Wednesday, May 7, 2014

(Prose) - Legacy (Commonwealth Youth Essay Competition Silver Award Winner)

Legacy

14 September 1956

And so she made her case, her tiny ten-year-old hands curled tightly into fists. It was a Monday afternoon and lunch time was approaching; it was then that she decided to tell her parents her desire. The fewer the people who heard the better, she had thought. The lack of customers had provided her some confidence but now, she regretted even saying anything at all.

Her mother, who was rearranging some wares, froze momentarily when she heard it. Casting a glance at her husband, she hurried towards her daughter but it was too late. Her husband gave the girl a swift slap to the cheek, causing her to be thrown roughly onto the floor. Grunting menacingly as he stood up from his stool, the girl’s father tossed aside the wrench he was using.

“What nonsense is this? Who’d ever heard of a girl becoming a doctor? You will be a disgrace to this family! Enough with this, it’s time to feed the chickens. Go!”

Picking herself up, the girl struggled to keep her tears in. She cried noiselessly as she entered the storeroom and shut the door behind her. She had known that this would happen. She was after all only a girl.

It had been three years since the desire to be a doctor began to grow within her. She had been playing along the streets near her school when she had tripped and fallen into a shallow drain, spraining her ankle in the process. Unable to climb out, she cried helplessly.

To her amazement, a young Caucasian lady carried her out from the drain with the help of her Chinese aide, amidst the curious stares of onlookers. They carried her to what she later found out was called a “clinic” and tended to her sprained ankle there. Through numerous inquiries, she learnt that the ‘Ang Moh’ was in fact a doctor. Filled with awe, it was then that the little girl decided to follow in her footsteps to become a doctor, to help others in their time of need when no one else seemed to care.

She had a small hope that her parents would understand, but that of course did not happen. She was only a girl; one who was of lesser status in the Chinese community. She was expected to marry into another family; to give birth and have many male babies to carry on the family line; to be the submissive servant to her husband, obeying his every whim until the day she breathed her last breath.

But she detested such a practice. She wanted to be free to pursue her dream. She had never felt so determined in her life about something, for many things had already been determined for her. She wanted to be free. That night, she ran away.

********

It was in the early hours of the morning that Dr. Isabella Warwick found a little Chinese girl huddled outside her clinic, asleep. The sun had barely begun its ascent, and the dark, cold morning streets of Tanjong Pagar, with all its notorious gangsters, were no place for such a girl to be in. Picking her up, Dr. Warwick carried the little girl into her clinic. Somehow, she found the girl extremely familiar.

********

She woke up to a familiar smell. Though it made her wrinkle her nose, it was a smell that brought comfort and even relief to her. She was back at the clinic. Opening her eyes, she took in the sight that she had longed to see for three years: the brown tiles that lined the walls, the patients who waited on the wooden benches and the familiar Chinese aide (whom she remembered was called Ah Gan) at the counter. He flashed the little girl a kind smile as she approached him.

“The doctor found you asleep outside the clinic. What were you doing there?” He asked, offering her a sweet.

The girl accepted it with a smile, but did not answer him. Ah Gan did not mind it very much, as he had to attend to a patient who had just approached the counter.

A wooden door to the back of the clinic creaked open and the girl soon caught sight of the doctor. Meeting her gaze with a smile, Dr. Warwick nudged the girl into the room, where she started on the necessary checks for injuries. It was then that she noticed a bruise on the girl’s right cheek.

“How did you get this bruise?” Dr. Warwick asked in the fluent Hokkien that the little girl remembered her for, applying some ointment on it.

It was then that the little girl told her story to Dr. Warwick, holding nothing back as she returned the doctor’s patient gaze.

“So you are the girl we found in the drain three years ago! My apologies; I have a pretty bad memory,” The doctor’s light laughter did not mask her concern however. “So you said you want to be a doctor?”

The little girl nodded her head vigorously at this. “I want to be like you, miss. I want to help others who are in need…” Dr. Warwick’s sorrowful look caused her to stop, uncertain.

“Think it through, my dear girl. Do you really want to be a doctor?”

“Wh…what do you mean, miss?” the little girl asked, taken aback.

Dr. Warwick sighed. “The job of a doctor is to help people, and for that we have to undergo rigorous training. Many give up along the way, while others…let’s just say they don’t make it,” Dr. Warwick laughed lightly at this. “I gave up my family who couldn’t accept me being a doctor. I gave up my fiancĂ© who could not tolerate how I was never with him. I gave my life to be who I am today. Do you really wish to be a doctor, my child, and sacrifice your life like I have mine?”

The little girl regarded the sorrow in Dr. Warwick’s voice, and she gave the doctor a hug in an attempt to comfort her.

“Miss, don’t be sad. Your life isn’t a waste. You’ve helped me to know what I want to be.”

Dr. Warwick returned the hug with a small smile but could not say a word, for the door burst open at that moment and Ah Gan rushed in, anxious. “There’s a man looking for the girl and he’s causing quite a commotion!”

Dr. Warwick glanced over at the little girl, her eyes regaining the vigour the little girl remembered from three years ago. “Come with me, dear. We’ll sort this out now.”

Gripping the doctor’s hand tightly, the little girl followed her out of the room. Her father was waiting. Dr. Warwick gave the girl’s hand a squeeze.

“Get away from that Ang Moh now.”

“Sir, I can speak Hokkien perfectly well. If you may, please come into the room. You’re disturbing my other patients.”

The little girl’s father grunted and complied. Shutting the door behind her, Dr. Warwick motioned for the man to sit, which he did.

Dr. Warwick was the first to break the tense silence.

“Your daughter here wishes to be a doctor, and I believe you already know about this. Why would you wish to stop her?”

“Doctor, I believe you know the reason yourself. Women ought not to work. They should get married and have children. You must know the pains of remaining single, doctor; for I hear that you’re not married.”

“Sir…”

“I’ve seen different types of people come and go at my shop, and I pity the single women the most, because they lack the money, the security, and the love that a husband can bring. I don’t want my daughter to die a lonely woman who would be uncared for her whole life, doctor. I want my daughter to live comfortably, and for that, she cannot be a doctor.”

“Sir,” Dr. Warwick replied evenly. “I do believe that being a doctor, with all its drawbacks, does have its perks, and money is one of them. As for love and security, becoming a doctor doesn’t necessarily mean staying single for life. And in the meantime, we can do our best to care for her by being there for her.”

“We all have to die someday, doctor. And when that happens, who else can look after her if she does not marry?”

“Sir, women are also capable of looking after themselves. Take myself for example. I’ve lived here in Singapore for more than ten years, and I get on quite well. Besides, your daughter won’t be in a foreign land; she’ll be safe here amongst her people. Think about it sir, you can help to fulfil her dreams and still let her live a fulfilled life.”

There was a long pause as the girl’s father pondered the doctor’s statement.

“Ching Yim, come here.” The little girl hesitantly left her place behind the doctor. “I really do wish the best for you, for you are after all my flesh and blood. If you really do wish to pursue such a dream, then I must let you go, for no other way would make you happy. Do you really wish to be a doctor?”

Ching Yim drew in a short breath. This was it. It was now or never for her; a chance to jump at the dream she always had. She nodded her head vigorously.

Dr. Warwick smiled at the young girl’s response. “You will never regret your decision sir, I promise.”

The little girl’s father remained passive as he saw the jubilant tears that flowed down his daughter’s face.

“I’ll hold you to that promise, doctor.”

********
25 February 2007

As Ching Yim stands before the grave of Isabella Warwick, she cannot help but smile. The elderly lady is still very much involved in the medical sector, working as a senior consultant psychiatrist at the Singapore General Hospital. As she remembers her beloved friend, she realises that all these years of living her dream as a doctor would not have been possible if Dr. Warwick had not persuaded her father to let her become one. With the realisation that time waits for no one, she lets out a heavy sigh, even as her teenage daughter looks on behind her. Leaving a bouquet of lilies beside the marble tombstone, both mother and daughter stroll towards the setting sun.




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