Published on Tuesday, 23 July 2013 00:00
Written by Andrew Loh
"It is quite bad," Adrian told me over the phone. "I don't want to alarm you but you must be prepared."
He was telling me about John, 42, a mutual friend who had been admitted to Tan Tock Seng Hospital. There had been signs that all was not well with John even two years ago. He had lost much weight, his complexion was a very unhealthy hue and his eyes had sunk into their sockets. John would check himself into hospital at times.
Although we knew he was sickly, we didn't pay it too much attention.
"He has cirrhosis of the liver," Adrian continued. "The doctors say there is nothing much more they can do for him." I didn’t know what to say. I could only sigh. Later, I went online and read up about the condition and saw pictures of sufferers of the disease. The images shocked me.
When we arrived at the hospital later that day, I felt quite apprehensive. I hadn't seen John for almost two years, and felt bad that we were meeting again under such circumstances. I imagined and re-played the meeting in my head - and told myself that I will not show any sadness, no matter how bad his condition was. I don’t want him to feel even worse than what he must be feeling then already.
John’s mother, who was in her 60s, sat there quietly besides her son's bed as we entered the ward. I noticed how tired she looked. How else could she be, having to be by her eldest son’s side as he struggles with his illness? As we spoke, she told me of how John would not take care of himself, of how she would cook but he would not eat, preferring instead to eat out. A mother mourning her son, even as she clings on to hope.
"They're washing him and changing his clothes," John’s younger brother told us, explaining why the curtains at John's bed were drawn.
"There is nothing else they can do," his brother continued, as we spoke of the possibility of a transplant operation for a donor liver. "And he may be too weak to undergo an operation anyway."
Then I heard John's familiar voice through the curtains, asking the nurse to help him button his shirt. He sounded weak but I thought at least he could speak, which meant that he was conscious and alert. It's not so bad, after all, I thought to myself.
I returned to the chat with Adrian and John's brother.
A little while later, Adrian said to me, "There he is,” as his eyes looked over my shoulder.
I turned towards John’s bed, and there he was – a hazy dark figure laying there. I remember my breath stopped. I stood there for a moment.
That figure looked at me.
It was not John.
It couldn't be.
John, who was 3 years younger than I, does not have such long, shoulder-length hair. He is not so thin. His face is not skeletal, with cheekbones protruding. His eyes are not so big. His stomach certainly never this bloated.
"John is Chinese," I remember thinking to myself. "He doesn't have such dark skin."
I looked around the room, at the other 5 patients in the ward. They were all Chinese men, with the usual tone of skin of Chinese people.
But the person on that bed was dark. Black.
It’s the result of the disease.
"Andrew," John called to me.
I looked at him and tears welled up in my eyes. It was a sight which I will probably remember for the rest of my life. The vulnerability in his voice is so unlike John, who was always sure of himself. At that moment as he laid there, the assertive and confident John, whom we all knew, was absent.
"Hey, man," I managed, as I walked towards his bed, trying my best to sound normal.
“Thank you for coming” were his first words.
"I'm really sorry," John continued, his voice quivering, as tears begin to well up in his eyes. “I’m sorry to put you all through this.”
I reached for his hand and held it. To let him know that it is alright. That he was ok. That there was no need for apologies.
John never cries. Not in all the years I'd known him. But he knew that this was serious. He had been told it is. John is an intelligent man. So, he knew.
"There is no need to be sorry," I said.
"I really should have checked myself in to hospital sooner," he went on. "I should have stopped drinking. Drinking and smoking." I noticed the yellow colour in his eyes as he turned his face away from me, almost distraught.
John drank, virtually everyday. He also smoked just as much. A deadly combination.
I stooped down and laid my hand on his forehead, to comfort him and to wipe his tears. The deep regret in his voice is unmistakable. His fear quite palpable. If not for the painkillers, he would probably be writhing in agony too.
I kissed him on his forehead.
He looked at me and you can see - the knowing, the loneliness, the fear, that he will have to deal with this himself, that there might be no way out of this. There was no one else who could carry the burden for him. That this was it. Nothing more to be done. The cross was his and his alone to bear.
And there is nothing much you can say to comfort him. What can you possibly offer to remove that fear, that sense of desperate finality he must be feeling?
"You're better now than previously," I tried, hoping to lift his spirits. "You can move your hands and go to the toilet yourself now.” I was told that his previous bout of illness had rendered him incapacitated. “So, hang in there,” I continued. “Your job is to get enough rest and to take your medicine, ok?"
He nodded, as he wiped his eyes again.
“I deserve this,” he said. It is an acknowledgment that he did not heed the signs.
I cut him off. “You’re doing your best now, to get better. That is what is important,” I said. I realised how hard it was to offer words of hope and encouragement in such moments. What do you say to someone who tethers at the brink, whose very life hangs by a thread? It is hard for those who hope to comfort him. But it is much harder for John.
As the nurses tend to him every now and then, we spoke of things we had done – such as the trip a group of us made to Malaysia in 2008, to witness and to soak in the country’s general elections then. “Get well soon,” I said to John, “and we’ll make another trip up north.” He nodded.
John passed away 2 days after our meeting. He died in the wee hours of the morning, in hospital, alone.
Much has been written about the fragility of life - in songs, poems, books. But it hits you squarely in the face only when you are looking into its eyes. That realisation that life, described as a miracle of nature, can be so easily snuffed out in an instant; that if you do not take care of it, it will not take care of you.
At the same time, John also taught me strength and courage, as he soldiered on, trying to get better, even as he knew that it was an uphill battle. There is much dignity in how he carried his burden, and shouldered his cross in the last days of his life. And for this as well, I respect the man a whole lot.
I had taken some time to think before I decided to write about this experience with John, whom I had known for 7 years. And I know that the story might come across as a sad one, and indeed it is. It is especially so when someone – a friend, an acquaintance, a loved one - suffers so much before he or she passes.
However, it is also such experiences that strengthen us, and stir us to ponder on and about what life means – and to treasure and cherish those around us.