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Medical Humanities

The Thing

Submitted by Brianna Cheng

Published June 21, 2020

The Thing appeared in her room one day, perched lightly on the back of her desk chair. 

Somehow, she wasn’t surprised at its unannounced presence. She was half-expecting it. Still, she didn’t dare to look at it. Intuitively, she knew it would hurt if she did, like looking at the sun. She delicately fished her wallet from her desk drawer while squinting, careful not to make eye contact with it. She felt its gaze bore into her back as she rushed out of the room. Breathing a shuddering sigh of relief as she closed the door, she stepped out into the darkness to go to the gym. 

The gym was one of the few places of solace for her now. Walking at this hour of dawn was peaceful and gave her some small sense of accomplishment. How could you not feel invincible, having risen even before the sun? As she approached the gym, she imagined the building itself to be the Cave of Wonders, drawing her into its belly with a powerful yawn. Its lair of empty corridors offered her cherished space she was only too eager to fill. I take up space because I exist. As these words echoed in her head, she didn’t even notice the Thing hunched by the turnstiles of the gym entry, swiveling its head to look at her as she turned the corner.

Work was uneventful. Numbers that had used to invigorate her now numbed her, and she didn’t like that. She had started drinking coffee again. But she looked forward to work anyway, if only for what came after. She relished the commute home. Whereas most people ploughed through the streets, she tended to amble along, her eyes lazily leaping from one detail to another. During this time, the mundane details of life crystalized vividly, if purposelessly. A vagrant rose like Goliath from out of some forsaken corner of the subway, brandishing an outstretched hand. An old couple clutched each other, heads leaning one against the other as they listened to an accordion performance. At home, she tried to make sense of more numbers. She ignored the Thing, which had insisted on fluttering in her peripheral vision the entire evening. 

Gym, work, study. Gym, work, study. Don’t look at the Thing. 

 Joining her local rowing club infused new meaning into her mornings. Her Cave of Wonders was now replaced by a canal. Despite clumsily holding the oars for the first time, she felt like a winged marine creature as she dipped the gilded poles into the water. Muscles and nerves connected to move the oars and boat. Body, mind, and machine as one. 

Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. 

As she sliced through the water, she realized that there was comfort in knowing pain. Moving the boat fast required a punishing exertion, but to her, the ache in her legs and the trembling in her arms were merely a demand for something else. Pain roared its request to focus, to be present, to overcome. Again, and again, pain demanded this. Exist. Exist. These water molecules move only because you exist. This boat moves only because you exist. These oars swing backwards and forwards only because you exist. You are meant to be right here, right now. Through gritted teeth and with white-knuckled hands, she grunted back, almost convinced. “Yes, I exist.”

 At some point during the night, she blinked her eyes open. 4:30 am. One hour before getting up for rowing practice. It was too hot to go back to sleep though. She cracked open her bedside window, and stripped naked, the wine-coloured duvet crumpled around her. Turning onto her side, she felt the welcome tendrils of a breeze trailing her lower back. She carefully peeked to check on the Thing, which was still settled on the floor by her bed. Sighing, she blearily checked her phone to see a text from her best friend: My grandfather passed away recently, and his funeral was this weekend. Stunned about this unexpected news, she looked up without thinking — straight into the sad eyes of the Thing. It hurt. But not in the way she had expected. She could only stare as it slowly reached towards her to stroke her cheek. She let it. Something shattered within her. 

The surgeon had shaken her grandmother’s hand after the procedure. To say what? Congrats for living? Or to congratulate himself for doing a good job? As a petite 74 year-old woman, her grandmother had recovered exceedingly well by all accounts, with no post-surgical complications. Still, her condition was terminal. It was only a matter of time. But then again, wasn’t it always a matter of time? Well, she was closer to the end now. A ticking time bomb. And now, she was on a plane back to her home country, half-way around the world instead of only an easy train ride away. She didn’t even get to say goodbye to this woman who had raised her; travel plans had been arranged so hastily. She could understand her grandmother’s rush though, couldn’t she? Even a bomb does not self-combust early. It exists stubbornly, clinging onto each of its precious few allotted seconds before imploding. Life is lived, even in the face of death. Life is lived, and without hurry. 

She clasped her hand over the Thing’s caress on her face. She could sense the chains attached to something deep within her unlinking, allowing it to finally break the surface, as nature had always intended. 

“I’m scared,” she choked out into the night through ragged breaths. “I’m scared to go on living when my grandmother dies.” 

The Thing blinked once. Bowing its head, it vanished as suddenly as it had appeared.

 She was the first one on the water the next morning at practice. 

Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. 

Exist. Exist. Exist.

She thought about her newfound relief in acknowledging the Thing. She thought about her grandmother’s strong will. Later, she texted back her friend. Let me know if you want to talk about anything.

Editor's Commentary

Brianna Cheng is an epidemiology graduate student (focus on infectious diseases) from McGill University. She has been drawing since she could hold a pencil, and tinkered with a camera soon after. She strives to say the essential in excess, with interests in the anthropology of illness. Inspired by her caregiving experiences, Brianna believes in the potential of narrative medicine to help healthcare providers better understand their patients and the ways in which they experience clinical care.