The Edge of Death

A scurry of footsteps broke out outside my father’s hospital room. A wheel bed was pushed out of the emergency room, down the hall way, and into the lift opposite my father’s room. Heads popped out of doors held ajar and dotted the 100-meter hall way. Prying eyes tailed the shrouded remains on the wheel bed. Sighs of shock, sympathy and sadness were uttered and smothered.

“I heard he was quite young.” A woman in her forties said in a low voice. She was the daughter of patient No. 21, who took the bed opposite my father’s.

“Goodness…How old?”A woman in her late fifties or early sixties cried as she turned her head back to the room from the hall way. She was here to look after her father, No. 17.

“Don’t know. But he was in this room a few days ago before he was moved to the emergency room.”

I immediately knew who the new deceased was. Patient No. 20. Or former patient No. 20. A silent patient. One of the two young patients in the room. He had been in hospital for a while when my father was admitted into the hospital and took bed No. 15. The whole time I was there looking after my father, he was silent, except when he vomited, a common symptom from doing chemotherapy.  His parents, a Cantonese couple in their early fifties, were friendly, ordinary people. Just a few days before, they struck up a conversation with my father. The husband was even trying to say something in Hakka to amuse my father. When my father couldn’t understand him, he laughed embarrassedly. That very night, former patient No. 20 vomited from dusk to dawn. The next morning, his mother cried desperately while telling someone on the phone that her son would like to see him or her. Hours later, a group of people came, standing around the bed, silent and sorrowful. The air in the room was heavy with helpless sadness as well as medicines and sick breath. Stifling. No. 20 quieted down for the rest of the day since mid morning. But when I returned to the hospital the next day, an old man was lying in bed No. 20. I didn’t dare to ask where the young man was and felt relieved when I spotted his parents in the emergency room one morning while sending my dad to do a treatment session. “Hang in there,” I said to myself as if I could cheer him or his parents up. I had seen several deaths in less than a month’s time and really didn’t want to see another one.  Each one put me to the edge of tears that I struggled to hold back. Life could be so fragile. Even a stranger’s death brought severe pain to my heart. I worried how that would affect my father, who didn’t know he had lung cancer, but suspected we lied to him about his illness. One day, he said to me, “That old woman next door died last night. Someone cried heartbreakingly. It was harrowing.” I didn’t know what to say and could only imagine the harrowing and heartbreaking cry in the eerie small hour. My father had suffered from insomnia for decades and it got worse while in hospital. When he couldn’t sleep in the hospital – every night, he must have experienced a lot. But he is such a calm, sensible, considerate person, and rather reserved like most Chinese his age, he wouldn’t tell me how he felt. I wondered how former No. 20’s death affected his heart. I looked at Bed No. 20, which belonged to the new deceased only days ago. The new No. 20 was also very sick and seemed to be on his way to the emergency room, too. Once a patient entered the emergency room, it was difficult, if not impossible, for him or her to come out alive. I wanted to cry badly. I took a deep breath, craned back my head and closed my eyes so my tears wouldn’t burst out. Then I peeled an apple for my father, pretending nothing unusual was happening outside the room, when I heard the inquisitive voice of No. 21’s daughter again.

“Hey, you are not supposed to use this lift,” She whispered. An audible whisper to someone standing at the hall way and about to enter the lift. The lift opposite my father’s room was mostly locked except when the staff wheeled dead bodies out and when the kitchen staff brought in hospital meals three times a day. Now it was unlocked because former No. 20 was just wheeled out.


“How old was he?”  No. 21’s daughter asked the person between the lift and my father’s room.


“Thirty!” The woman turned to the room, she forgot to suppress her voice, “You hear? Only thirty!” More people in our room sighed, shocked and sympathetic. The woman continued to ask, “Was he the only child? Was he married?”

I  couldn’t help feeling disgusted, looked up, glanced at her and quickly looked down to hide my facial expression. When my father finished his apple, the hall way turned back to normal. I handed my father my iPad so he continued to read Kawabata Yasunari and I resumed my own reading in my kindle. There was not much we could do while in hospital except reading. Reading was the only thing to filter us from the patients’ moans of pain and suffering,  bursts of desperate coaxing or coercions of their care givers, gossips about the new deceased or the soon-to-dies,  discussions and complaints of the current medicare system, and bossy orders from nurses. Sometimes it was impossible to escape from these disturbing and depressing sounds, particularly when the son of No. 18 was trying to feed him – always unsuccessfully and when the daughter of No. 17 was helping him to poop – in bed and with extreme difficulty. They often happened at the same time, almost every day.

An hour later, from the lift where dead bodies were taken away came the kitchen lady. She brought my father’s lunch. As my father ate his lunch, wife of No. 18 came with a lunch box. A white-haired woman in her eighties, she dragged her feet in with the help of a cane. “How is he?” She asked her son before she reached her husband’s bed. A very tired voice.

“Same.” Her son, a man in his fifties, replied impatiently.

“You should eat, listen to the doctor, otherwise you won’t get well and can’t get out of hospital. Behave and eat.” The old woman said as she handed the lunch box to her son, in a tone my neighbor used to coax her three-year-old grandson to eat.

“He never listens,” Her son grunted.

The old woman sighed, sat down in a chair by the bed and watched her son feeding her husband.

“Come on, one bite,” her son held a spoon in front of her husband’s mouth, who sat in bed silent and motionless.

“Ah! Open your mouth,” the son tried again. I could feel his impatience, which he tried to hold back.

“You must eat,” the old woman sighed again.

“Come on! Ah, open your mouth, one bite. ” The son was about to lose his patience.

“Eat! Be good, ok? Oh, gosh, what can we do? You don’t eat, just rely on drips.” The old woman rose from the chair and stood by her husband, who refused to eat anything. “Behave, eat. The food is expensive and delicious. Oh, if only everything ends now! Isn’t it nice if the doctor could give the patient an injection, then suffering stops. Why is euthanasia illegal in China? ”

“Don’t want to talk about this!” Her son grunted, continued to feed his father, “One bite. Damn. Why don’t you eat? Are you trying to save your money for …?”

“He won’t,” His mother said, “just don’t know where he put his money.”

“You ask your old man where he put his money. Cash or bank notes or cards. I just hope he didn’t hide the money in some places like old shoe boxes or pockets of old clothes, which could easily be thrown away. A lot of stupid old people do that. That would be a huge loss.”

“I will check all the pockets of his clothes. One by one.” The old woman reassured her son.

By the time my father finished his lunch, No. 18 had only one bite of food in his mouth. When my father took his after-meal medicine and lay down for his midday nap, No. 18’s son lost his temper and scolded his father, “Swallow! What’s the fun of playing food in your mouth! Are you a baby?!” And No. 17’s daughter cried suddenly, “What! Want to poop again? Poop or pee? Be clear! Poop? Ok. Hold it now. I’ll get the toilet bowl! Coming! Gosh, even if I offer ¥10,000 a day, I wouldn’t be able to hire someone to look after you! Hold it. Coming…” As No. 18 played with food in his mouth and No. 17 struggled to poop with his daughter nagging and complaining, my father closed his eyes to take his nap. He couldn’t sleep, opened his eyes and asked, “Can we go out earlier today?”

“I wake you around 1:45, then we go to Sun Yet Sun University, ok?” I said. Like my father, I always looked forward to the afternoons, the only time we could escape from the depressing hospital. My father woke earlier each afternoon because he was so eager to get out of the hospital. Every afternoon, he jumped out of bed and announced like a child, “I am ready to go!” The other people in the room, both patients and their care givers, looked at us admiringly. My father, 84 years old and one of the oldest patients in the room, was the only one who didn’t have pain or needed intense care, and could take off after morning’s treatment was over.  Even so, the time in the hospital was difficult for us. We counted days every morning and evening. Every day, I cheered not only my father but also myself, “Dad, eight more days to go, then we go home!” “ A week left!” “Five more days, Less than a week!” “Now only three days left!”…

With time, we got more cheerful and hopeful. But for most other people in this room, it was the opposite. Two days before my father got out of hospital, No. 19 gave up his treatment and decided to die at home instead of in the emergency room. His wife, a soft-spoken woman in her thirties, squeezed a smile as she said goodbye to us, her eyes red from crying. It was the most helpless and saddest smile I had ever seen.  One day before my father finished his treatment, we stumbled upon the father of former No. 20 as we waited for the lift. He seemed smaller and shorter than a few days ago. He slumped and buried his head between shoulders. I greeted him good morning after a hesitant moment. He looked up, greeted us with a smile – another sad, sad smile – and looked down again soon. It was hard to believe he was the same man who tried to speak Hakka to amuse my father just a few days before. I wished I could give him a hug or shake his hands, but all I could do was wishing him the best silently as I squeezed my father’s hand. Tomorrow my father would get out of hospital. I couldn’t be more grateful for this as I felt deeply sorry for the loss of former No. 20’s father.

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