Viet Nam News
by Khôi Vũ
The old man left his fifth place, behind the other four, in the queue to reach its head.
“Excuse me lady, allow me to stand ahead of you so that I may ask the youth in the booking office one question, just a short one,” he entreated the pretty girl ranking first.
“After that, I’ll return to my former place, please,” he added.
“Yes certainly. Come on, please,” she answered.
Standing in front of the glass compartment, he asked the young man behind it, “Excuse me, are there any soft seats left on the SE1 train bound for Biên Hoà City early today?”
“A lot, sir! You’re in a hurry, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Exactly! I’d like to visit my relative in the municipal hospital there, as soon as possible.”
“By the way, mate, you’d better provide him a ticket right away,” another person in the queue suggested.
Keeping it tightly in hand, he thanked everybody for their help before taking a seat in the waiting room.
“Our train leaving Huế will pull into Đà Nẵng Station in a few minutes. After that, it will take about 17 hours to finish the remaining section of the journey. Leaving here, it will arrive at Biên Hoà Station at 4 o’clock in the morning,” echoed a soft female voice over the loudspeaker.
* * *
His sleep on the soft seat came to him in fits and starts whenever the train stopped or left. His ration of food for dinner was unfinished, let alone the rice porridge free of charge by the waitress of the night train.
Earlier, at 10 a.m., he had received a phone call from his wife at home while he had been staying in a 4-star hotel in Đà Nẵng. “This morning, both our son and daughter-in-law have been taken to hospital due to a high fever,” she said. So, he was compelled to end the planned party’s trip ahead of schedule: only three of the eight-day visit to Đà Nẵng, Chàm Island, Sơn Trà Peninsula and Hội An City.
Therefore, he packed his belongings at once before saying goodbye to the other two roommates.
“See you later. I must be going now,” he told them.
He hurriedly took the lift downstairs. Outside, he found a taxi close to the pavement in front of the hotel. “Take me straight to the railway station, please,” he told the driver.
“Our train is pulling into Biên Hoà Station. Passengers who need to exit are requested to get their belongings ready,” that announcement over the loudspeaker again startled him. It was now five to 4 o’clock.
He approached a row of taxis parked near the entrance to the station. Finding the first one with the driver’s eyes half closed, he knocked at the window.
“Where to, Sir?” asked the man behind the steering wheel.
“Right to Phúc Hải Street, not its condo, please.”
Sitting comfortably in the vehicle, the passenger phoned his wife:
“I’m on the way home, honey. Stay ready at the gate, will you? Well, what’s the matter with our children at home?”
“Their fever seems very high while they’re in hospital, my darling.”
“So, your children are not very well,” remarked the driver.
“Exactly! Our single son and his wife are now under treatment there. One of them is suffering from dengue fever, whereas the other’s illness is still unidentified.”
“Poor them! To the best of my knowledge, dengue is now raging wild in this city,” he said. “Bless both of them! I wish that they would soon recover from the serious disease,” he prayed.
“Thanks a lot!” said the old man. “Anyway, I’ve met another kind-hearted person,” he whispered to himself after paying the fare.
* * *
“Your daughter-in-law has dengue fever, whereas her husband’s case is still under check,” reported the hospital nurse on duty.
Consequently, the old man’s wife had to look after their 7-month-old granddaughter. In the meantime, their youngest daughter, who resided in Biên Hoà City, too, was so busy teaching that she could only help her mother in the evenings. Therefore, his presence in the family for the time being was indispensable.
On the second day of treatment, his son’s serious illness was also found out. It was dengue fever, too.
The next day, his daughter-in-law’s health conditions appeared a bit better. She only felt slightly itchy. “Surely, she’ll soon be all right,” said the doctor in charge.
Everybody in the family was in high spirits. Their daughter-in-law could take care of her husband quite at ease. What the old man had to do every day was to take weak rice porridge for his son’s breakfast and other items of food like cooked rice, vegetable and meat or fish for his wife in the morning and early afternoon. Later in the afternoon, in his youngest daughter’s turn, she replaced her father to that effect.
Soon, his daughter-in-law’s parents, brothers and sisters covered a distance of 20 kilometres, from the rural district, to visit these patients by motorbike. Moreover, his son’s colleagues at work also dropped in on his son, group by group. “I’m very hungry,” he often complained. “No problem, after being given a few doses of serum, your health will return to normal,” explained the doctor.
Later on the evening of the fifth day, the old man received a phone call from his daughter-in-law at home. She told him that her husband had vomited lots of blood.
“Have you told the doctor?” he asked her.
“Yes, father. But after visiting him, the doctor said nothing. He prescribed nothing else, except for the previous ones for him.”
“Ok, no problem, provided that his health conditions have been carefully checked,” the old man consoled her although he thought that his case was serious.
When he reached the hospital for the first time, he found that the building and its pieces of equipment were all brand new since it had just been put into operation. It seemed to him that it was like a four-star hotel whose rooms had each an air-conditioner, two beds separated from each other by a heavy blind, an expensive toilet and two extra folding beds available for use when necessary.
“However, the appearance of the building doesn’t matter much. The services of its staff are of more important,” he said to himself. Finding his son’s health much better, he felt at ease to some extent.
“In the morning, my temperature is normal, say, around 37 degrees Celsius, Dad,” his son said to him. “Early in the afternoon, it might be a bit higher. At 8pm., the doctor on duty comes to check on me. Later, they inject three bottlefuls of serum Ringer Lactate, one after another,” he went on.
His daughter-in-law asked him to look after her husband. “I’ll take our dirty clothes home,” she said to the old man. “Early in the afternoon, I’ll return here with lunch for both of you,” she added. When he began relaxing, his son suddenly rose up and embraced his chest tightly with both hands. He darted to his son’s bed. What he saw was a reddish mass of semi-liquid. “Maybe it’s the porridge he’s recently eaten,” he whispered to himself.
A doctor on duty was requested to come to his son’s bed. She examined him. “I’ll let him take some anti-nausea medication. Perhaps his disease has turned into a common fever. It’ll take him three more days to recover. No problem! It’s only a transitional stage of the disease,” she explained. Her piece of advice made the old man quite assured.
* * *
When the doctor left, he told his son to stay calm so that the nurse could clean the floor. Not until the ninth day did the patient’s high fever end. He began eating well-cooked rice. At one o’clock in the early afternoon the old man got a massage from his wife while he had just fallen into a sound sleep. “Our son’s just told me that today’s lunch seemed wonderful, especially the dish of shrimp cooked with tomato sauce. He thanked us as well, darling,” said his wife. “Surprisingly, so far he’s never shown his affection so deeply.”
“All patients express their consolation to their parents or wives to ease their worries. No exceptions at all!”
Come what may, the old man felt as if he was in seventh heaven.
Over the past days, the old man kept on arriving at the hospital in the mornings. Today, he rode his motorcycle right into the underground floor. Stopping at the ticket counter to receive a tag for his vehicle, the old man opened a broad smile.
“We often see you entering this place twice a day. Why do you have to do so? Few members in your clan, aren’t there?” asked one of the two youths at the table.
“Exactly, just a few! My better half has to look after the kid and prepare our meals at home.”
“Poor you! What about your son’s health? Any better?”
“Thanks a lot. He’s been allowed to leave the institution this morning.”
“Congratulations!” both of them said.
He took the lift to the 11th floor in a good mood like the days when he, together with a few staff members of the office, had paid visits to some employees at hospital in the past. “They’re all the matters of obligation or hospitability of yore with a few cheap presents, now a bag of fruit, now a few pouches of sugar, even some banknotes wrapped in an envelope; quite different from what his children in hospital had received over the past weeks.
Another difference between the two types of hospitals, past and present, was that the present-day one looked like a large, clean hotel with up-to-date equipment, whereas the old one was rather outdated with less instruments in poorly constructed buildings.
His short life, more hopeful than real, like in an imaginary world, has passed for good. In fact, he is now enjoying the meaningful days of his lifetime.
“Dad, we can return home by ourselves. Why do you have to arrive here?” the young couple asked him.
“Simply because I’m your father, that’s all,” he replied in an unaffected voice.
Translated by Văn Minh