“This is for your cancer.”
The pharmacist in his crisp white-coat didn’t mince his words. He didn’t try to sugar-coat it, or attempted to soften the blow. Like a newly sharpened knife, the stark reminder was stabbed straight into my heart. “Yes girl, you really have cancer.”
Cancer. Ten years ago, it was the poster of African kids with bald heads. Okay maybe that was AIDS. Five years ago, it was the horoscope sign of my supposedly best matched beau. Ten months ago, it was the fiction I watched on my favourite medical soap Grey’s Anatomy. Five months ago, it was a hard lump on my left breast.
With robotic efficiency, the pharmacist delved into a monologue on how to take the medicines. I caught snatches of “once a day”, “not with milk”, “only when necessary” while the others flew pass me in tiny wisps, or perhaps repelled by the piece of glass window separating us.
I felt like a high priest sitting in a confessional window, with him the sinner in the process of divulging his crime. How ironic that mental image, as it was I who was now serving a sentence with a span of unclear duration nor destination. How had I sinned?
For me, cancer felt like a prison sentence where death is a lottery not a verdict; baldness is the forced crown not a crew cut; poisons slowly infused into you body the sadistic punishment not stokes of the rotan. It was sometimes too painful to think about it. I had wallowed in enough self pity to let the tears come streaming down again.
“Do you have any questions, miss?”
He peered at me across the window. Was that a condescending look? A silent rebuke for catching me zoning out?
“Yes. Er no. Thank you very much.”
Quickly I reached for the bag full of medicines he had pushed to my side of the window. In my haste the bag slipped from my numb fingers and fell to the floor with a plonk.
A few concerned people rose halfway in their seat, “It’s okay,” I mumbled. I went down on my knees, reaching for the assortment of bottles and packets scattered around like a shattered piggy bank. I brushed aside the tails of my bandanna that has became slightly dislodged and trailed across my eyes. I looked up to the window, half expecting him to tower above me, cold mirth in his eyes. The window was blank.
“Come, let me help you.” He was squatting right besides me, picking up the packets of medicines, peering into each packets of white round tablets to check for damages. For the first time, he looked human, a slight softening at the edge of his eyes, a discernable line on his forehead. Like a hypnotizing pendulum, the name tag he wore around his neck swung to and fro, suspended by a thread of silver beads, drawing me to it.
“Walter Ong” it read. The name had a familiar ring. Walter Ong... Walter Ong… suddenly the memories came flooding back. There he was, a young kid who once plucked off a stem of Aloe Vera and dabbled the soothing juice to my skinned knee. Surely it was the same Walter, the kid from the next class with the double eyelid and sweet dimples. The silent kid who once gave me a rubble band to play with when I was banished to stand outside the classroom as punishment. The kind kid who helped to carry my lunch box when I was inundated with too many books.
I looked at him, searching vainly, futilely for the slightest sign of recognition from his impassive face. There were none. Like the doctor I was seeing, he had learned to mask stark knowledge well. Or had he really forgotten about me?
“Here you go. Remember to take the pyridoxine tablets as I had told you. 5 tablets in the morning. Then your fingers will be better, okay?” he handed me the reassembled packet. I nodded in a daze, gazing into his eyes. He averted them. I stared at the back of his white coat billowing in the soft zephyr as he walked swiftly back into the door he came from, his footsteps growing fainter and fainter.
I rose and walked towards the exit. Just before I exited into the sun lit path, I can’t resist stealing a final glance. He was back in the window, and he was looking at me. Was that a sad wistful look? Perhaps he did remember. Perhaps he didn’t want his memory of me to be scarred by the bald bag of bones which I am now. Perhaps he wanted to spare me the awkwardness of meeting here. Indeed the oncology clinic was the worst place to meet and reconnect with old friends, especially when you are on different sides.