Love, Love, Love, in My Mind

Kithsiri rapped on the tin gate outside, and the three of us stood up from the hot fabric and metal sofas in the living room. The car hummed deeply as I slid open the orange and brown bolt and my grandad made sure the large living room fan was switched off and the front door was locked.

My grandmother almost launched herself out onto the road in excitement. Granted, she couldn’t move fast enough for that to be a concern, but she stepped deliberately and unwaveringly towards the car, even though I was trying to distract her until my grandad was near enough to help me guide her over the precarious lopsided cement block that balanced between the gate’s entrance and the sloping road below. (Why on earth do we still use that thing?!) Quickly seeing that my attempts at dissuasion were no use, I called to Kithsiri to help her down the wild ramp with one hand, as I nervously took the other and walked my grandma over the precipice and towards the vehicle. An anxious palm against the doorframe so she wouldn’t bump her head and she was seated. I followed suit and Kithsiri buckled himself in behind the wheel.

“Okkoma gath-thah de?” Kithsiri chimed, watchful and kind through the rear-view mirror.
“Okkoma gath-thah!” I replied cheerfully, relieved that my grandma was in the car in one piece. That was the extent of my Sinhala—usually it was was a broken phrase or a few key words, but I also knew which bits of a sentence I had to repeat back to answer a question adequately.

Archie and Seeya (my mum’s parents) and I were driving to see Loku Archie (my dad’s mum) with her driver, Kithsiri, for lunch. When I landed in Sri Lanka 6 days earlier, Loku Archie expressed a deep wish that we all catch up for a meal. We had ruminated over it on the phone before I had flown down too. She said something to the effect of my mother, aunt and uncle not letting her out because your grandfather was making a fuss, and I had to agree that my Archie, who loved dressing up and going out, would benefit from a trip away from their house in Kalalgoda, no matter how tricky the circumstances might now be.

Loku Archie translates to “Big Grandma.” We called her late husband Loku Seeya (“Big Grandpa”), even though neither of them had been different enough in size to Archie & Seeya to truly earn those nicknames. It had been a simple way to distinguish both sets of adults, but now those names had a heavy ring of truth to them. Archie (not Loku Archie) had lost a considerable amount of weight in these last two years as her dementia progressed. Fortunately though, Loku Archie had lost none of the bang and fizzle that made her infamous within our family: “Really! I don’t know why your Seeya won’t let your Archie spend time with me. With me! It’s not like I’m a stranger! She’s my best friend!”

I had heard about this situation from my mum over the phone a few weeks earlier during her weekly call from Dubai.

“You see, your Archie needs help going to the toilet now. Seeya is just worried about potential accidents. Sometimes she even forgets how to let us know she wants to go, so understandably taking her out is a bit of a problem.”

When I spoke to my grandad about this, he filled out more of the story; “It’s just that her ‘movements’ aren’t regular anymore. Because she doesn’t always use the bathroom every morning after breakfast like she used to, taking her out on one of those ‘off’ days means anything can happen.”

“That makes sense,” I agreed. “How about this? If she has a good day while I’m here, you could let me know and then we can just go to Loku Archie’s house for lunch instead of going out? We’re less likely to run into any trouble there. Plus, Loku Archie has plenty of help at home in case we need anything. It’s much less complicated.”

That ‘good day’ arrived the Monday before I was due to fly back to Melbourne. When I called my grandfather in the morning to double check if he was okay with it, he responded quickly with “Yes, yes. Let’s do this, whatever this is.” I hung up in awe and glee and giddily got dressed so I could make sure their car trip to Loku Archie’s place was uneventful. I couldn't believe he had consented so quickly.

Archie’s language is all but gone now, making it difficult to understand what she’s saying or what she needs. Her speech is muddled words and a few choice phrases she repeats amongst a jumble of sounds. I’ve noticed that when she gets agitated or distressed, she tends to ask more questions in quick succession, and when she’s upset she does the same, only with sadder and heavier notes pulling at her voice—a lament that we can’t hope to untangle. The journey to Loku Archie’s, though, held none of this sort of talk. Her hand in mine, she sat serenely by the window and watched the dark greens, rumbling trishaws and rickety food stalls roll by. The humming of the car and the rumble of the gravel road must have soothed her—she knew she was on a new adventure.

After we arrived, Loku Archie insisted Seeya fill his glass with whiskey at least thrice before we had any lunch. When she turned her gaze on me, I laughed, “Oh I don’t think I’m ready for that at this time of the day,” to which she replied, “I’ll just add a splash to some ginger beer. You won’t even taste it,” and promptly filled a good 3/4s of my glass with the amber booze. Archie drank her orange juice, sitting back and surveying us with ease and grace. She didn’t say much during our visit, but I knew she was content being in her oldest friend’s home among familiar company.

The two ladies sat on two wood and wicker chairs on the furthest edge of the verandah as Loku Archie, Seeya and I chatted. Plants covered the black stones behind us and birds sang beyond the garden walls. It wasn’t as hot that day as it had been the day before. I had really been struggling returning to the humidity after two years away, but this calmer climate allowed me to breathe in how truly fortunate I was. At 31, I was still able to sit with all of three of my grandparents, and speak to most of them. The flight might have been long and I had worried about the cost of the airfare, but from where I was sitting, none of that mattered anymore and this was the sweetest part of my trip.

I couldn’t recall when all of us had sat together like this. Had we ever? When I was younger, I flew down with my parents and my sister almost once a year from Dubai during our school holidays. As I got older, I had visited them with my partners. And if I did visit alone, each set were still given careful attention apart from the other: Loku Archie and Loku Seeya and I would sit in their living room and I’d talk about one of my psychology case studies, or Archie & Seeya and I would eat a breakfast of red rice at their kitchen table. Why hadn’t all of us spent more time in the same place together? I felt that familiar twinge—the TCK tug at the heart where I recognised another opportunity I had lost because my life had snaked too far away from the country I was born in and the family we had left behind.

Lunch was Sri Lankan-style Chinese food, which locals & TCKs will know is a whole cuisine unto itself. Our conversation was easy and nostalgic. Loku Archie scolded Seeya cheerfully for not bringing Archie out sooner and I tried to butt in by thanking him for his efforts in dressing her that morning and agreeing to the whole thing in the first place.

As the meal wound down, Loku Archie set her eyes meaningfully on her old best friend across the table, heart full, and told her what an incredible woman she thought she was. “You were so educated, so brilliant and so bright” she said with tremendous feeling. Archie rested her lips against her clasped hands in pause. Tears started to stream down her cheeks. I quickly put an arm around her but could tell that she wasn’t distressed, the way I had seen her if our plans changed too suddenly, or if something chaotic was happening on TV. She had felt the weighty ounces of love and admiration behind each syllable of her old friend’s words, and had somehow understood every molecule, even though she was having so much trouble with language herself.

In my cousins’ Jeep, doing a last minute shop for friends and colleagues before I flew out the next day, I told my cousin Nat what I had witnessed. She had grown up in Colombo and was currently living there too—having even had tuition classes with my grandma while she was still at school.

“It was really incredible to see how strong their relationship still is, Nat.”
“Ava, those two used to visit each other all the time. All the time. Just the two of them. You have no idea. They were really, really close.”

Again my heart felt bruised by that TCK tug of something lost that I had never witnessed. I really did have no idea. Archie and Loku Archie had been my grandmothers, with their houses, husbands, newspaper columns and councils to run, with their own sets of children, grandchildren, students and employees to look after. Between the family trips, driving to the beach, picking flowers before we went to the temple and waiting impatiently for our favourite cousins so we could leave the adults and play together, I had missed this great friendship that connected these two formidable women.

I could be kinder to myself. I was younger then, didn’t know better, and loved both of them the best that I could with as much of my heart as I had to give. But that tug will still catch in my chest from time to time. If I had only been a little wiser. If I had only observed them a more closely. If only all three of us had spent time together so I could have drunk in this powerful bond between these two beautiful women. Would I have grown stronger in the heat of that glow? It’s something I can’t possibly know.

Back in Melbourne now, what I feel the most is gratitude. Even though I had missed much of their relationship as a travelling TCK, I was still able to fly down to Sri Lanka to collect more time with them last week. Despite a lifetime of absences, I happened to be in the right place at the right time to witness the munificent love these two women still shared. And, instead of being empty-handed, what I have is an incredible memory of my grandmothers that is burned into my mind forever.