When the masked robber's knife plunged into my chest, I was shocked.
Yes, shock was the first thing I experienced, not pain. Of course, pain came later, but this isn't a discourse about pain. This is a discourse about life before death. About the fragment of a second before your heartbeat stops, and you leave the world of the living.
That being said, I suppose I was angry. Extremely angry. What have I done to this stranger that I deserve this? I was just a happy tourist who, unfortunately, happened to walk out of a pub too late in the night. And I did give the robber my wallet, didn't I? Did I fight back? Did I shout for help? Did I even run? No, I was in such a stupor I couldn't have done anything anyway. So why did he have to stab me after taking my wallet? What good would it have been to him?
I remember, before collapsing in pain, how I knew he was going to pay for this. No, not via my resurrection and act of revenge in a Kill Bill-like drama-rampage. It's just a strange, divine (and disturbingly calm) realization that he had done wrong and that he would, eventually, have to make up for his moment of folly.
Again, this is not a discourse about death and pain, so I'll skip the part about the blood that couldn't stop trickling and that ended up soaking my entire shirt. More noteworthy than that, I think, is the fact that while the agonizing pain took up a large part of my then dizzied thought process, a small part of it was occupied by the calm acceptance that that was it and I needn't struggle too much. Even at that point, I knew that was going to be the end of my life.
The robber was panting hard and he smelled of grass and liquor and he was fumbling through my pockets for anything else that was valuable. In the meantime, I stared blankly at him, out of an absence of strength, and thought,"What would Xiaoyan think if she woke up to the police's call to learn of her husband 's death?" It was then that the real pain kicked in, an unrelenting stab in my heart. It was the realization that I would from then on be separated from my wife. It was also the heartache I suffered for her and with her in the inevitable realization that her husband had left her. This pain that hurt so bad, but that was on a different plane from that caused by the wound, blended in with my physical pain so that I was confused over which was the real pain and which was the mental one. Or perhaps the heartache worsened the wound on my chest, and the cut deepened my sense of loss.
I lacked even the strength to cry, although a teardrop did run down my eye as I shivered in cold and endured the stubborn pain. I blinked as the masked robber turned and fled, and I gazed at his running figure until he was out of sight.
I pictured Xiaoyan in the hotel room, comfortably snuggled up against the noise of TV in the background. I smiled on the inside, warmed by the thought of my wife, safe and sound in the hotel, oblivious to her nocturnal husband. I'm sorry, I really am, I thought. If only I had stayed in the hotel. No matter how boring the shows on TV were, I should have put up with them. Who said that a drink at the local pub is a better way of knowing the culture than watching trashy local shows?
Someone was shouting. Someone near. Although I didn't understand the language, I was certain somebody had found me and was now crying for help. Too late, I thought. I am beyond rescue. Thanks anyway. You are good folks.
And then I thought of the old folks at home. That stubborn fool of a father now didn't seem so bad anymore. He still was a stubborn fool to me, but I was no less foolish than he was. And I would never get to eat my mother's soup again. What was the last soup I had at home? Was that winter melon and pork ribs? And then, unexpectedly, I thought of my best friend, with whom I lost contact years ago. One day, for some reason, he just became uncontactable. According to some, he was still doing well, had gotten married in the same year that I did, and now lived in a different city from where we grew up. He's a swell three-point shooter, that one. We had spent so many evenings playing one-on-one and having hearty chats after that.
"Hey, are you okay? Can you hear me?" Someone was speaking to me in English now, although I could no longer make out his looks. "The ambulance is coming. We've called the ambulance. Hang on, ok?" I wished I could nod, but I lacked the strength to move my body at all. Everything including the kind passer-by was a blur, like when one tries on a pair of glasses that's too strong for himself.
A stretch of scenery overtook the blur in my mind, a panoramic view of a vast span of mountains among greens. I didn't remember having been to this place. And in this dream, I turned around and looked at my wife, whose beautifully formed side profile held my attention more than the scenery below. She turned, having realized I was looking, and smiled. I love it when she smiles like that, when her nose crinkles up and there's this look of mischief in her eyes. I remember thinking, I am taking this smile with me.
I have to wonder, why at those last moments before death, that all I could remember were people in my lives. What about my work, my studies? So many hours I had spent in the lab, cracking my head over a problem I couldn't solve. All those coffees drunk, cigarettes smoked, all in the name of an intellectual spar with myself. And more than half my life I had been fighting with and against the books in the academic system, sometimes for the expectations of others and other times for my own ambitions. Where have they gone to now? Were those hard work and devotion really so insignificant at the end of it all? Why the struggle then? Why the struggles, the disappointments, the resentments, the thrills of success that accompanied it all?
The siren of the ambulance could now be heard, faintly. By then, everything before my eyes was covered by a veil of black. Strangely, I could hear the approaching sound of siren very well, and in fact in those last moments, the siren was all that occupied my mind. By then, I must have lost the capacity to reminisce, to summarize my existence. Finally, the veil deepened into total black, and I vividly remember hearing someone said,"He's here."
And I was dead.