Saturday, 14 April 2018

Out Of Hibernation

About two months ago, Uncle had a stroke. Someone found him crawling out of the drain he fell into and brought him to the hospital. Bits of clotted blood were found in the blood vessels in his brain, but no surgery was required. Instead, they gave him blood-thinning meds.

The news shocked the family. Uncle didn't smoke, drink or pig out. The doctor attending him mentioned high cholesterol levels, but didn't the clots cause it? How much did his cholesterol levels have to do with it? The doctor couldn't say.

Two cousins and I visited him the next day in the ICU. A day later, at an aunt's suggestion, I stayed with him for a night the night he was taken to a normal ward. Though he seemed better, half his body was weak, he couldn't speak and swallow properly, and he apparently had little control over his bladder or bowels.

When I came down to the city to live more than 25 years ago, Uncle did a lot to help me set up here. Since then, he's been the go-to guy for stuff about my rented apartment, on top of the miles-long list of stuff he did for the aunt's food business, from logistics and HR to paying bills and banking. For a long time, he was the rock in the roiling chaos of my life in the city.

Seeing him like this gutted me.

Perhaps, selfishly, I thought about me. Like Uncle, I had no spouse, little money, and few means to bounce back from such an event. Would I even be as lucky as Uncle, if and when the time came?

I was told how "lucky" I was that my family didn't have a history of debilitating illnesses - not so "lucky" now. On top of my asthma, allergic rhinitis, IBS and gastric problems, my occasional insomnia and possible depression, on top of the anxiety Uncle's illness is causing, what else awaited me down the road?

That struck right to my core. I can't afford to get into any trouble. I need more money. I need more exercise. I need more sleep. I need much, much less Malaysian food. I need a life mission - or two.

(Did I declare, repeatedly, that I picked editing and writing as jobs because I won't be retiring from them? How arrogant of me. As if I'd be able to or allowed to.)

What the hell have I been doing all this time?

Thank goodness for Lok and Fong. They endured a long wait with me for a table at a full-house Omulab on a muggy Saturday night and listened to me pour my heart out (like now) and gave me an attitude adjustment, one of many they doled out over the years.

"You gotta be the rock for your uncle now. How can you, if you go all to pieces too?"

The small batch of test chocolate chip cookies I'd made earlier in the afternoon and gave them didn't suffice.

I went home bone-tired, weary, and still a little anxious. Despite not sleeping well at the hospital, I stayed up till one-plus in the morning, tucked in by fatigue.

To calm my anxieties, I'd embarked on some spring-cleaning, including two boxes left behind by a relative. I ignored the roach carapaces (one of my kryptonites) and sorted out the contents, throwing away everything that I could justifiably discard. I also vacuumed and mopped the floors, scrubbed the bathroom a bit, and washed the bed linen.

Amazing, how much one can do in an afternoon.

Throw it all off. Let it all wash away. Doubt, pride, fear, guilt, the burdens of the past. A life with no hang-ups, no baggage and nothing to hide sounds pretty good. Liberating, possibly. I don't know if it'll ever take off in a huge way, but I need to take steps.

If only I'd learnt and embraced all of this without such a high cost.

These days, Uncle's getting better. Even though his old self appears to have re-emerged, it's as if a chunk of himself is gone. Brain and nerve damage, likely. But he's still with us.

More heartwarming is the community that grew around him during his stay. Key members were his former roommate, also a stroke victim, and the roommate's mother.

Auntie has been extra supportive; she told us about an expensive but effective health supplement for stroke recovery several other patients in the ward were taking, after a thorough investigation (i.e., being an auntie). She also told me about the Tzu Chi Foundation, which helps out with equipment and such; the National Stroke Association of Malaysia (NASAM); and other stuff.

I believe they were another reason the rate of his recovery was good, apart from the acupuncture and almost-daily exercise drills by relatives. The roommate was discharged last week, so we won't be seeing Auntie and her crew at the hospital anymore. They were super helpful in keeping him company as well when we're not around, so they will be missed. I'm grateful for them.

Still, it seems I'm not done feeling sorry for myself. Looking at Uncle, his life thus far and his condition made me wonder what all the learning, skill training, trivia gathering, resume building, what all that writing and filling up newspaper columns is for, if this is what might happen. What's the point?

For a while, I turned to CDs of podcasts by Ajahn Brahm of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia for comfort. Since I found additional podcasts of his talks online, I've been tuning into them almost every night, in lieu of the YouTube videos.

Repeated listenings of his talks - recycled similies, anecdotes, bad jokes and all - nurtured a letting-go attitude, but that also meant letting go of the muse and a weakened urge to write. I think I'm developing a nightly BrahmTalk™ habit too; he's already displaced BFM Radio on my drives to work and back.

I'm not sure if that's good or bad. But it did put some perspective on an incident about three weeks ago.

One Saturday, I received summons to visit Uncle instead of the usual Sunday. I'd scheduled things a little tight, hoping to keep a dinner date with Fong and Lok after the visit. But I thought I could sneak in a wash for the car, so off to the car wash I went. I fumed as I left for the hospital because all the nearby car washes were packed.

I left the hospital around 5pm, wondering if I was going to be late for dinner. Then Lok told me through WhatsApp that Fong was napping and asked whether we could dine later. I didn't chafe at this delay, glad to have visited Uncle and glad to have a breather in between. I went back for a break and managed to get the car washed.

The hospital visit, car wash and dinner were all settled in the end, despite the hiccups in the schedule. And I felt stupid for blowing up because of my haphazard car wash scheduling - of course it would be packed on weekends.

When I returned from dinner, I found people pouring out of a neighbourhood school as I parked the car. Seems the opposition coalition had a rally there that night. Oh well, the company at dinner was better.

As a bonus, I discovered more potential stomach irritants: cheese and processed meats. Minutes after scarfing down a cheese-enhanced wrap, the gut ballooned. But there were other ingredients, so I couldn't be sure. I hope it's not (also) the basil pesto. That would suck - one less recipe I can whip up on occasion.

In spite of my worries, that Saturday turned out okay. That was when Ajahn Brahm's exhortations to not worry or be anxious about the future - "the present is where your future's being made" - made so much sense.

The podcasts wrought other changes. I've mellowed out a little more, spend less time online after hours, don't blow up so much at work or over bad manuscripts (and I'm working on a couple). I feel less judgemental and snarky, though I worry about what that might do to my book reviews.

And because of the changes to my body as well, I've shrunk my portions, I'm going to bed before midnight more often, usually after a nightcap of diluted oats and oat bran with a splash of milk. And I wake up around the same time, before dawn. Nor do I miss my frequent coffees.

Then came news of the upcoming general elections and the related shenanigans...

Good times will pass, it's been said. So will bad times. Soon, hopefully.

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