First published in The Jakarta Post, Sunday, July 17, 2005
THE PRICE OF LIFE-LONG LOYALTY
A Short Story by Alpha Amirrachman
"Please work for us, Mbak. We would like you to take care of our children." That's what Syarif had said to her, oh-so many years ago.
Jami closed her eyes, biting her lips hard. Her tears had dried up, leaving behind loneliness to anguish her.
There should be no regret, as her fate had willed it to be this way. However, as she struggled to accept the fact that she was no longer of use, she still felt bitter, as poor as a church mouse. It was hard indeed, so reminiscing seemed to be the only thing she could do to kill the time as she waited for her final breath, which would come anyway, sooner or later.
Now she was a fragile old woman. All her hair had gone gray, her body had shrunk considerably until she was nearly a skeleton because of a series of illnesses, including a stroke. Although not a big one, it was more than enough to sap all the strength she had. While she still had her memory to at least recall some momentous events in her life, she was so physically weak that she lay virtually motionless on the small bed in her room, assisted by a young maid. It was ironic, she though, since she was herself a maid!
Syarif's two children were now grown up; they were no longer cute little spoiled kids. Nurafni, the eldest, just got married recently, so she no longer lived in the house. Rambe, the youngest, was in the final year of university. Studying law to pursue his ambition to become a lawyer, he had almost no free time -- even for a short conversation with Jami. Awfully preoccupied with his university assignments, most of his time at home was spent knuckling down, typing with his eyebrows furrowed at his computer or reading books and reports, often until late at night. His spare time, he spent chatting and chuckling with his girlfriend, when she came to visit and watch TV or have dinner together. Their loud bursts of laughter were often heard throughout the house. Well, at least he sometimes said, "Hi, Mbok" to Jami. Sometimes.
"I've been with them for two generations," Jami murmured to herself, her eyes staring at the gray ceiling. Yes, she had been the one who baby-sat Syarif, all the way from when he was a toddler to the adult he'd become.
Jami originally came from a small village in Ngawi, East Java. She was about to get married when a neighbor persuaded her to work for a newly married couple in Jakarta. She left her frustrated boyfriend, a peasant whom she had never loved, to take the chance.
And she loved the job -- she loved the family and their blue-eyed-son, Syarif. "A smart boy," Jami had whispered to herself, smiling.
But life had become difficult for the couple. The husband's career shattered into pieces when he was made a scapegoat during a legal battle between his company and another. He was thrown behind bars for four years. The worst hurt came when his wife asked for a divorce.
In fact, Jami had already smelled the rat -- that Syarif's mother had double-crossed his father -- but she was too scared or too uncertain about it that she never mentioned it to anybody. She was likewise afraid of interfering with the family's personal affairs.
Custody for Syarif was finally awarded to his father, perhaps as compensation for the betrayal of his mother, who ran off with another man after the forced agreement to a divorce. Worrying that losing his mother might psychologically disrupt Syarif's development, soon after his release from jail, his father married another woman in what it seemed a rush.
Jami steadfastly stood by the family, although her pay was stalled during this difficult time.
If Jami had not been there, Syarif would probably have suffered from an acute mental breakdown. It was Jami who, with infinite patience and care, put Syarif's broken heart back together and turned him into an intelligent and confident young man.
On the surface, Syarif's relationship with his stepmother seemed smooth, but Jami knew that there was no genuine love ever nurtured between them. It was Jami who showered Syarif with unconditional love, tenderness and attention. In almost every principle aspect of parenthood, she became Syarif's true mother.
Perhaps it was thus natural that young Syarif was conscientious where she was concerned, always worrying when Jami fell ill. Once, when she had fainted while Syarif's parents were at work, he immediately broke open his piggy bank and took Jami by becak, hugging her and sobbing, to a nearby community health center. "Mbak... I don't want you to die. Please wake up...,"she had heard his tearful voice through her stupor.
Jami had never even finished elementary school, but she realized that education was immensely important and she pushed Syarif to study hard. Though she was unable to check his homework, Jami set a tough schedule for Syarif to study everyday.
The careful discipline turned out to be fruitful. Jami, along with Syarif's parents, attended Syarif's graduation ceremony when he achieved his Bachelor's at one of the most prestigious state universities in the country. She could not hold back her tears at Syarif gracefully receiving his degree in economics.
"He is my son, I wish."
And when Syarif won a scholarship to study in the U.S. for two years for a Master's, Jami recited the Holy Koran and woke up almost every night to say the tahajud, a highly rewarded evening prayer, for his safety and success.
Syarif had even introduced his fiancee to Jami first, not to his stepmother. It was Jami who gave the blessing for Syarif's marriage. Jami herself fell in love with the woman at first sight, whom she saw was a modest and intelligent young woman who possessed an indescribable inner beauty. And she knew Syarif had fallen head over heels in love with this woman.
So when Syarif had asked her to live with the newlyweds, Jami didn't think twice about accepting the offer -- particularly as, after his father's death, Syarif's stepmother seemed to prefer living alone.
Syarif's career as a business consultant also skyrocketed; perhaps God had heard every tahajud Jami had said.
Jami burned her candle at both ends to raise Syarif's children. She fed them and took them to school. It was a tiring but rewarding time for her.
But with old age snapping at her heels, she felt increasingly weak. She suddenly realized that she was no longer as strong a woman as she used to be.
Besides, although the mother was busy with her career as a dentist, she was always able to manage to spend time with the children. At night, she read bedtime stories for the children, who would listen to her with their eyes bright. And when they were older, she regularly checked on their homework and was strict about teaching them how to recite the Koran and to pray. On the weekends, both parents spent virtually every single minute they had with the kids.
Jami felt increasingly useless when they hired two other maids to help her with the housework and to care for the kids. Worse still, she was confined to a hospital bed several times because of many complicated illnesses. Deep in her heart, her guilt and shame wracking her badly, because she had not only become futile, but she had also become an undue burden on the family.
Syarif and his wife were, nevertheless, patient with her and never had the slightest intention to release her.
"You are the well-spring of our strength. You must always be with us." This is what the couple -- who visited her regularly in her room every other night -- always said, aware of her bitterness.
Besides, she had nowhere else to go. All her sisters had died, and while she had other relatives, they had never made themselves known to her side of the family.
The children were well-mannered, although a bit distant, Jami always felt. They were not like their father, who was compassionate and attentive to her. Nurafni seemed smarter and more considerate than Rambe, but both had something in common: As soon as they grew up and became busy with their lives, they began to ignore Jami.
"They have a wonderful family with a perfect mother," Jami sighed, a deep sigh of mixed feelings. "They aren't to blame, I should instead be grateful that they were raised in such a loving family." Then she smiled proudly, a little arrogantly. "I was the one who blessed Syarif's marriage. They might not need me any longer, but I did the right thing."
She squeezed her eyes closed, trying to take a nap, but she never could. Her lunch, which had been prepared by the young maid and sat on the small corner table, was now cold.
The young maid, had tried to get Jami to eat her lunch, but to no avail, and she left the room in frustration as Jami continued to shake her head, her mouth pressed tightly shut.
-- Jakarta, June 27 2005.
Mbak -- sister becak -- rickshaw Mbok -- mother
Short stories by the same author have been published previously in the 1980s, in the now defunct Senang magazine.