Push

Nearing the end of my three months in Katherine, NT, I had the crazy idea of riding my bicycle on a 60km journey to Katherine Gorge and back — this is coming from the most unfit person ever. Totally inexperienced, I got a flat front tire only a little while into my journey, and without a puncture repair kit.

I decided, young and unthinking, to push on instead of turning around and going back. So I pushed and pushed my bike, up and down hills on a seemingly endless highway that led me on. Asphalt beneath my feet, surrounding me was mostly just grass, and nothing much else. But along the way I dropped into an isolated farmhouse, into a tourist helicopter pad, and an Aboriginal village that came my way. Rose was a nurse who happened to work in Katherine Hospital whose husband ran the farm and had an air compressor. Neil was a young man looking bored behind the counter by himself who fortuitously could find a small air pump amongst other random stuff in the storeroom. This Aboriginal village — I don’t know why it had an air compressor, but it definitely did, and thank God too. The Aboriginal man who helped me operate the compressor (and I can’t remember his name) didn’t smile or talk much, but it was ok. Each time with my tire filled, but not patched, I would ride for a short while until it became flat again, then pushed, and pushed my bike until I found my next help.

In retrospect I must have pushed for almost 20km in the noon sun with 2 litres of water in my backpack. At the time though I had absolutely no idea where I was, how far more I had to go, or whether I would be able to make it at all — I just pushed, and pushed, for hours. And I learned, amongst other things, perseverance. Just pushing on.

In the end I reached the Gorge, intact. It was a good feeling. When evening came later, I took the bus finally back to Katherine, and with the manager’s permission I could carry my bicycle along too.

I remember a few things from that day.

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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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When she was nine years old, this girl had an abscess on her leg that spread to her face. It became so rampant that the doctors had to remove her right eye to control the infection. Since then she wore an artificial eye on that side — immaculately made to resemble her natural eye in the colour and even the fine details of the pupil. Her external eye muscles were sewn onto the prosthetic eye so that it moved together with her good eye on the left, only with minimal squint on the extreme lateral gazes. You could barely tell that it was artificial — I certainly couldn’t, until I closely examined with a torch!

When she was in her teens, she had a boyfriend. She decided to tell her boyfriend that her right eye was actually fake, and her boyfriend left her immediately.

Later in her twenties she met a guy, and they fell in love and got together. When she was deliberating whether to tell this guy the truth about her eyes, there was anxiety and she wasn’t sure what to expect.

But she told him the truth — and the guy looked at her and replied, “So what? I’ve only got one eye too.”

Just a few years ago, the guy had got into a major motor vehicle accident with severe facial trauma and skull fractures. The doctors had to fix a metal plate in his forehead and tie his left cheekbone together with wires. His left eye was still intact, but the optic nerves had been cut. The scars have healed up well now and only a very slight displacement of his left eye is what remains. Just by looking at him, you couldn’t tell that he was seeing only from his right eye. She had not known until then.

“I guess we were made for each other,” the woman said to me, sitting beside him. They are soon approaching their seventies, and have been together as husband and wife for more than forty years now. This is a true story.

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