After the global war that was started by regional maritime disputes, some governments including ours declared victory loudly with glorious parades. Unfortunately, regular folks like us on both sides suffered huge and unbearable losses. Half of the people in this city were blown up by the big blast while many of the other half still suffered radies. Yeah, radies (and not rabies) was what we commonly referred to the multiple radioactive illnesses caused by the big blast – another term we used to call the missile that infiltrated our country’s presumedly impenetrable air defence system and nuked the city’s West suburbs.
During the war, my two brothers, Justin and Isaac, joined the navy along with their college buddies and went overseas to fight in the Pacific. I still remembered vividly the day we said goodbye to them and their idealistic friends, who looked strangely both invincible and naive. My mother tearfully asked Justin and Isaac to quickly come home sound and safe; but then we didn’t know our home was soon to be wiped out thereafter. The big blast evaporated more than half of the city’s dwellings including our house. My parents were officially declared dead after the missile hit; I didn’t share their fate because I was away on a training trip organized by Médecins Sans Frontières at the time. Having no home and suffering radies, I spent most of my time between the hospital’s cancer wing and the university as a fourth year med student. Despite the constant health challenges, I still loved to go to classes because it was my only escape from the surrounding dark realities. At least during the lectures I could dream to travel overseas or to become a doctor someday and help aging folks like my beloved parents; sadly though, those could only be faint dreams because my chemo treatment looked rather gloomy.
It was at the entrance stairway of the Faculty of Medicine that I met him. Just at the very moment my walking cane gave in and I slipped desperately, two strong hands grabbed hold of my arms from behind and kept me balance. The stranger looked quite different. His face bored a deep scar from cheek to cheek that almost tore his lips apart. I thanked him but, in response, he just nodded. He continued to walk with me in silence all the way to the lecture hall. “Thanks again for your help. Goodbye.” Said I with a smiling appreciation. Again, he just nodded, waved and left.
What a strange boy with shining eyes! He just nodded in agreement or shook his head to differ but he wouldn’t talk. His facial scar looked brutally severe, a result of the big blast I bet. Ah, but at least he had hair, unlike me with my baldhead thanks to the chemotherapy treatment cycles. His short hairstyle reminded me of the clean-cut look donned by my eldest brother, Justin, who played guitar and loved hip-hop songs; I just wondered if he too liked music or loved to read like my big bro. He’d got to like reading because he studied law, right? I couldn’t figure out. In fact, I really didn’t know much about him although I knew I could count on him walking with me all the time between the hospital and the university since that fateful incident. At first, he occasionally ran into me on the way to the faculty; and then the chance meetings happened more frequently and eventually became almost daily thereafter. He still wouldn’t say anything en route, not a single word. I guessed he just wanted to remain silent, and I understood it well. Many of us had suffered so much during the war and its aftermath that most still were not ready to open up. Gradually I grew to accept and respect his polite silence.
So obviously I did all the talking during our quiet walks, bird feeding times in the park, and whenever we met in between. I told him about my family. Dad was a lawyer who quitted the Attorney General’s district office to set up his own practice focused on servicing members of visible minorities. Mom was a chemical engineer who used to work for a major oil company but later stayed home and made us kids study like crazy. It was a no-nonsense policy when it came to education in my family. “When time’s gone, it’s lost forever.” Dad often reminded us of his philosophy, and thus we were required to learn as much as possible when we still had amble time to do so.
I loved to read, and so did my two brothers who were reported missing in action during the war. We read almost everything from classics to thrillers; but as for me, I preferred travel stories most. I was fascinated by the descriptions of romantic settings in Europe, of incredible nature in Africa, of native cultures in South America. I often dreamed of taking a stroll along the Seine, trying tapas in Barcelona, watching wild lions in the Sahara, or breathing the fresh air of Machu Picchu. And since I had always been on a swimming team before the war broke out, I would love to float leisurely in the salty water of the Caribbean and watch colourful fishes dashing amongst coral reefs.
As our time together passed by and I grew to trust him more, I began to confide in him my other great readings as well as my idols and ideas. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I adored the love of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy despite their constant misunderstandings and challenges. In Gandhi’s memoir, his non-violence approach to revolution was exceptional although my Dad thought his strategy could succeed only after the second world war seriously weakened the British empire and fundamentally changed the world’s centers of political power. I was horrified to learn about the atrocities caused by Fascism and Communism, but equally I found it difficult to understand why some individuals would still be attracted to those ideologies. I guessed sometimes I was a bit passionate in advocating my perspective on certain subjects. At those moments when I eagerly emphasized my point, he just smiled and nodded kindly to express his admiration but there was no way to know if he agreed with my view.
When I talked, he listened attentively. Occasionally, he also drew various sketches to articulate my storyline in his notebook. His illustrations were incredibly detailed and considerately descriptive. I did tell him that he should be an artist, instead of studying to be an attorney, because artists lived and dreamed freely while lawyers like my Dad could be creative but still be restricted by the law’s boundaries and professional conduct rules. In response, he just gave me a deep look and his trademark smile.
Unfortunately, our time together did not last long. I thought I could finish the semester or at least attend class until after my birthday but I had become too weak to walk to the lectures. The chemo and the drugs so far failed, thus I was just waiting for my time by reading a lot in between the exhausting naps.
Strangely, every time I opened my eyes from the tiring sleep, he was always sitting beside my bed and greeted me with his quiet smile that lightened up the room. He helped me with all the tasks from drinking to eating. He even held up the books and turned the pages for me to read as I sometimes became too tired to sit up and talk to him.
On my birthday, several nurses came into the room and sang Happy Birthday to me. He was also there with a flower basket and a wrapped gift but he did not join in the wishing rhythms. He just stood by and clapped his hands. After the nurses left, he gave me the flowers and tried to explain why he didn’t sing by pointing into his wide open mouth. Half of his tongue was severed. I reached out for his palm and nodded with tears, “I understand.”
He handed me the present. It was a notebook dedicated to me, and the first page contained some information about him:
Name: Thomas Young
Parents: Mom died of cancer when I turned 6. Dad still runs his distribution business at the food terminal.
Religion: None (though Mom was Jewish and Dad was Anglican).
Career: Law student inspired to be a conflict-resolving diplomat.
Hobbies: Love jazz, drawing, sailing (long lost passion), and being around you!
“I love to be around you too, Thomas.” Looked up and said I, “Thank you for being so supportive.” Turning the pages, starting with excitement I soon became amazed by the gift. It was his sketchbook and all the illustrations were of me. From the stairway of the faculty to the park bench, there I was smiling cheerfully in his sketches. And more, I had a full head of hair. He drew my hair shoulder-length, naturally straight with a bit of curl at the tip as how I would look if there were no war.
“It’s a great present. Thanks so much. You are my truest friend, Thomas.” Said I with a deep sense of appreciation. For the first time, I noticed some tears in his eyes. He pointed to the last page stapled to the back cover. I tried but could not remove the staples with my fingernail. He reached over to help and then signalled me to turn the page. The question was crafted beautifully in cursive inside a circle:
“Will You marry me?”
Time was stopped for what seemed to be an eternal dream, then I screamed my heart out: “Yes, Yes a zillion times! I love you!” Thereafter I just cried uncontrollably. I cried and kept crying a river.