Monday, December 7, 2009

Part 5: The Gifts in the Box

With Mike, things between us were both consistent and constant. We would head to the same coffee shop, sit at the same table, order the same drinks, laugh at the same silly jokes.

So that afternoon, his little inconsistencies surprised me.

First, he sent a text asking me to come take him out. Usually I was the one who would do the calling and take him for a drink. Then, he was exceptionally restless and frustrated. Fine, boring, ok, no thanks… Short answers for virtually all the questions I asked him since he hopped into the car.

Finally he asked me the difficult question – The Question –

“Uncle James, why am I blind?”

And that very moment, I knew that he had grown up. Little Mike was not so little anymore. No longer was his world of blindness merely about himself.

“Dear Mike,” I began to tell him a story. “When God made little boys and girls like you, He gave them each a box. And in this box, He placed many special gifts. Gifts like ears to listen to songs,” I hummed his favourite tune into his ear, and he swung with the rhythm. He was loosening up a little. “Other gifts like singing, dancing, running… and of course, seeing…”

“Then why didn’t I have that gift!” came the quick interruption I expected. His face drooped into a sulky curve. His eyes, blind as they were, swelled with sadness and a longing that only God could fill.

“Ah!” I sounded cheery. “When you were born, we looked into your box, high and low, searching for that gift called sight. First your daddy looked for it, cannot find! Then mummy looked for it, still can’t find! Then Uncle James had to come help your daddy and mummy look for it… but we still couldn’t find it!

“So we decided to ask God,” I cleared my throat, and squeaked like a kid. “Dear God, where oh where is little Mike’s gift of sight? Did it drop out when he was flying—whoooooosh—all the way down from heaven?” Mike giggled a little.

“For many months, we kept asking, God oh God, where is little Mike’s gift of sight? But no answer came… Until one day, a little bird from heaven flew down to your daddy’s window, and came into your daddy’s room. Now guess what the bird said!”

Mike was all ears. His eyes, though staring blankly into space and capturing no light, were alit with curiosity.

“The bird whispered into your daddy’s ear, saying, ‘God’s not so careless-la! He makes no mistakes! Look inside his box and you’ll find that there’s something more special there than the gift of sight.’

“So daddy and mummy and uncle ran and ran and ran,” I pretended to huff and puff, “took your box and looked inside it again, and guess what we saw!”

Mike shook his head again, his arms somehow now intertwined with mine. I myself got carried away telling the story; I didn’t realize when his hands had reached for mine.

“We saw, a big… beautiful… heart, with your name written on it. Mike’s heart. This heart is soooo big, and guess what’s written on it? Love. The heart is called love.”

Mike’s grip loosened and he slouched into his chair, as if lost in his own thoughts. “Mike, do you know that you have a beautiful heart made to love the people around you? Do you know that every time you sit on your dog and ride it like a cowboy, you make Daddy and Mummy smile…”

“Really?” he sounded confused, not knowing whether to believe me or not.

“Of course!” I had to convince him. “When they smile, the mouth open so big until mosquitoes fly inside and lay eggs!” Mike laughed, and I silently prayed for forgiveness for making fun of his parents.

“Ok Mike. Ask you a question: how many kids bully you in school?”

“Three!” He replied quickly. “Sam the Fatty, John, and Peter.”

“How do you know Sam is fat?”

“Because my friends told me he's soooo fat that he has to squeeze through the toilet door!” Now I laughed together with Mike. And I wondered where the humour genes came from.

“Now, another question: how many people love you?”

Mike’s head leaned to the left and right as he thought about it, his mouth mumbling some names here and there, his fingers held up one by one. “A lot, correct?” I offered. He gently nodded his head.

“In your box, Mike, is the gift of love. God made you special, not by making you blind, but by giving you that big beautiful heart, and because of that He made you soooooooo lovable… do you know how blessed you are to have so many people around you who love you so much?”

Mike thought long and deep. "Why did God choose me?" I placed my hand over his head and rubbed his soft hair.

"Because He knows you're stronger and braver than anyone else."

Later that evening, I sent him home. Before getting out of the car, he hugged me as usual. Opening the car door, and slowly lowering his feet to the ground, he turned around and yelled,

“Uncle James, next time please tell me what God put inside your box, okay?”

Before I could even say anything, he slammed the passenger door shut. His walking stick eventually hit the gate, and his mother opened the gate and took him by the hand. While Mike sat at the doorstep, bending down to untie his shoelace, Miriam stole a glance at me, and her lips mouthed the word, thank you.

I reversed the car, sped home, tears all welled up in my eyes.

It’s you, Mike. You’re the gift God placed inside my box.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Part 4: The Angel Recalls

May I have the pleasure of introducing Dr James? He’s a pediatric ophthalmologist, once – and will be – a close friend to Ken and Miriam, and eventually a great help to our little blind Mike.

That night many years ago, while tossing in bed unable to sleep, he received 2 calls. First, a text message from Miriam. “Ken’s going to call you, it’s about our son. Something’s wrong with him.”

He was ready and about to step into the car when he received the second call. The nurse from the delivery ward called, stating that Dr Kenneth requested his consultation regarding an infant that was not responding to light.

Being an angel and hence being able to read his mind, I’m thus able to confidently tell you that that very night he was a pot-pourri of emotions: worry, concern, confusion, and certainly, guilt. He was praying fervently, words all tied together in one huge mumbo jumbo as his car slowly rolled down Hospital Avenue. In essence, God, forgive me for my past and my sins.

His car halted right beside Ken’s parking slot, and the same thought flashed through his mind, just like every other morning when he got out of his car to work. If only things were like before.

“How were things before?” I’m sure you are wondering. Well, before Miriam came along, they were best of friends from secondary school all the way to med school. They were competitive and edged each other in different areas: Ken was the musician, James the athlete. They complimented each other accordingly, and in studies and work, they worked well together. They even specialized in ophthalmology. Together.

By now you’d have figured out that things changed when Miriam came into the picture. She always had a soft spot for people who could charm her with music. And of course, James had an ego that simply could not be defeated.

James reached the delivery ward. Ken got up from his leaning position, a posture indicating his thinking or worried state; a state which nurses and associates in Avenue feared. He leaned when he had no answer, no solution, or no hope. “Dr Ken, you paged me?”

The conversation was as cold as ice, and though the tears were welling up in Dr Ken’s eyes, while guilt and concern swarmed every corner of Dr James’ soul, they still refused to look each other in the eyes.

An infant boy is not responding to light. No pupil dilation, no reflex or reactions to movement and light.

Both men walked quickly and gently into the nursery, hurriedly but not wanting to wake any mothers or newborns. A few nurses nodded in acknowledgment as the men passed by. They found the newborn, and Ken passed him to James.

“Strong grip,” James commented lightly as he moved his index finger into the tiny palm of the boy. “What’s his name?”

Michael. “Hello Mister Mike,” James cooed. “Sorry for waking you up… How are you feeling hmm?”

The newborn gargled his saliva and curled up in his arms. From his pocket James drew out a tiny pen torch. Lifting up the baby’s eyelids, he quickly flashed the lights near his iris. “You’re right, no responses whatsoever.”

Is it normal? Ken asked softly, as if he was scared the baby might hear them speaking.

James frowned. I doubted it, usually even at such age they would already have developed motor and pupil responses to light stimulus. As of now, we couldn’t be sure whether it was a nerve or retinal defect.

Ken slouched onto a chair in front of the examination table. So what options do I have?

Wait, James said gently, still refusing to look at him, and perhaps pray.

James knew he had to leave, his emotions could not be properly contained for long, and such a time did not permit his emotions to leak. Not even the very slightest. James rested the baby back into his plastic tray, covered him with the ward blanket, and headed to the door. “Ken?” Ken’s head tilted up to see him holding the door ajar. “I’m with you in this.”

Ken smiled weakly. “You know, I am desperate and vulnerable at this point of time, but I believe that you will not hold a patient, my son, against me. That’s why I paged you.”

James didn’t reply to that, but instead walked out, on the way gently closing the door. A tear came to the edge of his eye as he pulled out his Blackberry. “Sorry Miriam, I tried my best.”

Then came Miriam’s reply. James, why have you given me this son?”

I watched with sadness as I recall how forgetful man can be, but at the same time,was assured that eventually things did turn out, rather unexpectedly, better between the 3 grown-ups, all because of one blind child. Let’s just say, it’s my Master’s amazing way of using consequences of wrong motives in preparing a beautiful future for all of them.

Monday, October 5, 2009


“Every surgeon is a maestro, and his surgery, a performance.”

In that small town, there was a famous butcher whom the town folk loved. He would cut the best slices of meat for his customers, and he knew his way around the parts of meat and what dishes it cooked best with. Old folks often wondered how it was that such a fine and intelligent young man would squander his future in the market, and the younger chaps would question his weird habit of soaking his butcher knives in alcohol after cleaning them many times round.

But what no one saw was, after the market closed and went deserted, he would slowly draw out a leather bag, untie the knots and pull out small blades that dimmed – not even flickered – under the light. Then, whatever leftovers of meat he had from the day, he would slice gracefully, the blades gliding across the demarcations and patterns of dried skin and meat, until the very last vein, nerve and flesh was peeled apart from the bones.

Every swirl of his blade reminded him of a painful past, of a crime he never forgot, of a mistake he paid so dearly for—with his career. And after performing his surgery of sorts in that deserted marketplace, he would clean up with only one thought in mind,

“Are my wrongs already atoned for?”

Until one day. One fine day, as he was about to pull down the market shutters, he heard a loud bang. A black Mercedes swerved to avoid a cat, hit a tree and turned top first into the huge monsoon drain. Instincts taking over, he grabbed his leather bag – not even knowing why – and ran out to check. The driver’s door flew open, and a man’s hand waved frantically in the air for something to cling on to.

Jumping into the drain to pull the man out, his breath escaped his lungs like a full blown balloon released at the mouth, when he saw the driver.

“Sam!” the driver said. That was the voice he had been running away from, the voice he tried so hard in vain to forget during the loneliest and longest nights, despite the many pints and glasses.

It had been six long years, but he realized that the voice still, just as real as his memory recalled it, could never escape him.

It was a fine day like this, six years ago, when Sam got a call from his best friend. “My daughter needs a bypass, Sam,” Hawk explained slowly, unspeakable anxiety bearing down in his tone. “You’re the best surgeon around.”

“First a friend,” he replied, “then a surgeon. I’ll do the surgery Hawk, it should be easy. I’ve done so many. Don’t worry!” Before they knew it he was prepping for surgery.

Perhaps being a young yet highly-acclaimed cardiothoracic surgeon had its way of inflating Sam’s ego, and while he may have performed bypasses over and over again, he failed to remember that he was still predisposed to mistakes and flaws. Carelessness that could have been rectified had he listened to his surgical nurse reporting that there was massive bleeding in the right leg, second chances he could’ve gained had he not ignored the anesthetist reporting a gradual decline in blood pressure and oxygen saturation.

Try, he did. Fight, he did too. But still, in the operating theatre, mistakes are costly, lives can be lost. Worse still, if that life belonged to a friend. A best friend. Hawk.

“Sam!” the painful shriek, choked with tears. The surgical staff, a burly man, had to grab him by the arms to stop him from falling in agony upon hearing the news. That very night, Sam walked out of the hospital, vowing never to return. He simply disappeared, knowing that news of his ego and ill-fated error would have reached every nook and corner of the hospital even before the night was over.

The paramedics arrived on the scene to find a butcher with a brown leather bag stuffed into his trouser pocket, hands stained with blood pressing on the right femur. “10mg morphine,” he commanded. They obeyed, knowing the request was in line with standard medical procedure, but questioning in their hearts how this butcher knew all this.

And at the entrance of the Accident and Emergency ward, his best friend, face half covered with a gas mask, grabbed him by his stained butcher’s gown. “Don’t go,” he begged. His grip loosened as the staff wheeled him into the ward, prepping him for surgery. Sam turned to leave, only to see the Head of Staff standing at the entrance, seemingly blocking his exit, a warm smile on his face.

“Dr Samuel,” HS bowed respectfully. I’m no more a doctor, Brian. Now please excuse me, I’ve got a stall to clear up in the market.

“Sam,” HS stopped him by gently grabbing his arm. Brian was once his junior, and Sam would yell at him in the OT when he couldn’t answer his questions. Always the favourite target for a spike, he never showed defiance or fought back despite all the insults hurled at him. He learned procedures fast, yet remained teachable at all times. Now he was Head of Staff.

I’ve lost my honour, Brian. I screwed up, and I’ve condemned myself. “I think six years of condemnation is enough. More than enough,” HS reassured softly. “At this point of time, your best friend is in need of the best surgeon around.” Sam looked away, ashamed. The guilt of his nightmare of a mistake still haunted him.

First a friend, then a surgeon. Their surgical team’s motto rang in his ears, just like in the good old times.

“Sam, Hawk spent years looking for you in hospitals all over the country. He even called in special favours from our colleagues, hoping that one day he would see you again. And today, when one of the walk-in patients told us about a young man who gracefully slices pork meat instead of butchering it in the market downtown, he wiped out his surgeries for the day to find you.” He has late stage heart failure, Sam. He’s dying. All he wants is just a friend, a friend who knows him inside out, to make sure he’s fine. And you’re that friend he needs.

HS Brian handed him a vacuum sealed bag as he was washing up. “While you were away, we developed a pretty useless technology of cleaning non-disposable surgical gowns.” He tore the vacuum bag, opened up a long white robe with the cursive words Samuel Chan emblazoned on the right top. Memories of his glorious past flashed before his moist eyes.

“I’m not sure whether I’m ready,” Sam said, beneath his breath. With tears of guilt welling in his eyes, just like every night for the last six years, his gaze fell to the ground.

Brian’s hand rested on his shoulder. “For that same reason, now we all know you’re ready.”

Sam walked into the OT slowly, with Brian trailing behind. From behind the operating table, a smile slowly curved beneath Brian’s surgical mask. He knew that the six lonely years of slicing kept his hands steady and graceful. Those surgeries performed behind rolled down shutters, where no one passed him the scalpels, where he had no juniors to yell at, and where no students or colleagues watching his performances from the observatory—they had humbled him. And as Brian noticed, for the first time ever, Sam actually thanked the nurses who passed him the scalpel from the brown leather bag. Brian sensed forgiveness for his own self rising deep beneath Sam’s ashes, and that surgery was the redemption he so badly needed.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Part 3: 100 Coincidences

Over the years, I’ve learned that seldom was there such a thing called coincidence. That was, at least, where my parents were concerned.

For instance, when I heard dad’s car engine and then the sound died, when the metal keys jingled in the background, door creaked open, socks rubbed on the carpet, after a ‘Hi Son’ and a ‘Hi Dad’ reply, mom immediately asked me to help her do something.

“Mike, can you help find mom’s glasses? I think it’s somewhere in my room.” My forehead tightened as I shoved my mini Braille typewriter into my pocket, stacked up my books and head to her room. “It’s near the bathroom I think?” I’m sure it’s near the bathroom, I thought to myself. It’s the furthest corner from the hall where dad and mom were going to ‘talk’.

“Come Sam,” I waved my hand below my waist. His paws ruffled along the carpet, his neck bell jingling furiously. Opened door, left it open for awhile to let the bell jingle into the room, then closed it behind me.

School called again dear, my mom’s unmistakable voice. Mike’s being teased at again.

Is he alright? I regretted letting Sam into dad’s room, his panting was too loud, can’t hear my parents very clearly.

Ken… It’s not about whether he’s alright... Of course he’s alright, but he doesn’t even know why those kids tease him and he’s not even telling us about it.

He doesn’t even know what’s different about him.

Dad was quiet for awhile. So it was a mistake to put him in school?

No, but it’s a mistake that we still don’t know what to tell him.

I found mom’s glasses. She always put it at the same spot, in front of the big smooth and cold surface she called mirror. Taking the glasses in my palm, I sat on the bed, waiting for the ‘talk’ to be ‘over’, meanwhile rubbing Sam on his head.

It’s really your fault dear, mom’s voice sounded shaky. You’re the eye expert, you’re the one that spent so many years studying medicine, and yet you still never properly explained to Mike what he’s going through.

This was probably the hundreth time overhearing mom saying that to dad. I know it was rude to eavesdrop, but I really couldn’t help listening when their voices were not exactly the softest around the house. Or maybe I could hear things better than the others.

And for the hundreth time, I asked myself, what actually, really, was wrong with me? Yea, I know I can’t see, but what’s the big deal about seeing?

“What is seeing?” I asked.

I’m trying alright? I’m really working on finding a proper explanation. I’m sorry things turned out this way ok? The gentle pounding on the stairs grew louder. I quickly got up from the bed, and exactly before the door creaked, “Mom! I found your glasses.”

Door creaked, 2 sets of footsteps, both halted together. “Thanks Mike! You’re really a great help.” Mom squeezed me and pecked me on the forehead. “Where did you find it?”

Outside the bathroom, somewhere on the chair, I lied.

Hey son, dad came by and patted me on the shoulder. How’s your day?

Great, I blurted, trying not to sound sarcastic, forcing a smile over my face. I had fun in school. I felt for a space between dad and the door, quickly got out of the room and went back to my study table and touched my books again. At least I could pretend that I had no idea what was going on and continued studying. I pulled out my handphone and punched a few buttons. “Uncle James, can you please take me out for dinner? Mom and Dad were arguing about me again.” The phone regurgitated every word I typed.

Uncle James’ reply came swiftly. Sure boy! See you in a while, my special phone read my message out loud. At least Uncle James was always there for me when they quarreled. He seemed to be able to understand me better, or at least he tried to understand me better, I thought while resting my phone on the table.

I'm glad to have friends like Uncle James. I wished people would treat me like him, like I’m ‘not special’. Just couldn’t help think that I’m just a normal kid surrounded by people paranoid about my non-existing abnormality which I myself don't know about. Especially my parents and teachers in school.

Where’s Sam? I groaned as I realized I must’ve left him in dad’s room. Now I have to make another trip back to get him before Mom yells. Truth be said, I know I'm forgetful, but I also know that I'm still normal.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Part 2: Daddy!!

When Mike was 2, he would slowly and carelessly – like any other 2 year olds – hands on the wall all the while, fumble and make his way into the hall where I would be reading the papers. He would place his tiny foot one ahead of the other, one step at a time, with his cheeky grin all over his mischievous face.

“He got that from you,” my wife often reminded me when mike was up to something cheeky. And on those times I wanted to tell her that if that was really the case, then he probably got the blindness from her.

But I guess that would’ve made a terribly bad joke.

Truth is, over the last few years, we realized that blindness was not a disease. That it is still possible for a blind child to live ‘normally’.

Anyway, my son. He would walk straight into the furniture areas until he bumps into my knees. Immediately pushing himself back up from my knees, he’d quickly take a step back, get into a crouching position, and jump with hands up in the air.

“DADDY!!!” the lovely shrills and laughter would ring in every corner of the hall. There was the little kid, small arms flying every where in the air, body bouncing all over that if I didn’t grab him fast enough I worried that he might probably hit something.

2 years later, he began to recognize the sound of my car engine when coming back from work. So by the time I opened the door, all that was left of him was just the little toes sticking out from the corner of our huge sofa, and soft giggles that he could never conceal properly.

He would wait for me to come close, and I would deliberately drag my socks as loud as I can on the soft carpet floor. Right before reaching the sofa, I would ask loudly, “I wonder what happen to Mike! Did Sam eat him up?”

By the way, Sam’s the dog that Mike doubles up as a horse.

That’s the cue for Mike to jump out from the couch, “DADDY!!!” Sometimes he would jump facing the wrong direction, but that didn’t really matter because he would be jumping all over the place facing every where but me, and screaming his lungs out until I grab him, throw him into the air, spin him giddy, rest him on the sofa and tickle him silly.

After that, he would run off heaving and panting to mummy, along the way knocking himself into the huge vase that I later got rid off, and sliding right into the huge curtains that adorn the dining area.

Watching him bump his way to my wife and how my wife had to yank his then sweaty baju from his wriggling body, I then conceded that he need not look to be able to see. Maybe, maybe he has already seen everything that truly mattered, and maybe, Mike’s blindness was simply a different gift to me and my wife. One not short of its knockbacks surely, but definitely bundled with a whole lot more of joy.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Part 1 "Would you like some ice-cream?"

A new series

Over the years I’ve learned to not ask silly questions.

The Sunday School classes I attended in church were amazing. The teachers there tell me a lot of stories. Some was about how a big fish swallowed this angry little man called Jonah, and there was this fascinating story about how Moses held up his 'stick' – which my teacher quickly corrected me by saying ‘staff’ – and parted a ‘very very big sea’, and many more.

One of it was about how Jesus healed a blind man. “He took some mud, rubbed them on his eyes and told the blind man to wash in a nearby pool,” the teacher said, voice full of expression and excitement. “And do you know what happened next?”

“He could see again!” all my other friends yelled beside me. They were laughing, I think they were probably smiling too. The teacher was full of praises for my friends, and everyone was excited except me. I was, in most accurate description, puzzled.

“Teacher,” I finally asked after the laughter subsided. “What’s wrong with being blind?

It was the silence that scared me. Not even my friends made a sound, and for a while I thought they have all left the room. “Mike,” came the teacher’s voice, “Would you like some sweets?”

So back home later the evening, not happy with the fact that I couldn’t get an answer from my teacher, I felt my way to the kitchen. I heard my mom cutting some veggies. I remember how ‘green veggies’ feel like, and the sound of the stalk snapping over the chopping board and under the knife. The loud, crunching, stick-snapping sound.

“Mummy, what’s wrong with being blind?” the snapping sound stopped immediately. Her firm and damp palms were secured over my shoulders. She was right in front of me, could hear the sound of her breaths, now heavy, deep and slow. “Why would you say so?”

This morning in Sunday School the teacher told us about Jesus healing a blind man. No response. Her grip over my shoulder relaxed. Should I continue?

And when I asked the teacher what’s wrong with being blind, she told me to eat sweets. Mummy laughed. She ruffled my hair and gave me a peck on the forehead. The stick-snapping sound resumed.

Mummy, why can’t Jesus make me see again? Again, the stick-snapping sound ceased.

“Mike, would you like some ice-cream?” the rubber door opened and closed, and I heard the big metal spoon digging into the cold ice cream tub. Alternating between the digging sounds of the ice-cream was the very muffled, soft, but distinct sniffling sound, something like the sound I make when I get a runny nose.

That day, while shoving the ice cream all over my face and into my mouth, I learned 2 things then; firstly, silly questions will make mummy cry; secondly, that sweets and ice-creams are given to me when the adults cry, or when they have no answers to my questions.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


A true story.

Hospital has a policy: if you’re a bachelor and a surgeon, more often than not, you’d be the one that’ll work the on call hours. And if you’re an intern surgeon, they send you to the A&E ward – the hospital’s 7-eleven.

One night after taking over from the previous shift, a small boy was wheeled in by his mother. “Doctor?” My son broke his hand, can you please help him?

I took a look at his hand. It was an open wound with the bone actually jutting out. “This might be nasty,” I told the mother. We’ll have to get an X-ray, and we’ll get the operation theatre ready. So in the mean time ma’am, I suppose you can wait outside alright?

As soon as I wheeled him out of A&E heading towards the radiology department, he started sobbing. “Doctor, my hand’s very painful,” he sobbed. Of course it hurts small boy, surely it hurts. But why do you only start crying now? Wasn’t it painful just now?

“I don’t want mummy to see me crying.”

I smiled. What happened boy? How did you hurt your hand? “I was playing with daddy and while running I fell down.” I rubbed his short hair. Why so careless boy? “I didn’t see the steps… it’s not my fault…” he whined.

We got the X-ray done and took him back to the A&E. “I think we’ll operate right away ma’am.” After the mom signed all the consent forms, she held the boy’s hand. The boy was already lying on the bed, his clothes changed and all prepared for the surgery.

“Mummy… Please don’t scold daddy okay? It’s not daddy’s fault…” Okay... Mummy promise, mummy won’t scold daddy. From a distance I could see the mom smiling as her hands ran through his hair.

“Mummy, don’t worry ok? I’ll be fine… I promise I’ll be fine..”

We took over from the mother. As the doors swung close behind us, the boy tugged my surgical gown with his other hand. “Doctor... I’m sorry for making you work… mummy said doctors work very hard every day but you’re still working even at night…” No no! It’s my job boy. Don’t worry, I’m happy to help you get better. Really!

We wheeled him into the surgery. The anesthesia machine was ready and the mask in my hands. “Doctor!” he softly cried. “You’ll fix my hand right? It’ll be fine right? Because if my hand does not get well, mummy will cry…”

Before I could say anything else, he continued wearily, “Can you help to put a blanket over her later so she can sleep? Doctor please tell mummy I’ll be fine… and tell mummy not to scold daddy, it’s not his fault…”

I knew he could see my smile hidden by the surgical mask. “I promise, boy! For now, let’s make sure you get well so you can take care of mummy alright?” His head nodded gently. The gas mask was placed over his nose and mouth, and in seconds he was fast asleep.

The orthopedic surgeon asked for the scalpel. “Alright guys, let’s get this sweetheart's hand back.” An hour later I walked out to inform the mom about the successful and uncomplicated surgery while passing her a blanket. I never saw him wake up because I never followed up on that boy. Till this day though, I could still remember that one surgery where everyone in the theatre was virtually speechless but smiling all the way. Truly it is patients like that boy that puts a smile on the weariest facade of our job.

Monday, July 20, 2009


I have a big weakness. I take people for granted, especially those who are closest to me. Take my princess for example. I never told her what I should’ve always told her, treated her the way I always should’ve treated her, and that night when she walked out on me, I succumbed into the depressed state of guilt and remorse.

And I told myself, I need a chance. Just one more time, to let her know what I should’ve told her much earlier.

The first thing she should know was how I fell in love with her. Truth be said, she demonstrated what love at first sight really was about. Her hair wasn’t combed straight, swaying and dancing to the rhythm of her steps; her face wasn’t glowing with cherry blossom make-up or radiance powder; her dress was a plain blouse and a simple skirt. She was in a rush, preparing to worship lead that morning in church.

Then she smiled. And it was her smile – that smile – that captivated me, and will continue to captivate me down the years. I actually believed that her massive ball of hair, her simple dress and her plain face, like jigsaws to a big picture, completed her smile, immediately making her arguably the sweetest living being in this world. She wasn’t smiling at me, but I guess she saw me staring from a distance – probably jaw ajar – and she smiled back.

Her voice was one of an angel. Even if not for the smile, I knew I would be the happiest blind man around to fall in love with her. Church suddenly took on a whole different meaning. One that wouldn’t glorify God for sure, but one that made my life never the same again from that day onwards. That whole morning I knew I wasn’t concentrating. Her voice was ringing in my head as much as her smile kept replaying in the not-so-distance memory, much more attention given than what the morning’s sermon called for.

The secret here was that had she not tugged me by my hand after church as I walked in directions avoiding her, had she not run up to me to ask for my name – and still with that sweet smile carved across her face – I would’ve never have had the guts to get her number, invite her for lunch, pursue a friendship and eventually a relationship, with her. While it was her smile that captivated me and her voice that took my breath away, it was her - simply her - that unreservedly and uncontrollably attracted me.

I should’ve told her too, that the best food she ever introduced to me was nothing but the butter sugar sandwich. That fateful night I messed up while preparing a supper. She graciously took the loaf of bread from the table, helped herself to the fridge and shelf, and came back with a butter knife in one hand, sugar and butter in the other. What followed were her gentle strokes of the knife swelling with butter and sugar on the bread before wide-opened eyes across the table. And again, she smiled as she passed the bread to me.

“Try this! It’s my mother’s war-time recipe.” War-time? Sweet smile again. “I’m serious! She ate this during the war era.”

Even though I later found out that there simply was no butter during Japanese era – come think about it, how could you keep butter without electricity or a fridge? – but I still remember her preparing the bread, and on the many nights of studying alone late into the night, that simple sandwich reminded me of a girl waiting for me, anxiously yet patiently, for me to come back to her after saving the world.

If she ever returns and walks through the doors again, I swear I’ll tell her, that to call her a good wife is pure understatement. She’s the reason why I go home, she’s the only person I’d stop doing absolutely anything for – once I left a fully bloated blood pressure cuff on my patient’s hand, completely forgetting about it as I was busy replying her text – and she is the girl I fall in love with, over and over again.

That, I owe it to my morning experiences with her. She wakes me up with a peck on the forehead. I’d open my eyes to meet the most beautiful girl in my life, lying on top of me, just enough for me to see her face. Messy hair swirled and draped over her left shoulder, the gentle rays that sneaked through the curtains brightening her face, and her warm palms stroking my cheeks.

“How could I not fall in love with the way you look at me, little boy?”

In her eyes, I am forever her heart’s little boy. One morning I woke up with a terrible sinus problem that got me all restless and edgy. Shortly after lunch I was starting to throw a tantrum when she gently led me by the hand, walked to the bedroom and plopped me on the bed. The next thing I knew, she was already sitting with legs crossed, and rested my head in her lap.

“Why so restless little boy?” The gentle touch of her fingers, her angelic voice, that heart-stopping smile, the messy-lovely hair of hers flowing over both sides of her neck, those round sparkling eyes that I’d never take mine away at.

So how exactly would you tell her the many sights of children dying from diarrhea, or women dying from massive uterine bleeding due to rape, or soldiers dying from medical negligence? How could I tell her that after coming home and going back to work in hospital, every patient somehow reminded me of the victims of tyrannies and terrorism? How do I even tell her that every shrill and scream simply sounds no different from those in war zones?

But I should, at the very least, tell her that she’s my last comfort, rest and recluse. That while the many hours of prayer seemed to pull me further away from a faith I once believed in, while reality has left me delusioned with the promises of God and somehow succumbed to the fact that I simply wasn’t as strong as what I thought I was; all I had left, amid my defeat and struggles, was a girl that still could, and would, accept me for all that I was and wasn’t. All I wanted her to know, was only that I needed her to run away from the realities I couldn’t run away from.

When she broke the news to me about leaving and working in Price Waterhouse, I knew I blundered. I apologized. For all the promises I should’ve kept, for all that I promised her I’d be, for failing to be there for her the many times she needed me badly. She took my hand from across the table – the very same spot she buttered the bread years back – and with a painful smile, forgave me,

“It’s alright dear. You never made me many promises.”

So I sleep on the couch every night, just in case my princess comes home, I’d be ready to receive and welcome her. Something tells me that she’d be back. That faith and belief once again put me back to my knees. For a long time I’ve not begged God for another chance, and for an even longer time I’ve not asked for grace. Her absence torments me, but as some of her clothes still remain in my wardrobe, it is a gentle reminder that she’s still there. It gives me enough time to keep the house in order, and to put my life back in place, just so that she’ll know that I have been, and still am, waiting for her, the very girl who lovingly forgives me for most of promises broken, and graciously forgets the rest.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Locksmith

70 yo, male.

“So what brings you here today, young doc?” He handed me the glass of tea. Lens frosted from the steam, I lifted the glass to my lips and took the spectacles off my nose. I knew I couldn’t lie to him. He was much wiser than my colleagues thought. He wasn’t just any ordinary old man who was stubborn.

There was something about him. A side to him that people didn’t really see.

“I’m here because I was sent here by the hospital, uncle.” I decided to be honest. “I will not lie to you that I’m here because I’m a friend or that I care about you, but I’m here because I was told to follow-up on you.”

He smiled. Sitting comfortably across the small coffee table. Behind him was a portrait of him and his wife, definitely in their younger days. A 6R black and white photo framed in wood which paint had uncoated slowly over the years.

“He is difficult to manage, stubborn and refuses medication. Psychiatric therapy and intervention suggested. Requires following up.” 16/5/08

“Have you still been working, uncle?”

Tiny smile. I’m a locksmith, young doc. I make locks, I repair locks.. My life is all about locks.

“And in the process you became a lock too.” Am I right, uncle?

The smile on his face vanished. His gaze locked dead into mine, and his hands started to tremble a little. After a brief moment he turned away, not knowing where to gaze, bent over from his chair towards me. “More tea, young doc?” That would be great uncle. I like your tea. “Jasmine tea,” he replied as he poured more into my cup. “How old are you?”

I’m 28 this year. I know I’m young and inexperienced in many ways.

He chuckled. Then why are you here?

“Because I too am a locksmith. A different locksmith, and I’m just trying to help you find the keys to your own lock.”

He reclined in his chair, and sadness came into his eyes. Son, he said. Those keys are not missing. They’re gone. And no two keys are ever the same. Not even if they’re duplicated.

Who’s the key to your lock then?

Wife deceased in 1996, no contact with family or relatives since 2000.

Long, heavy, burdened sigh. It’s been a very long time since I last talked to anyone properly, he opened up cautiously. The last time I spoke to a friend or a family member was probably in the last century. I thought it would be better to stay away from people, or from the things that reminded me too much of my past.

Young doc, you have no idea how much I’ve lost over the years. How much I’ve struggled and fought for what I thought mattered to me. What would you know about these?

Senior once told me, that the infamous locksmith in the city lived on his own, in recluse. He did so after his wife was killed by burglars who broke the lock of his home, robbed her and killed her. All while he was away fixing another house’s lock.

I know that your lock was broken while you were away fixing someone else’s locks. Your treasure, your key, since then was gone. I’m truly sorry to hear about that.

Ah, that’s right, he said. There was no look of remorse or regret on his face. Still the stony expression since the start of this conversation. There are no locks that cannot be broken.

Locks were never meant to be broken, I protested. They’re meant to keep the inside from the outside.

“Then what are you doing here?” He snapped. Numb, my head hung low, hands locked interdigitally, not knowing what else to say.

I’m sorry uncle. I’m young, inexperienced, and brash.

I don’t blame you son, I’m an old lock. And old locks are always harder to open. That’s the truth. Understand this, young doc—even an empty chest has its treasure.

What’s your treasure? “Memories. Memories of what I once had but lost.”

Chronic depression, possibly manifested from post traumatic stress disorder.

That’s guilt, uncle. That’s no treasure worth keeping. A treasure worth keeping should never be locked away. You bring it out, you take it out and appreciate it; you don’t lock it away and hide it from people. Treasures don’t make you bitter, angry, or depressed. They don’t make you run away, they don’t make you cry. They don’t make you what you are right now, uncle.

For a while, I thought he held his breath. The only sound came from the ticking of the old clock on the bare wall. “What do you want?”

I want to help open your lock. A lock which hangs on the outside, that you from the inside cannot open. And I’m a locksmith, you’re the chest, the lock and the treasure.

Why would a dying man be of value to anyone? I smiled. “I’m sure you know, uncle, that every lock has its purpose and value.

You know that I care, uncle. “I do,” he said. He paused for a moment, as if thinking. “Let me get changed. I heard the hospital has extended their clinic hours, am I right, young locksmith?”

As he got up and walked to his room, I glanced at my clock and realized it was 3 hours. Funny eh, why would I spent 3 whole hours on one man, an old man whom everyone else has given up upon?

Getting up to leave, I stole a glance at the old picture of him and his late wife. Somehow, deep within me, I suppose that was what she would want someone to do for him. To unlock the man who has spent his lifetime unlocking other locks, that in the process forgetting how he could finally unlock himself. I guess sometimes, even the master needs a disciple’s reminder. Or simpler, because every lock is worth the effort opening.

You never know what you'll see on the inside.