Lydia and Olee
Written on February 16, 2008
It was Saturday, February 9, 2008 and most University Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) students were already returning to college from the Chinese New Year break. Me and another friend however were not in college. We were at Kuching Sarawak airport to accompany our fellow Sabahan girlfriend. She had received an urgent call by her family to come home. Her brother was in a coma, and they didn’t know if he was going to make it. We were there to see her off. When I stood beside her at the ticket counter, I watched her face, trying to comprehend her sorrow. A part of me wished I could get all soppy, and expressed genuine concern for what she was going through. I couldn’t. Worrying me was how she would be able to catch up on her assignments. I couldn’t imagine leaving college in the middle of term. I was a film student, and projects and deadlines didn’t give me much room to accommodate other activities. Moreover, plane tickets weren’t cheap. I found it difficult to relate to my friend’s ordeal and trivial and insensitive things kept crossing my mind. The most selfish of all was feeling slightly relieved that I wasn’t in her shoes. I silently watched my friend leave to face an uncertain future.
The day was Saturday. Later that day, I was told that my friend did not make it on time to see her brother alive. I recalled the advice I gave her before she left – to trust in God. Sunday, the day after. My aunt phoned me. I should come home, she said. I should visit Lydia, my sister, who at the time was bedridden at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital in Kota Kinabalu. Before this this, I often checked at home to see how she was doing. On the phone, mum did not tell me anything was wrong. My aunt was known to be a worrywart so I assumed she was overreacting. You see, my sister had Thalassemia. And her body was deteriorating from all those years filtering the toxins in the blood she received. Being Thalassemic meant she needed other people’s blood to sustain her, as her body couldn’t make enough for her own. And the side effects of this dependency had taken a toll on her body. I convinced myself that Lydia was going to make it, again. I told my Aunt that I could only come home next Sunday because of my hectic schedule. Aunt pressed me for a earlier date and said little else.
I overlooked her insistence, worrying more about the trouble this journey might cause on my studies. A voice in my head egged me to relent. So I did, and after going through my class schedule I decided to leave on Wednesday, giving me enough time to deal with any paperwork required. My aunt said she would buy the ticket for me. As I put my phone down, the curtains of denial that I had wrapped myself in all this time began to descend. Lydia was sick and for my aunt to call me to come home, and to have seen my own friend experiencing this just days prior betoken the possibility I had been trying very hard to ignore.
Growing up as kids, Lydia had always been my opposite. When my parents were adjusting to the life of having to constantly take my two siblings to the hospital for their check-ups and blood transfusion, I was left at home to my own devises. A dearth of healthy social interactions made me quieter and shaped my critical personality. Lydia learned that she was different and loved the attention from people – doctors, friends, my parents. I just didn’t give a shit. While she was bubbly and had many friends in school and hospital, I was a loner. She reveled in company. I withdrew into a world of TV, computer games and books. Our personality clashed.
As we entered our teenage years, our constant arguments drove a deep wedge between us. Our vendetta also spilled onto my other sisters. One of whom is also Thalassemic, the other was adopted. Sibling fights were frequent, and I became the manipulator, cold and critical. Lydia often reminded me how fortunate I was not to have Thalassemia, and this reinforced my notion that I shouldn’t be showing too much of enjoyment in life for her sake. I kept to myself while her friends take precedence in her life. Mom and dad had always been self-sacrificing but I wasn’t as easy to let her have her way. The older we got, the more vicious our arguments became. Our relationship festered to a point of no-communication. After secondary school, I desperately wanted to leave home and all the negativity behind me. So I enrolled at a university in West Malaysia. Three years studying for a diploma in screenwriting gave me the time to reflect on myself. It was also the time, when, despite silent protests, I was reeled back into church by friends, to discover, albeit reluctantly that Someone out there was actually listening to my grieving monologues made often when I couldn’t handle even my own desolation.
Before this, as far as I was concerned, Jesus was the Lord of hypocrites. I had seen enough of them in the church in Sabah and from my experience on my first Holy Communion. I’m a believer now, because God’s invisible hands had managed to pull a silent and angry girl, messed up in spirit, into his Fold. But this is for another story. At the end of my diploma studies, I was reconciled with the Lord and received the sacrament of Confirmation at a large church in West Malaysia. God was healing me I knew. But, even with a restored peace, my Faith wasn’t yet strong enough to heal lifelong wounds.
The time I spent at home was filled with awkward silence and sometimes, bitter exchanges between Lydia and I. But the greatest breakthrough came when I actually showed my remorse in a heated argument. It wasn’t our last fight, but we said our sorries. Lydia’s health was showing signs of deterioration around the first year I started studying in Sarawak University. She had to be admitted to the hospital and stay there for a long time. Everybody feared the worst. Even the doctors, whom she had worked for, her colleagues and her Thalassemia friends, who loved her dearly, feared the inevitable. I remember feeling ever so numb through it all, and I was also guilt ridden. I couldn’t break away from years of forced silence and talk to her casually. Captive to my own inhibition, I could only pray that God would save her. And He did. And by Lydia’s own wilful determination to live as well, she recovered and was released from the hospital. And that was when it hit me. She had already returned from the throes of death once. When she was hospitalized again at the start of my second year semester, I knew that it would take God’s miracle for her to survive another recovery. How much longer her body could sustain her? I couldn’t cope with the thought in college, what with my growing projects and everything else around me. I buried my concerns deep to the point of emotional detachment.
I just sent my friend to see her dying brother. And the next day, my aunt gave me that call. It was all a sign.
I broke down in my room after my Aunt’s phone call. I’d been playing pretend thinking that I still had time to improve my relationship with my sister and that there was still a long future ahead of her. It had always occurred to me that she would be gone one day, but never in this time frame.
Wednesday. I was sandwiched between my classmates, Adrian (aka An) and Taufik at the backseat of Adrian’s Kancil, as it headed towards the airport. Azmer, the designated driver wanted to turn on the air conditioning, but An refused. Using it cost fuel, he said and fuel meant money. And he added that even if Azmer said he would, he wouldn’t and had never paid for fuel. “Kesian dia, panas,” (poor her) Amer said jokingly, using me as an excuse. We laughed. Because I was a fellow diploma graduate like they were, we got along well. The rest of my classmates were form six graduates, straight out of secondary school into college life for a bachelor’s degree.
Tonny, riding shot-gun, teased on Taufik, who was the youngest among us. He said that before knowing who we were Taufik had regarded us – the diploma graduates as arrogant. An, Amer, and Tonny erupted in laughter. I smiled. Taufik had mistaken our blase attitude in class as haughtiness. We knew who we were – the laziest – and we had enough experience in our previous colleges to be last minute efficient. I was grateful to have them as my comrades. They dropped me off at the airport entrance, refusing to take my fuel money. I urged them to accept, but An gave me his furrowed brows, the look I knew well when I was pushing it. I relented and bade them goodbye.
Alone, I traipsed silently past the glass door, taking the same path my friend had taken just four days ago. Carrying only a backpack and a laptop, I felt that the walk from the parking lot to the check-in counter, up till the gate, was surreal. I couldn’t believe that I was going home in the middle of term, with nothing but the bag on my back and my computer on my shoulder. The emptiness in me was encompassing. And the irony of the experience… the similarity to my friend’s journey just four days ago and how I was reacting to it, humbled me. Sitting at the departure gate, I gazed at the rain outside the glass wall. The view outside was a shade of grey, fuzzy and cold, like a mirror to my soul. I was numb, struck by a sense of hollowness. I had been crying for days and my eyes were heavy.
The process to get permission to leave school had given me respite, but at that moment, sitting at the airport, waiting for my flight under a bleak sky, I was looking at a turning point. I was about to face the reason of my grief. The trip home was difficult to relive in this story. Suffice to say, it was the longest day of my life. On Wednesday morning, I woke up at 6:40 for an 8 o’clock class. I was still in Unimas. By 1:00 PM I was at the airport. At 3:00 I was airborne. I reached my capital state’s airport at 4:30 PM. Dad picked me up and brought me straight to the hospital to see Lydia, who, in spite of her pain, and the burden of an ailing body, heaved herself up to hug me. The sight of her made me cry, and she managed to say, “Saya pukul ko,” (I’ll hit you). She didn’t want me to make a big deal over her. Seeing her in discomforting state crushed me and my tears began to flow freely. I forgot that I was tired and hungry. Just being there with her gave me strength.
I stayed at the hospital till twelve, then I bade Lydia farewell, promising to return later after a short sleep. She appeared restful when I left. Going home would take an hour’s drive so, my younger sister and I went to stay at my Aunt’s house, which was only 20 minutes drive away from the hospital. At 2:00 in the morning, I was roused awake. In a dreamy state, I heard my aunt telling me. My sis had breathed her last and passed away on February 14, 2008 around 1:00 in the morning. It was Valentine’s Day. And all this time, she waited for me to come home.
And we fought the meanest fights, with the meanest temper, and with the meanest words, and went silent for years, grew apart, became strangers, until, tempers subsided, healing invited. But the scars left on my pride still stung and many things that needed to be said were left unsaid. My sis was never left my mind all those time I was away. How distant we were emotionally and physically didn’t make me forget her infirmity. In West Malaysia, I prayed the same prayer for her every night while in West Malaysia: ‘God, please don’t take my sister away while I’m still studying’.
When I stopped praying it, it was because I couldn’t bear to have her living the way she did anymore, constantly racked with pain. She lived her life fuller than mine. I limited my friends, she talked to everyone. I went places, never appreciated the experience. She went to everyday spots and had stories to tell about them. I didn’t like sharing my experiences with the family, for fear of boasting. Worry held me back so many times. I never let myself live, thinking that they, not just my big sis, but the younger one, were bound by their appointments with the hospitals, their lives with tubes and liquids.
Thoughts of my sister turned me melancholic, even unapproachable. But life at home grew brighter with me having lesser annoyance at her behaviour ever since I returned to my Faith. God was helping me mend I guess, and I stopped asking why we were the way we were. Things just happened. On my Lydia’s deathbed, she bore me no grudges, and instead radiated peaceful resignation. Later letters revealed she was prepared for it more than I did. And she had already forgiven me. The greatest love she showed me was when she waited for me before she departed. I will always remember Valentine’s Day, as Lydia’s day. To Lydia, whom I know is still waiting for me at the Other side.