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.

2021: The Year I Found Myself

I was dead for over 29 years.

My body might have breathed, moved, consumed—but not quite lived. I have simply been walking down the most obvious pathway that the universe revealed. Born to an average Indonesian family, I grew up into a typical first daughter whose main mission is to make her family proud and exceed expectations, got one opportunity after another that piled up into a wonderful-but-very-much-expected career, and married the very first person who asked. When interviewed about my biggest failure a few years ago, I barely knew the answer, because if I’m being honest, I never really failed, not in a way that mattered anyway, and mostly because I never took a risk—not in a way that mattered.

This year everything changed.

Me saying hi to 2022, finally taking charge of my own fate.

It started with the biggest loss I’ve ever experienced, one that I didn’t think I was capable of stomaching. The person I (used to think I) loved the most decided to leave, practically in a blink, and at the worst possible moment—although perhaps there’s no such thing as a good time to end a marriage.

The first couple of months was the worst: the titanic pain seeped from my chest down to my torso, limbs, and all corners of my physique. Sometimes I literally couldn’t move out of the bed or floor had it not been for the kindest souls who kept me company. Even then, I was still lost for a little while longer, reaching for worldly things that I thought could help ease the pain. I was too clever to fool myself that they would cure my open-flesh wound of course, but back then I’d take anything just to survive another day.

I’m not quite sure how (perhaps writing my feelings down, talking to my friends, and regular check-ins with my therapist) but slowly and eventually the hurt subsided.

Once that happened, came this long and deafening quiet where I was left alone with myself, bewildered at the sight of an almost completely new person. Something told me she had gone through a war and came back stronger. I could sense that her emotional container expanded, reaching new depths capable of understanding and empathizing better—more so a gentler heart that forgives fully.

It’s the kind of bloom that could only happen through passing seasons.

It came with a brand-new, crystal-clear sight, so sharp and spot-free it’s almost like I never saw before in my entire life (even some things I thought I already knew):

  • Being with someone is not a prerequisite to, nor an assurance of, happiness. If anything, I learned that loving is all about sacrifice. If you are not ready to let go of a certain degree of comfort and compromise on more than a handful of things, let me remind you that being single has its perks. I was pleasantly surprised to remember the refreshing feeling of making my own decisions and owning the consequences, in lieu of having to reach a consensus with another human being every single time.
  • Being with someone shouldn’t mean losing yourself. Entering a relationship often means colliding two previously separated worlds, and when you let it unfold on an auto-pilot mode, soon enough one will be completely swallowed by the other. That will almost always lead to a certain feeling of loneliness or isolation. I finally understood the importance of friendship beyond the one with your partner (even when they’re your best friend) and having your own little territory—literal or figurative—like an activity or circle where you could anchor the self you were before you met them. Remember that you are responsible for taking care of yourself before anyone else.
  • We are bound to project our ideals on our partner, and it takes courage to see what is real. Our deepest urge to be happy often means deflecting our glance from the person in front of us, to a much prettier reflection of them on the pond. But once we rid of that fear and allow ourselves to be honest, both about who they are and who you are, that is when you could truly decide whether you would continue to love—and love fiercely—or not. It is a truly rare thing, to see someone naked in their entirety (literally and figuratively) and still love them as a whole.
  • Compatibility is the work you put in, but there is such thing as a minimum threshold for it to work and self-awareness is a necessary tool. This might not be exactly scientific, but I find this framework quite useful to assess (and therefore achieve) compatibility in a romantic partnership. First, compatibility is comprised of five separate ‘tanks’: intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, and material (not necessarily in that order). Having one of your tanks full is not enough if any of the other tanks are empty. Intellectual compatibility doesn’t mean being in the same academic field, spiritual compatibility doesn’t mean sharing the same faith, and material compatibility doesn’t mean coming from the same socio-economic background. They simply mean understanding and appreciating each other intellectually, having a similar attitude towards faith, and somewhat corresponding visions about worldly possessions. That being said, above anything else, being at the same level of self-awareness is critical. Even when you’re complete opposites in certain areas, having the language and toolbox to talk about it would help a lot. Without it, even the most earnest effort to make it happen is likely going to fail.

It is with these new tenets, that I am starting 2022, whether by myself, with a partner, or something in between. I have promised myself to not just let myself be but actually make the mindful (often difficult choice) every single day, meaning my every ‘yes’-es and knowing when to say no. Listening to my guts and newfound conviction about the kind of fulfilling love I actually deserve.

And with that, I wanted to thank him for leaving, for giving me the once-in-a-lifetime chance for a radical start-over. Today, I am the happiest I have ever been, completely engulfed in the kind of contentment that I would never have discovered had we still been together.

Today, I am taking charge of my own life and actually start living.

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