cari pasangan, jangan cari yang ganteng aja tapi yang kaya juga,”—HAHAHA sempet-sempetnya, Eyang).

That maghrib, the whole family prayed together, and I led one thanking God for letting Eyang into our lives, making us into the people we are today, touching our hearts in her own special ways.

In the next few days, a stream of extended family members visited, wishing her well. It was quite special to witness and get reminded of how she lived a full life, how much she was loved by others. By the end of the week, she said something like, “Kayaknya di keluarga lain nggak ada yang sesayang ini deh (sama Eyangnya)…” which warmed all of our hearts.

It felt like (for lack of better words) a new normal for a bit, until one by one, the family members were hit by omicron. The virus got me too, eventually, which sent me home for a few days. But more worryingly, Eyang tested positive as well. I naturally panicked when we first found this out, thinking that this was it. It thankfully wasn’t, but that next few weeks was a mess regardless—she was coughing a lot, could barely sleep, all the while we still had to take her to the hospital twice a week for 4 hours of hemodyalisis. It might not be as intense of a mess, but definitely bigger in size.

I quietly sensed that everyone was slowly losing themselves in taking care of Eyang.

Routines permanently changed, work felt profoundly arbitrary and minute. All the stress, worries, and secondhand pain also brought out the worst in us. There’s at least a couple times when I snapped, yelled at another family member across the hospital hall or the family room, not able to hold it together. I didn’t feel like myself and I hated it.

It also came with a mountain of guilt when I feel like I wasn’t a good enough granddaughter. Every time I had to leave her for work, an offline meeting, or even to take a break and spend some time for myself, it felt like I was doing a crime. It gave me a lot of anxieties and affected my sleep.

(It just so happened that I did a terrible blunder on Twitter which got blown out of proportion during this period, which made things a thousand times worse.)

Act III.

Before I spiraled back into the dark hole where I lived for a good chunk of time last year, I started seeing a therapist again. My goal was to better understand what’s going on in my mind—making peace with the voices in my head definitely wouldn’t hurt—and primarily trying to better understand what it is that I actually need and want.

I had quite a few breakthroughs in those sessions (in case someone needed to hear this as well):

First, I learned that I kept feeling guilty because nobody ever told me that I’ve done enough. Growing up, Mom was the main breadwinner in the family (I now overtook that role), and I might have inadvertently picked up hidden social cues in terms of what ‘enough’ looks like for a woman. Whenever Mom was home in the weekends, she would do the extra miles of taking care of the family, all that after working nonstop during the weekdays.

My therapist wondered if my dad ever told her she’s done enough. Have I perhaps copied her guilt, and general lack of self compassion?

Second, I need to understand that it’s okay for me to take a different role in the family. Think of the family is a soccer team, or maybe a company, my therapist said. Someone has to play offense, others on defense, and one of us definitely has to be the goal keeper. In a company, the CEO, staff, and janitors do different things, but it doesn’t mean that any of them is better than the others. They simply cover for one another. In my family, I might not be able to stay with Eyang 24/7 (what I primarily feel guilty about), but quitting my job to do that wouldn’t be how I could best help her either—in my own ways, providing for my family might just be exactly how I could be the most useful.

On a less relevant note, my therapist told me that I needed to decide the kind of life (and partner when it comes to it) that I want and deserve. I might have been struggling with intimacy, with letting people into my life, and on the flip side, where I mindlessly let anyone in. After the divorce, and now Eyang, there is a huge risk that without properly processing the trauma, I could make stupid decisions that might end up actually hurting me.

Just like in picking mangoes from a fruit stall, she said, I shall set some criteria that will guide me in better understanding the mangoes that are good for me, filtering the ‘bad mangoes’ out, or at least having better awareness when I had to make a compromise across tradeoffs. It was also supposed to be a way to capture the lessons learned from what things didn’t work with Wikan. It is still not very clear how this would help me in helping Eyang—maybe rather indirectly—but took a good hour to sit down and come up with this wishlist and it eased my mind a little.

It has only been two months since that initial text from Mom, but it felt like a long, winding year already.

All in all, I am quite grateful to have the support system without whom I would have easily cracked under all the pressure. Despite the major turbulences, in general I feel quite centered, and finally well-calibrated to take on whatever possible scenarios moving forward.

Today, Eyang’s condition is stable, except that parts of her brain that control memories and motor were recently affected. The family has agreed that for us the priority is to keep Eyang as faraway from pain as possible, to keep her comfortable, and to give her what she wants—and more importantly: to always make her feel loved.

Just a few hours ago I found out that she might have lost her memories of me (didn’t respond to “Ini Nenk Dhyta,”), but to my surprise I felt okay about it. I’d like to think it stems from all the work I’ve put to find my center in accepting the universe’s curve balls—although there’s a slight chance that I’m simply in denial. Whichever one it is, I surely hope that what my dear friend said holds true:

Rest assured that her memories of you and how much pride and love she has derived from your being there for her has already been permanently etched in the aeons.”

Mohon doanya yang terbaik untuk Eyang <3

The Art of Being Sick

It is such a peculiar thing, being sick.

As a stereotypical first daughter, I have been trained my whole life to be independent, strive for self-sufficiency, and never need someone else’s help. Didn’t need it to change the light bulb, to fix a frame on the wall, or to move heavy furnitures from one corner of the room to another. I would always figure something out.

Yet as soon as a slight fever or a bad case of headache makes an appearance, I suddenly turn into this needy, selfish, crybaby monster who feels entitled to someone’s care. I suddenly forgot how to boil the water and make tea, how to feed myself—no memory at all on how to even move around.

Now you might think it’s perfectly acceptable to need a hand when your body isn’t well, but lately, I realize that what I’m experiencing is a little bit more intense, might be slightly problematic, and stems from how my parents treated me when I got sick as a child.

TL;DR: They spoil me. Big time.

My parents would double their attention to me if I get sick. My earliest memories include getting the long-awaited Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets book simply because I got a fever (they weren’t gonna because it was so expensive). They would get me a KFC chicken soup (which was a special treat back then), spoonfeed me, tuck me in, and sweet-talk me into taking my medicine. They would check on my temp every other hour.

At some point, my then-adult self couldn’t take anything less.

If someone told me they loved me but wouldn’t show up when I got sick, my childhood experience would interpret that as—well—not love. No matter how friendly the sickness is: a benign migraine or food poisoning, I would need their attention right there and then.

If someone told me they loved me but wouldn’t show up when I got sick, they probably lied. I would feel sad, with the sadness coming more strongly out of not having them around and less about actually being sick.

It is only recently that I realize that not everyone was treated by their parents the same way mine did when they got sick. It turns out, for some people, being sick might not be such a big deal.

In hindsight, some of my major fights with my ex-husband were around him not being there (enough) for me when I was sick. I didn’t understand it then, but recently I came to the realization that he probably had a different experience of being sick as a child, and that’s why he didn’t interpret it as a ‘core love language’ as it has been for me.

But I am learning and unlearning. I now respect boundaries in friendships and relationships, which sometimes include not getting upset when others may or may not have time for me when I am down with a fever. I think that should count as progress on my end.

As an adult, today I understand that a lot of our entitlement and emotional baggage haunt us from the past. Our memories shape our core values and expectations of how other people should treat us. It would determine whether we think we deserve love and how we would regard love.

What we now call ‘love language’ might just be how our parents express their love to us as a child.

My primary love language is ‘act of service’ and it’s probably linked to how my dad drops and picks me up from school every day, how my mom makes me breakfast whenever she’s home (she has a full-time job), and how Eyang always prepares everything for me and for my school. They’re not the hugging type—with some exceptions, ‘physical touch’ sometimes feels unnatural to me—we didn’t have that much spare money to do something together and have ‘quality time’ or ‘give gifts’. Instead of giving ‘words of affirmation’, my dad wholeheartedly believes that teasing her daughter will keep her humble her whole life (I actually don’t mind this).

So all my training on being independent goes out the window when someone shows up and offers me that ‘service’: like if you pick or drop me off at a place, or help me with a random, completely minuscule errand at home, I would probably interpret that as love.

Recently a Swedish language expert (?) came up with a list of words that describe the different shades of feelings that the English language cannot provide words for. One day a friend forwarded a World Economic Forum post on it on Instagram.

And with that, I would like to contribute one new adverb:

Sonely. (adv.) the feeling of wishing someone you love is around to take care of you when you’re sick.