[This is an excerpt from a work in progress. More details can be found at this post: https://www.patreon.com/posts/35488916]
A time of change, a time of passing; this was the time of Songkran, the Thai New Year. Normally one felt Songkran in the streets. People who normally slept in for most of the day would wake themselves at the crack of dawn to visit their local temples. Meanwhile, the Khao San Street and Thapae Gate of Bangkok, already full of youngsters, backpackers, and party enthusiasts, would have them armed with water guns and water balloons, spraying each other, soaking each other, foaming each other, and filming each other. This was not the year for a normal Songkran. The coronavirus had shut down public life on all nations of the earth, and this affected all, New Year or not. In the case of Thailand, the government had postponed the festival indefinitely, coerced its citizens not to travel to their native villages, and advised people to maintain any and all washings of the Buddhas to their homes. Nevertheless, certain customs persisted. To show great respect to an elder or family member, people undertook the rod nam dum hua. At home, or at school, those who were younger would take the respected one aside, seat them with a bowl of water in their lap or under their feet, form a line, and take turns lightly dousing the palms or the feet, asking for their blessings.
One would assume that at a hospital, particularly one as state-of-the-art and important to Thai history as King Chulalongkorn Hospital, people would put duty over tradition, and attend to the hordes of corona cases, as well as any one else who happened to be sick. Nevertheless, people are born into their culture, and no matter how much doctors like Father wanted to put their patients first, the vast majority of people, others doctors and nurses included, simply thought and behaved differently. In Father’s case, he was on the second floor of one of the wards of the hospital. The building happened to be one of the many of a certain colonial hangover. The floors had the tiled patterns of Europe, the paint, despite it peeling at all corners, was a viscuous beige, and the defining surgeons or doctors of Thai history stared from their plaques on the walls, as if they were intellectuals or artists. Corona cases were not yet many in Thailand, but Father was a pulmonologist, and so the nurse was informing him on the progression of his patient’s breathing and when the patient’s lung tests would be returning. It was a quarter past eight in the morning, but after three concurrent shifts with little rest, Father was nodding no matter what the nurse said, and he was giving the names of medicines – ibuprofen, azithromycin – without much thought as to their use. He was a short man with a flat face, but the lack of sleep in his eyes and the nervousness of his demeanor made his features look that much aged. He really looked like he could have used a nap.
In the midst of said conversation, one of the shortest nurses of the ward came from behind and put her hand on his shoulder. Unlike the nurses from the corona virus ward, she was not garbed from hair to toe in a protective scrub, with her eyes guarded by a visor. She only had her mouth and nose covered with a mask, and even that, she did not always keep on when she spoke. She loved breaking rules. She was known for shouting her thoughts rather than speaking subtly, dying her hair odd colors – at this moment, pitaya-red with strings of blue – and going out gambling with the boys almost every night, winning every three out of four times, and spending it on things ladies were normally shy to openly discuss. Because good fortune seemed to befall everything she did, she was known around the office as Lady Luck. She would normally greet Father by kissing his tie, black with a Mickey Mouse print, but all people were advised to maintain two metres of distance, regardless of context. She said, “Hello Hospital Mickey, happy Songkran.
“Happy Songkran,” Father replied, and turned back to the other nurse. “Now, you think ibuprofen won’t work, but I have read many stories from abroad—”
“Hospital Mickey, you busy?”
“Of course I am busy. We are waiting for my patient’s test results.”
“How much time will that take?” Lady Luck asked the nurse by her.
The nurse looked at the time on her phone and said, “Another ten minutes.”
“All the best,” Lady Luck responded. “It is Songkran. Come, let’s ask for your blessings before more patients come.”
“No, no, no,” Father said, and he took the chart from the nurse. “So, if you don’t think ibuprofen will work, how about…?”
The other nurse was creasing her eyes in the shape of a smile and said, “Come, I also want to take your blessings. It will only take five minutes.”
“Let’s go, “Lady Luck said.
“I can’t,” Fathe responded.
“Please, it is Songkran.”
“With the amount of patients coming in, we must work.”
“Just for five minutes, come.”
“We don’t have time for this. We have to…”
“You keep delaying, we waste time! Come now!” Lady Luck said. She broke the social distance, and she pulled Father by the arm.
The chair was in the break room on the other side of the hallway. By it was a pail that had already been filled, with flower petals floating in the water, but the scent was already gone, replaced with the smell of the sweat of the others whose hands the water had already washed. He was pushed down and forced to sit properly. He waved his hands in protest, and continued to say, “No, let’s do this later. I can’t right now.” Lady Luck responded by slapping his hands straight. By the time she got the empty bowl of water onto his lap, the other nurse had called the nurses and doctors in the hallway, and they were stepping in. Most were on the younger side, new to the hospital, and happened to have had ittle interaction with Father at all. Lady Luck was first. She scooped water from the pail and poured it through his hands, into the bowl. Father uttered the words, “Happy Songkran. May everything go well in life, may God bless you.” She touched his feet to receive his blessing, and he touched her head. The line behind her went on to do the same, putting on some kind of smile and speaking some variation of a Songkran wish to Father. Father would respond by blessing their head and wishing them the best, but his expressions did not change. His eyebrows bent every which way, he was looking towards the door and jittering his legs.
The last person who happened to be in the line was the hospital’s most popular doctor. He was often called Doctor Khaw, due to his immaculately whitened teeth, which almost anyone in the hospital, from a dying patient to the most begrudging nurse, would see whenever he unleashed one of his wild grins, and force them as a result to smile back in amusement. He had liver spots, a thinning hairline, and wrinkled hands, but he comported himself so robustly that people often commented, “He is happier than me, and I could be his grandson’s age.” He always went out of his way to greet every single person he passed by, and to spend at least a little bit of the day talking the doctors up. On this day, he looked soaked from head to toe, as if he had gone out for a water fight before his hospital rounds were to start. Father asked, “Doctor, why did you come all the way here for this?”
“Hah-hah-hah! You are my respected hospital elder.” He assumed an open-armed posture, and he said it all so exuberantly; all of the nurses and doctors nearby laughed.
Father winced and remained seated, while waiting for Dr. Khaw to douse him with water. “But, the patients…”
Dorctor Khaw finished and said, “You need to learn to relax. Hah-hah-hah! He is always too serious. Isn’t he too serious, everyone?”
No one responded except for Lady Luck, who said, “Yes, too much!”
“I’m serious because people are dying all over the world,” Father said, and he looked around the room. There was a certain way that people smiled when they didn’t know what to say but wanted to be polite. The doctors and nurses were smiling in this manner. Father stood up and put the bowl on a table. “If we are done, I’d like to get back to work.”
The doctors and nurses were dispersing, but Dr. Khaw said one last thing, while he still had some of their attention. “All this water, some of it on his feet, all of it getting into his skull.” Dr. Khaw enunciated that last point with another “Hah-hah-hah”, and the nurses and doctors remaining walked away with him, echoing back in their softer form, “ha-ha-ha.”
Father had a tendency to walk frantically most of the time, but he was leaving the break room as if he wanted to burst through a wall. Just as he reached the door, Lady Luck caught him by the shoulder. She said, “Don’t go so quickly. Enjoy your blessings.”
“How can anyone enjoy anything given what’s happening these days?”
“Today is Songkran.” Father was not being allowed to pace out of the door but he paced around, nonetheless. Lady Luck carried on. “Isn’t it normal we would want a distraction when life has become like this? This is the New Year. Give yourself five minutes, at least for yourself.”
“We have a shortage of doctors for the amount of patients we have. You know this. and yet you stall me so.”
“That’s not what is bothering you. I’ve known you for so long.”
Father stopped pacing to let the tension in his crossed arms out. “Fine, I’ll say it. I know none of you respect me. I know you only do this year after year because you are supposed to.”
“That isn’t true,” Lady Luck said.
“That is.” Father tapped his foot hard, then went to the sink to drink some water. Lady Luck played with a thermometer she had in her pocket, then put it back.
“I genuinely respect you,” she said. “You remember that first lunch we had together? It was six years ago, my first day. You were sitting alone in the cafeteria. I didn’t know you always ate alone during your lunch break. But I saw how the other doctors were. They had their friends, they only wanted to talk to them. I learned how they were fun in their own way later, but that day, I talked to you. You didn’t talk much. You didn’t talk much then, you don’t talk much now. Sometimes when I talk to elders I get in trouble. I don’t think much, I just talk. I told you how odd your tie looked on you. Most doctors would get offended. You did not. You told me the tie was the first gift your son ever bought you. He was six, and he didn’t find it with anyone’s help. He bought it on his own. You told me so much about your son that day. You were open and honest. Since then, I have thought only the best of you. You are truly great.”
Father’s legs stopped shaking, and as he faced Lady Luck, the glint of the window was behind her. It was not particularly bright, but the lack of traffic had diminished the smog, and so the skyscrapers and temples of the foreground were exceptionally visible. The temples were a clinging gold, whereas the skyscrapers were a stalwart silver. The city looked so much more modern without the smog. Normally the mix of light, cloud, and smog from these windows floated in the shape of an arch, akin to the color of a dirty chicken feather, long smothered by the conditions of the hen’s life before the wind mercilessly tossed it around.
Father held the rim of the door and bit his inside lip. He stuttered for a word to say, and started a few sentences with nothing discernable emerging. Finally, he shouted, “My patients!” and made his way to leave. In that exact same utterance, without pause for thought, he said, facing away, “My hospital daughter, have a most blessed Songkran.”