Writing a fictional plot takes time, what more a memoir on death and regrets? It took Charmaine Chan a ruminating ten years to write her book, The Magic Circle.
The Magic Circle tells the story of her sister, Elaine. After having diagnosed with bile duct cancer, her family members living on different continents came back to help her tide through her last days. To distract Elaine from the effects of cancer, Charmaine picks the pen and conjures up childhood memories they share as a commemoration for Elaine’s daughter, Yazmin and through it all, to a place of healing and memory.
Having acknowledged that grief is universally experienced yet still rarely talked about, she hopes that her book will pave way for more conversations about the somewhat taboo subject even though some readers have opened up to her.
Image: Ethos Books
“Everyone cries at different places [in the book]. It’s so individual. I feel this book has made me some kind of custodian of people’s secrets and stories. It is an incredible privilege to be given such access to people’s lives,” she says.
Available at ethosbooks.com.sg and major bookstores.
Image: Ethos Books
Time seems to move at a different pace now that your sister has moved back home to Piha. Before, in the hospital, it seemed to crawl, the summer days lengthening out with nothing to fill the hours except idle chitchat and walks in the park. Now, back home, it hurtles forward, filled with chores and errands and tasks that used to be borne by the hospital staff but are now carried out by the family.
There are the medications and the injections—different drugs for different situations, like her nausea or her pain. These are picked up from nearby pharmacies regularly and kept in the fridge.
There are her meals—small but frequent to stave off her nausea, which is sudden and fierce. Being at home, you can prepare more of the foods that she likes, but the challenge is getting it to her before she throws up.
Hot toast is one of the quickest fixes though even that seems to take too long to prepare sometimes. It is amazing how your motor skills can suddenly desert you when your sister is screaming in the background. Your usually steady hands shake, the butter knife slips out from between your fingers and smooth gooey spreads become hard and uncooperative.
When you have a little more time and warning, you help Mum or Third Aunt dish up her favourite noodles, make small bowls of miso soup or slice fresh white peaches for her. You also mix honey or fruit syrups into her water, or give her flavoured vitamin beverages to drink—she can’t stomach plain water any longer, saying that it tastes strange and metallic. There are her showers. She can do the bulk of it herself, but all of you take turns to help her with the dressing and undressing, and keeping the site of the bile bag dry. She enjoys this daily ritual, can still revel in the sensual pleasures of water flowing down her skin, having her hair blown soft and silky dry. As a survival mechanism, you have become severely practical in your dealings with the illness, focusing tightly on the tasks at hand, not thinking about the bigger picture. Yet heartbreak hovers near, always looking for a chink in the armour, a crack in the surface. And nowhere are you more vulnerable than when helping her with her daily bath. “Don’t think, don’t look, don’t feel...” You tell yourself fiercely, staring determinedly at the bubbles swirling down the drain. “Just rinse now. Then turn off the taps. There’s the towel. Now, dry her right leg, then the left. Where’s her clean underwear?” Don’t look at her gaunt, skeletal body. Don’t look at her shrivelled flesh. Most especially don’t look at the jutting bones of her pelvis. Don’t think about the past or how ravishing she used to be. Don’t think about the future, a future that won’t include her.
These are your finest moments in the exercise of self- control—steadying your trembling hands, stilling your sobbing intakes of breath, hiding how you really feel from your sister because you know the one thing that will break her is your grief.