Wednesday, April 15, 2015:
“He glances in his mirror
And sees a stranger like him
Glancing at him.”
Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
Djon Lim, my Catholic Chinese Indonesian good friend from college days, the one who dragged me kicking to the University of Hawaii as refugees from the frozen winters of Yankton College, South Dakota, will have to forgive me this computerized entry in his memory. We have an ongoing debate about the matter: He prefers to write in his beautiful cursive longhand script. I kid him about his willful refusal to keep up with the flood of new technology including the email. I mention to him a colleague at home who refuses to use a calculator for fear of brain disuse atrophy. Djon agrees with the fellow’s analysis and has correctly predicted my loss of ability for handwriting. In my defense, I blame my unreadable chicken scratch in old age on my familial intention tremor. Like on many other occasions, we agree on the factual information but we differ on the interpretation. And we live comfortably with our difference of opinion. That has been one of the beautiful aspects of our relationship over the years since we met in 1960: Each is entitled to his own opinion, be the contested subject the looks of a certain girl on campus or my relative hairiness compared to his smooth facial skin that never needs shaving. He interprets this latter phenomenon as evidence of a higher level on the Darwinian development scale and I blame it on an aberrant stroke of luck.
In 1963, we two served as janitors and groundkeepers at the fancy Nuuanu mansion that had been newly dedicated as Honolulu’s Unitarian Church. In exchange we occupied the mansion’s attic. We invested our combined savings, he from teaching Tagalog to Peace Corps volunteers and I from rough-necking the previous summer in Wyoming’s oil fields, in purchasing a Vespa scooter. Djon taught me to ride it and he would ferry me daily at sunset to forage for fruit in the guava forests of Tantalus Heights. That was our regular second and last meal of the day. The main meal was our all-you-can-eat breakfast to which we subscribed on monthly basis at the campus’s Atherton House YMCA. We had a never-settled debate in principle as to what was a more sustaining midday snack, boiled rice sprinkled with soy sauce or reheated day-old Leonard’s Bakery bread with a touch of olive oil and salt? On weekends we splurged: We would cut up a storm of vegetables, add a few pieces of chicken and douse it all thoroughly with hot chile sauce. We alternated in claiming our invented dish as authentic Indonesian or Palestinian cuisine. On occasion Djon would fake a full ritual of prostrating himself on the floor and muttering loud chants before touching the food and see if our dates would follow through. He called it ‘Salibahoo.’ Djon never told me if that was the dish or the compulsory ritual that preceded it. You have to come to Indonesia to find for yourself, he said.
In our college days, whenever I pulled a fast one on Djon, as roommates sometimes do, I would go around crestfallen and looking guilty all day. Whenever I caught him doing the same to me he would lean over, place his arm on my shoulder and flash his beautiful full-faced smile and say “Brother, I forgot!” even when the occasion had nothing to do with memory. Then he would intentionally skip an obvious step in our daily routine, smile broadly and say: “See, I forget, Brother!” while his loud giggling and body language would clearly declare: ‘I am just fooling.’ His game worked every time.
Young and unhindered in our imagination as college roommates we dreamt up a wild scheme where I would marry a niece of his named Su Lin and he would marry Salwa, my youngest sister, and we would practice our combined medical skills on members of our native communities switching back and forth between Indonesia and Palestine. The third member of this medical dream team was our dear college friend, Bessel van der Kolk, who at the time renounced his colonial heritage to join us on our imagined humanitarian mission. He has since committed himself no less grandiose a scheme codifying, investigating and innovating treatment modalities for trauma and its resultant PTSD. In the dream, our countries were free democracies and we moved at will across time and space. Then greed and politics wrecked the childish dream for us: Israel brought the remainder of Palestine under its cruel occupation and Suharto came to power and forced my brother to change his official family name from the Chinese ‘Lim’ to the Indonesian ‘Indra’ if he wanted to keep his citizenship. That was one of the few times that I heard Djon utter the foulest of foul terms to curse his luck. But even before that, the whims of our hearts had played the expected tricks on both of us and blown our joint dream to smithereens: I met and married Didi and he, Sherry. When I reminded him of our old unbinding promises, Djon had one explanation: He beamed his million dollar smile at me and said: “Sherry gives me all the TLC I need, Brother!”
In the summer of 1997, in celebration of our combined 60th birthday, Djon and Jagy visited me in Arrabeh, my home village, and got to meet my family and neighbors. When we hiked up to Lavra Netofa on a nearby Galilee peak, my friend, the late Father Jacob Willibrands, the head monk of the monastery, insisted that he had seen my guests before and that they were members of the Fawwaz Bedouin tribe. That got us on a roll: I couldn’t stop laughing, Jagy started eating wild grasses and Djon willfully misread the name of another exclusively Jewish settlement built on our usurped land, from ‘Moreshit,’ Hebrew for ‘Heritage,’ to ‘More Shit.’ That was the last time on the trip that I brought up the subject of Israel’s Apartheid. My guests apparently had had enough.
We then packed our luggage and left on a ten-day singles wild trip to Andalusia. We rented a car and made our itinerary as we went, stopping nights at pensions that we selected mainly on the strength of the designs of the tiles in their central courtyards. On a late evening stop at what we thought was a secluded restaurant at an exit from the freeway, we had the surprise of our life. Djon, who had the use of a Spanish travelers’ dictionary, went in first. By the time we realized what joint we had stumbled into as the first customers of the evening, Djon bolted out, Jagy struggling to keep after him and I bringing the rear of the parade, each with several scantily dressed babes hanging on his arms. Hungry and tired, we were in no shape to take advantage of the free drinks they kept offering us. That kept us laughing for few days. All any of us had to say was “What was the name of that joint?”
Djon loved cherimoya. He would make me drool singing the praises of semitropical fruit. Loafing around Granada’s marketplace we were surprised to see ripe cherimoyas on display in a shop’s window. We went in and purchased three large ripe ones. As soon as we found a bench in a shady spot, Djon opened the paper bag, got out the fruit, whipped out a stainless steel teaspoon with serrated edge from the inside pocket of his jacket and proceeded to wolf down his sweet prize. “I am always prepared for emergencies,” he explained. “Good doctors should be, Brother.” To this day I never found out how he came up with that grapefruit spoon when we needed it.
Today I am on my way to Hilo, Hawaii to see Djon for a last time. Dewi, his loving daughter, called to tell me that her father is giving up the fight and is asking to see me right away. She had already spoken to Jagy, the other member of our incongruous trio since the UH student days, and he was traveling in a couple of hours from Honolulu where he had recently returned to live. The phone caught me at JFK Airport as Didi and I were about to board our flight to California where I have a series of scheduled book events, readings from my just-released short story collection, Chief Complaint. Dewi gave the phone to her father, and between sobs, I gasped my “It is goodbye, brother,” and asked his daughter to give him a warm hug from me in case I didn’t make it in time. Ty, my son, met us at the arrival hall in San Jose and proceeded to look into the earliest possible flight to Hilo while driving us home. After we arrived he showered and got on the phone again. Taking command and using his executive voice, he demanded from Hawaiian airlines and succeeded to advance our ‘unchangeable un-refundable’ tickets to Hilo by two weeks and to cut our stay from one week to one day, today.
A month or so ago, in response to my weekly phone call to his clinic to check on him, Djon said: “Brother, I am fighting for my life.” That was indication enough to me that he was on the last leg of his beautiful life journey. I already knew a month earlier, even before his wife and two children did, of the recurrence of his liver cancer that we had assumed was fully excised over three years ago. It was then, with the ominous news of the disseminated recurrence that I had booked our weeklong visit later this month. Jagy did the same so we, all three former UH students and roommates, could be together for a last time. On the phone Jagy wanted to know if he should go earlier since he was close by in Honolulu. I hadn’t admitted it to myself but I encouraged Jagy to rush to Hilo and give Djon hugs for both of us. He called back saying that Djon was in good spirits and sounded more hopeful, still carrying his full clinical load at his office and at the hospital. I suspected that Djon was deluding himself. Still, I relented reassuring myself that Djon’s clinical judgment was better than mine.
Some two weeks later I could detect weakness in his voice on the phone when he told me “Brother, I am still fighting the good fight. But I am loosing the battle fast.” That night I sent him a lengthy email, which I now know he didn’t get to read. It centered on a poem in the colloquial Palestinian dialect by my friend, the famed folksinger and Nazarene literary figure, Saud Al-Asadi, in which he decries the loss of another ancient Palestinian village, Saffouryi, destroyed by Israel except for some byzantine edifices. I had read many of Saud’s nostalgic poems before but this was the first time I just couldn’t stop crying till I finished translating it for Djon and sent it off. I also included a link to a recent article by the famed American neurologist, Oliver Saks, in the New York Review of Books about his metastatic liver cancer and how debilitating chemotherapy was. I went on to suggest half jokingly that the two or three of us should take a last swim in the Pacific never to return. But before that I wanted him to strum his guitar and lead us in singing some of his favorite Indonesian songs. I expressed my reluctance to see him weakened by illness. Perhaps I shouldn’t visit him, I suggested.
On the next call, four days ago Djon answered his mobile and was still hopeful though he was now in the hospital as a patient. His abdomen was filling with fluid (ascites) because his liver had failed. And it hurt, he told me.
“All of my family is here with me: Sherry, Dewi and Justin. They are taking good care of me.”
That was the clearest indication that Djon was on his final retreat. He always took care of everyone around him, pampered his beautiful wife and two children to excess.
“But the pain was relieved when the doctors tapped it dry and the fluid is tumor free,” Djon added to reassure himself through me though his shortness of breath (SOB, we doctors call it) forced a couple of breaks in the sentence. The image of a long-departed Nazarene physician friend, the late Dr. Anis Kardoush, a bright internist and the first head of our Land Defense Committee, flashed across my mind, momentarily replacing Djon’s smiling face. After his death of acute leukemia we found that his copy of Harrison’s Textbook of Medicine was open at a page about the differential diagnosis of leukemia and that all the various possibilities of benign forms of disease that could have been mistakenly diagnosis as leukemia were repeatedly underlined in various colored pens.
Three days later Djon finally accepted defeat. His kidneys had failed and he asked Dewi to call and tell Jagy and me to fly over right away. That is the mission on which I find myself now over the Pacific attempting to pay my debt of love and brotherhood to my adoptive brother.
My brother was the quiet but studious type, a perfectionist without the disturbing fussiness or nerdy seclusion: Whatever he did, he did well and with care, methodically sharing his sense of excitement and letting his infectious quest for excellence seep through to those around him. Born the youngest boy in an eighteen-child Catholic Chinese family in Medan, Indonesia, Djon climbed up all the way to where he became the top cardiologist in Hilo, Hawaii, respected by colleagues and loved by his patients and many friends. He founded and led Hilo’s annual Heart and Stroke Walk. And Djon brought a couple of special skills with him from Indonesia: Guitar strumming and badminton playing. He rose to the rank of senior champion, officially in the latter and privately in my heart in the former.
However, since our student days at the UH he always bragged to me about his hobby of photographing Hawaiian flowers. The camera he could afford at the time had very limited possibilities. Still, he overcame that with his dexterity and creativity in composition and perspective. Professor Innskeep, the head of the Chemistry Department at the time, recognized Djon’s artistic skill and befriended him on the strength of his impressive achievement in their shared hobby. With time and better cameras, Djon became even more obsessed with photographing Hawaiian flora and with digging detailed scientific information about it. For years he dreamt of putting together a tabletop artistic book of Hawaiian flowers. Lugging progressively heavier cameras, he repeatedly visited the hidden valleys and high peaks of all of Hawaii’s inhabited islands in search of their rare seasonal blooms. He became the best source of encyclopedic knowledge about their botany, better informed than anyone who ever combed Hawaii’s beaches. And he spoke incessantly about the topic every time we met or spoke on the phone. That is what I should whisper in his ear if I find him unresponsive when I get to the hospital. I am sure he will open his eyes to that.
Thursday, April 16, 2015:
While in transit at Honolulu airport yesterday afternoon I called Yusuf Tamimi, my Palestinian friend in Hilo and professor emeritus of soil science at its branch of the UH. We, the wayward foreign student trio, were indebted to Yusuf, another errant adventurer, for bequeathing us his apartment on University Avenue when he moved to Hilo. Contrary to all logic, I continue to collect on the debt I owe him to this day. Yusuf and his wife, Siham, are friends of Djon as well as his patients. Siham had no end of cardiac troubles and she credits Djon of keeping her alive. They had visited him in the hospital and wanted to do that again with us. They waited for us at the Hilo terminal and we made it to Djon’s private room in the ICU by 5:30pm to find him in toxic coma surrounded by his wife, his two children, Jagy and the attentive nursing staff. We were received with hugs and kisses and expressions of relief for making it before Djon’s surrender to the cruelest of victors.
“Uncle Hatim and Aunt Didi are here, Dad,“ both children said stroking my best friends sunken cheeks. “He is waiting for you, Hatim. Talk to him.” Jagy insisted and everyone there agreed. “He will respond to you.”
I needed no further encouragement. I reined back my emotions and tears, clasped Djon’s cold hand and kissed him half screaming my usual greeting to him of “Hi Djon! I love you, Brother!”
Djon opened his eyes, looked at me and said “Hatim! Didi! I love you! Love you all!” and with all the strength he could muster squeezed my hand and raised his head to kiss us. He then saw Siham and reached out to give her a hug muttering her name. Everyone kissed Djon and reassured him of the depth of their love. He repeated his “Love you all!” and lapsed back into his comatose state to the collective repeated expression of love and the gentle touching of his face and arms.
The nurse cleaned and changed the dressing on the IV in his arm. Djon seemed rested though his breathing was labored. Dewi, tears streaming down her beautiful always-smiling face sought to comfort her father and ease his departure, “his transition” as she repeatedly referred to it, with music. She said Djon was not religious in the ritualistic sense. But he was very spiritual. She played some beautiful tunes on a Hawaiian reed nose-flute. Everyone cried. She had placed a lemon-size painted Hawaiian pebble on the bedcover between his two hands. She said it was Djon’s favorite. He called it “Blue #11.” I placed a string of imitation black coral prayer bead set (mesbaha or rosary) that a friend had given me once on the occasion of her return from pilgrimage to Mecca around the stone. I thought Djon would appreciate the gesture. I am sure I had given him a similar set when he visited me in Arrabeh. But that was an occasion permitting a more jovial interpretation of what the implement meant to Moslems and Catholics.
Didi and I left the hospital to check in at our hotel against the loud objections of Yusuf and Siham who are fighting a different sort of losing battle, a cultural and demographic one to recreate a slice of Palestine in the shadow of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea mountain. Another hour and a half and we were at Djon’s bedside again. A new medical team had taken over: the nurse, a pleasant and respectful yet efficient type who exuded a comforting sense of confidence and intimacy with the family (I hadn’t been much around hospitals in recent years; I didn’t know they still made those) and a midcareer physician who turned out to be Syrian in origin joined the celebration of his departing colleague’s humanity. Djon was obviously in deeper coma. His breathing was severely labored. Still Jagy, Justin and Dewi encouraged me to speak to him. They thought Djon may still respond to me; that was the level of our mutual Aloha. But Djon was not responsive. To ease his air hunger in his last moments he was given IV morphine.
Dewi played her nose flute again and sang one of her Dad’s favorite Indonesian songs, ‘sueliram, sueliram.’ We all held hands forming a ring around Djon’s bed, tears streaming down our faces including those of the doctor and the nurse. Djon was sure to be proud of his daughter who then led a joyful round of narrating memorable moments from our life with Djon. I related my unforgettable first encounter with the unfamiliar smiling oriental face that took the initiative in calling me “brother,” a term that permeated our relationship for an entire lifetime. Others shared their memories, each from his or her perspective, smiling, laughing and exchanging hugs to fortify one another before the approaching final moment. Then Djon ‘forgot’ to breath. Except that this time Djon didn’t explain or apologize. One after the other, we kissed him then each other then hugged and cried.
Sherry, Dewi and Justin promised to visit me in Arrabeh, my home village.