Friday, May 11, 2007

Sometimes to be Cruel is to be Kind

Recently, the wife of a friend of mine threw a party for him. He and his then ten year old son were fairly regular tennis players in our little Tuesday tennis group. Sometime just over a year ago, during a common break (there were two courts and four pairs going at any one time) I asked him how he was. He always had a big gentle smile on his face. He told me he was okay. His wife who often followed them but didn't join in corrected him and told him to tell me about the incident that happened during the week. My curiosity piqued, I couldn't help but ask and at his wife's persistence, he relented and told me that a few days ago, while he was taking a shower, he fainted. It seems he woke up a few moments later with a powerful throbbing pain in his head. That was probably from the fall, he said. When I fainted my head must have just crashed on to the hard floor. Ouch.

That story had a very sinister feel to it. And my friend, he was a very fit fourty-something. He was trim, lean and modestly muscled. He was quite the sportsman as well. There were few games he didn't play. So there was no reason why he should blackout in the shower. I suppose, the story had the effect the wife wanted and expected, no doubt. I immediately impressed upon him the urgency and seriousness of getting himself looked out. he laughed and waved it off as perhaps an overwhelming tiredness. He was working rather hard those few months before that. Undeterred, I impressed upon him not to take such telling signs so casually and told him of the experience of my somewhat distant experience of cancer through my family and friends hoping to scare him to the doctor.

I think it was only a few months later when I noticed he had stopped coming. A little later, we were told he was diagnosed with brain cancer. We were shocked. He went down to Singapore for confirmation. It was confirmed. The doctors there advised for surgery of the tumour and it was carried out. Unfortunately however, they could not remove all of it. Bits of the tumour were just too deep in his brain for them to get at. So they left it and hoped it would not grow, or at least he would get well quickly enough for them to carry out chemotherapy.

But things just did not go his way. The tumours came back with a vengeance and he didn't take well to the chemotherapy either, so they stopped it. The doctors gave him six months. That's all you have they told him. And when they told him that, he was exactly how I last saw him - fit, wholesome, and beaming away. And he was generally a great kind of guy - strong family man, fit, great at his work, generous. Brain tumour. Six months. I don't think I can ever, ever truly understand what that must be like. To be told that suddenly, one day, I'm sorry, you're checking out uh, in the next six months and no there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. Mom and Dad cannot help. Your family. Your friends. Nobody can give you the rest of your expected life back. There's nobody you can bribe to reverse it. There's no lawsuit you can file to reverse this horror. There's just you. And Death.

Things went hard pretty damn fast. Amazingly he lived past the time period he was told for a good seven months by around now. That party was for him. He had a beautiful house which he had just completed when he was told of of his fate. He had designed it and supervised the building. Very tasteful. He was laid out on one of those aluminium recliner chairs with the big rubber bands wrapped around the frame, a pale shadow of his former self. His face and body had shrunk. His thin pale legs lay awkwardly, his left leg almost falling off the recliner. His hands were gripped at the joints so hard that he looked like he had paws instead of hands. The colour of his skin was a sickly pale colour. He always had a healthy fresh looking tan. He could not speak, walk, eat, or do anything you and I can do. The most he could do was shift his legs a little, move his hands a little and open his eyes. It is always so very sad and painful to see anyone like this, more so a friend or member of family.

And as he lay there, I looked at him and then was interrupted by a rather chubby Chinese lady with unusually red cheeks (probably from too much make up) clad in a dark blue shirt with bright pink and white coloured words reading 'Jesus Loves You'. She asked me whether I was his friend and I said yes. She then proceeded to tell me that when he was diagnosed with the cancer, he turned to Jesus for help and went to their church. They said that he was a very good Christian and prayed a lot. I wanted to say, Woman, I know this here's a good man. Then she prattled on about how with the power of prayer they can help the healing process. Drawing attention to my friend, she proudly announced the might of prayer to Jesus because he had lived passed the six months the doctors had given to him for up to seven months more. What finer example do we have of His Mercy (I later found out that this brand of Christianity is called Charismatic i.e. those who believe in faith healing). This I suppose is where she and I look at the same thing but see completely different things. I am not quite sure what kind of mercy that is so I just smiled politely and kept my mouth as tightly shut as I could. To not be able to live and be so paralyzed with drugs to kill the pain. To live merely for life's sake is not living indeed. This is the living death.

And while she was saying all these things, there in the living room was a projector playing a video of one of Malaysia's former Ministers preaching about God and Jesus. He's up there all alone with the microphone having a blast. Hands churning, flaying, held up, stretched out - he was working it. I wasn't listening but for the one and a half hours I was there, it was still going strong with little indication of stopping any time soon. It was on already when I was there too.

I have often thought of such a scenario happening to myself and wondered what I would do. Would I live through it, in false hope (no, I suppose wouldn't, I don't think I can even live with that) and finally let death claim me through a thick cloud of drugs, pain and sadness, or would I take my own life, quit while you're ahead kind of thing? We do it for animals when they are useless or lame (especially horses) or getting too old or even if they have a kind of cancer (yes, animals can get it too). Why do we hesitate to do so when humans get that way - when we become, so useless, our existence so meaningless to ourselves as it is expensive and enervating for our loved ones, each day a crawl up a mountain of pain where there is never a down slope? They say it is because of the sacredness of life. But then what sacredness can there be left in a life unlived, a life in anguish, in excruciating pain, lived through a drug laden haze? It is said that sometimes to be kind is to be cruel and sometimes to be cruel is to be kind. Is this not one of those latter instances?

He can do nothing about this second wave of cancer this time. This is it for him. Yet they pray, and beseech us to pray for him. But I'm not quite sure what for. For health which we know would not come? And even if he does live, what kind of life will it be? I know if I were in such a position, I should hope whoever it is that offers prayers for me would do so for the quickness of my death. For that, to me, would be an act of kindness.


art harun said...

Is this the same person I know? A partner of a legal firm. Formerly from the AG Chambers? Keen footballer (played in a team with me in the uni) and also a golfer. Seems to be good in any sport he wishes to take on. Gentle. Nice. Unassuming. Helpful. One of the nicest man you will ever ever meet. In times like this, I have to confess, I am way to unwise to the workings of God. Really. I don't understand.

sazita said...

For Sufis, death is a time of celebration and birth is a time to be sombre. When Rumi died, his diciples threw a party as that is what he wanted them to do - celebrate even though they were sad that he is no longer in physical form with them.

"If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life
For life and death are one, even as the river and sea are one ...

... Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shephard when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in hounour.
...For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing and when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance."
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet