An ironic moment for life

On the 2nd Day of Chinese New Year 2004, I had to take a turn in to Old Klang Road from Grandad's place to pick up the most senior of my dad's sisters as I promised her a ride to University Hospital. My mom told her that I would take her cause she knew that I wouldn't mind at all doing such a favour.

My uncle CC was diagnosed with reoccuring olfactory cancer. His right eye has permanently lost it's function and he has become very disorientated ever since. The trouble with Uncle CC is that he is quite a 'pain in the ass'. He loves to fiddle with things come up with limited topics that no one but him is interested in, so much so he scares people away & he's got no friends because so. The whole family really did not bother about him so he was left alone most of the time to entertain himself. For the reason that he is unemployed, my cousins and aunt supply him with sufficient cash...and yet he'd take a taxi all the way to distant places and spend it on food and 4D. Send him of for a holiday, he'll come back by himself the next day and say he didn't enjoy himself. My aunt and cousins' couldn't take his childish attitude most of the time and would errrr...scold him and then mumble to the rest of the family.

Opinions changed today when I saw him lying on a bed in the Oncology ward. Disorientated, clutching my aunt's hand. Being a very emotional person, I teared besides being bothered that I had dressed for CNY and my mascara would run. So I went over and asked him "Do you recognise me?". He mistook me for his daughter-in-law. Not really interested. I caught his hand and held it tighly and moved my thumb round to sort of tell him. "Even though you can't remember, I'm here and I care."

The patient opposite my uncle seemed quite sane. Introduced himself as Prem Kamar. He may have been delusional but then still looks fit. A high positioned Standard Chartered person, a movie star and ran his own film company. Good health until he got involved in a two people argument age and accidently hit his back damaging his whole spine. He told me,

"Life is funny, all I ask from God is a heart attack *boom* and I'm gone. But he must have mistaken 'Prem Kumar" for me. The poor feller. I was healthy, yes I was, but then something happens to you and you need good children to look after you."

So then, you do need children...

And he goes on telling me... "Anyway young lady, whatever you do, please don't get involved as a 3rd party in an argument. See me? I'm suffering."

It's ironic. Derek, his son, is currently facing arguments with his wife, my aunt getting involved as a 3rd party and tough decisions on how to deal with after he has been discharged- nursing home and let him create havoc with other residents? bring him back, maybe not cause he was so disorientated he nearly dipped the fan plug into ice water complaining it wasn't breezy enough? The medical people even recommended the physchiatric ward.

Ironic....I'm being reminded all over again of how it was to be in the hospital environment.

And just yesterday, dad was distributing my short story I wrote in the event of a passing fragile life. Yeah it made all my aunts cry. I'll end this entry with the story I wrote for my Grandad who suffered from respiratory problems, heart attack and stroke. Some of you may have read it, some of you, maybe no...This is for all out there who are suffering on a linen white bed.

White Life

A blank, near-colourless liquid finds its way through the hollow. Traversing miles measured in centimetres, breathing bubbles occasionally, moving under the influence of pressure. The flow is expressed yet deathly silent. It’s origin, a large sachet which has been exceedingly masked by a label perfectly understood only by the very few who see this waterfall and stream on a daily basis. The single channelled river eventually flows into a vast ocean of fine blue threads. What united them, a skeletal strait of specialised compounds with a single cavernous void held by layers of paper-thin adhesive.

Again, he is at the clemency of white surroundings, his flesh, seemed to camouflage with the environment. The only colours, from the petal fresh flowers including the luminance of the fair-haired rays were not influential enough to battle the blank mood. I sat at the edge of the bed we had requested for the private nurse. Tucking my cold-blooded hands underneath my rump to seek searing heat but to no avail. My toes were exposed to the sub-zero ventilation. If they had voices, they would shriek until the frozen straps of my sandals fracture like the slide of a microscope put under slight stress.

“11:53 pm” blushed the cherry digits, every half of two seconds. Unconsciously, time accelerated. A soft moan came from the partially elevated bed. He was half dazed by his last attack, nevertheless, he had so much energy left in him to look up and pushed the side of his wrinkled cheeks to smile. My limited vocabulary of my mother tongue etched out more vapour in the planes of air rather than imparting how uncertain and vexed I was about the whole situation. He just nodded his head and even though his arms were fragilely chained to cords of life support, he flashed a thumb up sign to keep us happy.

“Don’t let him see you cry. It’ll signal to him that something bad to him is about to happen.” wavered my aunt. Releasing salted fluid only to the rim of my lashes, it was no equal return for the blameless beam on grandfather’s face. Compare the emotional make-up of a fourteen-year old to that of an eighty-six. Watching him smile with some display of incomplete chewing tools made me feel ashamed to say I was strong enough to hold back tears.

The door slammed loudly in the quiet 4th floor hallway. My cousins all more than 5 years older than me disturbed the continuous silence. Their loud dialogues repeated until my swollen eyes came to their view.

I went to seek comfort with my cousin Jaime, hugging her chubby body for warmth and reassurance. “Girl, Yeh-yeh will be fine. Cheer up. Look up, smile.” My other cousin, RenĂ© numbly handed me a crumple tissue from the bowels of her pocket.

Finance never seemed to be a problem to my family. My grandfather had everything a sick man could make use of. Private nurses 24 hours a day, a personal cook, wheelchairs, specialised hospital furniture, temperature-controlled room; he would obviously be very well taken care of. What blurred our outlook was the responsibility of watching over my grandfather, even for a family of 5 aunts, 4 uncles and 11 cousins. My parents were to uptake that task, as both of them have been living with him even before I was born. Day, night, whatever the hour was named as long as his ailing health begged for relief from pain they would be there.

Sometimes I would return home from school to see him sitting in front of the large 61 inch TV enjoying Chinese opera from the same VCD. Those times he would be wearing the thin button up shirts me and my sister presented to him for his past birthdays while the private nurse poured digestible liquids through a tube fixed to his wrinkly torso. A sign that he’s alright.

If I came home with only one of the two maids left to greet me and watch the house, she would just nod and say with imperfect English peppered with Javanese slang. “Mama, papa all go hospital.” That would leave me instinctively ready to call either one of my parents and enquire the situation. Often they would ask to quickly change out of school wear and ready for departure to the ward-filled building.

Most of my early teenage years that I spent with my family were crammed with the odour of antibiotics and disinfectants. 6-foot oxygen tanks, not shoe racks stood at my front door. Waking up to dark antemeridian hours to find the daylight crowded dwelling empty… so typical.

Being the youngest in the family, after my sister that is, I was constantly shielded from the choices made by the adults for the benefit of him. I had to appear unaware yet smart enough to react to code blue situations. Preferably, I was not allowed to spend too much time beside my coma-ed grandfather whenever he was warded at the intensive care unit.

My whole family weren’t taking the situation to their benefit either. My mother was constantly under pressure and chained to handling her hypothetically sworn duty as a daughter-in-law. She would sit next to me sobbing at times. My father morphed into an unshaven individual leaping the changing stepping-stones of decision-making.

The only one with the positive stance was unpredictably the 88 year-old lying on the mattress. “ Uncle, you’re a fighter, I’ll fight together with you.” Words from one of his doctors who was amazed to witness a the bravery in his combat for life. Maybe because it was my grandfather’s great fear of dying that pushed his will to live. Or it was just in his stubborn nature of not willing to surrender to any situation.

For three and a half years the stroke and heart attacks continued. On the way he developed fluid in lungs and bedsores comparable to wounds attained on the battlefield.

I watched him slowly slip away after that. The 4th of March, a Saturday afternoon marked by the panic echoes of my maid. The reaper beckoned my grandfather from the world and family he loved so much. He took abrupt gasps as I knelt in front of his bed afraid to look up and watch him suffer. “Yeh-yeh wants to see me, I and Ashley are the only grandchildren here.” That’s when I started to look into his watery eyes struggling with the pain. His last three breaths, which I witnessed, had 15-second relays between them.

Being the responsible young adult I was supposed to be, I had to gather my sanity and make phone calls to notify the whole family to gather. My father approached the family altar on all fours and pleaded for the survival of his old man. My sister was still by the bed wailing her lungs at maximum volume.

Observing the madness and havoc that materialised before my prominent senses. Salty tears and mucus stirring within my throat. Heat flushing my body accompanied by flustering sweat. Numbness stung my knees until the crossed vehicle arrived. Most of his children and in-laws surrounded the moving cot ushering him.

The time I looked up watching him take the 15-second breaths was the final period I ever saw him alive. No time to offer my confessions, last words and wish him off his departure. Regret casted its sails within me.

Looking at him rest in his coffin in that white shirt triggered my thoughts about the whole 3 and a half years. So many white objects, flowers, uniforms, beds, food…all inanimate. For that short spell, I was looking at a powdered white face… my immobile grandfather. Yet, the only difference was the smile on his face, cleverly put on by the undertakers who stuffed cotton in the sides of his dried mouth. The same smile that peered from his hospital bed at the beginning of his halved health.

Joss stick ash burned the back of my palm instigating me to react to the minute sting. Reminding me, his suffering has ended. For once, I did not shed salted droplets; instead I returned a sincere beam.

-Yim Meng Lai-
17th June 2002