MY WIFE, DOREEN, KNEW THAT a day would come to pass when the disease in my kidneys would flare up and put a lease on my life. To prepare herself, she'd sold our house, planned our retirement, bought us a smaller terraced house with a garden and koi pond in a largish town with cleaner air but astoundingly great food, ten minutes from a full treatment hospital, three minutes if you really stepped on it. That day came to pass, and I found myself a patient at the hemodialysis ward at Ipoh's Hospital of St. Francis Assisi.
Altogether, there were sixteen patients there. Five of them, I got to know quite well. There was Daniel Chee, young, lanky and stronger than most of us, who lost his kidney function in a motorcycle accident. Pak Aziz, a retired mailman from the backwaters, with a predilection for bringing in durian mixed with rice, stinking up the entire ward with its enclosed ventilation. Mrs. Kumar, a retired schoolteacher, and her silk eye-pillow, as if she was tanning in a sunbed rather than getting her blood cleaned. Chrysanthemum, a great cook with a heart of gold; she always brought in something extra to complement our lunches. Finally, there was old Mrs. Khoo, a cantankerous drone with her Chinese backscratcher, an instrument with a long wooden prong and fork-like tines at the head. Her clothes were made of some synthethic fabric that rasped when she moved. She was always complaining. Sharpish tones that put one in mind of the high shrill of a badly-blown piccolo.
And then, there was one wonderful, amazing recliner, situated closest to the weighing machine and the water-cooler. Something about the drier air circling around the area, the angle in which this chair was able to repose, the quietness and privacy of being close to the hypnotic gurgling of the water-cooler, far away from the smells and chattering of the other patients, made this the most popular chair in the ward to get dialysed. The waves of heat a body had to endure during dialysis became more bearable. It was no wonder the recliner acquired its laudatory moniker - everyone referred to it as the No. 1 Recliner. It was where I slept the deepest. Other days, in other chairs, after four hours hooked to a machine, one woke up even more weakened than before one was strapped in, sunk into a kind of lethargy and funk-like malaise that depleted one of appetite and desire. But waking up in the No. 1 recliner, one felt one had been injected with a temporary spell of refreshing zest, a spring in the old joints (a half-boner even!), a light-heartedness in the chest, as welcome as a watermelon Slurpee from 7-Eleven on a torpid afternoon.
The rule used to be simple: whoever arrived first in the morning could claim the chair. There was fairness and predictability in this, spared from the whimsy of random chance. If one wanted the chair bad enough, one simply contrived to be the earliest at the ward, even if that meant a wait of two hours before one was hooked to a dialysis machine. For the majority of the time, Chrysanthemum secured the No.1 recliner, as she had to come up from Teluk Intan on the back of a scooter taxi before morning rush-hour. An hour to come and an hour to go back, jouncing over backroads of rutted gravel, with construction developments framing the road on both sides, clogging the nostrils with specked grit and molecules of cement spray. She wore a motorcycle helmet on top of a towel wrapped around her coiffure, spreading eupeptic cheer with her plump, ruddy cheeks and radiant smile. Best of all, in apology for hogging the No. 1 recliner, she brought in a five-compartment tiffin-carrier, each compartment a source of culinary delight. Stewed chicken feet, mushroom braised in chicken kidneys, calf's intestines with chillies, lotus-wrapped sticky rice, kway teow noodles. Blessed angel, she even brought in - from her favorite roadside Indian vendor -- a special box of chappatis and goat curry for the Indians and beef rendang or nasi lemak for the Malays.
When Mrs. Khoo arrived in the ward, all this changed. She began to dominate the ward with her screeches and querulous complaints. In a way, she was the bully in our courtyard. Able to shout the loudest, able to bend others to her will. Ever since she arrived, she monopolized the No. 1 recliner. “Professor Tan, a nicer person will always cave before a mean one,” that's how Pak Aziz characterized it to me. “You should hear the way she throws advantage around. Does she think she's the only one with a successful son? Her son the medical intern. Her son graduating with first class honors. Her son whom she's sure would run this hospital someday.”
Mrs. Kumar added, “You're a university professor, Dr. Tan, with a PhD, and you don't lord privilege over us.” I was flattered by Mrs. Kumar's simple statement of truth. Yes, I could have. In Malaysian society, I certainly could have and I would be well within my right.
The next morning, I was actually able to observe first-hand Mrs. Khoo's cantankerous nature at work. She walked in, leaning hard on the arms of her son, a thin sapling of a youth, and she immediately headed over to the No. 1 recliner, where Chrysanthemum was settling herself down with a blanket. She leaned over the girl, and her screechy voice filled the quiet ward, demanding that Chrysanthemum show respect for her elders. “Look at you, you're strong, young and lithe; you shouldn't be so selfish! You should be ashamed, always grabbing this privilege for yourself.” Chrysanthemum burst into tears, unable to bear up under the guilt onslaught. It really got my goat, not so much what Mrs. Khoo said, as the shrewish tones she used. If one's mood was not exactly buoyant at the thought of the four-hour blood-cleaning stupor one has to endure, this absolutely shattered it.
THE WARD WAS A LONG, fluorescent-lit, white-washed room, heavy with the smell of antiseptic, with an underlying rank metallic whiff, that of blood. To dispel the gloomy effect of this cheerless room, all the recliners were cobalt blue, and all the plastic pails, into which the used tubings were dropped, a pale salmon pink. The nurses, in the charge of one Sister Pandora, were mostly Chinese. They played saccharine songs, like Islands in the Stream and Tonight I Celebrate My Love For You, or Kenny G instrumentals, to jazz up the sessions.
Sister Pandora, the roly-poly head nurse with a large, silver cross dangling on her bosom, told me she didn't intervene when Mrs. Khoo decided to claim the No. 1 recliner for herself because there was a different matrix to the rules that I hadn't yet understood. There were two kinds of patients in the ward. Paying and non-paying, i.e. those on government subsidy. There were also bad patients and good patients. Fussy ones like Mrs. Khoo were clearly in the former category. Sister Pandora explained it like this: “Mrs. Khoo may be a bad patient, bad patients make our lives very difficult, but she is a bad paying patient, so we live with what we can.”
There, in succinct terms, Sister Pandora had managed to describe the politics of a ward, the endless push-and-pull of the patient-nurse power dynamic, the cycle of actions and repercussions. It was manifestly clear that it was no good antagonizing the nurses. We were at their mercy. Three times a week, a nurse aimed a three-inch long needle at my veins, and looking at her pull on her elastic gloves, I never failed to pray that she wouldn't be distracted, that she wasn't having premenstrual syndrome or a bad hair day or been slapped about by an abusive spouse, that she wasn't in any way emotional, moody or impatient, that she would, like an archer with consummate skill, pierce the vein at the first try.
It brought to mind similar occasions in my life when I'd felt so helpless and out on a limb. Once was before the three judges of the Rotary Club about to decide whether to grant me a scholarship to Oxford. They had told me how much they liked my essay, how impressed they were with my athletic and scholastic achievements, and my spirit soared with hope, and then they told me they'd decided to grant the scholarship to someone more needy. It was a real blow to my hopes of going to England. But it turned me towards the United States, and with loans, I was able to attend the University of Chicago at Carnegie-Mellon, obtaining my PhD in Mathematics some ten years later. In those days, I was the only Malaysian in the mathematics doctorate program.
I DIDN'T SET OUT to put Mrs. Khoo in her place. Even though I am a retired university professor, I had never used my intelligence and logic to lord over someone obviously inferior. How then did I find myself in the dubious and mortifying position of feuding with a decrepit old woman?
Our dog, Mussolini, became ill. He retched, regurgitated whatever he ate, and there were blood flecks in his feces. Doreen made the earliest vet appointment she could. It turned out to be first thing on a morning I was scheduled to be dialysed. She had to drop me off early, so early that the doors to the ward were still locked.
When I entered the ward, Sister Pandora was still busy folding newly-laundered blankets. She nodded at me, said to sit down anywhere I chose. Now, did I not know that Mrs. Khoo had bagged the No. 1 recliner for herself day after day? Did I not know she was coming in that morning? Did I not know that by taking her seat I was starting something? In the back of my subconscious, a Cartesian morality still held sway. First come first serve - it was the fairest way to apportion a benefit everyone wanted. Second, I'd observed that Mrs. Khoo only held onto her monopoly by ensuring she was the earliest. Her power hegemony was flimsy. It had been my experience that a lot of power plays were bluffs. Call the bluff, and the bully backs down. Last, I was a paying patient too.
So, I helped myself to one of the folded blankets and walked over to the No. 1 recliner. I paused because a man of my intelligence realized that it was possible I was starting a war. Nevertheless, the thought of an entire morning spent in the pleasant breeziness of the No. 1 recliner was too much to resist. I had every moral right on my side. I smoothed out the blanket on the No. 1 recliner, taking care to tuck in the edges. I propped up my blown-up airplane cushion for my neck. I dragged out an old mothball-smelling jumper Doreen had insisted I take with me this morning and put it on. Comfortably settled, I waited for one of the nurses to hook me up. Somehow, in the process of waiting, I fell asleep.
I was woken up by a jab in my ribs.
Old Mrs. Khoo stood glowering at me. Her backscratcher hovered above my jaw, which apparently she had used to prod me. “You're in my seat,” she said.
“That's my seat, I said. Haven't gone deaf, I hope.”
“There are plenty of seats around here, Madam.” My arm swept towards several other vacant recliners around the ward.
She glared. “But this is my seat,” she said.
“I was here first.”
“Everyone knows I sit here and nowhere else. I sit here in this chair for a reason. I'm very ill. I need my routine. I've got nothing against you. I'm merely a helpless old woman.” She was getting shrill.
“Well, I'm a helpless old man,” I said. “And I was here first. There's nothing on this chair that says it's yours, that you own it. Or perhaps,” here, my tone turned arch, “you've engraved your name? You've bought shares or some other form of ownership?”
Mrs. Khoo's face swelled. Her eyes bulged. “I won't stand for that. I won't.”
“You seem discomfited,” I said. “Why don't you sit down? Whatever is the trouble here, I'm sure we can resolve it amicably. Like peaceful citizens.”
Mrs. Khoo took umbrage. She bellowed for Sister Pandora, her chest heaving as she sucked in lungfuls of air in between yells. By now the ward was teeming with patients settling in, family members and attendants. Everyone swung round to look at us.
Mrs. Khoo brandished her backscratcher at me, which really got my ire up, and she began to shout, “Don't you think you can bully me, old man. I'm just as good as you. You may have your prissy manners and your high-class education. You can pull rank. None of that fazes me. I've eaten more bitterness in my life than you've seen in several lifetimes put together. And I'm warning you. You are in my seat. A man like you, with your privilege,” she stopped to inhale another lungful of air, “should not stoop to fighting with an old woman.”
It was a hit below the belt. She went for my pride. It was the old yin yang battle, and I felt that hot bolt of shame as she'd meant me to. How low could you stoop? Here we both were, doing the moral limbo rock in a dialysis ward. It was pathetic.
“What's your beef, old woman?” I roared. She'd cowed me and I wasn't going to let her know it. I got up and shook my fist so zestfully that she cowered. “What makes you think you have a superior right to this chair? Do you think you've suffered more than any of us? Don't you know that needles know no discrimination or distinction? We hurt in all the same places, and when we croak, it's a hole in the ground for me, same as you.”
Sister Pandora intervened at this point. Her tone was brisk. “Dennis, I'm sorry. This is Mrs. Khoo's customary seat. Would you mind terribly sitting over here instead?”
Just like that, Sister Pandora had up-ended the scales of justice in the ward. She created an overriding rule, called customary or preferred seating, thereby demolishing the even playing field we had before. Of course, no set of rules worked in a vacuum. Take a classroom, for instance, the way students gravitated towards their preferred seating. Backbenchers would always choose to sit in the back. Eager beavers sat in front, and they even picked the exact same seat for each class. Even so, it was understood that one did not own one's preferred chair, ownership being the highest moral right. Preference, however, was universally understood to be a matter of random inclination. Therefore, if a more equitable principle was called into play, such as someone else being there first, one had to yield one's preference. Sister Pandora indicated by this unfair preferential treatment that there were other insidious factors at work, factors beyond one's control such as patient mood, patient personality, and nursing convenience. What she did angered me more than anything else Mrs. Khoo might have said. I was absolutely livid. I stewed throughout my dialysis session, and managed to upset the tenuous equilibrium that my blood pressure had to maintain. I suffered afterwards from extreme lightheadedness and nausea. All in all, it was one of the most difficult dialysis sessions I'd ever had.
There was also something horrific and demeaning to me about being addressed by my first name, particularly after a lifetime of “Professor Tan” and “sir”. It was as if Sister Pandora had stripped me of my rank without so much as a by-your-leave. Retired Mathematics professor, a PhD from Carnegie-Mellon, a first-rate lecturer at the University of Malaya, and look at him now, two curdled peanuts as kidneys, hanging onto life by a fake tube, and he'd have to be hooked up to machines three times a week for the rest of his life in order to urinate. As much as I believed that our illnesses leveled us, I understood then that in a ward full of the sick and dying, the fight to clamber over each other on the human food chain continued unabated, albeit in the form of a fight over a chair.
I BEGAN TALKING to the other ward patients. Pak Aziz was in favor of a fairer system. He too would like his turn at the chair. Daniel Chee shrugged. He claimed indifference. “A chair is a chair. If the No. 1 recliner can shorten time, make these bloody sessions go faster, maybe I would care more.”
Mrs. Kumar was all about female catty revenge. “Oh sure, put her in her place. That uppity shrew.”
Chrysanthemum preferred oblivion. “Try my chicken mushroom bun. I rolled the dough myself last night. Steamed it first thing in the morning.”
But no one that I talked to could argue that the system I devised was a bad one. Those who cared about the chair would draw lots. Those who didn't would be considered 'opt-outs', thereby forfeiting their rights. The lots were numbered 1, 2, 3, and so on. The number drawn would indicate one's turn. It was a fair and square rotation system. No more fights, no more ambiguity about which rules governed, or which rule trumped.
This was the period I felt Doreen was the most unsupportive of my illness. When I explained to her my strategy for administering justice, she chewed her lip, eyeing me steadily. Then, she said, “Dennis, have you forgotten? It doesn't work like that here. There aren't rules that trump other rules. Anything goes, most of the time. Look at the way Malaysians board airplanes. There's no first come first serve, no orderly rows, it's a mad thronging and barrage into the airplane.”
“Well, we are not an airplane.” She had a point but I was stubborn. “We can strive to be civilized.”
“I don't see what you're getting out of this. I don't get you,” she said.
Irascibly, I went ahead. Everyone agreed to my system, except Mrs. Khoo. She refused to talk to me.
“You will be considered an opt-out if you refuse,” I said. I'd come and sat down beside her during the cantina break, when the nurses were passing out Malay kuehs and cups of coffee.
Mrs. Khoo sniffed. “I don't want to play any games.”
“It's not a game. It's a way to make the system fairer.”
“What system?” She looked genuinely confused. “This is my chair. Why should I want to share it?”
I sighed. “There, you see. That's the trouble. It's not your chair.”
“Certainly it is. I sit here every day.”
“Mrs. Khoo. You were able to sit here every day by the sheer generosity of the other ward patients. They indulged you. By allowing you the luxury of sitting here, they have to give up something themselves.”
She became visibly tense. Her eyes narrowed and her tone rose sharply. “What are you talking about? What do they have to give up?”
I rubbed my brow. “It's called marginal utility. You're assuming no one cares about the chair as much as you. But they do. I do. It means a lot to me to be able to sit in the No. 1 recliner too.”
“Dr. Tan, I don't know what you mean by magictility. You can't possibly know how much this chair means to me. You can't possibly know.”
I was getting impatient. “We can all say the same. How do you know what it means to Pak Aziz to be able to sit in the No. 1 recliner once in awhile? Or to me? This system is fair. It's fair to everybody. Everyone's agreed, so you really have no choice in the matter. I'm merely asking you out of deference to your seniority.”
Mrs. Khoo's face turned pallid. Her pupils became graphite with hate. “My son breaks his back to pay for these sessions,” she pleaded. Her voice might have begged, but her eyes shot daggers.
“What's that got to do with anything?” I said. “All right then, Mrs. Khoo, in or out?”
She glowered. In the end, she shook her head and I struck her name out with satisfaction.
A WEEK LATER, the system was working impeccably. Eleven people coveted the No. 1 recliner, three chose to opt-out, including Mrs. Khoo. When I presented my scheme to Sister Pandora, she, too, shook her head. “Ok, Dennis, fine by me. I don't make the rules here.” This last was rich enough to make one choke on one's saliva.
We all took turns. Each of us had our own way of personalizing the recliner: Mrs. Kumar brought in her lace antimacassar, Daniel Chee brought in some kind of gaudy towel with Spiderman leaping out of it, Pak Aziz had his water-bottle, his mat-stitched-with-rollers and his little fat bananas. Others brought in monogrammed pillows, jars of tiger balm and peppermint sprays. I brought in my old jumper and airplane cushion. Mrs. Khoo was relegated to a chair close to the nurse's cubicle, and from there, she directed her bitter darts of incipient animosity. Doreen only had this to say. “What's with you, Dennis? Getting your kicks out of morally walloping an old woman? Over a silly old chair?” It hurt me that even my wife could completely misapprehend the gravity of the situation, fail to grasp what was at stake.
DURING THIS FEUD, there was one curious incident where I found myself in Mrs. Khoo's confidence one morning as both of us sat next to each other, getting dialysed. Apropos of nothing, she began talking about her own childhood. She was the eldest of an even dozen, and from the tender age of eight, knew how to slaughter a chicken, build a charcoal fire, sew a samfoo. She had singing ambitions. And once, had brought the house down in a singing competition in Tapah. She could be talking to anybody really, dialysis had a way of making strangers bedfellows and confidantes, even those bent on destroying each other's peace of mind.
But then, she said, “You wouldn't know anything about deprivation, Professor Tan. You look like you've grown up with a silver spoon.”
I frowned. “Most certainly not.” I told her how hard I'd had to work towards my scholarship, how I'd pinned all my hopes on a Rotary, that my father had to borrow against the house and his construction business to secure a loan big enough for me to go to university. I told her about surviving on bread and water the first week I was at Carnegie-Mellon until I found weekend work waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant. “I've known some hard times myself.”
Mrs. Khoo rolled her dentures in her mouth. “Hmm…it isn't at all the same, but I can see that to you, it has to be.”
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT wasn't unexpected. The law of natural order would have predicted that when a group of people expected the worst to happen, it usually came to pass.
One morning, we arrived to find that the lever of the No. 1 recliner was no longer working. The chair that could tip back at a further angle of repose than all other chairs could only creak back now a couple of notches. Even the footrest had jammed. While it showed no signs of having been tampered with, once we started a discussion, there was no stopping the speculation. Mrs. Kumar mentioned that she'd switched her afternoon session yesterday with Mrs. Khoo for one reason or another. There were only two dialysis sessions a day: morning and afternoon, four hours each. Someone else then mentioned that the chair was working perfectly yesterday afternoon. It was determined that the last person to use the chair was Mrs. Khoo. Someone asked whether it was reasonable to suspect some form of foul play here.
No one accused her outright. It was decided not to pursue the matter further. The chair was dead and that was that. Sister Pandora simply replaced the No. 1 recliner with another cobalt blue chair. Dialysis patients here were a superstitious lot. You could replace the chair but it couldn't live up to the legacy of the No. 1 recliner. Its leather padding squeaked like a baby grabbing a blown-up balloon; its lever was stiff and hard to operate despite the squirts of grease.
We were all in search of metaphysical scapegoats, someone to blame for all that we had to endure. There was almost a pack mentality here. Mrs. Khoo had chosen to stand outside the ring of concession and accord, and for that, she would have to pay. The aura in the ward boiled with resentment towards Mrs. Khoo. She was universally shunned. No one offered her any more of their tea-cakes or Kek-Lok chicken biscuits or finely-brewed Oolong. I did wonder whether it was entirely fair to convict someone without more evidence. None of us had actually seen her sabotage the chair. There was also the question of motive. Why would she want to break our favorite chair?
Amazingly enough, only days after the No. 1 recliner had been cast out as rubbish, nobody reminisced or talked about it. The system was scrapped. I myself ceased to miss it. However prized while still useful, it was unceremoniously discarded after it broke. It didn't take a PhD in Mathematics to spot the analogy one could make to those able-bodied among us who found ourselves suddenly felled by disease.
Several days later, Sister Pandora made a change on the white notice-board. As I was closest to it that day, I watched as she erased Mrs. Khoo's name for the morning sessions and changed it to the afternoon. “What's happened?” I asked.
“Her son says her leg has gotten infected. Afraid it will have to be amputated. She will begin oxygenated treatment in the mornings to speed the wound's healing.”
“Ah,” I said.
“I do feel sorry for her. She lost her husband just last year, then her daughter miscarried, and now she's about to lose her leg.”
This last felt like someone's knocked the wind from my windpipe. I wasn't prepared for the pangs of dark and hollow misgivings I felt. I was ashamed of myself. The shame was so raw and unexpected I wasn't myself for days. When I finally confided in Doreen, she tilted her head. “You know, Dennis. I didn't want to chide you because I do understand how difficult it's been for you ever since you've started dialysis. You're not so different from this tetchy old lady, you know? You've also been uncommonly obsessed about the pettiest, most mundane things. The way I see it, you've lost control over your body and health, so you try to control the small pickings.”
What Doreen said instantly resonated. My wife had always been perspicacious, able to slice right through murky situations with her bull's eye style. But I felt too ashamed just then, so I tried to hide it by losing my temper at Doreen. I told her to shut it, that she didn't know what she was talking about, that one was certainly free and idle to philosophize and pontificate about life when one was not sick and dying.
“Don't give me that, Dennis.”
“Where do you get off being so unctuous?” I shouted.
IT TOOK ME AWHILE to calm down. I sat on our verandah and watched our gardener prune and shape the octagonal hedges. I reflected. I tried to exonerate myself with logic. Which walk of life ceased to obsess and scramble over the particulate? When did we not sweat the small things? I wasn't the only human being who failed to rise above my circumstances. But long ago, in a heartfelt conversation with Doreen after watching a movie we both loved - Casablanca - I'd told her it wasn't extraordinary people who did extraordinary things that fascinated me; it was ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I'd set out to put Mrs. Khoo in her place as if I had a vendetta against her. This was no extraordinary thing. This was just bestial behavior.
I ran into Mrs. Khoo many months later at Tong Fatt's Fresh Produce. She had had her surgery, and was sitting on the wide cement pavement outside the shop in a wheelchair, her stump wrapped in a nude-color linen sock. The sight of her filled me with a horrible maw of feeling. I tried to do a volte-face, avoid saying hello. Her son saw me. He waved and called, “Professor Tan!”
I jerked my head in their direction as if I'd just seen them.
“Hello, Mrs. Khoo. How have you been?”
Her eyes cut over to me, expressionless. “Could be better,” she said. I knew better than to think that hardship sculpted character, and I noted with some relief that she was as much a harpy as before.
I felt very awkward. Conversation stalled. Then, the son said, “You look well, Dr. Tan.”
“Hmm? Yes, well, same old same old.” I cleared my throat. The apology swelled on my tongue. “Sorry about your leg there, Mrs. Khoo.”
She nodded, dropping her chin, hiding her face. Her son tried to smile. “I'm glad she weathered it ok. She's going to be fitted with a prosthetic leg later this afternoon. She might walk again yet.”
“Ach,” I said. “Well, good luck.”
Mrs. Khoo angled her head away. Her shoulders slumped. She looked exactly the way she felt - defeated by the struggles of her body. I watched her son wheel her away in jaunty steps, his plastic slippers flip-flopping and slapping the pavement with loud whacks. I watched the way he positioned his arms underneath her armpits and hoisted her into the car, staggering a few steps under her weight, the fabric of his trousers stretching tight as he bent over. I watched him collapse the wheelchair. He still hadn't quite figured it out yet, and worked and worked at the knob to release the spoke. Then, I watched as they finally drove away. Enmity and shame now bound me to Mrs. Khoo in ways friendship could not. Here I'd been claiming I understood how egalitarian illness was, but I had never been willing to spare a single jot of compassion for a fellow-sufferer. Doreen was right. We were the same. Yet, here was where Mrs. Khoo and I differed. Despite my struggles and pain, I clung to my standards of fairness and moral right, because I was still making room for hope and beauty and truth and miracle. Could I say the same for Mrs. Khoo? I stood there under the blazing mid-morning sun and absorbed the sight of Mrs. Khoo's son driving away, tipping his head at me in farewell. Mrs. Khoo reclined her head against a corner of the car window, collapsed into the world of her suffering where many things had ceased to matter.
Originally published in African Writing Online, Issue 11.