Every moment

“Well it’s good news. Your PSA level remains low, which means your prostate cancer is all under control!” I said to the elderly gentleman in front of me. He was nearing ninety years old, but still amazingly mentally sharp. He smiled at me, but blankly. There was just the moment of awkward pause, and then I’m not sure why I asked, in a much less jubilant tone, “How is everything else?”

“Well,” he hesitated for a little. “To tell you the truth, my wife passed away a month ago.”

My heart sank with his. “I’m so sorry to hear that…” And I was. I’m sure it is excruciatingly hard. To lose what has essentially become a part of you. To be living alone again, to go through life with a pair less of eyes. What does it all mean, and how does everything matter now?

“We would have been married for sixty two years end of this year.”

“…You must miss her a lot.”

“Oh,” he gasped, “I miss her every moment,” and his voice trembled at the end.

On the way out I felt like giving this elderly gentleman a hug. I won’t know fully what he was going through, but sometimes I catch a glimpse, or two, I really do think. Some people and too many pop songs say you don’t know what you have until you lose it — but I disagree.

But sixty two years. I haven’t even lived half that long.

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Not just about exams

Once upon a time, there was a junior doctor who was getting ready to sit her upcoming professional specialist exams. Now these are stressful and difficult (or commonly so perceived) examinations, and she had dedicated a lot of time for study, and study alone. When her dad tried calling her to catch up several times during that period, she turned him down and said she would make up time with him after her exams were over. She remembered those phone calls, she remembered the promises she made.

Then on the week before her exams finally took place, her dad caught a bad pneumonia, got admitted to hospital, never recovered, and passed away a few weeks later. Among those weeks she turned up and sat her specialist exams in the worst mental situation ever — but she, with her smartness and her hard work, managed to clearly pass. Yet in her smartness she realised too that some things had changed, and that she could not turn back time even if she wanted to.

Two years later today, she is a young consultant specialist with a passion for the education of junior doctors in specialist training. She would keep telling the trainees who have exams coming up — with their brows frowned and head heavy amongst a pile of study notes — that exams are not everything; that family and friends still exist and appreciate your time. And that although they may think they’ll be less busy “after this”, it is rarely true — she would say always try to make time now.

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At the corner of our eyes, there we caught but just a glimpse of a girl glimmering in white, amidst the row of dim and dull hospital rooms lining the ward corridor. Isn’t that Jerry’s room?, we asked immediately — indeed it was, and we couldn’t help but to turn our steps around to sneak a peek.

She was Jerry’s granddaughter. She just turned twenty not too long ago and she was getting married soon. She spun around once in the room, her hands in elbow-length white gloves held the hem of her white flowing gown high to show her grandfather, and I caught a glimpse of the ring on her finger. She was partly embarrassed, partly proud, and Jerry watched with part smile, part unbelief. Jerry was the most pleasant elderly man, even with the physical pain we knew he was going through at his terminal stage. A week ago he was still walking about when he saw us in the clinic, but a few days later we paid him a visit in the Emergency Department, and now a nasogastric tube hung from his left nostril, draining material from his bowels. His bowels were no longer working due to a combination of cancer and scarring from previous surgery and radiotherapy.

But for that moment, I thought, there was so much overwhelming joy in that little crowded single room. The two of us stood there as uninvited guests, but thankfully welcomed by Jerry and his son and his daughter-in-law to join in the thrill.

If I could capture those moments in video — the girl with the puffed bouffant skirt of her gown trying to find a comfortable position stooping beside her grandfather on the hospital bed for a photo, her mother trying to work the camera with her presbyopia, her father standing beside in his tradesman work clothes, and the relatives watching and laughing and making comments amongst themselves — I don’t think I would even need to put music to it to bring a tear to those watching it.

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