I met Mr. E at a poetry reading. Hong Kong’s literary scene is small and two Americans reading in one evening was an unusual event. We became Facebook friends, generally “liking” the same local literary events and book launches.
I start my mornings by casually and quickly scanning a few of the Facebook updates that randomly show up in my feed, photos of babies dressed like adults, dogs dressed like rabbits and of fancy food arranged like farm animals fill my screen. But on that morning, I also happen to stumble upon a cancer journal, written by a man I have only met once. “Sorry to hear you are ill,” I write, “best wishes for a speedy recovery.”
Several months pass. As I yell at my children to get ready for school, shouting out orders to them to remember their homework, their library books, their snacks and their PE uniforms, I happen to glance at the feed:
“If anyone is reading this, I have not been able to brush my teeth for a week. I am in hospital again and bedridden. I am desperate for toothpaste, a toothbrush, shaving cream and a razor. To be transferred today. No phone and no WiFi.”
“I will be there this afternoon,” I type.
I casually mention to my husband that I need to stop by the hospital this afternoon but I first need to do a bit of shopping for food and toiletries because a plea for a toothbrush seems like a very simple request.
“Is he from the Synagogue?” my husband asks. “Where are his friends? His family?”
I only know that he is American, not Jewish, in his late sixties and divorced. He is ill and alone and needs a toothbrush, I explain.
I arrive at the Chinese public hospital later that day. I have never been to a local public hospital before or truth be told, in any public hospital ever.
No one speaks English. All I have is a surname and a first name scribbled on a piece of paper and a large plastic container with assorted basic goods and snacks.
I am not sure where the main reception is or if there even is one. The facility seems to be a number of small buildings labeled in Chinese with a single English letter on them, with no particular significance and in no particular order.
After wandering in circles, I stand somewhere in the center of it all, near an ambulance dock and I decide that calling the main number would be my best bet.
It takes several call transfers until they are able to find an English speaker for me. I am fairly certain now that I need to go to Ward C, 4th floor.
Ward C has a tiny hectic nurse’s station tucked in the corner. Otherwise it is a giant space dotted with countless beds and older men. It is crowded, yet lonely and cold, sterile.
“I am here to see my friend,” I tell the nurse. Though this is a half-truth. If my husband found it hard to understand what compelled me to do this today, I thought, explaining it to a nurse who doesn’t share a common language with me would be near impossible.
“Visiting hour not now. You too early. One and one half hours after,” she states, staring at me intently, assuming I am lost. I look at her and then around me. Will I really come back here? “But you it ok. See friend now,” she orders.
It’s a small and strange unwritten rule in Hong Kong – a gweillo (white ghost, white devil, foreigner) is somehow not bound by the same set of rules as everyone else.
“M’goi, M’goi (thank you),” I respond hesitantly, almost wishing for a second that they had sent me away. Ward C doesn’t seem very inviting. “Does anyone leave Ward C?” I wonder to myself.
Privacy is a foreign concept here, as are warmth and comfort. There are no dividers, rooms or curtains. The numbers on the beds are the only distinguishing features to mark one row from the next.
I reach Mr. E’s bed. His eyes are shut. I fumble through my purse to find a piece of paper and a pen and decide I should leave the bag as well as my number in case he needs anything else. There are no personal items in sight save for a tattered paperback book. I squeeze myself between two beds while I write and occasionally glance up and smile at the elderly pajamaed Chinese men staring at me.
Suddenly the quiet of the crowded nook I am in is broken.
“Asleeping?” a doctor asks gesturing to Mr. E. “Asleeping?” he again repeats.
I look over at Mr. E’s thin still frame, closed eyes and open mouth.
“Well, I certainly hope so, otherwise these items are certainly not necessary,” I respond.
The doctor looks at me blankly.
“You friend?” he asks.
“Ummm,” I hesitate, “Well it is rather complicated. I mean Facebook friends, yes. You know, big F- Facebook. Little f –friend.”
The doctor looks at me blankly.
“You friend?” he repeats.
“Yes, friend,” I respond.
“Ok, I explain you. Tomorrow procedure… the prognosis…the bones…”
I try to cut him off.
“No, I think I am not the right person to explain this to. I think you had better wait for Mr. E to wake up. We have only met once…”
He ignores me and continues, “the spine…the anesthesiologist…the marrow.”
Mr E. stirs and suddenly awakes.
“Well,” I offer. “Apparently I am doing much better than you.”
“I really am actually in a better position to say that than probably anyone, thanks to chatty doctor here.”
“Ok. Ok,” the doctor says, “You tell friend.”
There is nowhere to go without invading someone else’s space. I know the whole prognosis already. I pretend to fiddle with my phone as the doctor speaks, though there is no WiFi and scarcely a 3G signal.
I stay for a while after that and Mr. E. and I discuss the Federalist Papers as interestingly enough that is what he is reading.
I learn that his sister, in her 50s, will be coming at the end of the week.
“It could be an interesting experience to die here alone in Asia, you know,” he offers casually as I leave.
As I walk home, I think about how different it is coming to a remote place as a Jew. When someone Jewish is ill, our community quickly forms a roster to cover visitation and meals irrespective of whether the person is a shul member or not. Local hospitals know to call the rabbi if a patient is identified as Jewish. And in the end, we have a chevra kadisha that will care for someone even if they had no connection at all to the community.
I know that I will be back to visit again. I am guided by a very Jewish value. I could have written a check to the Hong Kong Cancer Society and hoped that it would have helped someone sometime, but I know that this isn’t enough.
I go home and tell my story to my children. They ask if he goes to our Synagogue, if he is Jewish. It doesn’t matter I explain, but no he is not Jewish. I tell them how terrible it is for him to be alone. How my wish is that they will each find someone Jewish to marry and that their spouse will take care of them if they need it and they can in turn take care of them. I tell them how the Jewish community here and around the world comes together to care for and visit the sick and how they will never actually have to be alone.
And while I sometimes worry that merely memorizing prayers won’t necessarily teach them the values I want to pass on to them and that putting money into a tzeddakah box is a wonderful gesture but it is easy and often not enough, I hope that this story will inspire them to be the kind of people that I want them to be. That they will understand that, though they will hopefully always be surrounded by people who love them and a community that cares for them, there are people on Ward C.
I post a message on Facebook on Mr. E’s wall. I give his new hospital name and bed number as well as a list of the items I brought so that they won’t be duplicated. And note that he no longer has WiFi or a phone. “I am not sure what else he needs, but I think he can really use a friend,” I summarize.
I read up on the Federalist Papers as I am certain I have more than exhausted my limited store of knowledge in that first visit. And so my knowledge of the Federalist Papers has now unexpectedly grown, as has my appreciation for the true meaning of community and how lucky we as Jews are.