“Is it true?”
A soft breeze was blowing through the trees in the garden just downstairs from Chun Gen’s new home. In a small open space, Chun Gen was practicing martial arts. Not too far from him, Sarah was sitting on a bench, her gaze following her grandpa’s every movement. Bao sat next to her, silent.
“Bao, are you telling the truth?”
Sarah didn’t want to believe what he had just told her.
“Of course. Do you think I would joke about something like this?”
It was a rare moment of silence between them as they watched Chun Gen go through the motions. It was like a graceful dance.
“It’s true, Sarah.” Bao knew he had to convince her. “Remember when we went to the airport to bring you and your mother home? He completely forgot about it the next day, and wanted to rush to the airport again. He only realized that he forgot when you came into the room. Do you remember?”
“Then yesterday, he forgot that we broke his bottle of maojijiu, and rushed back to his old apartment to find it. Even then, he went to the wrong unit. And at Ivy jiejie’s wedding, he couldn’t even remember the names of all his old neighbors!”
Sarah recalled the night of the wedding. She remembered noticing the two of them behaving oddly, but she never suspected that it would be something as serious as this.
She looked at Bao, her eyes shining with tears. This was too much, too sudden. She ran to her grandpa and threw her arms around him.
“Gung gung, why did this happen to you?”
“Hmm?” Chun Gen was a little confused at her sudden burst of emotions. “What has happened to me?”
“I won’t allow this to happen to you. I won’t. What if you forget about me one day? I cannot…”
“Silly girl, why would I forget about you?”
Chun Gen hugged her tightly, then looked at Bao with a small frown. “What happened?” he asked the boy silently, mouthing the words.
Bao pointed at Chun Gen, then pointed at Sarah, and finally made some wild gesture with his hands, indicating that he had told her about Chun Gen’s condition.
“Don’t worry, gung gung.” Sarah pulled herself away and wiped her tears bravely. “I’m going to help you overcome this problem. The two of us,” she pointed at herself and Bao, “we’ll help you get better.”
“Ah,” Chun Gen gave her a small smile. “You’re still so young. What can you do to help me?”
“I’m sure there’s a way!” Bao exclaimed without much thought.
“Hold on, hold on,” Chun Gen said with a grim look. “You need to promise me that you cannot tell your mother. She worries too much, and if she finds out, it will affect her work. So, remember, no telling your mother. And you,” he turned to face Bao, “no telling Auntie Sophia. Understood?”
“Okay!” Sarah said. “But you also have to promise me that you’ll let us help you. You must promise to do everything we say.”
The first step of their ‘plan’ was to reorganize Chun Gen’s study room. They took down all his books and journals from the shelves, and rearranged them according to category. Then, they wrote in large calligraphy characters the different categories— Medical, Martial Arts, Literature—and stuck those large pieces of paper on the shelves.
“These,” Bao pointed to pieces of paper and announced with some pride, “are to remind you that you have these books.”
“But the words are so huge!” Chun Gen wasn’t convinced. “Won’t Auntie Sophia suspect something?”
“We’ll just tell her that your long-sightedness has increased. It’s normal, don’t worry.”
Next, they moved their plan of action into the kitchen. Starting from the topmost shelf, they labeled everything that could be labeled; from jars of dried Chinese herbs, flavoring and rice wine, down to the cooking essentials like oil, salt, sugar and vinegar. Then they stocked the fridge with red and yellow bell peppers, purple cabbage, carrots and fresh green spinach.
“The bright colors of these vegetables are visually stimulating, and can help trigger your memory,” Sarah told her grandpa. “And all these labels will help you make sure you don’t put the wrong spices into your cooking.”
Chun Gen opened his mouth to protest, but Sarah held her hand up to stop him. “Just tell my mom that this kitchen is yours, and that you won’t allow her to cook! You told us this is your kitchen after all, right?”
He had no choice but to simply sigh and nod at her.
Suddenly, a clickety-clackety sound came from the living room. The two of them peered out of the kitchen to see the table draped with one of Bao’s cartoon bath towels, held in place with wooden clothes pegs on all four corners. Bao himself was standing on a chair holding an empty maroon-colored suitcase, its contents—a full set of mahjong tiles—emptied onto the table.
“What’s this?” Chun Gen asked, walking up to the table.
“We’re playing mahjong!” Bao answered, putting the empty suitcase on the floor and putting his hands to his hips.
“No ‘buts’, gung gung,” Sarah interrupted him. “You promised to do whatever we ask you to, remember? Besides, experts say that playing mahjong can help stimulate brain activity and prevent deterioration.”
Chun Gen laughed. “Well, if that’s what experts say, then let’s play mahjong! I’ll have you know that I used to be somewhat of an expert myself! But,” he pointed at the two kids, then at himself, “there are only three of us. We need one more person to play.”
“Hmm, you’re right.” Bao put his hand under his chin, as if in deep thought.
“Not to worry!” Sarah said cheerfully. “We have a part-time helper. Mary,” she called loudly. “Mary!”
A second later, a round face peered out of the bathroom. Sarah waved for her to come. Mary wiped her hands on her apron and stepped into the living room. She looked down at the table, then up at the young girl, confused. “Yes, miss?”
“Mary, come. Let’s play mahjong.” Sarah said, smiling.
“No, miss. Cannot. Mam will come back soon.”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry! My mom’s spa and facial treatment takes about three hours, so we have plenty of time. Come, come.”
“But… but I don’t know how to play…”
“Aiyah!” Bao joined in. “We also don’t know the proper way to play. So we just play-play lah!”
Amused by the kids’ wild ideas and suggestions, Chun Gen decided to go along with them. He gave Mary a soft tap on her shoulder, then a nod, doing his part to convince her to join the game, too.
“Okay, gung gung,” Sarah said as the four of them sat down. “Teach us the basics.”
Chun Gen turned the tiles face-up and started to explain some of the rules.
“This,” he showed three tiles with the same face, “is a pung.” He then added a fourth tile with the same face, and explained, “This is a kong.”
He continued to tell them how to compose their tiles in order to win, how to calculate scores, and some of the fouls in the game. Mary hung on to every word he said, her expression one of extreme concentration. Sarah and Bao started out strongly too, but after a while, the many rules of the game started to bore them.
“Gung gung, enough already! Let’s start playing,” Sarah said restlessly.
“Wait, miss. Wait,” Mary was still trying to digest everything that he had taught them.
Bao had already put his head onto the table by now. He looked at Mary, then at Chun Gen, then at Sarah, and back to Mary. This was taking longer than he had thought.
He almost dozed off when Mary’s voice woke him up. “Okay!” she said quite suddenly. “Now I can play.”
The next few minutes were the weirdest few minutes Sarah had ever spent with Mary. From starting out slow and unsure, Mary gained confidence with every turn. She started calling out pungs and kongs like a real pro, so much so that even Chun Gen had to rub his eyes to make sure that the woman sitting directly opposite of him was still the same one he just taught how to play mahjong a little while ago.
“Wah!” Mary squealed excitedly, flipping all her tiles over to show her winning hand. “I eat! I win, I win!” She held out her hands, palms facing up, and said, “I win! Faster pay, pay, pay!”
The three of them stared at each other, then turned back to look at Mary.
“But we aren’t betting any money,” Sarah told her.
“We play-play only,” Bao added. “I told you earlier, right? Play-play only!”
Mary let out an impatient huff and got up from her seat. “Aiyah! If not betting money, then why waste my time? I still have to clean up the toilets! If mam come home and see that the toilets not clean yet, she will scold me!”
The three of them silently watched as Mary walked away mumbling to herself. Sarah tried not to feel dejected. I have to stay strong for gung gung.
“Don’t worry, gung gung,” she said cheerfully. “Let’s continue tomorrow!”
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