Viet Nam News
by Nguyễn Ngọc Hoài Nam
On a Saturday morning, during a visit to my friend in the local cancer hospital, I stood confused in front of the pictures drawn on a wall under the stairs on the ground floor. Simple as they were, they spoke volumes for the expectations of the little children with their shaved heads who were staying there. Some may think that they merely portray small moments of pleasure in their daily life. For those unlucky kids, I hope that miracles could make their dreams come true.
Innocent questions or answers like “a bone problem?” or “an eye disease” from them and their stories about trips in the hospital ambulance stung my heart.
Below is a true story that I heard and recorded on the spot.
Nhiên saw a small girl with a shaved head sitting opposite a dim, narrow section of wall under the stairs in the cancer hospital while she was on the way to the testing room. The girl looked like so many other bald young kids here.
However, her strangely swollen left eye and deformed face startled Nhiên so much that she hid herself beside her father.
For the next few days, she was startled every time she saw the girl sitting in the same place with a thin coloured stick of pastel in hand. The poor little girl was normally alone, concentrating hard on an unfinished painting on the wall. She paid no attention to the slanting rays of sunshine that struck her face.
One day, the girl turned back. Finding Nhiên approaching her, she smiled warmly. Instead of returning the smile, she followed her father straight to her bed.
Nhiên had many unanswerable questions like “Why are their heads shaved?” or “Why has that little girl got such a big eye?” or “Why do some kids’ limbs look deformed?”. Sometimes, she put these questions to her parents but neither of them would answer her. Perhaps they did not want to make their daughter worried about her disease. When she asked her parents about her swollen knee, her mother only cried while her father mumbled an unclear answer.
One evening, Nhiên made up her mind to question her father.
“Dad, allow me to ask you a question, just one,” she requested.
“Alright then, my dear daughter.”
“Did you notice the little girl sitting under the stairs?”
“Of course, I did.”
“Why is her eye that big?”
“Because she fell down the stairs.”
“Can her eye be cured, Dad?”
“Thanks to the great doctors here, it will soon return to normal, my dear.”
“What about my leg? Will my aching leg be fixed?”
“Certainly, it’ll recover soon, my beloved daughter.”
Nhiên was going to say more, but hearing her mother’s sobs, she stopped abruptly. Then suddenly, she added, “That girl smiles at me, should I smile back?”
* * *
On Sundays, most of the doctors enjoyed a long weekend off. Nhiên got up later than usual. For the whole past week, many members of Nhiên’s relatives came to see her and brought gifts and asked about her health conditions. Her presents were piled neatly on her bedside table, drawing envious looks from her roommates.
She received her diagnosis after a series of tests. They showed that there was a tumour in her right knee. To find out if it was benign or malignant it would take more tests. In the meantime, except for Nhiên, everybody in the family waited anxiously. Nhiên felt that her knee was getting more painful with every passing day. As a result, her movements became more difficult.
After days of lying in the same place and playing games on her iPad, one day she asked her father to take her for a stroll. He led her out by her hand slowly.
Reaching the foot of the stairs, she saw the girl drawing pictures again. However, Nhiên was not startled like before. Again, the girl smiled broadly at her. She smiled back. Her father left her with the little artist and sat down on a stone bench in the courtyard.
“Hey, you’ve got a bone problem, haven’t you?” she asked Nhiên.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you’re suffering from bone cancer, just like the boy in this picture,” she said, pointing at the drawing of a young football player on the wall.
“Who drew it?” Nhiên asked.
“Me, of course! I was told he was a promising footballer. His right leg was broken during a match. Much later, it got so bad that it had to be amputated. Your knee also looks terribly swollen.”
Silence fell for a minute.
“Why is your left eye so big? Is it because you fell down the stairs?” Nhiên asked.
“Oh no no, I’ve got an eye disease.”
“Eye disease! What do you mean?”
“This eye is much bigger than the other,” she said, pointing at the left eye then the right one. “My left one is of no use any more. The doctor told me next week he’ll remove it to keep the right one safe.”
Nhiên was stunned. What she said was quite different from what her father had said. The words “leg amputation” and “eye removal” sounded dreadful.
Now she understood her father’s anxiety and her mother’s weeping whenever she asked them about her disease.
“I like to draw very much,” the girl told Nhiên. “Some of my pictures have been displayed in local museums,” she added.
“Your drawings are very beautiful,” Nhiên observed.
“My brother Tùng’s works are better. His pictures won many prizes. Regrettably, he couldn’t receive them because of his illness. He cried and cried. He became blind too,” she went on.
“How could he paint?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps he drew them before he went blind,” replied the girl. Nhiên thought the conversation had went down a dark path so she decided to change the subject.
“What year were you in at school?” Nhiên asked.
“If I wasn’t in hospital now I would be in the seventh grade,” she answered.
The girl fell silent. A few minutes later, she went on, “I’m very fond of school. When I began attending sixth grade, I had to wear school uniform. Sometimes I still put on my uniform before strolling around the courtyard to alleviate my nostalgia,” she said, ending with a broad smile.
Nhiên smiled back.
“What are you drawing?”
“A birthday cake and some fruit as well. Yesterday while watching a TV show with a birthday party, I wished I had one.”
“When is your birthday?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are all the pictures on the wall your work?”
“Most of them. A few others were made by those bare-headed kids over there. This is my house in our village. Here are my parents and my newly-born baby sister whom I’ve only met once.”
“Who stays here to take care of you?”
“Usually my aunt. My father works nearby as a bricklayer. My mother looks after my young sister in the country. Both are too busy to visit frequently.”
“How often does your father get here?”
“Only on weekends. In a few minutes, he’ll be here.”
She pointed at another picture.
“This is my little 3-year-old sister Vân. She’s laughing happily with a pair of dangly ear-rings on,” she told Nhiên.
“How nice they look!” Nhiên remarked.
“I wish I had a new pair for her.”
“She likes jewellery?”
“She had one pair. But recently our mother sold it for medicine. She didn’t say anything, although she looked very sad. She just lay in the same place, facing the wall. When her disease got worse, she was brought home from here according to the doctor’s advice.”
Nhiên remembered boxes of gifts at home with scores of ear-rings which had been given to her by her relatives on her birthdays. She had never thought that a pair of ear-rings might make a little girl joyful and then sad.
“This is my self-portrait with round eyes. How beautiful!” she said, showing Nhiên another drawing. It was a girl with her hair in two pigtails, smiling sweetly with two big, round eyes. “Of course, it’s me when I wasn’t sick,” she said.
To Nhiên, on the narrow wall under the stairs of the hospital, in the morning sunshine, the pictures showed the innocent but burning desires of the sick children.
“Do you want to draw now?” she asked Nhiên.
“Oh no, I’m no artist!”
The coloured sticks of pastel in the girl’s hand, one after another, moved up and down, from left to right, dancing on the wall. Minutes later, beautiful things marking the celebration of a birthday appeared on the wall: a fancy cake with two circles of little candles in flames, a teddy bear and numerous kinds of fruit.
A moment later, she stared at Nhiên, smiling.
“Now, I’ll draw a picture of you with two shapely long legs standing by my side. Just stand here for a few minutes, will you?” she asked Nhiên.
* * *
In the late evening, before going to bed Nhiên whispered to her father, “Dad, I know what kind of serious disease I’ve been suffering.”
He stared at her in silence. Her mother hid her face.
Early on Monday, Nhiên’s father was summoned to the doctor’s office. Meanwhile, her mother was sitting in a corner of the patient room, clutching a rosary and praying. Nhiên was playing her iPad with some little kids. As the little children were having a good time, she felt relaxed.
Half an hour later, her father came back to Nhiên’s room. Everybody looked at him inquisitively. Saying nothing, he hugged Nhiên tightly then burst out crying. Her mother seized the test report from his hand and read it silently.
“Thank God, benign tumour, benign tumour!” she said loudly. The whole room shouted happily.
As for Nhiên, she knew that from now on she would not be afraid. She felt very fortunate. Yet, on second thoughts, she burst out crying when she thought of the bare-headed children in the hospital.
The next morning, she was allowed to go home for a short time. However, she would have to return for another operation on her knee in a different clinic. “You will be limping after a very short time, then your knee will return to normal totally,” said her doctor.
Before leaving, Nhiên picked up the biggest teddy bear out of the remaining presents, for the big-eyed girl’s next birthday although she did not know the exact date. Most of the other gifts had been given to the other unlucky children.
Going downstairs, she stopped at the wall full of coloured pictures, she stared at two of them: a girl with long legs beside the little painter and another with a gorgeous pair of ear-rings.
The girl was nowhere to be seen. Nhiên and her father checked all the rooms of the floor, one after another, to look for the little painter. But their search was in vain. Finally, they were told that the poor girl had been taken to the operating room early that morning. Nhiên made up her mind to leave the teddy bear in the care of a room-mate of the little girl.
After that she stooped down under the stairs. Picking up a new stick of pastel, she drew a large heart in which there were three lovable figures – a long-legged schoolgirl standing beside a teenager with nice big eyes and a little one wearing a pair of gold ear-rings before leaving the cancer hospital for ever.
Translated by Văn Minh