I never knew why she insisted on sunflowers.
I used to think that it was because of Vincent van Gogh; the whole yellow paint and happiness spiel that she was so enthralled with. I knew that she used to paint because she loved his paintings. When I was younger, I watched her in the alcove of our living room, using the windowsill as an easel. She never used a palette, instead she mixed acrylic paints on the back of her hands and on her arms. The tubes of blue, yellow, and white paints ran out the quickest. She would put white paint on top of everything she drew, when the first coat of paint was still wet.
“You need the light in here for contrast, see?”
Now, she doesn’t draw anymore, but the tubes of blue, yellow, and white paints seem to bleed out of her old paintings and colour the rest of her decor. The inside of her house always seemed like a sketch from the notebook of an overzealous child, testing out their new crayons. I suppose an adjective for it would be eclectic. Sunflowers on every windowsill, blue walls, and white sunlight. Yellow fruits and blue-coloured tea, white tea cups. That setup was a constant in our lives; she had always insisted on keeping each in stock, so that we’ll never run out. Perhaps that’s why her shopping list has been odd; but she took care to write it with the nicest handwriting, so that every black-inked word is as clear as if it were spoken. Two years ago, she turned to writing.
She had received a notebook from my daughter; Mina thought that she would like the glossy yellow cover, featuring a nameless cartoon character with wild red hair and a serene smile. The pages weren’t large enough for paintings, she said, but special words can be strung together just right to hang off the pages.
I wasn’t allowed to read what she wrote, but then again, no one was. She always told me that it had become her lifeblood, a horcrux of her own making. And with such little joys left in her name, I left it alone. I had almost forgotten about it, until little Mina mentioned grandma’s writing, a few hours after her funeral.
Two days later, I received the notebook in the mail.
That Wednesday morning, I had the house to myself, with a few hours to spare before I had to fetch Mina home from school. On hindsight, it came on the perfect day; wrapped in brown paper packaging, tied with strings. The yellow cover is still as vibrant as ever, with a suspicious smudge of mud on the right-hand corner of the book. I was worried that it might have stuck the pages together, but it flipped easily, so I braced myself for her gentle words.
No one told me it would be this way. I feel young again, younger than I was ever allowed to feel. I can’t remember why, or who I had to be strong for, and maybe that is a blessing in itself. I hope you don’t blame me for not visiting. This house itself seems suspended in time, and I keep thinking that if I step outside, I would fall through history. But I’ve been happy, darling. All I could see are sunflowers.
It hit me, right then, that she couldn’t remember her own name when she had written this. The cold, hard facts about identity had washed away, leaving only a sense of obligation and a love she couldn’t explain. I hadn’t realised. I remember the day we gave her the notebook, the way she squinted at us and thanked us, the way she wrote furiously. She had told us, absentmindedly, that she was writing the prologue to the rest of her life. It was a lovely memory, but now I realise how I had missed all the signs of her deteriorating mind. The tears that I thought had exhausted themselves, well up anew and fell, leaving cold streaks even as my throat burned. But I couldn’t allow myself to stop reading the last dredges of when she was coherent.
Look at you, singing foreign music
Using your voice to get me anywhere
Faint memories of when I was sick
replaced with the taste of chocolate eclairs
All I knew was that I was in the winter of my life
All I knew was that I was deeply sad
Yahrzeit candles burn throughout the night
Left over from a love I don’t remember I had
But now I am in the summer of my life
dancing drunk on cinnamon candy and nectar
Tangerine lips and moments filled with only sunlight
Records playing soft guitar
So, look at you, singing foreign music
Sunflowers kissing your springtime skin
You say that I am, but I know I’m not sick
no longer afraid of anything
She had forgotten Dad’s death. The yahrzeit candles we lit at his funeral had disappeared into her bag, and reappeared at the kitchen cupboard. Back when she still painted, she refused to use those candles, insisting they were only there for display. Grief became her decorations. Until it didn’t.
I don’t know how to feel. She forgot so much, but in that cesspool of memory, she was also rid of all the bad memories that plagued her. Those few visits when she was alive had her dancing around the living room, her blue dress twirling around her. Mina would insist on “the yellow record”, because Mr. Sinatra’s music made her laugh and sing along. It looked like she was in the summer of her life.
I was reading Murakami when you left me
Sixteen missed calls that windchimes
Made from tin-can phones strung together
With painted on sunflowers
I was reading Murakami when you came to me
With messages of appreciation that I don’t believe
Painted on sunflowers
I hope you know my favourite colour
Three parts yellow
Two parts blue
My dear sister,
You told me that you thought that I am made of light and I am
But not the way you think
I feel so easy to ingest
Clotted cream and vanilla mist
A bottle of bourbon left in the heat
The wind whisks me away and I am flighty
Soda and mead
But I would melt on your tongue
The taste of light things don’t stick around
And the light in my life is the lightness of my life
And the light in my life is the lightness of my life
I read that one part again. My dear sister. Well, close enough, mom.
I remember that particular conversation, back when her disease started chipping away at her mobility. My visits then comprised mostly of me helping her in and out of the bathroom and the kitchen. I remember how frail she felt under my hands. I felt foreign in my own childhood home, like I was an imposter. My hands were used to a much different, more robust weight. Have I always been this rough? She felt wispy and willowy, even her voice seemed to be diluted. She was light. I told her so.
“The wind could blow me from this mountain to the next,” she laughed.
I guess she felt foreign too.
I don’t feel particularly hopeful today.
Words have seemingly escaped me; or perhaps they have just become oiled and slick, slipping from my fingers and lips into incoherent scribbles. Trying to decipher them is like rescuing unknotted threads laid out carefully on whipped cream, having to catch the words before it sinks to the bottom and tangles itself forever. Still, I crave words, poured out of my own caged heart to fit perfectly in my mouth. So forgive me, dear reader, if I fail to properly articulate. Still I hope you will taste my words as I craft them from my own tongue, and touch them as I sewed them with my bruised fingers.
I must warn you though, that these words are not silky nor sweet, but jagged and borderline bitter. It is simply because I am in turmoil, with caged doves in peril trying to escape the confines of my chest. How do I consent to their freedom, dear reader? I do not know what keeps them here, as I do not know what keeps me here.
The feeling of ‘Something’s wrong!’ clings to me. The intensity of its persistence scares me, and I’m afraid that I might have forgotten something.
But that’s absurd, of course. I remember everything like it was just yesterday. Perhaps it’s the fear of getting old, settling in my bones and calcifying. Sometimes I look in the mirror and I am shocked by the face I see; the wrinkles around her eyes looked like puckered cloth, sewn with the mediocrity of an amateur who’s just trying their best. Sometimes I look at all my sunflowers, and I remember that I have to water them. I am fiercely protective of them, dear reader. Pretty yellow flowers stand out so well against the blue of the walls.
‘Optimism from a place of great sadness.’ I can’t recall the person who described me that way; it was someone I loved from a distant past. Dear reader, what a sweet sentiment regardless!
Lord, If reincarnation was real, and if I had failed to be as good of a person as I believed myself to be, let me be a sunflower.
I turn the page. And another. And another. But the rest of it is blank, except for the last page. The doctor warned us that she would soon lose her words and all her sharp intelligence. She had been able to speak multiple languages, but gradually they dwindled from three to two to none. Idly, I wonder if she wrote all that she wanted to say before she forgot what it was. Those three years have passed by so quickly, that I barely had enough time to accept that there is no cure for her disease.
She had never seemed truly bothered by the whole thing.
I think she knew how I would feel about her leaving. I’ve always had deep-set fears of abandonment. And of course my mother knew. When the disease racked through her brain and pulled her away from all that she once had, she knew that liberation came with a price. A price that I would have to spend my whole life paying for. I am a selfish child, I know. But I also know that she would have understood.
Her mantra has always been to draw optimism from a place of great sadness. Maybe that was why she insisted on sunflowers.