What do I most value in life? Needless to say, it is my family. I’m grateful for whatever life has given to me whether good or bad because life always reminds me of how empty it would be if I did not cherish the sacred word, ‘family’.
“Dad, we will stroll around and discover this beautiful city later”. I try my best to amplify the calling towards my Dad, who is busy looking at a row of Kymco motorbikes – a specific trait on the streets of Taiwan. As always, it is my job to call him, and my brother’s job to pull him back to our Mom. In a corner of an intersection in Taipei, a hustling and bustling city where even the locals have to wrestle with finding a spare space to rest, we are going to take the first picture together after a stormy year, with equanimity and without unsettling. I’m wondering. What if I condense the last one year into one full day – 24 hours; it must be the most desperate day of my family.
00:01 a.m. in the middle of an ordinary night.
My desk is messed with papers and study documents that I am cramming for the next examinations. I’ve already got used to my Mom’s reminder at midnight. “You’d better go to bed early or you would get severely sick. Good grades, but bad health, are nothing”. And she is totally right. However, it is a bit different tonight. Slowly from the opposite room, Mom is shoving herself to mine with a listless face. This ominous silence surely heralds unpleasant news that I never ever envisage, even in the dream. My Dad is diagnosed with open-heart valve disease, but more anxiously, all four valves of the heart are dysfunctional at this stage. It is a too-short ‘reminder’ compared with a large amount of information that needs loading concurrently. Mom’s face gets swollen. Her legs grow loose and unsteady. She should have been wailing, but she refuses to express her grief. Indeed, she perhaps sets up herself as a responsible one who will take care of this problem. I am almost eighteen now, but still such a fucking useless son existing here, jaw throbbing, no words of consolation spoken, failing to even give my Mom a basic hug. What I am doing is talking about hopeful heart surgery, avoiding a disastrous denouement, and suggesting as many promising solutions as possible. But is it much better to just stand up, open my arms and grab her tightly? I cannot leave my desk.
2:00 a.m. and it is just the beginning of the first chaos of my family.
It is urgent to go on heart surgery. My Dad is getting more restless and starting to blame himself for not listening to my mom’s daily reminder. For most of his life, he has worked unduly over the past 20 years and somehow turned his nine-to-five job into the nine-to-nine one. Always bearing in mind the role of the first son in the family, Dad defaults to himself as the main breadwinner for not only the four-person family but for my grandparents as well. Usually, Mom will say the same ‘reminder’ to Dad over and over again whenever he is supposed to be sick or tired. But not this time. There is no reason to keep in repeating those annoying words. There is no reason to scold my Dad when he has already held his responsibility. It is time to encourage each other and overcome this together. All four people, with the bodies’ inertia, rush around the house to make sure that we prepare enough essential belongings for the medical treatment at the hospital. I love watching how proficient my Mom is in folding and arranging a bag-load of clothes neatly. Looking at her rugged but gorgeous hands is a poignant reminder of how much I should appreciate her, the lady who is willing to do anything as long as the house is always bustling with laughter. My feet are still on the floor; shampoo, body soaps, toothbrushes, and some pieces of the medical record are still on the floor. I open my mouth to pray, in earnest, because only Jesus can help us now.
3:00 a.m. and my parents are on the way to Cho Ray Hospital after being refused by several prominent cardiology hospitals in Ho Chi Minh City.
It turns out that my Dad also has a vascular coronary blockage, that is, there is no other remedy but going through a precarious and exhaustive surgery with his chest fully opened. Although Cho Ray Hospital is the most feasible place currently, living in its treatment area is horrendous and obsessive.
The morning is just dawning on the front square window, emerging as though from an invisible painter is sketching a lacquer artwork on the board of nature. In a moment of existing unsettlingly, I suddenly meet a moment of living perfectly. In a moment, I am swept away from day-to-day distractions. There is no room in my mind to think of homework, personal love, hanging out with friends, the number of ‘likes’ on Facebook and so on. That natural ‘lacquer artwork’ somehow reminds me of all the beautiful sounds surrounding me – the carol of birds, aerobic music from the nearby park, children’s music from the opposite kindergarten or just simply the missing of my mom’s wake-up call today.
6:00 a.m. and my brother just gets up.
The two kids are in a state of anxious suspense. Mom does not allow us to go to the hospital, because we both have classes today. No one is stronger than her, I can say. “Ting-a-ling", Mom is calling. Instantly, my brother and I scramble to pick up the phone; however, deep in our hearts, we pray together for no bad news. “You two should not worry. Mom did find out a way to set up the earliest surgery for your Dad. And remember to take your brother to school as well”. “À! One more thing, keep praying to God whenever you are free. Let's hope that Dad can meet the best heart surgeon”. Her voice is soft, yet laden with anxiety. She doesn’t tell us how harsh it is when staying at Cho Ray Hospital – an abundance of patients' relatives lying down at any vacancies that they can find on the corridors, benches or stairs; the smells of urine and sweat rush into the nose; two to three patients no matter how severe their diseases are all share one bed. How can I hold tears inside any longer when imagining my 42-year-old beloved mother hustling in the midst of a press only to finish the hospitalization process as soon as possible?
The surgery will be conducted at 11:45 am – 10 minutes after my brother and I finish our classes.
I speed like an arrow along four floors to get my motorbike and pick up my brother. For the first time in my life, my brother and I settle down in front of the ancestral altar and the Trinity and pray in unison. Like a flash of lightning across my mind, I suddenly wonder how mature my brother has become in the past day. Most of the time, I consider him as a kid who always needs instructions and lacks deliberate thoughts. Yet, he is grown-up enough to look after himself while Mom is absent. It's ironic how a fleeting thought reminds me of a permanent value that I forget to pay proper attention.
4:00 p.m. and “Ting-a-ling" – Mom is calling.
Still that soft voice but now imbued with relief. Even though the heart surgery achieves initial success, what we are still concerned with is what will happen when, as if, he becomes fully conscious again. Anyway, there is still an optimistic and hopeful ripple passing through each and every one of us. I start to hurry my brother to packing all the essential things, preparing for Dad’s upcoming convalescence.
7:00 p.m. and a message sent to me.
Dad has just recovered from a long coma. Almost immediately, a myriad of negative scenes in my mind disappears entirely. Thanks for your blessing, Jesus! The way from Bien Hoa to Ho Chi Minh City becomes more promising. No sooner do I step into Dad’s recovery room than he starts crying like we have not met for many years. I’m still a fucking useless son, aren’t I? It's not a common practice in our family to hug each other in tough times though I’m totally aware that the love for his children far outweighs that for his health.
9:00 p.m. and Dad comes back after going for a check-up.
Unfortunately, heart surgery has produced a side-effect on his lungs – pleural effusion – making him sick most of the time. Dad is afraid of getting deep sleep. He is afraid of not being able to open his eyes again. It’s ironic to my Dad because just one year ago, he travelled through the four greatest mountain passes of the North by motorbike and received a commendation of conquering ‘the Roof of Indochina’ – Fansipan Mountain. He blames himself for being too weak. Having been bedridden, Dad feels distraught and exasperated since he cannot do anything but depends mostly on my Mom. “If only I listened to your Mom’s reminder …”. My brother and I are his only hope at this point, and thus we are taught to learn from his experience as a reminder for the future. Wealth and health are not two conditions vanishing each other - choosing one does not mean negate the other or no room in between. Please listen thoroughly to what we have been reminded to find a wealth-health equilibrium most suited to us.
11:59 p.m. and Dad has been getting better since we took him to Vinmec Hospital, which has fewer patients and more healthcare professionals for post-operative recovery.
Dad finally overcomes a critical condition, and Mom finally can sigh with relief. It seems such a dark day of our family, but in retrospect, it is also a meaningful day. Settling down in my room with the untidy desk and trying to articulate my whirling emotions on a memoir paper, Mom will soon call to remind me not to stay up late.
Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today’s a gift.
That's why it’s called the present of life.
_ Bil Keane_
Today is a new day. What is terrible should be left behind. Let’s just simply take a happy family picture.