• James Tam

Between Lives

Updated: Sep 8


His wife is giving birth to their first baby,

while his mother is dying at the same time, in the same hospital

A speechless farewell fragments of regrets, shivers of memories

the dust of life colliding

in a brief flurry of time


I am 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 with the lift motor. The old man stares blankly at the hypnotic digital display. It jumps from twelve to fifteen, skipping the unlucky thirteen and fourteen, as it did earlier to four. Both of them breathe with a shallow hiss, bizarrely synchronised.


Ding! Seventeenth Floor, an unctuous robotic voice announces in English and Cantonese. The door opens on command, a rectangle of cold neon-light appears, blocking the exit. By comparison, the soft lighting inside the elevator is soothing and cosy.


‘Excuse me,’ I try to squeeze through the path of least resistance between 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, seventeenth is actually fourteenth which rhymes with sure death in Cantonese — hence the popular avoidance against common sense — after adjusting for the missing fourth, thirteenth and fourteenth 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 am not in the mood to explain why I’ve been coming in and going out every ten minutes today. I head straight to Room 1704. They’ve neglected to weed out inauspicious room numbers — demonstrating inconsistency in administration, or superstition. In the past four days, Room 1704 has 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 interchangeable monitors.


One of the two conscious patients puts on and takes off her oxygen mask every few minutes, obviously finding breathing insufferable either way, but without any option in between. The other lady mumbles to herself when awake, mostly angry monologues. She has no visitor in the past four days.


A concentrated whiff unique to hospitals greets me at the door: a mixture of drugs, urine, faeces, the raw stench of old age, sickness, and sanitised death. The angry lady’s unusually quiet this time. Her curtains are tightly closed. The late afternoon sun casts beautiful golden shadows between the beds.


Ah Mah’s inanimate form, covered by a blanket, connected to a web of tubes, breathes noisily though slightly open mouth. Her eyes are closed and sunken. In only four days, the sight of her in this helpless state has become the heartbreaking norm. 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, eight more to go.

_____

‘She’s okay ah! — 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 had hired after her first stroke two years ago. Work was troubling. Sue actually wasn’t feeling well, and Ah Mah was more seriously long-winded 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 which she adamantly refuses treatment, as if greatly amused by my irritation. Her grey hair had thinned a lot lately, barely covering her head. The Filipina helper, stuck in the situation, smiled awkwardly next to her. Here was a pathetic odd couple bought together by fate, through me. 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, leaving the door open. 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 about Sue no less than 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, my dear mother. I found it annoying, maddening, infuriating, saddening, numbing, remorseful… 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. If she does, I’ll never yell at her again. I’ll learn from the elevator, and speak to her with smooth sweetness, always, from now on. 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. They just appear more confident, and charge a lot more.


Five minutes have passed.


According to the monitors, she’s still providing input, therefore alive. I don’t need them to tell me though. 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 invariably screamed at us if my brother or I asked her not to talk 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.’ Ah Mah is not easy to reason with, but I did try in my younger days.


‘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. Whenever she gave us a good beating, she would cry big time afterwards, giant teardrops would tumble off her rugged face. ‘What have I done wrong? What have I done wrong to have such heartless kids? Sae Zai! Mo Sum Gonne!’


I hated languages, and loved math, which introduced me to computers. But I’m glad I obeyed Ah Mah. Nominal language skills turn out to be critical in running my small consultancy now.


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 got so confused I squatted next to her and cried a little too. When she finished, she asked me to light an incense to Ah Bah, to give him the news. That was our celebration.

Ah Bah was a construction worker. He died from a work accident when I was about two. Ah Mah had told me bits and pieces about him, but he remains a stranger whom I have no memory of. He fell — carelessly so — from great height. His name got struck off the payroll as a result. The employer lit incense and strewed Hell Banknotes — denominated in billions of dollars — where he landed to convince his spirit to move on, and it undoubtedly did.


After Ah Bah died, Ah Mah became the only bread earner for three mouths. Luckily, 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 squash and 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 would walk 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 yards or so. The entire neighbourhood could hear her. Housewives and servants would come down for bak choy, winter melon, carrots… They called her Choy Po — Veggie Woman. They didn’t normally bargain, but would snatch a 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. He never talked back to Ah Mah though. He was often lost in private thoughts, probably planning his escape already. He did very well at school, but did not attend college. Right after secondary school, he joined a cargo shipping company, and soon disappeared beyond the ocean. The last time I heard, he was living in Chicago, making loads of money trading for Goldman Sachs, wearing a suit I suppose, speaking English. Ah Mah was right.


When the market no longer had room for hawkers, she found a job with a small cafe, squatting in a back alley, washing 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 the third and seventeenth floors. 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 single 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.


‘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, Doctor, thank you. I want to try.’


‘Sure,’ Doctor Cheng says, a touch of grumpiness in his tone. ‘It’s your decision,’ he repeats. He respects the customer’s rights.


‘Let’s take another look,’ says the nurse, putting on her gloves. Sue assumes her examination posture.


‘Hmm. Still about 3cm, at most four,’ 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. But if I were the doctor, I’d probably want my day done before dinner as well. There’s nothing unreasonable about that. ‘What about the baby? This is stressful for him, no?’ I borrow the good doctor’s concern, focusing on the baby’s wellbeing, which I know matters a lot more to Sue than herself right now.


‘It’s only been two hours, and I’m nearly half dilated. We’re fine.’ 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 thirty-eight after all, giving birth for the first time. I’ve suddenly realised that 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.’


‘You haven’t eaten all day. Why don’t you go grab a bite.’


‘I’m not hungry.’ I wasn’t. But now that she’s mentioned dinner…


‘You love that noodle shop around the corner. I won’t need you for a while.’


‘Maybe later…’

_____

It’s nearly nine. I’ve just ordered a bowl of wonton mien when my mobile phone rings. Unidentified caller. Can an unidentified caller at this time of the day bring good news? I hate sales calls, but wish this to be one. I’ll be very nice for a change if it is.


Wei?


‘Mr. Chiu? We’re calling from the hospital. Can you come over immediately?’


‘Yes!’ I hang up right away and pay, then realise I haven’t asked which ward she was calling from. 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 gives a smiley grimace, then holds out her hand. I clasp it firmly with both mine.


‘Did you call me?’ I ask the nurse.


‘Sorry?’


‘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. A little problem with the umbilical cord.’

_____

I’m the only passenger in the elevator. At the seventeenth floor, I squeeze out when the door is only half open.


‘Mr. Chiu?’ the night nurse asks me.


‘Did you call me?’


‘My colleague did.’ She gets up and walks around the counter to stand before me. ‘We’re very sorry. Not long after we called, Po Po departed peacefully. The doctor just left a few minutes ago.’


My mind goes blank. Even totally expected news can be a shock.


Po Po suddenly screamed really loud at around nine. It sounded like sun sin eh! We rushed to her room, but her breathing and heartbeat had already started to drop. We called you right away after alerting the doctor.’


I nod in acknowledgement.


‘It would have been too late even if you got here in ten minutes anyway,’ she comforted me. ‘Po Po left peacefully. No pain.’ I think it’s a standard thing to say to relatives, but I believe her. Ah Mah had severely overdrawn her pain quota this life. I’m sure there’s none to spare for the final moment.


I want to thank the nurse, but my throat is locked. I could have been here in less than five minutes, but took forty.


Po Po’s still in her bed.’


I forced a smile, nod again, and walk towards Room 1704.

The room is quiet. The curtains around Ah Mah’s bed are tightly drawn.


It’s only us two now. Hadn’t it always been, until I also deserted her?


The light is dim. I feel chilly, and am shivering slightly.


She looks about the same as in the afternoon, crusted lips slightly parted. Her strong lungs have finally quieted down. The monitors are off, unplugged, wires rolled up and placed on top, getting ready for the next assignment.


Her torso seems to have deflated under the blanket, making her feet ever bigger by proportion. They had most loyal and dependable in Ah Mah’s rough journey through this life. Ugly, strong, and loyal. I pat to thank them.


They say dead people can still hear for a while. The brain takes time to shut off completely.


I kneel beside the bed and whisper into her ears: ‘Ah Mah, you’re now a grandmother. The grandson you’ve been waiting for so anxiously has just arrived. Eight pounds. A bog boy. He cried very loud. The doctor said he has super strong lungs, just like you.’

First Published Oct 2014 on Guo Du

Revised Aug 2021

#ShortStories #BetweenLives

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