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.

Places we go when things are uncertain

(Your moon) is in your seventh house, meaning you find security and safety through close relationships and long-term partnerships.”

[What my Co-Star app told me one October evening.]

I’m not particularly into astrology, but that line hit me hard for the sheer truth of it. I do find security and safety through having a constant; through knowing that I have someone who will always be there to catch me when I fall. This is why, when the marriage ended, above anything else, I felt insecure and unsafe. Suddenly the world worked differently—I often found myself second-guessing whom I can call for help from when I’m in need, or what possible motivations a person has when they indeed showed up.

The structure upon which my realities were built crumbled. I wasn’t sure how to function.

It suddenly dawned on me how everything I have achieved in the past five years was only possible because I knew I had my then-husband to come home to. I could reach up up up to the stars because he grounded me in my roots, making sure I wouldn’t plunge unannounced. Therefore when he left, I was untethered—I was afloat, roaming a weird, unfamiliar space of uncertainties.

A friend reminded me that it wasn’t true; that I would be fine and have an equally full life if I could just take the time to find my own center again—this time from within. What he said didn’t change the fact that I did have a pretty solid case of dependency going on. And I worry that I might repeat this pattern on someone else sooner or later—and that I would only get hurt again as they leave me (and I know for a fact that they will, one way or another).

This is why when someone did make an appearance, it scared the shit out of me. I was anxious a lot.

My mind would take me to the extreme ends like a non-stop pendulum: one day I’d be convinced that I didn’t want anyone to enter my newly-formed personal bubble—why bother re-participating in a construct so full of compromise where you’d probably lose yourself again? But then came those bits of magical moments and conversations that made it difficult for me not to want more, and a secret corner in my mind longing to reach a new equilibrium where I could finally feel safe and secure again.

I thought the separation would have sharpened my intuition but no, I’m back to my overthinking, overanalyzing self. If anything, there are more ‘shoulds’ to follow this time around; they often contradict one another—at times it would feel like my brain simply can’t follow.

For example, one ‘should’ would tell me to take my time to heal, prescribing me to sit around a bit more with the loneliness. Instead of running away to the comfort of someone else’s arms, I was supposed to sit down with my sadness and embrace the pain. It’s the only way forward.

And yet another ‘should’ believes that we were supposed to lean in and be honest to the universe about what we want (although they don’t always mean what I need). So perhaps I ‘should’ trust my instinct a little more, and not be afraid of getting hurt because I will be either way.

Not to mention that this person is far from simple. He comes with his own sets of layers of complexities for me to learn and understand, his own history of past traumas, convictions, philosophies of life that dictates their decisions in ways that sometimes clash with what I want (although first I need to figure what I want, which hasn’t been the case).

In Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown (it’s a book that literally maps out the different range and depth of human emotions, I highly recommend it), there’s a chapter about ‘places we go to when things are uncertain’, where she lists the language to call some of these emotions—like overwhelmed and anxious. Overwhelmed and anxious very well describe how I’ve been.

For someone who values open-mindedness, I seem to have quite a high need for closure (NFC) when it comes to ‘partnerships and relationships’ (blame my moon in libra lol). At the end of the day, I function better when clarity of definitions exists, as they would set boundaries and expectations, including when they mean I couldn’t have any.

But as it turns out, there are times when uncertainties just have to be its own equilibrium for a while—for one reason or another. These are the times I need to teach myself to enjoy being a loose hot air balloon, letting the wind (?) take me where I need to be. It makes me profoundly uncomfortable, but maybe learning about this different state of being is part of the journey.

In the spirit of lowering one’s NFC: It’s okay that I don’t quite know.

Stay healthy everyone.

Tedjabayu dan Kami (1944-2021)

“Mbak, orang yang meminjamkan buku itu bodoh. Tapi Mbak tahu siapa yang lebih bodoh? Orang yang mengembalikan buku yang dia pinjam!”
Bapak being, well—himself.

Sebelum mengenal Bapak sebagai sosok yang Goenawan Mohamad sebut ‘tauladan gerakan demokrasi‘, saya terlebih dahulu bertemu beliau sebagai ayah sahabat saya. Tanggal 7 Februari 2015, saya main ke rumah beliau pertama kalinya setelah perjalanan akhir pekan singkat ke Bandung dengan Wikan. Saat itu, saya baru belajar bahwa mereka adalah keluarga Sudjojono, salah satu maestro pelukis kiri di masa revolusi. (Meski Bapak tidak terlalu suka membawa nama Sudjojono, karena dia ‘manusianya sendiri’.) Lantas ketika melihat beberapa lukisan di dinding rumah, saya langsung berasumsi semua lukisan Sudjojono.

“Mbak, yang ini lukisannya seharga 6 milyar lho!” kata Bapak (begitu keluarga beliau memanggilnya, dan kemudian saya pula) sambil menunjuk gambar burung bertanggar di pohon dengan latar belakang langit. Saya berekspresi kaget tapi tidak berkomentar apa-apa. Bapak seperti menikmati kegagapan saya. Kemudian dia tertawa sendiri. “Nggak ding, itu corat-coret Wikan aja! Paling nggak ada harganya, hahaha!”

Baru nanti saya sadar bahwa itu cuma satu dari daftar tak berujung kelakar dan kejahilan Bapak.

Di hari yang sama itu, saya mengagumi koleksi rak buku Bapak yang menjulang sampai ke langit-langit rumah mereka yang tidak besar. Saya bisa merasakan buku-buku adalah harta berharga bagi Bapak—mulai dari buku tentang sejarah, pelukis-pelukis Renaissance, sampai pasar karbon (kata Wikan, saat SMP Bapak suruh Wikan baca buku itu). Saya lupa apakah di hari yang sama atau pada kunjungan selanjutnya, Bapak meminjamkan saya buku Benedict Anderson, Java In a Time of Revolution. Buku itu saya bawa dalam perjalanan kerja sampai ke Bandung, dan sampai hari ini masih bertengger di rak buku rumah. Sekarang siapa yang berhasil mengecohmu, Pak!

Saya yang terbiasa beroperasi lewat struktur dan efisiensi di atas segalanya, pelan-pelan terserap ke dalam dunia seni dan perjuangan yang kental dalam darah keluarga Bapak. Beberapa kali saya bersama Wikan menemani Bapak dan Ibu ke acara-acara kesenian, demokrasi, atau berhubungan dengan HAM. Dari Taman Ismail Marzuki sampai Salihara. Muka Bapak selalu berbinar kalau bertemu dengan teman-teman seperjuangannya. Saat peluncuran buku Eyang Mia, Sudjojono dan Aku (yang menjadi inspirasi judul tulisan ini), Bapak tuliskan di halaman pertamanya, “Mbak Afu, kita saling belajar. Salam, Tedjabayu.”

Di salah satu perjalanan mengantar Bapak pulang, saya sempat bilang, “Duh, mobilnya perlu di-balance ini nggak lurus.” Bapak balas, “Oh ya, seperti apa?” Lalu saya contohkan lepas stir sebentar. Bapak bilang, “Oh nggak perlu. Ini memang mobilnya Kiri!” Selentingan-selentingan seperti ini yang sepertinya akan sangat saya rindukan.

Dari waktu ke waktu, terutama kalau sedang menunggu di Kedai Sagam (yang hilang setahun ini karena pandemi), Bapak akan bercerita tentang pengalamannya sebagai tahanan politik dari penjara ke penjara selama 14 tahun, sampai terakhir di Pulau Buru. Yang mengherankan, Bapak tidak pernah terdengar marah. Di balik semua ketidakadilan dan kekejaman Orde Baru, Bapak masih bisa menemukan kemanusiaan, dan kelakar—yang kadang sangat gelap, tapi tetap menggelitik. Saya ingat pernah panik karena merasa cerita ini terlalu berharga kalau hanya saya dan sedikit orang yang tahu. Untungnya, di tahun 2020 kemarin, Bapak berhasil merampungkan memoir-nya sebagai penyintas, Mutiara di Padang Ilalang.

Sekarang lebih banyak orang bisa mengetahui kenyataan sejarah dari perspektif Bapak.

Tapi lebih dari semuanya, salah satu yang paling saya kagumi adalah cintanya Bapak kepada Ibu. One of the purest, rarest things. Bapak Tedjabayu dan Ibu Tuti Pujiarti menikah selama lebih dari 35 tahun. Mereka sebenar-benarnya teman hidup, saling menyayangi dan menjaga satu sama lain setiap hari, melewati berbagai kesulitan bersama-sama. Ketika anak-menantunya kadang kritis terhadap keputusan Ibu, Bapak akan melindungi Ibu tanpa syarat. Begitu pula Ibu, semua dikorbankan untuk menjaga Bapak, untuk menyenangkan Bapak, sampai hari terakhirnya. Seminggu ke belakang saat badan Bapak sudah mulai lemah, tangan yang Bapak genggam terus tanpa mau lepas adalah tangan Ibu. Ketika mobil kami perlahan meninggalkan taman pemakaman umum di mana Bapak dikuburkan, kalimat yang Ibu bisikkan adalah, “I love you.”

Setelah terjadi pendarahan otak di tahun 2003, pihak rumah sakit bilang bahwa hidup Bapak hanya tinggal 2-3 tahun lagi. Kalau prediksi tersebut benar, maka saya tidak akan sempat kenal dengan sosok Bapak. Wikan suka bercanda bahwa saya adalah kesayangan Bapak dari semua mantan-mantan Wikan yang lain. Wikan bilang, Bapak suka ngobrol sama saya yang pintar. Kami berdua bersyukur saya bisa bertemu Bapak, bahwa Bapak bisa hadir di hari pernikahan kami, dan seterusnya meski banyak kangen yang tidak selalu bisa dipenuhi.

Kalau berusaha mengingat Bapak, saya ingat Bapak yang sedang mengikat sepatunya sendiri sambil duduk di lantai, yang menolak kalau kami tawarkan untuk bawakan tas berisi laptop kesayangannya karena tidak suka merepotkan orang. Bapak yang sering mengirim lelucon forwardan grup sebelah melalui WhatsApp. Bapak yang sayang dengan cucu-cucunya, Bapak yang tersenyum atau ngakak karena geli dengan lelucon sendiri.

Bapak had had a full life, with no regrets. Bapak adalah definisi berjuang sebaik-baiknya. Ketika Orde Baru seenaknya, Bapak sebagai mahasiswa turun ke jalan. Ketika akhirnya keluar dari penjara, Bapak mencintai Ibu dan anak-cucunya dengan sebaik-baiknya. Bapak tidak pernah mengeluh, atau bersedih atas semua yang telah terjadi pada Bapak, tapi malah mengajarkan kami semua untuk menemukan lelucon dari tempat tergelap sekalipun.

Saya tahu Bapak suka membaca, jadi saya tuliskan ini untuk Bapak baca dari rumah baru di sana. Saya mau minta maaf karena belum bisa bertemu Bapak lagi setelah terakhir mengantar Bapak pulang dari rumah Cinere, sampai Bapak menghembuskan nafas terakhir. Pandemi sialan. Tapi saya tahu Bapak tidak akan mau kami penuh benci dan penyesalan, jadi kami coba untuk mengikhlaskan.

Salam ambung, Pak. Kami sayang Bapak.

Cinere, 26 Februari 2021

A Plea for Fear

In the wake of #KamiTidakTakut hashtag and all the diverging sentiments toward it, I wondered why—and particularly when—did today’s society begin to fear (v.) fear (n.). Somebody must’ve given fear a bad name, so much so that we decided to put him in the corner—as the emotion we shall all avoid, because it makes mankind small; it makes us a coward, unworthy member of civilization.

Terrorism, at its core, is about creating fear. At the political level, though, it is mostly about exhibiting power: proving that, the state hasn’t been effective in preventing attacks and protecting its citizens. In this light, a communal fear (or its false lack thereof) becomes irrelevant; at the end of the day, asymmetric warfare has a lot more layers to it beyond the people’s state of mind.

The following paragraphs however do not plan to join the debate in any way. It rather aims to limn a gentler introduction to fear, including why it deserves our respect and amity—for good reasons.

Many claims that one shouldn’t do anything based on fear: you shouldn’t stay at a certain workplace because you fear being poor—rather, you should quit and follow your passion. You shouldn’t listen to your parents because you’re afraid to let them down, you should do what you believe is right. One of these days, heroes are the brave: the ones who ‘handled’ their fear and take down the villain—which, in this case, are a job that sucks and your parents’ expectations.

It would be pretty straightforward to argue that they’re right. After all, fear often clouds our judgment from seeing the bigger picture and aiming for the greater good. At other times, however, it occurs to me that maybe fearing these risks is the good instinct talking to you. Maybe it makes sense that you assess the cons—after all, having a safety net wouldn’t hurt, and your parents have provided you for quite a while, it’s your time to give in.

For what it’s worth, it is fear that tells us there’s something wrong.

We have all seen Inside Out (the movie which—quite literally—brings you into a girl’s head and understand the five primary emotions inside it). Fear was depicted as this anxious little guy who always drives Riley away from the adventures/exciting things a.k.a. ‘the boring one’. But he does so in the sole mission of avoiding risks that would’ve caused her pain and all other sorts of danger. Albeit Fear is unlikely to be anyone’s favorite (especially compared to Joy and Disgust—or, in my case, Sadness), he has his role and damn well aced it.

The crush you’ve wanted to ask out for so long, but haven’t got the confidence to? Maybe it is fear, alerting you that he/she has never signalled a positive note on your late-night chats. Maybe it is your subconscious, trying to save yourself from a possible sinking ship of broken heartedness.

You got my point.

Linking back to the terrorist attacks, I wondered if being not afraid only means that we’re starting to be immune about these dangerous fanatics living among us. Shouldn’t we be afraid? Shouldn’t we be telling the government to take serious measures to address the problem?

As this Guardian op-ed brilliantly pointed out, Indonesians may be trapped in a cognitive dissonance: despite realizing how it should be traumatizing, we have grown so used to thinking that ‘these things just happen’. To most of us not directly affected by the blasts, Bonni suggests, they seem no more than ceremonial. And this is bad.

Either way, maybe it’s time to give fear a second chance.

“Fear is wisdom in the face of danger, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock, The Abominable Bride