And then, out of the silence in anatomy hall, my Malaysian classmate shouted from behind. "Sim Jun Yi! Prof. Tsai just passed away."
Like in the movies, I shuddered at the sudden news. I tilted my head forwards for a split second before turning backwards. I wished it could be as simple as me shouting back "s**t!" like when I accidentally transected a nerve or vessel during dissection, but I lost my breath and became absolutely speechless.
Regaining my breath, I stood up and paced towards Khai Jing. I wanted to pat her shoulder to comfort her but I find myself needing something to lean to, too. I asked "when?" "In Malaysia. He went back already, and he passed yesterday."
I try to recall the last time I see Prof. Tsai. It was before the beginning of the semester. During summer break I caught news of him being diagnosed with bronchioalveolar carcinoma (BAC) when I was working in France. It was hard for me, and everybody else to accept it because before that my last memory of Prof. Tsai was him chasing his less-than-1-year-old boy at school. He was robust, pink and full of life.
Prof. Tsai was more than a teacher. A Malaysian too, he was the advisor for the ISC and an assistant professor in the faculty of human development. For everything he was, he is the guardian of all international students in school. News go to him very quickly, and the next time he sees you you'll wonder how he had so many eyes and ears around him - "hey! great job on psychology!" (I scored a full during mid-sem, quite by accident); "you need to brush up on your Chinese," (when I insisted on writing English for a Chinese-oriented subject).
For the rest of the day, I found myself constantly out of breath - filled with sadness and demanding for answers - "why him?"; "his son is just about a year-old." I wished I could cry it all out, but I couldn't.
It was up till then that I realized for almost 20 years of my life death has chose to avoid me - to announce a close relative's time is up when I am far away. My great uncle passed a day after the tragic South-Asian tsunami, extremely sudden and unexpected. And I was in Kuala Lumpur holidaying with my cousin; my babysitter's son-in-law (sounds very distant I know, but we were quite close-knit) passed earlier this year, and I was busy preparing the choir's trip to Taipei.
I studied a lot on death last semester, in which I wrote for a paper presentation:
As a doctor knowledge about death is compulsory. How do we teach terminal patients to face death when we ourselves have never experienced it before? Do you say "not to worry, it will be painless," or "one short sleep past, and we wake eternally." What qualifications do you have? What will death leave my family?On one hand I was glad I escaped the entire emotional meltdown during a sudden death. Once triggered my tears will just drop and I will be gray for weeks. On the other hand I am sad about not being able to lend a helping hand or a leaning shoulder to those in need of comfort.
The million-dollar question is how do we prepare patients, and ultimately ourselves, in face of death?
And needless to say, I am sad I missed out the opportunity to learn more about death with each passing.
Prof. Tsai, my great uncle and my babysitter's son-in-law will soon become fond memories. No matter how much we say we'll miss them they will dissipate like morning dew with the passage of time. However, the lessons we learn from each and every one of them is to be cherished, and I think those are among the most valuable things they would like us to remember too.
So the next time I mention I am a TCU student, I will remember it was Prof. Tsai who pursuaded and recommended the school's admissions board to accept me.