Sunday, January 16, 2011

To Pom Who Spent His Life Staring at the Ceiling

I'm writing this on a night when I feel inexplicably heartbroken. Nothing and no one has broken my heart, really, but somehow "heartbroken" seems the only fitting adjective. It's a haunting, hollow feeling you have after having lost something -- a feeling of being defeated without even having a chance to fight. It's the feeling of being in a situation the outcome of which seems to have been determined without you being given a chance to participate in it.

On a night like this, I think of Pom who spent his life staring at the ceiling.

I used to sit beside his bed while he stared at the ceiling and ask him what it was he was thinking about all day. Invariably, his answer would be, "Stuff." What kind of stuff, I would ask him. And he'd say,"Oh, normal stuff."

But nothing about Pom's life was normal. Pom wasn't normal and he would never be. When my nanny's eldest son contracted polio as a little child, his life stopped being normal. His limbs froze up. He could barely move his badly-deformed face. His speech was hard to understand. When he talked, he often had to gasp for air mid-sentence while beads of saliva dripped from the corner of his mouth. When he heard something funny and let out a hearty laugh, any little kids that happened to be within earshot ran away, scared.

And Pom's body ... his body. It was folded up in some places and jackknifed in others. His bony body was twisted so badly that when they laid him on his side, he was staring directly at the ceiling. And Pom was laid on his side most of the time -- I guess -- to avoid pressure wounds and bed sores.

And so he spent most of his waking hours staring at the ceiling. By the time I was born, Pom had been staring at the ceiling for almost a decade.

They put Pom on a daybed in the back of the house where my nanny lived with her family along with the other people who worked for my grandparents. Pom never went to school, didn't have any friends, and he had no idea what the world looked like beyond what he could see from his bed. The area around Pom's daybed was left alone most of the time and he would be attended to only when he had to eat or relieve himself.

And so not only did Pom spend his life staring at the ceiling, he also did it -- for the most part -- alone.

But I loved Pom. He was like a brother to me. We kids weren't supposed to hang out in that part of the house very much, as my grandparents didn't want us getting in the way of the workers while they worked. But I never listened. Every single day after school, I would run straight to Pom's bed the moment I got home. I would always save some of the snack they gave us before school was dismissed to share with Pom (his favorite was pineapple pinwheel tarts). I would tell him all the things I'd learned at school that day; he would tell me that he had been staring at the ceiling all day.

Amused and puzzled by how someone could spend that much time staring at the ceiling, I took it upon myself to educate Pom. I drew the alphabet chart and taped it to the ceiling. I drew pictures of things and taped them to the ceiling. I explained to Pom, using the most picturesque adjectives my little mind could produce, everything he'd never had a chance to see.

Pom loved hearing about the ocean, the beach, the seashells. But, looking back, I don't think I did such a good job describing to him what the ocean is like. How can you describe in 1st-grade vocabulary the foamy waves, the faintly saline smell, the wet sand that hugs your toes as you walk on it? How can you describe the enormity of the ocean? How can you describe a day at the beach to someone who has never even seen a bathtub let alone a river?

But somehow Pom never got tired of hearing about the ocean. And every time I went on a beach vacation with the family, I always remembered to pick the prettiest seashells for Pom. He'd put them in an empty Droste cocoa tin can, his prized possession -- his only possession. "She's pretty," Pom spoke of the famous "nurse" on the cocoa can that always stood next to his pillow. "She looks kind." Once in a while, Pom would ask me to shake the can so he could hear the seashells rattling inside it. And he would always smile.

Pom continued to stare at the ceiling for another few months after I'd started second grade. I came home from school one afternoon to find Pom's daybed empty. He had a violent seizure a few hours earlier and his heart gave out, I was told. They put Pom in a makeshift casket. He was lying on his back and his face pressed against the side of the wooden box. I dropped his Droste can next to him and wished with all my might that wherever he went, he would be able to go everywhere he wanted and see things, a lot of things.

On a night like this when I feel heartbroken by something I can't even identify, when I feel sorry for myself, I think of Pom who spent his life staring at the ceiling.