Thursday 23 October 2014

Between Lives

Ding! Seventeenth Floor,” the elevator announces in its cloying robotic voice, after having skipped all the inauspicious numbers in Chinese and Western superstitions. 
“Excuse me,” I force through the sombre crowd, most of them absorbed in their phones, unwilling to move, oblivious to my impatient elbows.
Every time I step into the lobby of the female geriatric ward, I feel instantly depressed by the morbidity in the air. 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, or the embedded curse.
I nod to the duty nurse in passing, again. She’s starting to look curious. I’ve been coming in and going out every ten minutes today. I head straight to Room 1704. For some reason, they have not deleted inauspicious room numbers as well. For the past four days, the room’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.
The other two are conscious. One has an oxygen mask which she puts on and takes off incessantly. The other mumbles to herself a lot, mostly belligerent monologues. Ironically, both don’t seem to have visitors.
A 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 immobile 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 will soak it up. I glance at my watch, but immediately feel guilty for noting that only two minutes have passed — eight more to go.

“She’s OK lah! Ho Ho Ah! Anytime now, just like five minutes ago!” I snapped, annoyed, as I was about to leave Ah Mah with the carer I hired after her first stroke two years ago. Work had been troubling. Sue actually wasn’t feeling well, and Ah Mah had been more repetitious than usual. Perhaps her mind was already wavering, showing signs, but. . . how was I to know? I loved my mother very dearly, but often had difficulties showing it face to face with her. She had sacrificed and suffered greatly to make me and my brother what we were — nearly opposite to what she was.
She giggled soundlessly from her wheelchair, goggling me with rheumy eyes, as if hugely amused by my irritation. Her carer, a gentle Pilipino lady with a nursing background and a couple dozens of essential Cantonese phrases, smiled at me, holding Ah Mah’s hand, wondering what was going on. I returned an edgy smile. 
“Bye! See you next week,” I said, one foot out of the door, then sighed as loud as I could. That was the last thing I said to her. 
The following afternoon, now four days ago, another stroke sent her back to the hospital. By the time I hurried there, she was already unconscious, 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 asked me how Sue was four five times during my one hour visit. When she asked again as I left, 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. I wonder how many filial sons or daughters can remain infinitely gracious with parents invalided by a long term illness. Oh well, this isn’t the time to philosophise, or look for excuses. I just wish that my last words to her had been kind ones.
Perhaps I still might get the chance? 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, clinical and assuring, as if telling me to get ready for an awaited moment. But doctors are often wrong aren’t they? They know much less about the human body than mechanics do about cars, just that they have clean fingers, look absolutely confident, and charge more.
Five minutes have passed. 
The monitor’s digital display fluctuates calmly, unperturbed by her bubbly breathing. Her heavy-duty lungs are still pumping dutifully, even desperately, now that the rest of her seems about to give up.

“I’m a hawker! I need strong lungs!” She yelled whenever we asked her to lower her voice. “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 sometimes found her embarrassing 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 the news, she collapsed into a squat and wept for a good five minutes, face buried between knees. I had never seen her like this before. I squatted next to her and watched quietly — puzzled, excited, and a little sad.
I hated languages. I loved math, which introduced me to computers. But I’m glad I obeyed Ah Mah; English turned out to be critical in running my small consultancy now. My brother John never talked back to her. He was always lost in thoughts. 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 a construction worker. He died from an accident when I was too young to remember. From bits and pieces of impassive anecdotes I subsequently heard from Ah Mah, she didn’t know the details either. “What difference does it make? They said he carelessly fell from great height, but luckily didn’t hurt anyone else or cause damage.” Back then, if someone died on site, the company will ceremoniously scatter Hell Bank Notes worth hundreds of billions in afterlife currency to encourage his aggrieved soul to move on peacefully to the netherworld without causing trouble. Then his name will be deleted from payroll. Luckily, we lived in a hillside squatter hut, so rent was not a problem.
    Ah Mah had been hawking vegetables for years. After Ah Bah’s careless death, it became the sole source of income for our remaining family of three. Without a fixed stall, she had to rise before four each morning to get her stocks from the outlet, then carry them in two big baskets on a bamboo pole, bouncing on shoulder, up Mid-levels. The one-sided toil probably explains her asymmetric stooping in old age. 
   Unless stopped by bad weather, she would walk the entire length of Robinson Road, then up Conduit Road everyday, 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, guided by her voice, would come down from their apartments to buy bak choy, dong gua, hong luo bak. They called her Choy Po — Veggie Woman. They didn’t normally bargain, but would complain about the price and snatch a handful of freebie green onion to feel better about the deal. Kids sometimes hollered back yao sun sin gua choy eh! in a funny voice for amusement. During school holidays, John and I were often asked to assist. I was ashamed of her screaming and rough bare feet. John never talked to the customers or looked them in the eye. Now I know he secretly loathed us for the miserable lot that we were. He wanted nothing to do with us, and couldn’t wait to escape. 
   By the early seventies, the market no longer had room for hawkers. She found a job with a small cafe in Wanchai, squatting in the back alley to wash dishes for long hours. In her non-existent “spare time”, stolen from sleep, she salvaged tin cans and waste paper.
   Her elephantine feet have puffed up to grotesque proportions since she became confined to a wheelchair. I pat them gently before getting up to go. Even under the blanket, they feel rough and stiff.
   It’s been twelve minutes.

The elevator system has a logic of its own. There’s no direct connection between the 3rd and 17th floors. I have to change at the lobby.
The third-floor duty nurse pays me no attention. I turn left, pass the prominent 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, operated by the Church, driven by profit. 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?”
“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, in case you need caesarian?”
“It’s only been two hours Doctor.” Sue looks up defiantly from her doggie pose.
“Nearly three,” corrects the nurse.
Sue responds with a “whatever” exhale.
“We’re not rushing you. 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, a hint of resignation in his voice. “It’s your decision,” he repeats.
“Let’s take another look,” says the nurse, putting on her gloves. Sue assumes her examination posture.
“Hmm. Better, about four cm.” She encourages unenthusiastically. “Keep breathing darling. I’ll be back.”
Doctor Cheng and the nurse nod to me and leave.
“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 the same. “What about the baby? This is stressful for him, no?” Just like the doctor, I focus on the baby. Sue doesn’t seem to 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 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 couldn’t foresee having to deal with Ah Mah lying upstairs in critical condition at the same time. All day long, I can’t suppress the trepidation of losing all of them in the same building, on the same day. Though fit and determined, Sue’s after all thirty-six, giving birth for the first time. Although many career women become first-time mother at this age nowadays, most of them opt for caesarian, clean and predictable, an event which they schedule between important board meetings. Plus natural birth must have been designed with younger women in mind. I simply don’t have the stomach to risk anything right now, however. . . “Yes, our decision,” I agree.
“Why don’t you go eat. You haven’t eaten all day.”
“I’m not hungry.” In fact I am.
“I’m okay for a while. No point sitting there to watch me breathe. Come on, you love that noodle shop in the next block”

It’s nearly nine. I’ve just ordered a bowl of wonton mien when my phone rings. “Mr. Chiu? We’re calling from the hospital. Can you come as soon as possible?” 
“Okay!” I hang up and pay, then realise I’ve forgotten to ask for whom I must rush. From her morbid voice, 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!”
“Room 303? She’s just been transferred to the delivery room.” The nurse looks up from a pile of charts. I’m panting.
“Where is it?”
“Straight down, to your right. Room Two.”
“Thanks!” 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 again. 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 in the fish market.
“Honey, you’re okay?” 
“Now that you’re here.” She grimaces and holds out her hand. I clasp it 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 grins 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. “Just be calm and patient. Your wife and baby need your support.”

I’m the only one in the elevator this time. I rush out before the door is fully open. 
The night shift nurse gets up from her seat. “Mr. Chiu?”
“Yes. You called me?”
“My colleague did.” She walks around the counter to stand in front of me. “I’m sorry to tell you that Po Po departed peacefully after we called. The doctor just left a few minutes ago.” 
I nod, staring blankly at her for a moment. Expected news can still shock deeply.
Po Po cried out very loud earlier, something like sun sin eh! We thought she had woken up, and rushed to her. But her heart rate had plummeted. We called the doctor then you right away.”
I nod again. My throat is tight.
“It was quick and painless,” she adds kindly. “It would have been too late even if you’d made it in ten minutes.”
I could have been here in less than five, instead of forty.
“Thank you nurse.” Tears flow as soon as I open my mouth. I look away to regain composure.
“Can I see her?” 
“Yes, of course, just go ahead. I’m sorry.”
I force a thankful smile.

Ah Mah’s crusted lips are parted. Her strong lungs have finally quieted down. The monitor’s off, disconnected, pushed aside. The curtains around her bed have been drawn. Her roommates are dead silent. Only us two now. Hasn’t it always been, until I too abandoned her? 
It’s dim in here, and a little chilly.
Her body seems to have shrunk. Her giant feet look more out of proportion than usual under the blanket. I pat them gently. They had carried her through a tough journey, helped her raise two sons to be different, so different that they find her embarrassing, an awkward reminder of a past they wish to forget.
A few days ago, I found her near manic anticipation of a grandson exasperating. Now I’d give anything to unwind an hour of misplaced time, so she could at least hear the good news. She had not had many good news in her life. 
I kneel down and whisper to her ears: “Ah Mah, your grandson has arrived. A big boy. Over eight pounds. You should have heard him scream. The doctor said he has super strong lungs…”

First Published Oct 2014 on Guo Du
Revised August 2014 with editorial input from

E. Price and J. Wallace


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 :-)