This story is by Esther Shongwan and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It was a general ward in a public hospital in a small city. Free basic medicines and healthcare are available for in-patients and out-patients registered. The general ward was on the first floor with the private wards on the second and third floor respectively, reserved for public employees of the state. The general ward is available for everybody, provided beds are free. A rare event.
I stepped inside the general ward ‘A’ for males, just opposite the general ward ’B’ for female patients. My cousin Maya and Mom followed me. The purpose of our visit was to see our neighbor Ali, a construction worker, who built our house and was down with fever. Ali was very happy to see us. We all spent some time with him
Inside the four corners of the general ward lies the nurse’s observation chamber by the exit door. Everyone inside was busy. Three nurses were arranging medicines, syringes, thermometers, gloves, placed parallel to each other on a white tray, according to respective bed numbers. Another trainee nurse was making entries of what looked like medicines in the register. A male Supervisor, was giving instructions to the other two young nurses. It was not an unusual sight.
There were file racks attached to the walls, one almirah and loads of files arranged one on top of the other.
The ward measures about 40feet length*30feet width. Rows of white-painted steel beds, two feet apart, were lined up, with the headrest against the opposite walls. At the far end, a washroom is located and to its left, four medium-sized windows with white curtains were partially opened to allow fresh air inside the room. A congested place. The blue bed covers with parallel white stripes on its four margins, on top of the white bed sheets, reminded me of Mother Theresa’s ‘Sari’ and sisters of charity white and blue dresses
The most beautiful piece in the ward was an old big wall clock, making a loud tick-tock sound as if reminding everyone in the room that time is the master and ultimate keeper of our lives.
Most patients sat on their beds, few visitors sat on the beds too as only one steel stool was provided for visitors for each patient. Other patients had no visitors. A few of them were unconscious.
Many, like them, were found and brought in by good Samaritans from bus sheds, roadsides, dirty corners, market places and other unusual places, unclaimed by anyone. Most of the other patients came from impoverished regions of the state and do not have the means for treatment at better but expensive hospitals.
On my left side, towards the door, about six feet from where I sat, an old man semiconscious, feeble and unattended, caught my attention.
He tried reaching for a glass of water on the table, leaned over, but could not reach it.
“Sir, can I help you?”
He gave me a strange look, surprised, he nodded.
“Thank you” he whispered in a feeble voice politely
“Do you have an attendant Sir?,” I mustered enough courage to ask him, not knowing what to expect as a response
He gave a deep sigh, “family?”. “None” he replied. He became restless and gasping for breath
“I know my maker beckons me” he paused….”but” .. “I have to disappoint him for now”. “got to take care of something first before I go”
Before I could say another word. A nursing intern suddenly appeared from nowhere “Could you please get these immediately Sir?”. She handed me a white slip, with scribbling which looked like medicines and left hurriedly before I could utter a word.
I turned around to the old man for answers, but there he was, flat on the bed and unconscious.
What do I do now?. The voice inside me said, “leave as fast as you could.“ “it’s none of your business”. It reiterated.
My heart, though, prompted me to stay, “How could you leave?”, “ Help the old man”
“It’s a catch twenty-two situation”, I thought. So, I headed straight to the Nurse’s observation chamber, inside the ward, to sort things out. I saw a senior nurse – a Matron- at the large table. She was heavy and wore a big red belt around her white uniform holding her big tummy in place.
“Sister, I came to talk about…”
“I suggest you should go now…..” she interrupted, with a great sense of urgency, before I could even complete my sentence
“If he does not get those medicines today”, raising her dark eyebrows “your uncle will die”, she bluntly told me. “I am afraid son, these medicines are not supplied here,” you need to get them for him
“For seven straight days, your uncle was without these medicines. No visitor to get in touch with. He is vulnerable and helpless as we are here”
“Do not delay the meds”, she reiterated
They thought he was my uncle!
I wanted to say something but was speechless. “That old man is going to die” “How do I leave him?” The more I thought about it, the more guilty I felt
“I am a part of this now” I reassured myself. “This man has nobody”, was the last thought on my mind as I went back to sit by the old man’s side
“Are you crazy!!!” Maya exclaimed.“Do you even know his name, my brother?”. She was as shocked as she was furious at my decision to be his attendant for the night
“Being kind is alright,” she said. ”I know we should be helpful and compassionate towards fellow humans in need”…..” this person is a total stranger to you”. “ He could be anybody, a murderer, a thief, a kidnapper, an abusive parent, a loser…..otherwise why would he not have any visitors”. Maya was trying to make sense of my decision, which I feel was a valid one in normal circumstances.
“I think Tom’s decision is appropriate ” finally mom intervened in my support. “ It would be a great help to the old man”
“Don’t worry….we’ll go get the meds,” mom said reassuringly. They both left.
For the first time in my life, I was helping a complete stranger. I have to admit, I feel genuinely happy, with my decision to attend to the stranger for the rest of the night.
It was1.30 AM. The dead of night was broken by a weak cough and movement.
The old man looked at me and his pupils dilated. He looked uneasy. Perhaps, he was equally shocked to see me there. He wanted to say something but words were not coming out. His hands started to shake. I spotted he tried to pull something out of the track pants pocket he loosely wore on his body. He gestured me to take them out for him.
“Read,” he said. “Read“, he managed to say twice. His breath shortened and he trembled enormously.
Do you want me to call the doctor? I asked him
“Nooo”. “Read”, He insisted.
I opened the Note.
A sudden whip of intense white light flashed across my face, at first glance of the note. It struck me like a lightning bolt, sending chills down my spine. I trembled, my hands were shaky and unsteady, like a tremor.
I could not believe what I saw. A Signature on the note, A Million Dollar.
For years, the Charitable Trust, I worked for, caring for the aged and abandoned babies, had wondered, who, the kind-hearted, anonymous donor was, whose generosity enabled us to run our programs smoothly.
What a strange coincidence!.
Here he is. His signature – Reuben Banri – said it all.
I could not wait to open a second note. An old note, partially torn, wrinkled and yellowish.
I hope you are well. I am doing well here in Sweden. I have joined a new company as a manager. They are paying me well. I am married now with two kids. I am writing to let you know that I will never come back home. I have made my new life here. It is not easy. I would like to suggest you, to seek shelter in the old age home for your own security and safety.
It would be difficult for me to repay the loans you took for my education as I just started a new family and moved to a new city.
I would be grateful, if all other properties, not mortgaged to the bank, be transferred in my name to help me settle permanently here. My wife wanted to buy a new house here. They won’t be of much use to you either now. I wish you farewell.
I know now, what this old man had gone through, left by his son to die on the streets.
He lost everything, but kindness and selflessness.
I looked at him in admiration. He is my Hero.
He was cold and motionless.