Wednesday, October 29, 2008

When Perspective Changes

Heard the story of the wife who had a husband who'd always hit her? One day then, the husband got into an industrial accident and lost both of his hands. Funny thing was, the wife loved the husband even more from that day onwards.

Here's her reason. "When I loved that man, it wasn't because of what he could do, rather it was him - what he was, his weaknesses and shortcomings - that I loved and accepted. Now that he couldn't hit me anymore, isn't that a reason lesser to be bitter about, and an extra reason to love him even more?"

It's all about the perspective, isn't it?

Here's another story, again. A continuation of Lollipop Men, a different perspective, a different side of the story. And yes, it isn't a short one, yet it has been carefully written and prepared. Do enjoy it, blessed week ahead.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Christmas' Last Candle

When I heard the voices – laughter, excited chatters – from the bend of the stairs, I knew that hope was still alive. The last 30 flights of stairs were, after all, not wasted.

Being my first time carrying such a heavy load of newspapers up the stairs, partly because there was virtually no one left on the lower floors due to the holiday celebrations, my hands were aching terribly, breath loud and throat choking with sweat. Somehow, there was only one thing left at the back of my mind that kept me through those lonely and unforgiving flights of stairs.

Finally arriving at the door, I yanked the handle. Jingle jingle. The laughter died abruptly, some quiet hushes, footsteps, then the door opened. As usual and as ever, it was Uncle Mike at the door.

“Merry Christmas, Uncle Mike!” I forced a weary smile to hide my desperation and weariness.

“Will you please buy a copy?” Please?

Dark, still and quiet. At 5am in the streets of London, even a mouse’s breathing can be heard without trying too hard. I lit the last remaining candle and placed it behind our dark window. As children, back when mom was still alive, me and Sis would watch her light up a candle and place it behind the window when times were really bad. When we had no money to buy breakfast for the next morning, when dad was trying to get a new job, when the district officers were about to chase us out from our shed.

“The candle reminds us that hope is always alive,” she said while huddling us close under the only blanket left in the house, our eyes still glued to the flickering flame. And every time she said that, her eyes would glitter beautifully.

Many people said Sis had my mom’s beautiful eyes. Sparkling, magical eyes.

And those desolate nights when mom lit those candles, miracles happened. Miracles. A random stranger approaching us with a loaf of warm bread. An unexpected job vacancy in the nearby cement factory. A grace period of 1 year to vacate the area.

The night mom was dying, I ran looking for the candles. Placing the candle on the window, I was about to light it when mom stopped me.

“No,” she said, still wearing that lovely smile of hers. “Keep it for yourselves!” Those were her last few breaths. We got the neighbours to help us call the police and the ambulance to take her away, and the local parish was kind enough to conduct a proper funeral for her.

Many months later, while crossing the road, a reckless drunk driver sped, swerved and hit Sis right at the lower limbs. Crushed and left paralyzed waist down. At the hospital, the NHS were pushing for us to pay up, or else Sis would not receive further treatment. In tears, I ran home and lit up another candle. Not only that, in front of the candle, I kneeled and prayed the only prayer I remember.

“Jesus, give us not what we ask for, but grant us what we truly need.” Sobbing, I added, “Please help Sis. Please.”

Satisfied with the candle now flickering dimly, I walked out of the door, burying my hands beneath the torn jacket I picked up from a recycling centre. Sis was quietly working on her handmade flowers, made from disposed cans. Shriveled legs flowing from a rusty old wheelchair, she looked up and our eyes met. Instinctively, I turned away from her gaze. Not for any other reason, but because her eyes reminded me too much of mom. I’m still afraid of those memories.

“Little boy,” she called out. Such sadness in her tone! How I hated it when Sis spoke with so much sorrow and pain. “Do bring something back for dad.”

Through the glass stained with dirt and time, the sight of dad lying under the thickest available cloth, on the floor, coughing slowly and softly, I walked out into the damp streets of London to find the kind uncle from the bookstore with the bronze horse.

That sentimental bronze horse. My first lollipop, broken and in half, but nevertheless a lollipop still. My first horse ride. With Sis while she still could walk perfectly. How could I forget those beautiful moments? Tearing my eyes away from that bronze horse, squeezing out the memories from my brain, I hugged the stack of newspaper and headed slowly to the apartments.

“Kid,” Uncle Mike said regretfully. “We already bought the papers this morning. Besides, it’s Christmas Eve, you shouldn’t be delivering papers…”

Oh no... I wailed silently. Speak of a nightmare come true.

And earlier while walking out from uncle’s bookstore with the stack of papers, I calculated that if I could sell a dozen copies, I could buy dad an egg. Or if I could sell all the papers, maybe I could get a can of his favourite hickory ham. But now, there really isn’t anything left for dad, is there?

Turning around, the tears began to swell.

God, why?

Little candle, where’s the hope that I need?

“But wait!” came the voice from behind. Aunty Mag’s voice. Always warm, always kind, always full of love. “We’ll be having visitors later, maybe we could do with a few more copies of papers,” and turning to Uncle Mike, “What do you think?”

Uncle Mike raised his eyebrows while Aunty Mag pulled him over and whispered something into his ears. Quickly I wiped my tears. Whatever it was, it must have been good as a smile slowly carved at the edges of his lips. Walking back to me, he asked, “How many copies do you have there, kid?”

50, I replied. Just 12, and I can get dad his favourite hickory ham. He has always wanted hickory ham. That would be the best present I could give to him, ever, in his entire life. Is 12 too many Uncle Mike?

Roaring in laughter, “I’ll take all!”

His reply certainly stunned me. That was by far the single largest transaction of newspaper ever made in my 4 years as a paper boy. Still gripping the stack of papers, it took a while before reality sank in. Before I knew it, Aunty Mag was clearing a corner of the hall for me to put down the newspapers.

Still left in a daze at the overwhelming purchase of newspapers, Uncle Mike grabbed my small hands and slapped a 100 pound bill into my hands.

“But I have no change!” I exclaimed meekly.

“You don’t?” He looked surprised, camouflaged beneath a cheeky smile. Bending down into my ears, he whispered, “Then keep it!”

Looking at the bill in my hands, it was as if as I had struck a jackpot. Overwhelmed for the second time, my heart was now so full of happiness and hope. Not only could I buy dad a hickory ham, I could even buy a whole turkey! A comfortable bed, a warm blanket for dad…

We could get more candles…

“Thank you Uncle Mike!” was all I could say. “Thank you so much!”

The 30 flight of stairs, this time, was so light and so easy. This time I didn’t even have to run back to the bookstore. Uncle Henry promised me that since it was Christmas Eve, I’d get to take back every single penny from the papers.

The market!

People were already rushing back home. The evening sun was setting. Pace quickening, bigger steps, deep down I was praying that the market would still have some cans of hickory ham left. Running along the streets, a quick glance into the windows of the brightly lit houses and there was Mother placing a perfectly roasted turkey on the table under the watchful eyes of Dad and little children. If only Christmas would be something like that.

My steps died in bitterness and agony. The market was already closing. An old man was locking up the gates. After all that had happened in the last few hours, after all the running and hope, how could this happen?

I slowly walked up to the uncle and tugged at his coat. “Uncle, could you please sell me a can of hickory ham?” His face was wrinkled with sorry, and his gentle eyes couldn’t cover the fact that there simply wasn’t any hickory ham left. He pulled out a small can of baked beans from his pocket and handed it to me. Refusing the 100 pound bill from me, he smiled and walked away, leaving me stoned outside the locked gates of the London market.

For the second time, the journey was long and draggy. How could I face a dying man, with just a can of baked beans? What good was the 100 pound now? There were simply no more tears left for a 10 year old boy anymore. Simply none at all. Just a broken heart, a contrite spirit, a defeated soul. So much for kindness, so much for hope, and it all ends with that painful blow of reality. The markets simply wouldn’t wait for you. The cans of hickory ham just wouldn’t stay on top of the shelves for you.

London’s Christmas, isn’t really for the poor and needy.

Just another turn, and I would be back at our shed. Straightening my shirt, forcing a convincingly happy smile again, I was about to walk again when a very faint melody caught my ears.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound!
That saved a wretch like me!

When was the last time I heard an angel singing?

I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind, but now I see!

The voices grew stronger and stronger. Melodious! Sweet choruses! Angelic and heavenly! Dad, oh dad, if only you could hear these voices...

And again the pain struck my heart. Deep and hurting.

“Where is this amazing grace that I need now?” Where is the amazing grace that Dad needs?

Bravely, I picked up from where I stopped and walked home. The corner of the alley was bright and glowing. From afar it looked like our shed was on fire. Strange as it may be, as we had no more candles or sticks left for a fire, our shed was bright again. God knows when was the last time our shed saw light as bright as that.

And the voices, those angelic and beautiful voices, grew stronger at every step I take towards my shed.

Slowly, I realized, there were carolers in our shed. Singing. They must be holding candles.

Uncle Henry was leaning by the wall outside my shed, hands tuck in his pocket. “Hey kid,” he said in his deep husky tone. “Look who’s here.”

I peered inside and saw Uncle Mike and Aunty Mag. Uncle Mike had a roasted turkey in his hands. The same one I saw inside the houses along the streets I was running back from earlier the evening. And Aunty Mag was opening a huge can of hickory ham. There were some other adults that I couldn’t recognize who were fussing over dad. Some gently got him to sit up straight, some wrapped him with warm wool, one even took a bucket of water and washed his hands.

“Hurry!” Uncle Henry said while gently pushing me at the shoulder. “You wouldn’t want to miss the big feast.”

For a while now, with the baked beans in one hand and the 100 pound bill still crumpled in the other, I allowed the unfolding events to dazzle my eyes. How did they know? Was it Uncle Henry? The answers didn't really matter then. There came a very grateful smile, widely curved across my face. The coldness of London’s winter simply couldn’t mask the warmth of the people inside. People I never expected to extend a hand of kindness; people you never thought would come down to the slums to celebrate Christmas with you.

Uncle Mike came out and chattered with Uncle Henry. They would take Dad to the hospital later for treatment. Before my eyes blurred from tears again, before walking up to Uncle Mike and burying myself in his shoulders, I stole a quick glance at the candle I lit this morning. It had died long ago. No longer was it flickering or shining. All that’s left were the now solid tears with the stump right in the middle.

I knew then, that we wouldn’t need candles anymore, not because the shed was now bright, but because from that day onwards, we would no longer need candles to remind us that hope, is always alive.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

My Moonlight Notes

Again it was the panic attack that suddenly woke me up. Sitting up straight in the bed, cold sweat, heart beat. Husband's sleeping like a baby beside me, arms hugging his pillow, head moving slowly, deeper into the pillow.

Seconds later, as usual, I would calm myself down, remind myself that it's all over, there's nothing to be afraid or sad about, and would sleep again.

This night, the light shone straight into my window. Memories came flooding back into my eyes, along with those longing and painful tears, of white papers slowly floating into the room.

Oh, I will always remember that very first time she cried. Her cries were not a shriveling or high-pitched shriek, but the quiet, sobbing, and muffled voice. Only a mother could've picked up that cries. Walking into her room, she was huddling beneath her comforter, eyes red and swollen. That night, was a bright night. Moon light bouncing off her beautiful silky hair, the brownish glow dim in the darkness, her eyes still glittering and sparkling despite the tears, her mouth covered partially beneath the folding of her arms.

"I dreamt that a dog was chasing it but it fell into a river..." she sobbed as I pulled her into my embrace. Stroking her hair gently, cooing her, she continued, "I tried to save the dog, but it drowned..."

It's ok sweetheart.. It's ok...

Tucking her back into her bed, I sang her favourite tune. Somehow, that night, as my memory serves me correctly, she never stirred. Her eyes were wide, not looking at me, but staring out of the windows wide opened. Shadows of the branches and leaves of my backyard tree danced under the white layer of snow that covered portions of her bedroom.

"Mummy," her voice, so sweet, still lingers in my ear till this very day. "Why is the night so bright?"

Crying now as I recalled the answer I said, "It's God's way of reminding little darlings that mummies are His way of lighting up even the darkest nights."

She slept, so did I, and the next morning I woke up before the house was up, only to find a white piece of paper on the floor, under my bedroom door. The scrawny handwriting, the spelling mistakes, and the crumpled piece of paper that still remains hidden in one of the drawers of a locked room,

"Thank you Mummy! I love you. Love, Baby"

My heart melted. It still melts to even think about it. My darling. My 6 year old darling. So thoughtful, so loving, so endearing. How one note from her, from that beautiful bright night, could even put the brightest sunlight into darkness, and cast shadows in the sunniest days. Holding that piece of paper in my hands, I went into her room, bent down and kissed her on her forehead. She stirred, woke up, and smiled.

"Morning Mummy."

All that is left now, are those memories of carrying her down the stairs, into the kitchen to make her favourite cereals of honey and oat. Ocassionally, I'd sit on the piano and her sweet laughters would fill the music room when I close my eyes and hold my breath. Perhaps, on those very fortunate days, when I stroll in the park and watch a frisbee pass by, I'd see images of my little baby running behind our golden retriever, hair and ribbon tied floating in the air in rhythm with her pink skirt, chasing both dog and toy.

I never blamed the teacher for taking her to the National NuclearMedicine Lab back 18 years ago. It wasn't the teacher's fault. Alright, maybe the teacher should have been more watchful. Maybe she shouldn't have ever allowed her to leave her sight. But it happened. It just happened. Her friends said that she wandered into a room with thick doors and a opaque glass.

The door just shut behind her. We could hear her screaming from inside.
We called the teacher. The teacher yelled for help.
The tour guide ran to a room beside.
When the door opened, she was lying unconscious on the floor.
There was a huge green machine. Bright green.
People wearing huge white masks and jackets.
They didn't let us go in. They took her away. To a hospital. Somewhere.

It was 2 days before we finally saw her. Saw her. They didn't allow anyone to come in contact with her. How I wailed and kicked and fought with the hospital guards as I tried to break free, smash the doors and snatch my baby back from them. How I broke down eventually into the arms of my husband, only to see my baby, lying motionless behind the windows.

And how my life changed that day onwards. How the chair outside her room became my bed. The staff toilet became my bathroom. Sometimes I even borrowed a jacket or blanket to keep myself warm when the thermostat was down.

3 months. From the day she finally opened her eyes, jumped out of bed and skipped around the room as I clapped from outside. On many ocassions she'd even press her face to the window as I'd press mine on the other side, sometimes too she'd cry wanting to come outside, and how I struggled to make her smile while deep inside I was breaking and crying too.

And finally, how her beautiful and silky brown hair finally thinned, fell and dropped. That beautiful brown head became white and smooth. Her eyelids blackened, her skin wrinkled, her body shrunk. Watching my very own baby slowly decaying from the effects of plutonium, that sense of helplessness and hopelessness, that painful experience of watching her slowly fade away.

The day came. My pastor, I and my husband, clad in thick white jackets with a mask over our head, walked dreadfully into the room. My baby was beyond recognition. Bundled under a maze of tubes of different colours, her eyes were closed, her breaths laboured in pain and difficulty, her body shrivelled and small.

And as all mother's ask, "How could this happen to my baby?" And I ran out from the room. My husband never did stopped me, though I now wished that he did back then. I cried so hard that my eyes hurt and tears were now dry. I swore I cried my heart out when my husband came out with the pastor, and the group of doctors slowly wheeled the small bed out with a zipped black bag over it.

Yet, amidst those tears, something caught my eyes. On the floor, still, quietly sitting there, under the doors of her room for the last 3 months. A small, white, folded piece of paper. And that stopped the tears immediately.

Standing up with whatever energy left, staggering and bending down, picking up the white paper with trembling hands. The tears flowed again, this time, quietly and peacefully, as the paper unfolded.

"Mummy." A stick lady, holding the stick hand of a smaller stick girl. At the corner of the paper, written, "Baby."

Alone and quiet now. The same tree, the same branches and leaves dancing under the same layer of snow. The same stillness as that night, when my baby asked me why the night is so bright. Oh baby, if only you would write me just one more note. One more, and I'd give up anything, absolutely anything for that note. A note that would melt my heart all over again. A note that would simply make my day. A note that would remind me, that you were God's way of lighting up my darkest nights.