Once Upon A Time

I once could talk: I taught Physics
and Additional Math, helped students
who did not understand, who would have failed
crucial exams, to pass, I found ways to explain, to make
complicated things easy to grasp.

How I loved music, loved to sing,
and I sang loudly, with all of my heart.
Some say I sang out of tune. The good thing was
I could not tell.

I argued with my friends over whiskey
and dry mutton curry about politics,
the state of the nation.

But I did not talk much
to my children. With my grandchildren,
my voice was everything I wanted it to be:
playful, intelligent, firm, light,
soothing, understanding, supporting.

Then one day I could not talk anymore.

I once could walk: to and from school
in India when I was a boy, to and from school
in Malaysia when boy became teacher.

India, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, England, America, I walked
to church, to the market, to hardware shops, I walked.

Around parks and my neighbourhood, with friends
who joined me along the way, I walked.

Then on the day I could not talk, I could not walk.

I once could eat. Everyone will tell you:
“Mr. Vincent — he loves his food!”

I ate the freshest fish in Sakthikulangara. I ate
rice and fish curry, with appalam and thairu.

I ate with my fingers, as we do in South India. If you think
it’s gross, the opposite is true. It’s the best! And if you think
there is only one type of fish curry…not true! So many types
of fish, so very many types of curries!

I ate prawns and crabs, puttu and paratha, appam
and cheretappam. If I listed the foods that I ate and loved,
there would be no room for my daughter’s other poems.

When I came from India to Singapore
then Malaysia, I got to know chicken rice,
hokkien mee, wantan mee, yee mee, mee goreng,
Indian rojak. I bought char siew pau and kai pau
while I watched live English football finals and heavyweight
boxing finals on television with my children. Once a year
Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken Bucket as a treat.

Later when I was fatter, I made oats in the morning
and Milo for my granddaughter. I drank
alcohol: a little beer, a little whiskey, a little
wine at Christmas. Oh, and yes, I admit it, a little toddy.

Then on the day I could not talk,
and I could not walk, that day I could not
swallow a morsel of anything,
not even my own saliva.

I once could drive. I loved to drive,
I could get away from family and teaching
and the pressures of life for a little while, go have
idly and mutton curry, or thosai by myself
with a teh tarik or passumpale coffee.

I drove back and forth to hardware stores
looking for tools. I once could build:
cupboards, tables and benches, shoe racks
and CD racks, to relax my mind.

After I recovered from the first stroke, I built
a ping-pong table with castors, a king-sized bed
with castors, built a large dollhouse
for my granddaughter, built myself a wall-to-ceiling
bookshelf. I even made it complete
with a long, foldable table. Now I realise
I did not make anything for my wife.

My wife and I were both teachers,
so she and I and our seven children all had
the same seven weeks off at the end of the year.
In those days I drove the whole family to Penang, Johore,
Singapore (and back).

Oh, driving! How can a man tell you what it means
to be able to drive again after a stroke?

Then on the day I could not talk, and I could not walk,
that day I could not swallow a morsel of anything,
not even my own saliva, there was no more driving,
no more building to be done.

I shouted at my family and my students,
at my wife, threw words, stormed out of my house.
Some people — I think I hurt them forever.

I tried and I tried, everlastingly, to become
a not-lashing-out, not-angry man. I pleaded
with God. God took a long time to help.

I counseled young, engaged couples though my own
marriage had many troubles (but it was full
of good things, too). My wife and I, we counseled
friends and family members through difficult times.

She and I helped old people when they were sick and dying,
helped families with funeral arrangements, held prayers
when people they loved died.

I created what you could call a passive resistance movement
in the church by sticking to what I believed. In a bookstore
one day, I saw a book about St. Faustina, thumbed through it
and I knew without thinking: the Mercy prayers
were something I had to pray, more than that
— something I had to propagate.

I was not daunted by the official letter a priest wrote to me,
telling me this was wrong, these prayers, unsanctioned
by the Church. My wife (my partner-in-holy-crime) helped me
make copies of the prayers. We framed the Divine Mercy picture.
We gave it to everyone, every family we could
in Malaysia, Australia, India, America.

Over the years, thousands were praying the unsanctioned
Divine Mercy prayers (not just though my efforts, of course).
Many years later, in the year 2000, the year just before
my second stroke, Pope John Paul II canonised St. Faustina.
On the same day, he declared the Sunday after Easter
to be Mercy Sunday. Can you imagine how I felt?
I had stood against the church
— but not against God.

Then on the day I could not talk and I could not walk,
that day I could not swallow a morsel of anything,
not even my own saliva, there was no more driving,
no more building to be done.
From that day
I could not
do
anything
anymore
for
anyone.

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Marianne Vincent

Marianne Vincent

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It seems like a lifetime ago. Someone who’d just met me said, “Your dharma is to be a writer.” I laughed it off. Now here I am, not wanting to do much else.