IT’S SO BRIGHT OUT TODAY. It’s almost too bright to look at the yellow flowers of the squash plant or the new green of the climbing beans. The rows of muted verdigris cabbages and the grimy-green water in the old bathtub are easier on the eyes.
I don’t really notice the noise of the CD which I should be paying attention to (I know in a couple of minutes I’ll have to check my student’s answers to the listening exercise). Instead I’m watching an old woman working on a small area of scrub land across the road.
She’s busy digging an irrigation ditch. She has thick gloves, Wellington boots, long sleeves, and pants. Her hat is made from bamboo, with a floral-print fabric stretched over its wide brim, covering the back of her neck. Strangely, it resembles the wallpaper pattern in my grandpa’s dining room.
She must be so hot under all that clothing. But then I look at the bright blue of the sky again and remember just how scorching the Taiwanese sun can be. She’s been doing this for years, I imagine, so she probably knows how best to dress for it.
It was about a year ago that I sat, staring at the same allotment, waiting for my boss to turn up. Linda sat with me. She was the office assistant, and single-handedly did more than any other person to make the school run smoothly. When I think of her now, with her bottle-bottom glasses and huge smile, I feel lucky to have had her help settling in. I may be able to swap clothes with the new girl and share pictures on Facebook, but she isn’t Linda.
Looking across the street, I asked her about the little garden allotment. She told me that they weren’t as popular as they had been, as younger generations were less interested in gardening. It made me think of the community garden movement back home, but then she started talking about her father.
“He worked in the garden every day. We always said ’Be careful’ – you know it’s so hot in summer and cold in winter – but he was very strong. He was always strong even when he was old. He was never sick. At the end he died by poison. Not sick.” The sun reflected a strange purple-green tint off the lenses of her glasses.
I murmured something. I didn’t really know what to say and the ‘by poison’ comment threw me. She continued talking so I listened.
Her father didn’t like doctors. He never needed to visit one before. One day he felt ill. A stomach problem. He took some traditional medicine from Japan that his friend had given him. He didn’t tell anyone about it. He got worse. He told his family what he’d done, but he still refused to see a doctor.
The date on the medicine showed it had expired years ago. They begged him to go to hospital but he said he didn’t need to. He didn’t want to make a fuss. Finally he agreed to see a friend who was a doctor. He waited until that evening when the friend finished work.
“It was too late,” she said. Her voice faltered a little as she looked at me. “His friend sent him to hospital. He said if he went earlier he would be ok…but they couldn’t do anything then. The medicine was too old and turned to poison.”
“My children…they always ask me ‘Mommy, is this ok to eat?’ They remember and always want to know the expiry date.” She mimicked her children’s voices.
Sitting there watching a White butterfly flit among the vegetables, I felt so incapable. Whatever I said would have been inadequate. I said nothing, and my throat tightened.
I feel it now.
An unexpected breeze waves a few leaves and lifts the fabric flap of the old woman’s hat. I wish I could go home. To my parents’ home. I want to see my mum. I want to tell her it will be ok. I want to say that Grandpa will regain his strength. He’ll be able to move out of hospital and into a nursing home (though not back to his house with the floral wallpaper).
He’ll be able to sit out in the sun and enjoy the roses and lavender, like he used to in his own garden. When I try to say these things on Skype I lose my voice. The conversation is one-sided, my mum struggling not to cry and telling me that it’ll be okay.