All the things we didn't say

We talked on the phone today. You told me about your neighbours, the kind of face mask you like, and about the nagging pain in your legs.

And then you waited, to see if it would be wise to keep talking. You gauged my lack of reaction and took my silence as a yes.

At first you talked slowly and gingerly. You started by mentioning the pain in your stomach, and casually hinted that it could mean something more serious. And that you could get it checked out to get an expert’s opinion, but you’re too scared to. You listed all of the reasons why you shouldn’t go: you’re afraid of pain, there’s COVID everywhere, it would be too expensive, and where would you go anyway? To the hospital? A clinic? A lab? Right then, you felt satisfied with winning the debate with yourself, and you enjoyed the moment of settledness that came with a temporary decision.

You stopped to take a breath. But you didn’t wait for another green light to keep talking. By then you’d figured that speed was the best strategy.

So you talked rapidly. You let it pour: you’ve been holding in a terrible toothache. It all started that day when you cracked a handful of peanut shells with your teeth. The peanuts were going bad, so you wanted to finish them quickly. You’ve been trying to hide it, avoiding hard foods and chewing with the other side. Until my sister noticed your funny chewing and took you to a dentist. The dentist was further in the city, it took almost an hour to get there by bus. You kind of enjoyed the ride though, it’s been a while since you’ve been among people. The dentist was a friend of my sister’s and she gave you a 20% discount to remove your tooth. And then you reenacted a conversation between the dentist and my sister. You beamed as you thought about the dentist, how pretty she was, how clean her clinic was, and how new her machines were. And you, of all people, got luxury treatment there at 20% off.

“Ah, imaging,” you said, “that’s what the dentist called it when she scanned my teeth. I should go to an imaging centre to get my stomach checked out.” You felt smart from the connection you’d just made, all thanks to your new dentist friend.

And just like that, you resurrected an old debate: but still it would be expensive to get it checked out. Medical bills, too many medical bills! You half chuckled at what a joke life was to you: more than sixty years of selfless hard work in order to provide for family. You reminisced and lamented, all at the same time.

“Sixty years later, you’re all by yourself and it’s still about survival, isn’t it.”

Maybe you’d been talking so quickly that this thought, usually nestled in your head and closed from the world, fell from your mouth when you least expected. Like an old, chipped tooth.

“Mama! Mama!” Your little grandson tugged at the foot of my dress, wanting to be lifted. You’re delighted at the sight of him. He’s almost two years old and you’d only ever seen him through a screen. You imagined his squishy cheeks between your fingers, the weight of his little body on your lap, and the warmth of his head resting on your chest. If only you could touch him. Your grandson smiled and bared his tiny teeth. The little white things that protruded out of his little pink gums brought you a lot of joy, it made you laugh, and it all came from your heart.

And then you burped.

“Oh that felt good!” You said the bubble’s been stuck there for days, and it’s been pushing against your chest. And that’s what’s been causing you pain where your heart is.

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