Eight Life Drawings
By Zhang Ruihe
There is a rhythm to life in a hospital. Or at least, there ought to be. That is how one knows that things are going right – when the medication, meals, blood pressure checks and dutiful visitations become a daily round, part of a low-frequency ebb and flow that signals all is well to patients, visitors and medical staff alike. Bad news is when the pattern is disrupted, or is indiscernible to begin with: senior nurses rushing headlong between rooms, snapping instructions at junior nurses, a stainless steel trolley left parked any-which-way next to the beds, medicines carelessly administered at the wrong times.
One wishes for the clarity of a Baroque concerto – stately, like a winter morning in its clean austerity. One soon learns the futility of such wishing.
Of all the betrayals we learn to endure and live with, the hardest are the ones enacted by our own bodies. We can understand, if not forgive, the people who turn against us. Et tu, Brute? we may ask, but deep down we know that we are every bit as capable of sinking that knife in the backs of our nearest and dearest as the next human being. As long as the stakes are high enough, we can never be sure of our love.
But how to comprehend the Brute that we inhabit – the acne that flares out the day before that long-awaited date, that clammy palm that reaches out to shake the hand of the interviewer at your 10th job interview (hope steadily diminishing with each successive failure), the cancerous cells running amok as your blood courses through your veins, leaving nothing untouched in its toxic passage?
I have always had a secret phobia of leaning against parapets on tall buildings, or standing at open windows without window grilles. In my mind, I cannot shake the thought that my body would, without any volition on my part, start climbing over the parapet on its own accord and fling itself towards the ground below. The feeling is so strong sometimes that I have to back away from the ledge, put some distance between my body and the fate that it should fear.
The other day I had the strange experience of waking to turn off the alarm clock, only to find that my right hand would not obey my brain. Instead, it jutted out at an awkward angle from what may have been my hip (I cannot remember; I was half asleep), and panic rose in my throat as I tried and failed to coax the displaced limb out of its frozen somnolence. Meanwhile, the alarm bell kept ringing and ringing – shrill, unrelenting, a reminder that time was passing, passing, passing, and that I had to fix my arm soon, before the time became Too Late.
What a mystery the healthy human machine is – every part so exquisitely made, so fearfully and wonderfully fitted together, functioning often below the level of conscious thought. Let's go, we half-think to ourselves, and our legs, back, hips, arms, neck, head – all leap to attention and instant obedience. Thought and intention are translated almost immediately, into seamless action, and how, how on earth this happens – there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy – and this may be one of them.
Indignity upon indignity. All is indignity! Let me not go slowly into that good night. Rage, rage against the indignity of bedpans and diapers, enemas, needles, IV-drips and feeding tubes – the whole repertoire of instruments and equipment designed to render life as an invalid more liveable. Give me a quick exit, dear God in heaven, let my body obey my will in this if in nothing else. No lingering in a body half-crushed by illness or accident, no hanging back as blood and bone become one flesh with a tangle of plastic, rubber and metal. Let me walk through that door, head held high. Unencumbered. Unafraid.
I first understood a little of what hell might sound like on a series of visits to a public hospital several years ago. The hospital had open wards, so noise travelled easily from one end of the corridor to the other. And oh, how it travelled. I had never heard real pain before, but the cries of the patients in that hospital more than made up for the lack.
Once, driven by curiosity and goodness knows what other dark impulse, I went to see for myself. The old woman was curled up on the bed, wrists tied to the bedrail with a thin strip of white cloth to keep her from pulling out the tubes that were sustaining her life. From the bed rose a sound that couldn't possibly have been coming from the loose heap of skin and green cotton pyjamas lying on the mattress. It began as a guttural groan that grew to a pulsing, enraged keening that continued, unabated, and there were waves and waves of it, and it spoke of fear and loneliness and anger and grief. There was no one to comfort her and she was all alone.
The human animal, dying, unloved.
I have learnt that people need love like they need food and water and air. It's elemental, and without it, the soul shrivels up and dies, as surely as the body dies when cut off from its sources of nourishment. Unlike the body, though, a soul's dying doesn't always look like weakness. See that child sulking silently in the corner, her downturned mouth crying Love me! to her heart-torn parents; see that teenager clowning it up in the back row of the classroom, his every gesture crying Love me! to his teachers and peers; see that middle-aged spinster jauntily pushing her shopping trolley along the supermarket shelves, the almost-empty cart crying Love me! to the other shoppers down the aisle; see that old man snapping at his wife when she forgets to sugar his coffee, his irritation crying Love me! to the memory of the woman he married.
See all these people, trying to satiate the gaping maws of human need.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 4 Oct 2012