19 January 2009

Sign of things to come

It's an interesting start of year. No respite. Slam jam right onto the race track. 5,000rpms non-stop till the radiator boils over or engine gives up. The last one week was particularly adrenalinised.

12 days ago, mom and dad needed to rush to JB to see my sister so I sent them to the railway at a god-forsaken 630 in the morning. I was quite satisfied with myself to have had breakfast and bond with them. There's something about send-offs that make you dig deep and say things you normally don't say. Anyway, I left them at the station and heard the call to board when I turned the key in the ignition. I arrived at the hospital, hoping to have a breezy clinic, only to find out that a maxillectomy was suddenly on because another case was bumped off the list. Without adequate consent and without decisional review of new CT scan findings. The chaos of the morning was nerve-wracking: I had to tai-chi away my clinic, convince the patient I needed to take out his eye - don't worry sir, we do that all the time, you have another eye you hardly use right? - and revise the surgery to a bilateral neck.

That was followed by 10 hours of surgery. Strangely, holding a knife just makes the world seem right. Maybe it's the skill of working through human tissue to extricate filthy tumors and putting it all back together again. Or the sense of control in your hands - everything can be made better on the table, this table, my table. Mostly I think it's the butt-freezing air-cond, the cute scrub nurses who obey your every command, and because no one, I mean NO ONE, not even the Prime Minister can bug me here.

Cancer surgery is brave, bloody and butcheresque. Gladiator-like. That's how I like my surgeries. But it must start elegantly and end elegantly. From inked incisions to 3mm stitches. What happens in between would make an abbatoir look clean and sterile, but it's how you start and how you end that matters. I climbed Mt Kinabalu once. I remember three things - the charged ascent, full of hope and expecation; the agonising inches up the peak at 4 in the morning - who the f*** suggested I do this stupid thing - but the glory of the sun peeping through Donkey's ears and the world beneath your feet under a shroud of clouded mystery would make it worthwhile, and finally the numbed descent, limping into my bed with no sensation waist down. Long surgery is a lot like that. Raising flaps with a vengeance, get the plane, get the plane. Pausing to behold the life force in a pulsating naked carotid. And finally the zombied-brain-dead stitching that never seems to end.

The next day we were on a flight to Singapore. But not without first being denied boarding! This seems to happen to us a lot. The first time was when we were dating and I was sending her off to Kota Bharu. We were too busy saying goodbye and doing the things lovers do to notice that the gate had closed. She had to take the next flight. The second time was much later when she was pregnant with Ethan. Pregnant women were not allowed on board without a doctor's letter to say she's pregnant - I guess the giant bulge, puffy eyes and blown up ankles could've been just one bag of chips too many with salt-retention to boot - even if we were both doctors. This time: it was the expiry date on Joan's passport. It was too soon, apparently. Four months away was too close an expiry!

Yeah, like we were intending to stay in the sterilised pressure cooker for more than 3 days, I thought to myself. 'You really can't put us on board? We really didn't know about the 6-month rule.' No. You can't spit in Singapore. You can't chew gum in Singapore. You can't frigging cross a road without getting a knot in your pants wondering if you broke a law. We went to the zoo once. It's a beautiful zoo. And the animals were either small and cute or large and ferocious. And I'm not talking about furry ones that walk on fours - I'm talking about little tots in their prams and their attending mothers scribbling notes while giving their 4-yr olds their 'O' Levels mock exam: 'IS THIS ANIMAL A LAND ANIMAL OR SEA ANIMAL? I'M ASKING YOU ONE MORE TIME.. IS THIS A LAND ANIMAL OR SEA ANIMAL?' I'm not about to defect to Singapore, for goodness sakes, what's a 4-month expiry?

I was dumping clothes from one bag to another - Joan would stay, I would go on for my conference, eat alone, snore alone, wake up alone. I wasn't looking forward to the trip anymore. I had no one to blame, it was written in the passport, and that made me angrier. But before I could lock my suitcase, the ground staff appeared and announced we could fly togehter - apparently he had persuaded Singaporean customs to let this one through, dad didn't look too happy and could be a threat to lives on board, he must've thought, watching me rip apart my suitcase like King Kong.

Yesterday was Sunday. At last I got a day off. And I didn't know what to do with it. My heart was still racing. My mind reeling from a clinical trial meeting where I'm the PI - I don't know how the heck I got into this and feel like I'm totally in over my head. I was like a beat up car by the highway, bonnet open, steam all over the place - not going anywhere, just fumes, all fumes. It took a while before I could stop clicking senselessly on my Mac, burning CDs I'll never listen to, and clearing up my room just to mess it up again. When I finally fizzled out and realised I should be doing what I really WANT to do, not what I HAVE to do - more, better, faster - it was then that I picked up a book (Karen Armstrong's HISTORY OF GOD), lay down on an inflatable mattress. read a few pages, and fell asleep. I woke up once when my buttock hit the hard surface of the ground, and went back to sleep wondering if the mattress had ruptured a leak under my weight.. I should lose some, I remember telling myself before slipping into never never land.

Today I went to pick Ethan at 630pm. Dad and I ate at the table, as is customary, while mom would run around chasing Energiser bunny; playing hide-and-seek or watching Hokkien soaps, which was a favorite with Ethan. Dad and I had a longer father-son conversation, and a more philosophical one than the usual down-with-BN and curse-all-things UMNO rhetoric that goes between mouthfuls of mom's gastronomic delights. Mom has a strange ability to serve up the most delectable dishes quicker than any McDonald's with all the goodness of China. Mom's a gem. We talked about me switching over from EPF to the pension scheme - an unheard of move in 3rd generation Chinese I would think - and agreed on its insurance value, psychological worry-free benefit, recession-prrofness, and even a pretty good investment move (calculated ROI was about 47.5%! Ok 34.5% after minusing the government's 13% contribution to our EPF.) He seems to like it at my mom's a lot. When I finished chatting with dad, I found Ethan sprawled on a thin mattress, watching a cantonese soap. I tickled him and said: 'Boy, time to go home.' He grinned and said, 'Daddy bye bye.'

The last three weeks are a pretty good sign of things to come, of 2009 I'm thinking. The unending cycles of F1-style overdrive and weekend pit-stops, of adrenaline-overflow and adrenal burnout, of exhilarating achievements and brooding dark weekends. In between all that trying to learn what's important to me - the things that I enjoy, things that enrich, things that empower more self-determination, and things that enhance my skill and knowledge. And finally, growing. Growing old. Growing up with my son. Understanding his nature, seeing what his nature nurtures, nurturing what's in his nature, and simply having frolicking-about-the-park fun. Live, learn, love, leave some kind of legacy in my son, my patients, my students.

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