Miri Borneo Rainforest, November 2011.
He went down the pool. Not quarter way, not half way, but all the way down until he sat at the bottom of the pool.
He sat there for a half a minute before rising up again.
I watched him do this a few times. He did it with so much confidence and ease, I thought it might be easy.
So I tried sinking myself to the bottom of the pool too. I pushed myself down, trying to force my body to the bottom of the sink.
But despite my enormous effort, I stayed afloat.
What did I do wrong? I wondered, as I wiped away the remains of the salty water on my lips with the back of my hand.
The third time he rose, I asked him, “How did you do that?”
“It’s easy,” Norman said, “just breathe out, and sink.”
And there he went again – down, down, down.
I watched with amusement and wonder. How did he do that?
As his head broke the surface of the water, he looked at me and said, “Lu Wee, you know, it’s science. Oxygen is less dense than water. To sink, you need to breathe out all the oxygen in your lungs,” he said as he went down again.
After the swim, all of us – the students of my batch of chemical engineers who decided to join the weekend excursion – gathered in the venue’s dining hall for a meal together.
For most of us, it would be our last gathering together as classmates before our graduation day.
Though we were relieved our days of exams and assignments were behind us, we were not entirely happy.
That day, I, along with my classmates realised the sad and cruel truth about what it meant to finally finish school once and for all.
From that day onward, we would no longer be seeing the friends we had become so accustomed to seeing for the past four years.
We all tried to act normal but inside, most of us felt sad.
After spending so much time together, it was time to say good bye.
We had our lunch together that day. It was something bland and disgusting. But, we still managed to enjoy ourselves.
Inevitably, we talked about our future.
For most of my classmates, things were not looking bright.
We had graduated in a tough season. Companies were firing more than they were hiring.
“I hope I can find a job by January,” one of my friends told me.
Though I had already secured a job for myself, it was far from what I wanted to do in my life.
But for that moment it did not matter. I wanted to spend some time with my friends.
Our last time as classmates.
After our last meal together that day, we pack our things and walked to the car park.
While walking, Norman turned to some of us and said, “Guys, do drop by KK to visit me. I’ll bring you guys around – the best of KK!”
I smiled. Norman was one of the friendliest classmates I had. Though we had our disagreements in class about assignments, he was someone I enjoyed having lunch with from time to time.
He often talked about his younger sister.
“She is really ke ai. If you see her, you will know!” he often told me and his other friends.
I made a mental note that day to visit Norman in KK one day. I didn’t know when that day would be, but I decided that I liked Norman enough to make the trip.
Just a few days after our excursion I started my first day at my first job.
Though I was excited about having a job, it was a boring first day, then, a dreadful first week.
I have to admit, after having a somewhat flexible schedule as a student, being a working adult took some getting used to.
But slowly, as days passed, I became used to going to work at 7am and leaving work at 4pm.
I didn’t know – was it a good or bad thing to become used to being stuck in the rat race?
Everyday became somewhat of a routine – wake up dreadfully early, drive to work on an empty road, reach office, sit there for and work for 8 hours, then go home.
I was both happy and sad about the routine. I finally understood why adults looked forward to the weekends.
But what to do? I told myself, I needed a job.
Then, one day, out of the blue, I received a voice note from ex-classmate Yen Seng on MSN Messenger.
I clicked to open it.
“Lu Wee,” he said, “I have some bad news for you. Our friend Norman is in a coma. Can you please leave him an encouraging message? It may help him to wake up.”
What? Coma? What?!
I could hardly think straight.
“Why is he in a coma?”
“He got into an accident. Now his blood pressure has gone way down below 90. His doctors say that if it doesn’t go up, he’ll be brain dead.”
I felt a tug in my heart. Time slowed down. Tears rolled out of my eyes.
I understood but did not want to understand what was happening.
I sat stunned for a few minutes.
“The recording,” I reminded myself.
I opened the recording software on my computer. My first recording: “Norman – please be strong, we all care about you.”
I clicked replay.
No, that’s not right – I shouldn’t sound sad.
I deleted it and recorded again.
Too sad again. Try again.
Delete. Record. Replay. Delete. Record. Replay…
I couldn’t bring myself to sound cheerful or positive.
I gathered myself for a few minutes before trying again.
Finally, I made it.
I sent my voice note, spoken in bad Mandarin, to Yen Seng and then hoped for good news.
Please. Please make it out alive.
I tried to sleep that night. But I couldn’t. I woke up every now and then and found myself crying.
“I guess this is good bye”
I tried not to think about Norman being in a coma.
I tried to go to work like normal.
I tried to feel normal.
I tried to act normal.
But I failed.
I was worried sick. I hoped that Norman would wake up from his coma. It all felt like a cruel trick played on all of us.
We all felt hopeful until reality made us feel hopeless.
Norman died just a week after his coma.
“His blood pressure went below 60. His brain has failed. His family decided to pull the plug on his life support.”
I want to say that when I found out about his death I was calm and collected, mature and stable.
But in reality, I was a mess.
No matter what I did, my mind was fixated on Norman’s death.
Some days I wondered, Did people really die that young? I did not think it was real.
Other days I thought, Sure, accidents and tragic deaths like these happened in the newspapers, but how could it happen to someone I knew?
But on most days, I just cried.
I wanted to be strong, but I did not know how to be.
It was the first time I had lost a friend so tragically. My mind could not process the idea that Norman wasn’t around anymore.
About a week after I Norman’s death, I dreamt of him.
We were back in uni – back in the place we often saw each other after class, on our way to our cars.
Along the hallway just before the car park was where classmates said good bye to one another before we made our ways home.
And there we were again, in that familiar place.
The feeling was so familiar, it really did feel like I was a student again and all the bad news I had heard in the last two weeks were not real.
I knew it. I knew it was all a nightmare. I thought.
There we were, walking along the hallway, chatting away, when Norman suddenly turned to me, waved and said, with a smile on his face, “Good bye Lu Wee.”
Then, for some reason, he began to retreat backward – one step at a time – until I could no longer see him.
Even when he had already said goodbye, I was reluctant. But finally, I relented.
“Goodbye Norman,” I said, then woke up.
A few months after our gathering at the Borneo Rainforest came our graduation day.
Most of us were happy. Our parents and other important people in our lives came to see us wear our square hats and collect our certificate.
As we took our seats, we noticed a middle-aged woman sat in between some graduates.
“That’s Norman’s mom,” a friend told me, “I think she’s here to collect Norman’s certificate.”
Her hair was all white.
“She didn’t use to have white hair. I think Norman’s death made her that way,” my friend told me.
As Norman’s name was called on stage, the loudest applause came from our batch of chemical engineers.
Though he could not celebrate this day with him, we knew that if he was here, he would have been one of the happiest graduates around.
Congratulations, Norman. You deserve it.
2012: Thank you.
I never thought I would lose a friend at 22.
But when I did, I learned a painful lesson: anything can happen.
I used to think that bad things – like, really bad things – could not happen to me.
But when Norman passed away unexpectedly, I was shaken.
I remembered that promise to visit him in KK.
I never did it because I didn’t want to take too many off days from my new job for a vacation.
I wanted to excel in my job.
I was ambitious.
I wish I did not value my job more than my friends.
If I could turn back time, I would make that trip happen.
But too bad, for some events, there will be no second chances.
After he died, I gave up on my ambitions of being an excellent employee.
I took more time off to spend with my friends and also my family.
I never want to look back with this kind of regret again in my life.
2017 is the 6th year that Norman has left us.