Trauma

by Eric Daniel Wee

“Strange as it may seem, some people are more prone to accidents,” Derrick made a casual remark to Cathy, his fellow commuter, on the way home by the North-East Line after a get-together lunch at a restaurant in Chinatown. “Got such thing, mair? You mean, you believe such superstitions?” Cathy gasped in disbelief that a level-headed guy like Derrick could utter such nonsense. “It happened to me time and time again all my life! Want to hear one or two near-death experiences before you get down at Nex?”

What led to the conversation was when Cathy noticed a relatively large scar on Derrick’s right thigh when they managed to get adjacent seats—inescapable since Derrick was wearing his usual brief shorts—that most observers would politely avert from commenting on. “That’s a large scar!” she could not restrain from vocalising her immediate thought. “Oh, that? Well, a reminder of a bad job done on me as a child to find out why I was perspiring plasma on that leg every night,” Derrick explained lackadaisically.

“Look!” Derrick then said as he pushed his right ear forward to expose a 3-centimetre long scar. “This is a reminder of a deep cut. I fell and hit the side of my head on a sharp metal rice bin lid holder as a three-year-old kid.” “That must have been a really nasty cut!” Cathy remarked sympathetically. “You see,” Derrick continued, “Two uncles had just left after having a chat over tea in the kitchen, which served as a dining area as well, with Jee Ee, my second aunt, who was looking after me. She, separated from her spouse, was employed as church caretaker with quarters provided—a three-room affair—which was actually a wooden cottage behind the church building, housing a fairly large social hall with a small kitchen and a bedroom. It must be after a church programme and the two uncles had lingered around for a chat and a cup of tea. While my aunt was washing the cups, I don’t know what got into me, but I sprinted towards the door, which was shut, to get out into the garden. I fell back—spring of the air I think it’s called—and my head hit the bin cover. 

“As I lost consciousness, I heard my aunt screaming at her son, who was preparing for his Cambridge O-Level Examinations, probably at his desk in the social hall, poring over his books, as usual, to rush out to get the two uncles back. They couldn’t have gone very far. The bus stop was somewhere outside the Eye Hospital, just next to the church, and I distinctly heard that they had indicated they were travelling by bus. Grabbing her well-worn purse, she hastily carried me out of the house. Though my pyjamas were soaked with blood spilling from the laceration, I survived without being sent to the hospital. Etched in my memory was suddenly being placed to stand on a step leading to a church lawn, one arm of my child-minder aunt holding me and the other arm extended upwards as she knelt, crying to the Almighty to save her ward. At that point, in the cold of the night, I felt the blood trickling to a stop before losing consciousness again. Was I traumatised? I honestly can’t remember, being a child, you know. But I guess my poor aunt was.”

“Wow! That must be quite an experience! Good thing you didn’t become retarded!” Cathy responded sympathetically. “Perhaps, because of that, I’m quite slow in my reflexes,” Derrick added with a laugh, “a good excuse for being slow to take action!”

“Oh yah! Something else happened. This may not seem such a big deal but it must be extremely traumatic to me as a precocious child …” Derrick suddenly recollected. “What is it? Don’t keep me in suspense, can or not?” Cathy cried out, forgetting, for a moment, that she was amidst a crowd travelling on a train, her curiosity getting the better of her. “Okay! Okay!” Derrick acceded. 

“I was sleeping in the bedroom—beside a window covered with iron grilles to prevent intruders from getting in—blissfully, not knowing that everyone else, including my Jee Ee, had gone out to a wayang (street show) in the neighbourhood—more for the makan (eating stalls)—leaving me alone in the house. Suddenly, I was awakened by being prodded with my baby bolster. From the other side of the window, my elder cousin sister was holding one end of the bolster she managed to get hold of through a gap. 

“The sight of my aunt and cousins beyond the grilles, outside the house, made me realise that I was alone in the room, alone inside the house. The fear of momok (bogeyman) coming through the back door of an attached bathroom caused me to scream in terror as I hit the grilles with my puny fists in my futile attempt to get out. My hysterical screams and hitting the grilles with my puny fists were unabated until I became exhausted. 

“My cousin sister, who must have been trying to calm me down all the while, finally got through to the whimpering me. They had forgotten to carry the house keys with them. She persuaded me to leave the room and run to the social hall to unlatch the door for them to enter. I, looking behind me to ensure the dreaded momok was not around, jumped out of the bed, ran out of the bedroom door straight for the door of the next room which, as I had earlier mentioned, was actually a social hall for churchgoers on weekends. Jee Ee was employed as the live-in church housekeeper, you see.” “You mentioned that already!” Cathy reminded Derrick impatiently. “Sorry, lah, but to continue, I hurriedly unlatched the door and grabbed my aunt in relief. ‘Get him a drink!’ I heard my cousin telling her mother, dazed as I was. I remembered gulping the ice-water before collapsing in exhaustion. The trauma, which I can still vividly remember, could have a long-lasting negative effect!” “Wow! But you managed to pull through with no ill effects, eh? You’re no psycho!” Cathy responded in genuine admiration and relief. 

“Sorry, Derrick, I’ve to get off at this station,” Cathy interrupted, simultaneously touching Derrick’s shoulder as she got up from her seat. “Fantastic experiences! Continue next time we meet, okay?” she said as she exited with a gentle wave. Even as he waved his hand in return, Derrick’s reverie mode continued to replay a scene in his teenage years how, inexplicably, he escaped collision with a speeding vehicle. He was with a friend walking home after Sunday School at Life Bible-Presbyterian Church (then at Prinsep Street) in the late afternoon. Choon Seng, his buddy, had already crossed the seemingly traffic-free road with Derrick close behind him. Suddenly, a lorry swerved round the bend, charging towards him. Derrick should have been petrified in fear—rooted on the spot in shock—but, inexplicably, he tripped three light-steps backward. The monster of a vehicle whizzed past, a nose breath away! Derrick ran across to join his friend. “Heng (luckily), arghh!” was all he managed to say, hitting his chest gently, a gesture of relief. 

The station at Serangoon reminded him of a more recent encounter with death. Derrick had alighted at the bus stop outside Nex Shopping Centre after midnight as the Night Rider Bus Number 6 would be turning off towards Ang Mo Kio. At the junction, the traffic lights indicated that he could safely cross to the other side of the road. Walking past the midway section, he felt something stepping on the back of one of his flip flops as a car swerved past behind him, braking to a stop on his right. 

A young male driver rushed towards him and touched him as he breathlessly called out, “Are you alright?” It was only then it dawned on Derrick that a wheel of the car had gone over the back edge of one of his slippers. Dazed and lost for words, he stood staring at the young driver. “How could he drive on, turning from a minor road at such a speed, when the ‘green man’ was on for pedestrians to cross?” came to Derrick’s mind, even in his state of shock. Then, recovering, feeling greatly relieved that he had escaped the jaws of death, he shook a finger at the remorseful youth, saying, “You’re lucky someone up there loves me!” before walking away. “I could have died!” he realised with greater intensity, feeling the trauma belatedly as beads of sweat formed on his forehead.

“Strange that I only felt the trauma after the near-death experiences on reflection! What’s the medical or psychological term for it? Oh, yah. Post-traumatic syndrome!” Derrick thought. It was his nature to think what were the possible outcomes—negative ones, more often than not—if things had turned out differently. His eyes grew misty with gratitude for providential protection. He distinctly remembered that as a child, he had envisioned an angel in a robe of white, the bottom hem of which moved towards him like the gentle foamy ripples of the sea, bathed in golden glorious light. 

He was lying on a mat, near a door-like window, facing an almost empty street, at bedtime. He was then staying with his kong-kong, that is, his maternal grandfather, at his rented double-storey shop-house along North Bridge Road, near to the iconic Sultan Mosque. As he gazed in wonder, the heavenly being lifted his baby-pink arms over him to bless him. Prior to the angelic visitation, he had seen, over his shoulder, the back of a heavy-looking hantu (devil) with waist-length rope-like strands of hair, everything in jet black. His adult teacher cousin suggested that it was a divine revelation that the obnoxious sinner in Derrick could be a transformed saint when he confided in her. Even as a child, Derrick thought otherwise. To him, the black figure was a satanic agent out to get him but he was saved by his guardian angel.

Lost in reverie, Derrick overshot the Kovan station where he was to get off. “What? Where am I now? Better get out at the next station to return to Kovan!” he muttered rather audibly to himself as he hastily stood up, straightening his T-shirt and shorts. Conscious that a fellow commuter was observing his action with a smile, he berated her mentally, “What’s so good to smile at? Stupid!” 

As he waited for the train to arrive, he relapsed in his reverie. The flashback that flitted across his mind then was his rushing up a flight of steps from a path below a main road, to board a bus that had begun to move off. He loathed to be late for the Saturday Youth Fellowship, especially so since he was the committee chairman. An elderly man, still on the steps, hindered Derrick. He felt the light-brown suede shoes with rubber soles that he wore slide down the step he was on due to the light drizzle he was vaguely aware of, on to the wheel of the bus which had an attached extra carriage. Amused that his feet were going under the wheel, he thought, “Like sugarcane crushing between rollers!” as he lost consciousness. 

He found himself lying on the road, with both hands cushioning his head, some ten metres away, gazing at the darkening sky. “Weird! Lying on a road!” came his immediate thought. He heard the bus coming to a stop a little distance away. Soon, the bus driver and a few men were running towards him from two directions—from the bus on his left and the bus stop on his right. Someone lifted him to a sitting position. “This chap obviously doesn’t know anything about first aid. One should never move a victim of an accident to ensure he doesn’t worsen any possible fracture!” was Derrick’s immediate thought even as he understood the stranger’s kind intentions. At the sight of his right leg being exposed, the right half of his pants having been split, he let off an unsteady laugh. “Like a cheongsam!” he thought. Characteristically, that was how Derrick often dealt with trauma, ironically, with humour. Strange but stress-relieving!

With an arm draped around the stranger who had lifted him up, he hobbled to a seat at the bus stop. The man kept talking to him to keep him conscious, assuring him that someone had called for an ambulance. “How this guy can chatter! Must be to keep me alert and not fall back to unconsciousness,” Derrick was thinking, a little irritated, and yet, relieved. An elderly lady, also trying to be helpful, was rattling non-stop in the Hokkien dialect that Derrick should tell his parents to pai Lau Yah (thank the gods) for his survival and to soak ter bor chai (a kind of spiny herbal vegetable with tiny leaves) in brandy, to massage his injured legs. When the ambulance arrived, Derrick waved the stretcher away as he painfully hobbled towards it. “Aiyoh! All the fuss!” he was thinking.

“What? Bus pungchek, har (punctured, is it)?” the doctor at A&E, Singapore General Hospital, remarked as he bent Derrick’s feet again and again, feeling no obvious fracture. “What kind of a doctor is he? If there is a fracture, he will make it worse!” Derrick thought. “A miracle! It’s a miracle!” the assistant nurse muttered in amazement, shaking her head. “So drama!” was Derrick’s wry response, mentally, of course.

Derrick had another fall from a bus, near Victoria Memorial Hall. He had jumped onto the last bus that would take him home, so as not to miss it, preventing the bus driver from closing the exit door. As the bus swerved to move out of the bus bay, Derrick fell off on to the ground, automatically, instinctively, cushioning the back of his head with both hands. “Probably something engrained in my mind during the three-week physical training course at Outward Bound School,” he would explain later. 

A scan at the hospital soon after showed no fracture. “Your OBS training must have done you a world of good by toughening you!” an instructor half-jokingly commented at a chance meeting at Ponggol Point, where he was boarding a boat to Pulau Ubin where OBS was located. Derrick was there with friends for chilli crab at the popular seafood eateries located next to the jetty. “My! How word must have spread about my fall from buses!” Derrick thought with wry amusement. 

His mind, once activated, triggered off another flashback. Derrick, who was then a BB (Boys’ Brigade) officer, led a group of boys from the 25th BB Company to climb Gunong Ledang, also known as Mount Orphir, as an annual trekking and camping expedition. He remembered calling out to someone, “Hey! Not sleepy yet? Make sure you snuff out the fire before you sleep, okay?” being mindful that it was dangerous to leave an unattended fire, before he slipped into his body-length makeshift plastic sleeping bag at the summit. The rest of the team had sprawled around, fast asleep in their sleeping bags, after having had a hearty Maggi instant noodle meal, complete with a concoction of canned products—much of which was donated by various manufacturing companies—cooked in mess tins using solid fuel. Certainly, they had campfire songs and jokes, not forgetting the endless entertaining information that the other senior officer enjoyed sharing, over mugs of piping hot chocolate drinks, thanks to Van Houten distributors, over a small campfire. Exhausted by the daylong relatively arduous climb, Derrick was snoring away the moment his head touched his haversack. 

“Fire! Fire!” Derrick heard as in a dream. Rough hands shook him awake. Fire was raging just below their plateau-like summit sleeping area. “Hold me tight at my waist! Don’t ever let go!” he urgently cried out as he leant forward, suspended halfway over the edge, to whack out the fire with a wet bath towel, or something like that, from one spot to another. The strong gusty wind fanned smouldering embers of mountain shrubs into flames almost as soon as they were reduced to tiny red sparks. When the fire was finally reduced to smoke, Derrick simply got back into his oversized plastic bag, thoroughly wet and exhausted. Trauma (or fear) of being roasted to death in a completely isolated place and, more crucially, his sense of being responsible for the lives of the young boys, had somehow injected super strength in him to battle with the encircling fire.

Casting a fond lingering look at the mountain peak they had descended from, Derrick detected a trail of smoke in the distance before making their way to the village to board the noon bus to ferry them to picturesque historical Melaka before boarding the Singapore-Malacca Express coach back to Singapore. The news of a haze in Johore when they arrived back home ignited a series of “ifs” in Derrick’s mind. Trauma was never remote in Derrick’s mental makeup. 

It was raining heavily as he exited from the train station at Kovan. A blinding streak of lightning followed by ear-splitting thunder accompanying the torrential downpour brought back the memory of rowing a 30-foot Carter sailing boat in a raging storm from Kranji Park to the Naval Diving Unit at Sembawang Camp. Derrick was with fellow officers of NCC (Sea)—naval wing of the National Cadet Corps—attending a refresher course, in their white top and navy-blue shorts. They were taking a break, having men’s talk over tea or coffee and snacks after making their way from NDU to the park. Sudden strong winds alerted them to the darkening sky. 

Rushing to beat the oncoming storm for their return trip to the base, they frantically hoisted the heavy sails. To their utter dismay, the cable snapped, causing the sails to fall back in a heap. “Start the engine!” the helmsman at the bow yelled above the rising storm. Immediate hands were at the engine. The frantic attempts by one, then replaced by another, and yet another at cranking the old engine to life proved futile. Cheers, which erupted at sporadic “coughing” emissions, soon degenerated to groans when the engine spluttered to a stop. “Up with the oars!” came the command and muscled arms had to dip-and-pull long, heavy oars, not unlike Roman galley slaves, in the rough open sea, handicapped further by an encompassing thick white mist. After what seemed like an eternity, weary aching arms, eyes stinging with salt sea spray, bodies cold with sea-drenched attire, and the inability to see where they were heading were taking a toll on their morale. 

Two commando boats from NDU (Naval Diving Unit) unexpectedly appeared to tow the carter back to shore. “We were worried when you guys failed to reach back at the scheduled time! And in such a storm!” the relieved rowers were told. At full throttle, the unwieldy carter was slowly being towed away. Just in time! A sudden bolt of lightning struck the spot they had just vacated! While a senior officer resigned soon after that traumatic incident, not wanting to risk his life at sea any further, Derrick vented off his trauma by coming up with an original poem which he duly sent to the “Poets’ Corner” of The Straits Times!

“Grandmother’s stories! How could a person have so many such traumatic experiences in life?” a sceptic pronounced with a smirk. “Yes, how could one remain sane after undergoing trauma after trauma?” Derrick wondered. “Perhaps, I’m like the little bird in a painting, though shivering wet and cold, yet was seemingly unaffectedly calm, in a safe, secure little crevice of a rock amidst frenetically swinging trees in the face of a raging storm,” he philosophised. “Trauma may inhibit one from venturing further but may also quite possibly prepare that person to deal with and overcome greater traumatic challenges in life.” Derrick could, if he cared to, relate unjust, cruel energy-sapping traumatic attacks on his integrity and competence by powers-that-be, which he managed to overcome, admittedly, at some expense to his mental, emotional, and physical health. 

More recently, the world around Derrick practically collapsed. “Bad news for you,” was the feedback on a biopsy he had readily agreed to. “You have to undergo radiotherapy or surgery for your prostate cancer—intermediate stage bordering …” That was to ensure that he could survive for five or more years—hardly reassuring, knowing his days were numbered. The radiotherapy, which was to last forty-one sessions, had to be supplemented with quarterly hormone injections for at least two and a half years that might possibly lead to consequential degenerative loss of muscle mass, increased body fat, loss of sex drive, erectile dysfunction, bone thinning leading to osteoporosis, hot flushes, decreasing body hair, smaller genitalia, development of breast tissue, higher likelihood of producing off-springs with disabilities among other debilitating side effects! “My masculinity—my male dignity—is at stake!” was Derrick’s initial response. He could not comprehend why he was not alerted about it earlier on. But, after a brief bout of depression, he rebounded with vigour to minimise the grim side effects—essentially to overcome his overwhelming trauma by not slacking in physical, mental, social, and spiritual pursuits. 

“Be thankful that your cancer was discovered in time,” Derrick was told by the oncologist at the Radiotherapy Centre. “Think positive, accept the inevitable, salvage what remains, silence the futile ‘what ifs’, be done with post-traumatic syndrome to get on with life, to fulfil my anticipated dreams” was Derrick’s resolve. And, in retrospect, he could not but humbly acknowledge that, through it all, he had undeserved divine protection. 

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