Thursday, 23 October 2014

Between Lives

I’m wedged against the corner by a flabby middle-aged woman and a scrawny old man. Her bare arm, damp and pallid, quivers gently, as if resonating. The old man stares hypnotically at the digital display. It jumps from 12 to 15, skipping the unlucky 13 and 14, as it did earlier to four. They both breathe with a shallow hiss, bizarrely synchronised.
Ding! Seventeenth Floor, an irksome robotic voice announces in English and Cantonese. The door opens.
“Excuse me,” I try to find the path of least resistance through them. They ignore me and push silently towards the opening instead. Looks like they are actually together, probably father and daughter, visiting her dying mother. The female geriatric ward is full of dying mothers. Come to think of it, 17th is actually 14th, after adjusting for the missing 4th, 13th and 14th floors. They can fool numerology but not structural reality, and the embedded curse.

They turn left. I turn right, and nod to the duty nurse in passing, again. She’s starting to look at me suspiciously. I don’t blame her, but can’t make myself explain why I’ve been coming in and going out every ten minutes today. I head straight to Room 1704. They haven’t weeded out inauspicious room numbers, an odd administrative inconsistency I think. In the past four days, it’s been fully occupied by the same six patients. Four of them, including Ah Mah, are semi-comatose, similarly hooked up to waste collection bags and monitors. 
Two are conscious. One has an oxygen mask which she puts on and takes off incessantly. The other lady has no visitors. She mumbles to herself all day, mostly belligerent monologues.
Their collective whiff greets me at the door: drugs, urine, faeces, the raw stench of old age and sickness, sanitised death. The late afternoon sun has cast beautiful golden shadows between their beds. 
Ah Mah’s inanimate form, covered by a blanket, breathing noisily, mouth slightly open, eyes closed, sunken, is becoming familiar and surreal after four days. Is her condition steady? Greyish flakes of dried saliva have formed around her mouth. I wet some tissues with the drinking bottle and wipe carefully, hoping her desiccated lips would soak it up. I glance at my watch, and immediately feel guilty about noting that two minutes have passed, only eight more to go.

“She’s OK lah! Ho Ho Ah! Anytime now, just like five minutes ago! God, you can be tiresome sometimes.” I snapped, annoyed, as I was about to leave her with the carer I hired since her first stroke two years ago. Work was troubling. Sue actually wasn’t feeling well, and Ah Mah was more seriously repetitious than usual. Perhaps her mind was already wavering, showing signs, but. . . how was I to know?
She giggled soundlessly from her wheelchair, goggling me with rheumy eyes, as if greatly amused by my irritation. I was suddenly flushed with anger.
“Bye! See you next week,” I said, one foot out of the door already, then sighed as loud as I could. That was the last thing I said to her. 
The following afternoon, it’s now four days ago, another stroke sent her back to the hospital. By the time I hurried here, she was in her present condition, noisily drawing air in irregular doses. 
It’s easy to be trapped by guilt isn’t it? But after two years of watching her slipping into a different persona, my patience was running thin. She had asked me how Sue was, no less than four five times during my one hour visit. When she asked again before my departure, I suppose I could have found it comical, or sad, if I were more detached. But she’s my mother. I found it annoying, maddening, instead. Was it wrong? or inevitable? I don’t know. Oh well, this is not the time to philosophise. It’d be nice if my last words to her were kind ones though. 
Perhaps I have not spoken my last words with her yet? She might still recover, like last time? The doctor has warned me to be prepared. “It could be anytime now,” he said, as a matter of fact, clinically assuring, as if I had been waiting anxiously for her to die. But doctors are often wrong aren’t they? They know much less about the human body than mechanics do about cars, but they look more confident, and charge a lot more.
Five minutes have passed. 
According to the monitor, she’s still providing input, therefore alive. I don’t need it to tell me; I can hear her bubbly breaths. Her heavy-duty lungs are still pumping dutifully, even desperately, now that the rest of her seems to be giving up.

“I’m a hawker! I need strong lungs!” She yelled when we complained about her talking too loud. “So you two can go to school to learn English and be rich!”
“Ah Mah! No need to scream lah! We don’t just learn English at school, and learning English won’t make us rich.” I found her awkward even when we were alone. 
“You stupid or something? In Hong Kong, you can steal and cheat and be respected if you wear tie and suit and speak English. Otherwise, you work like me and people laugh. You go study, NOW!” She never taught us anything more than “go study NOW!” Talking back would have invited a smack over the head, or tearful wailing, or both. Ah Mah was strong like an ox, probably tougher. After giving us a good beating, she would cry big time, giant teardrops would roll off her rugged face. “What have I done wrong? What have I done wrong to have such heartless kids? Sae Zai! Mo Sum Gonne!” 
The only time she wept like a woman was when I got admitted to Hong Kong University. When I told her, she collapsed into a squat and wept for a good five minutes, face buried between knees. I got so confused I squatted next to her and cried a little too.
I hated languages. I loved math, which introduced me to computers. But I’m glad I obeyed. Languages turned out to be critical in running my small consultancy now. My brother John never talked back to Ah Mah. He was constantly lost in thoughts, probably planning his escape already. The last time I heard, he was living in Chicago, making loads of money as a trader with Goldman Sachs, wearing a suit, speaking English, trading nothing. Ah Mah was right.
Ah Bah was in construction. He died from a work accident when I was too young to remember. Back then, if you died on site, your name got struck off the payroll, that was all. We lived in a hillside squatter hut in Western, so rent was not a problem. Ah Mah hawked vegetables until the early 1970s. Without a fixed stall, she got up before four every morning to get her stocks from the outlet, then carried two big baskets of vegetables on a bamboo pole, bouncing on shoulder, up Mid-levels. The one-sided toil might have been responsible for her asymmetrical deformity at old age.
She walked from one end of Robinson Road to the next, then up Conduit Road, hollering yao sun sin gua choy eh! — here’s fresh squash and vegetables eh! — every fifty metres or so. The entire neighbourhood could hear her. Housewives and servants would come down for bak choy, dong gua, hong luo bak. They called her Choy Po — Veggie Woman. They didn’t normally bargain, but would snatch a big handful of freebie green onion to feel better about the deal. Kids sometimes hollered back yao sun sin gua choy eh! to make fun. During school holidays, John and I had to assist her sometimes. I was embarrassed by her screaming, and her rough elephantine feet. John was bitterly ashamed, and never talked to customers or looked them in the eye. He silently loathed us for being the miserable lot that we were. He wanted nothing to do with us, I now realise.
When the market no longer had room for hawkers, she found a job with a small cafe, squatting in the back alley to wash dishes. In her non-existent spare time, she salvaged tin cans and waste paper.
After all these years, I can still summon her advertising bellows in my head in high fidelity.
Her elephantine feet have puffed up to grotesque proportions since confined to wheelchair. I squeeze them gently through the blanket before getting up. It’s been twelve minutes.

The elevator system has a logic of its own. There’s no direct connection between 3rd and 17th. I have to change lift at the lobby.
The third-floor duty nurse pays me no attention. I turn left, pass the big sign “Private Ward Patients and Visitors Only”, and head to Room 303. Everything: food, consultation fees, drugs, sanitary napkins, bandages, Q-tips, costs five times more here than 17th floor, guaranteed by credit card upon admittance. This is a private hospital, run by the Church. I thought about moving Ah Mah to a private room as well, but there’s no way of knowing how long she might stay. If it turns out to be long-term, I would have a tough time affording it.
Sue’s on all fours in bed, taking deep breaths. 
“You’re okay honey?”
“I’m fine. How’s Ah Mah? ”
“Same. The doctor said — ” The nurse rushes in with Doctor Cheng. They both give me a friendly smile. The doctor approaches Sue: “How’s it going?”
“Okay. Painful contractions but that’s normal right?”
“Well, you’re dilating very slowly. Perhaps we should set up epidural.”
“It’s only been two hours Doctor,” says Sue, looking up defiantly from her doggie pose.
“Nearly three,” corrects the nurse.
Sue responds with a “whatever” breath.
“No, we’re not rushing you. It’s your decision, of course. We fully support natural birth here. Just don’t want to stress the baby.”
“I know. Thank you Doctor. I want to try.”
“Sure,” Doctor Cheng says, with a touch of grumpiness in his tone. “It’s your decision,” he repeats.
“Let’s take another look,” says the nurse, putting on her gloves. Sue assumes her examination posture.
“Hmm. Still about 3cm, at most 4,” she says, unenthusiastic. “Keep breathing darling. I’ll be back.”
Doctor Cheng and the nurse nod to me before taking leave. They have other things to do.
“Sure you don’t want epidural? Maybe the doctor’s right. It won’t hurt to be ready.”
“He just wants me done with before dinner time.”
“Now, that’s cynical,” I say, smiling. If I were the doctor, I’d probably want my day done before dinner time too. “What about the baby? This is stressful for him, no?” Just like the doctor, I focus on the baby. Sue doesn’t matter to herself right now.
“It’s only been two hours, and I’m nearly half dilated. We’re fine. They just want to speed up so they can go home.” Sue pauses for a few deep breaths before continuing. “We’ve discussed this for six months. Let’s not change our minds now.”
“No we won’t. It’s your decision,” I say, sounding like Doctor Cheng.
“Our decision.”
It was. But I could not foresee having to deal with Ah Mah being in critical condition at the same time. All day long, I can’t suppress the absurdly disastrous thought of losing all of them in the same building, on the same day. Though fit and determined, Sue’s after all thirty-eight, giving birth for the first time. Natural birth must have been designed with much younger women in mind. I don’t have the stomach to risk anything right now, but. . . “Yes, our decision,” I agree.

It’s nearly nine. I’ve just ordered a bowl of wonton mien at a nearby noodle shop when my mobile phone rings. “Mr. Chiu? We’re calling from the hospital. Can you come as a matter of urgency?” 
“Okay!” I hang up and pay, then realise I forgot to ask for whom I must rush. From the morbid tone, I guess it’s Ah Mah.  
On entering the lobby, I decide to first check things out at third floor. 
Sue’s not in her room. I jog to the duty counter. “My wife’s not there!” I ask, panting. 
“Room 303? She’s just been transferred to the delivery room,” says the nurse, looking up from a pile of charts.
“Where is it?”
“Straight down, to your right. Room Two.”
I start to run, then pause and turn to ask: “Did you call?”
“Me? Nope!”
“Shit!” I backtrack towards the lifts. After pressing the button, I change my mind and sprint to the delivery room. Now that I’m here, I must see Sue first. A few minutes won’t make any difference.

The nurse and Doctor Cheng are dressed in aprons and gum boots, as if working in the fish market.
“Honey, you’re okay?” 
“Now that you’re here.” She smiles with a grimace, then holds out her hand. I clasp it firmly with both mine.
“Did you call me?” I ask the nurse, hoping for an affirmative answer.
“Anyone called me just now?”
“We don’t call husbands for delivery. They’re supposed to be here all the time you know, plus we don’t want to cause traffic accidents,” she winks and smiles through her mask.
“How long will this take?” I turn to the doctor. 
“Ask your wife,” he says kindly, walking towards Sue, a probe in hand. “Now, just be calm and patient. Your wife and baby need your support. The baby’s not properly descended yet. Maybe the umbilical cord’s around his neck.”

Ah Mah’s crusted lips are parted slightly. Her strong lungs have finally quieted down. The monitor’s off. The curtains around her bed have been drawn. It’s dark in here. And chilly.
It’s only us two now. Hasn’t it always been? 
I guess I might have wished to call or text a few friends or relatives: “Ah Mah left peacefully tonight around 9:30. I’m okay.” But there’s no one I want to tell right now, not even Sue. And I don’t know John’s number.
I give her giant feet under the blanket a little squeeze, then whisper: “Bye, Ah Mah.  I’m sor…”
The nurse told me Ah Mah had suddenly screamed something unintelligible. It sounded like sun sin eh!  After letting out the scream, her breathing and heartbeat plummeted. The nurse called me after alerting the doctor. “It would have been too late even if you could get here in ten minutes anyways,” she comforted me. “Po Po left peacefully.” I think it was a standard thing to say to relatives who did not show up in time. 
I wanted to thank her, but my throat was locked. I nodded. I could have been here in less than five minutes, but couldn’t.
Ah Mah, the grandson you’ve been waiting for so anxiously has arrived. 
Under normal circumstances, I might have called or texted friends and relatives also: “Hey, guess what! I’m a father! Sue and the big guy are OK! Send you pix later!” 
But I don’t feel like doing that either.

James  Tam

12 Oct 2014


Alice M said...

I loved reading your short story James! True enough docs and midwives are indeed dressed like fishmongers.

Alice M said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
James Tam 谭炳昌 (过渡) said...

Thanks Alice! The comment appeared twice due to Goggle Stutter so I removed one :-)