Short stories, Travel and Health Information
I first met ‘Tiny’ Reid on the day we both started primary school at Saint Thomas’ College in Sri Lanka.
After the new boys were ushered into the classroom, our class teacher Mrs Joy Jacob called each of us by our surnames and assigned us seats. Why she randomly seated Reid next to Wijesinha I have no idea – so I found myself seated next to this little boy who I’d never met before.
We smiled shyly at each other – whereupon I stuck my hand out and said “Hello, I’m Wijesinha but my real name is Sanjiva” to which he replied “I am Johann Reid but my real name is Tiny”.
This struck me as odd, since he was no tinier than any of the other boys. In fact he was taller than most of them! Curious, I asked “Why do they call you Tiny when you are not at all tiny?” to which he replied as if it was the most logical thing in the world “Because I have four older brothers and I am the youngest.”
And that was how our friendship started – a friendship that spanned over fifty years and involved my functioning for the last two decades as the family physician for this inaptly named 185 cm tall gentle giant and his family.
I still recall the day last year when he called me to ask whether I could drop off a script for something stronger than Panadol Osteo which did not appear to be helping the painful knee he had been experiencing for the past couple of months. Reminding him that I needed to examine the knee before prescribing anything, I suggested he come to the clinic as my last patient for the day, after which I would shout him a meal at the nearby Indian restaurant.
Imagine the look on my face and the fear in my heart when he lay on the examination bed and I realised that his left thigh was much redder, shinier and larger than his left. To cut a long story short, the X-ray and CT scan of his thigh revealed a massive tumour of his hamstrings that was invading his femur. Biopsies done at Melbourne’s foremost cancer centre proved the tumour to be a rare pleomorphic sarcoma. Further imaging revealed multiple secondary deposits in his lungs, confirming that this malignant tumour had spread throughout his body..
Life it is said is not about getting good cards, but playing a poor hand well. Tiny’s own belief when he received bad cards in his life (cards that on many occasions I felt he did not deserve) was that nothing happened without a purpose, and that everything that happens to us, good or bad, is meant to teach us something. Over the last few months when I had the painful task of looking after him and watching him dealing uncomplainingly with an illness that we both knew was beyond cure, as he suffered and prepared for death with dignity, I kept asking myself “What is it that Tiny has been given the task of teaching us?”
One of Tiny’s typical qualities was that he was Laid-back. Being obsessional and overactive myself, often trying to complete yesterday what needs to be done tomorrow, I found Tiny to be the perfect opposite. If someone turned up to him agitated and told him, “Hurry up, hurry up – the sky is going to fall down today!!” he would look up calmly and say, “Umh! What time?” Nothing seemed to fluster him – if he was confronted with a problem, he was confident that the God he believed in and trusted without question would provide a solution in due time, and it was not his brief to worry. Long ago he had realized what many of us have not – that we cannot control people and events – and the only thing we can truly control in this life are our actions.
A few days before he passed away – in a hospice, some weeks after his kind oncologist had gently told him that she had tried all the chemotherapeutic resources she had at her disposal and had nothing more to offer – I had the privilege of sitting with him for about an hour. It was the very last time I spoke to him.
I chatted with him in the dual role of being his oldest friend as well as his personal physician who was painfully aware that there was nothing more medical I could do for him.
“When you know that death is round the corner, Sanji” he told me “you must welcome it – because you cannot fight it. After all, don’t we spend all our lives preparing for this moment of leaving life?”
The lesson my dying friend taught me was this: To die well one must live well – and the best way to live well is to prepare oneself to die well.