Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Death And The King’s Horseman
The title of this post was lifted from Wole Soyinka’s play of the same name. I had originally wanted to call it, “Death & The Biomedical Engineer” but I believed this one to be catchier hence my borrowing it. My post however (sadly…sigh…) bears no implied connections to that great work…
If there is one big weakness I have in my character, it is my amazing lack of empathy when it concerns the sad news of Death. This weakness worries me endlessly.
It wasn’t always so. I used to be a very sensitive person once. But Death came along and changed all that.
Death, you see, is my friend.
Many people view Death mainly in line with the symbolic figure as painted by the book of Revelation and Hollywood. Some others see him as the hooded figure with an ugly black bulldog walking the graveyards at night or the pale figure in a black suit with dark eyes, long hair and fingernails who morphs into a black bird as portrayed in a Snoop Dogg video.
But those of us who know him as a friend know he is nothing like this. He is timeless, ageless. Of cruel yet wise, kindly countenance.
I remember the first time I got to meet Death firsthand. Before then he had been a rumour, a story told from the village of a distant relation now lost but whose burial ceremony, Tradition and my father compelled us to visit. (Little wonder that in my childish days I came to equate the wearing of native attire and a visit to the village with death, not Christmas). Or I heard of Death from a friend who had lost a father, a mother, a relation. Then I used to feel the pain, knew how to empathize.
Then Death came and took away my immediate elder brother.
I remember sitting in my Uncle’s house miles away playing with the kids and then all of a sudden, Death came and tapped on my shoulder and said “I have taken your brother”. Almost immediately the phone rang and a friend of our second born was on it telling me to come to their office for a fictitious purpose. He didn’t have to lie or try to keep up a cheerful voice when he told me something had come up at home so I better hurry back. I already knew.
I can’t say I knew for sure when Death took away my Aunty Mo but I knew she would go soon. The air of Death hung around her for so many months as he mocked all our efforts as we tried to keep her alive. I knew Aunty Mo could keep him at bay if she wanted to. And Aunty Mo was a fighter!
I still remember the stoicism on her visage and the twinkle in her eyes while laughing at my jokes as I put an intravenous needle in her arm. As I took out the needle countless times when I failed to hit a vein and reinserted it severally after each mistake, she would laugh and say, “You should have been a doctor you know, not an Engineer”.
And Aunty Mo laughed at each and everything I said. Even if I said the sun was shining, she would laugh at just the way I said it. Then it became a pain for her even to laugh and one day she gave up and stopped laughing. And Death and the disease took her. I guess that’s the day I lost my empathy.
For years I refused to cry - I never still do - blaming myself for the death of everyone close to me, marveling at the way each piece of bad news makes me even tougher to receive the next. I looked for ways to put my lack of empathy to good use. I could be counted on to be a cool head when everyone else was panicking in a Life-or-Death situation. I remember calmly crossing a road, strolling to a pharmacy and just as calmly strolling back after buying a drug that helped save a girl’s life. One of my friends still berates me for my seeming lack of concern that day. I told him that if I had panicked and run madly across the road, I could have been knocked down by a vehicle thus putting my life and the girl’s in even greater danger. He thinks I’ve lost it.
We all know that we will die. None of us - except probably suicides and condemned criminals and their judges - know the exact moment that Death will come. Some of us try to keep him at bay: exercise, proper dieting, medical check-ups, drive carefully, look left and right before you cross, home and personal security... For those of us who have been on first name basis with Death for many years now these things mean little.
I have lived with Death. Well, we all actually do. But some of us know his address better than others. An unpredictable illness means I have stayed up on some nights confident I won’t see the next morning. But Death deceives me each time. I see the dawn and I say: Ok, maybe you’ll come tomorrow. Early last year, strapped in a car that crashed and somersaulted across a busy highway going at full speed, I looked across to see Death sitting beside me. I asked him if it was time but he shook his head and said no.
I have worked in hospitals for almost a year now and nowhere is Death more familiar and even more welcome than here. I have seen all ages and sexes of people hanging on to Life but from a thread and a Doctor or nurse’s wise or foolish decision. I have seen Death waiting as accident victims are lowered onto the bucky table, decency and nakedness forgotten as an x-ray is taken that may or may not save the person’s life.
Death is my friend but he never lets me hang around when he comes to collect someone. I have never looked at a person and they just die in front of my eyes. I only see them just before or immediately after they die. At least I am spared that.
I know Death will come for me one day and I am very comfortable with this. I try to live my life without regrets but I know I will have them. Why did I say this? Why didn’t I do that? Why didn’t I get to know God better? Why didn’t I pray more? Why didn’t I turn out to be a better Christian? Lord, remember I begged you to make my Death painless…
I don’t think I’ll really care for any of the loved ones I leave behind. I’ll try to make sure they’re well taken care of and done well by but there’ll be nothing I can do from that point on. It will just be a matter of time: one day, one week, one year, ten years, fifty years but they’ll forget me all the same as surely as the sun comes up the next day. And I won’t even spare a thought for the enemies - few, if any - that I leave behind. I think I’d even wish Death on them too so they’ll leave my loved ones alone.
I have ignored the blood, the tears, the wailings and supplications of the injured and their relatives and friends as I coldly tighten a screw or check the x-ray tube temperature error codes. I have done equipment maintenance while someone somewhere has his or her life juice slowly dripping away just so that the machine may not break down when some other people are in the same need. Thus the one sacrifices for the many. These things don’t bother me. After all, I have taught myself to have no empathy. In all honesty, maybe I wouldn’t be able to do the kind of work I do if I had any.
I am one really cold, cold bastard. I guess the only time I might actually feel empathy is when I die…
PS: I no longer work with health-related institutions.