My father used to be a surgeon. He was strong and healthy, and talked in a resonant voice. He would often stand at the operating table for ten hours at a time, but at the end of his shift his face would not show the slightest signs of fatigue, and as he walked back to our apartment his steps were loud and firm. Nearing home, he would often take a pee by the corner of the wall. His urine would splash noisily on the wall, like a sudden downpour of rain.
When my father was twenty-five years old, he married a pretty textile worker, and in their second year of marriage she gave him a son, my older brother, and two years later, she had another son, who was me.
When I was eight, the vigorous surgeon happened to get a day off from his customary frenetic schedule. He enjoyed the luxury of sleeping all morning at home, and in the afternoon he went for a long walk with his two sons and played with them on the beach for almost three hours. On the way home he let one ride on his shoulders, and carried the other in his arms, as he walked back the same distance. By the time they had finished dinner it was already dark, and he, his wife, and their two children sat underneath a parasol tree that stood outside their door. At that hour the moonlight shone down, casting the mottled shadows of the leaves over our bodies, and a cool breeze rustled.
The surgeon lay on a makeshift bamboo lounge chair, his wife sat in an adjacent rattan chair, and their two sons, my brother and I, were sitting next to each other on a bench. We listened as our father said how everyone had an appendix in his belly, and how every day he had to remove, at the very least, twenty or so appendixes. His fastest time was just fifteen minutes–fifteen minutes to perform the operation and cut off the appendix. We asked, what do you do with it after cutting it off?
“After cutting it off,” my father waved his hand dismissively and said: “After cutting it off we throw it away.”
“Why do you do that?”
My father said, “An appendix isn’t worth a fart.”
Then my father asked us, “What are the lungs good for?”
My brother answered, “For breathing in.”
My brother thought for a moment: “And breathing out.”
“And the stomach? What’s the stomach good for?”
“The stomach? The stomach digests things that you have eaten.” Again it was my brother who answered.
“And the heart?”
This time I shouted right away, “The heart beats thump thump.”
My father looked at me and said, “That’s true, what you both said is quite right. The lungs, the stomach, the heart, as well as the duodenum, the colon, the large intestine, the rectum and whatnot all have their function, it’s just the appendix, the appendix at the end of the caecum . . . do you know what the appendix is good for?”
My brother had an answer ready. Following the formula used by my father, he said, “The appendix isn’t worth a fart.”
My father burst out laughing, and our mother, sitting next to him, laughed too. My father went on, “That’s right, the appendix isn’t good for anything. When you breathe, when you digest, when you sleep, none of this involves the appendix in the slightest. Even when you eat so much that you burp, or have a stomachache and fart, this doesn’t have anything to do with your appendix either.”
When we heard our father talking about burping and farting, my brother and I tittered. Then our father sat up and said to us in a serious tone, “But if the appendix gets inflamed, the stomach will ache more and more, and if the appendix is perforated, then it will cause peritonitis, and that can be fatal. Fatal, you understand what that means?”
My brother nodded. “It’ll kill you.”
As soon as I heard “it’ll kill you,” I gasped. My father saw that I was scared and patted me on the head. He said, “Actually, removal of the appendix is a small operation. So long as there’s no perforation, there’s no danger. . . . There was a British surgeon . . .”
As my father spoke, he lay back. We knew he was going to tell a story. He closed his eyes and gave a contented yawn, then turned to face us. He said that one day the British surgeon arrived on a small island. This small island had no hospital, and no doctor, and not even a medical kit, but his appendix became inflamed, and he lay underneath a palm tree, racked with pain for a whole morning. He knew that if there was any further delay in operating, his appendix would perforate . . .
“And what happens if the appendix perforates . . .” My father propped himself up and asked us.
“He’ll be dead.” My brother said.
“It will turn into peritonitis, and then he’ll die.” My father corrected my brother’s way of putting it.
My father said, “The British surgeon had no choice but to operate on himself. He had two locals hold up a large mirror, and looking at himself in the mirror, in this particular spot . . .”
My father pointed at the right side of his stomach. “In this particular spot he made an incision in the skin, pushed the fat aside, put his hand in, searched for the caecum–you need to locate the caecum in order to find the appendix . . .”
A British surgeon operating on himself: this incredible story left us dumbstruck. We looked at our father excitedly, and asked him if he could operate on himself, just like the British surgeon.
Our father said, “That depends on the situation. If I was on that little island, and my appendix was inflamed, to save my own life I would operate on myself too.”
Father’s reply made the blood flow hot in our veins. We had always thought our father to be the strongest and the most wonderful man, and his reply further confirmed this belief of ours. It also gave us sufficient confidence to brag to other children: “Our dad operates on himself.” My brother would point at me, and add, “The two of us hold up a big mirror . . .”
That’s how the next couple of months passed. In the autumn of that year, our father’s appendix suddenly became inflamed. This was on a Sunday morning. Our mother had gone to the factory to do overtime, and our father came back home after the night shift. When he came in the door, our mother was just going off to work, and in the doorway he told her, “I didn’t get any sleep at all last night. A head injury, two fractures, and a penicillin toxicosis. I’m so tired, it’s given me a pain in the chest.”
Then our father, patting his chest, lay down on the bed to sleep. My brother and I were in another room. We put the table on top of the chairs, and then put the chairs on top of the table, and three or four hours passed as we arranged things in different configurations. We heard our father groaning in his room, so we went over and put our ears to the door. After a moment, we realized that our father was calling our names, so we immediately pushed the door open and went in. We found our father curled up like a shrimp, looking at us with clenched teeth. He said to us, “My appendix . . . Ahhh . . . it’s killing me . . . acute appendicitis, hurry up and go to the hospital, ask for Dr. Chen . . . or Dr. Wang would do . . . quickly, go . . .”
My brother grabbed me by the hand and we went downstairs, out the door, and along the alley. I now realized what was happening. I knew Father’s appendix was inflamed, and my brother was going with me to the hospital, and we needed to find Dr. Chen or Dr. Wang. Once we’d found them, what would they do?
When I thought of Father’s appendix being inflamed, my heart beat rapidly. I thought to myself: so, Father’s appendix finally is inflamed. Our father can now operate on himself, and my brother and I can now hold up a big mirror.
When we reached the end of the alley, my brother stopped and said to me, “We can’t go and look for Dr. Chen, or Dr. Wang either.”
I said, “Why not?”
He said, “Well, look, if we find them, they will operate on our dad.”
I nodded. My brother asked, “Don’t you want to have Dad operate on himself?”
“Yes, that’s really what I want,” I said.
My brother said, “So we can’t look for Dr. Chen or Dr. Wang. We’ll go to the operating theater and nab a surgical kit. As for the big mirror, we have one of those at home . . .”
I was so happy I shouted, “That way we can have Dad operate on himself.”
When we got to the hospital, they had all gone to the cafeteria to have lunch. There was just one nurse in the operating theater, so my brother had me go over and talk to her. I went over and called her Auntie, and asked her why she was so pretty. She smiled and giggled, and during that time my brother stole a surgical kit.
Then we went back home. Our father heard us come in, and called in a low voice from inside, “Dr. Chen, Dr. Chen. Is it Dr. Wang?”
We went inside, and saw that Father’s forehead was bathed in sweat. He was sweating from the pain. When he saw that it wasn’t Dr. Chen who had arrived, nor Dr. Wang either, but his two sons, my brother and me, he asked us hoarsely, “What about Dr. Chen? Why isn’t Dr. Chen here?”
My brother told me to open the surgical kit, while he brought over the big mirror that our mother used to look at herself every day. Father didn’t know what we were up to, and kept on asking, “And Dr. Wang? Dr. Wang wasn’t there either?”
We set down the opened surgical kit on Father’s right. I clambered on top of the bed, and my brother and I lifted up the mirror, each of us on one side. My brother made a special point of leaning down and taking a look, to check whether Father would be able to see himself clearly in the mirror, and then we excitedly said to Father: “Dad, better hurry up.”
Our father was then in such pain that his features were contorted. Gasping, he looked at us, still asking us this or that about Dr. Chen and Dr. Wang. We were so desperate, we cried out, “Dad, hurry up, otherwise it will get perforated.”
Only then did our father ask weakly, “Hurry up . . . with what?”
We said, “Dad, hurry up and operate on yourself.”
Now, at last, our father understood. He glared at us and cursed, “You bastards.”
I was shocked, not knowing what I’d done wrong. I looked at my brother, and he looked shocked too. He looked at Father, who was then in such pain he could not speak, but only stare at us. My brother immediately realized why it was that Father had cursed us, and he said, “We haven’t taken Dad’s pants off yet.”
My brother had me hold on to the mirror while he tried to take off Dad’s pants, but our father slapped my brother in the face, and, straining to speak, cursed us again, “Bastards.”
It scared my brother so much that he hastily slipped off the bed, and I followed suit, quickly crawling past Father’s feet and off the bed. We stood next to each other, looking at Father lying there on the bed in a powerless rage. I asked my brother, “Can it be that Dad doesn’t want to do the operation?”
My brother said, “I don’t know.”
Later, our father wept, and with tears in his eyes, said to us in staccato fragments, “Be good boys, hurry . . . hurry and fetch . . . Mom, tell Mom to come . . .”
We were hoping that Father would operate on himself just as a hero would, but instead he was weeping. My brother and I looked at Father for a moment, and then my brother took my hand and we ran out the door, downstairs, and all the way along the lane. This time we didn’t decide on things for ourselves, but went to fetch Mom.
By the time our father was carried in to the operating theater, his appendix was already perforated, and his stomach was filled with pus. He got peritonitis, and had to spend over a month lying in a hospital bed, and then convalesce at home for another month before he could again wear a white smock and resume his job as a doctor. But he would never again be a surgeon, because he had lost his earlier vigor, and if he were to stand at the operating table for an hour he would go faint and his vision would go fuzzy. He had gone thin overnight, and he never regained the weight he had lost. When he walked, there was no longer a clear tapping rhythm to his steps, and though he might take a big first stride, he would only go half as far with his second step. When winter came, he seemed to have a cold practically every day. So from then on he could be only a doctor of internal medicine, and he would sit by the table every day, talking unhurriedly with the patients, writing down routine prescriptions. After he got off work, holding a cotton ball soaked in alcohol, he would walk slowly homeward, rubbing his hands. When we went to bed in the evenings, we would often hear him grumbling to our mother, saying, “People think that you have given me two sons, but in fact all they are is appendixes. Ordinarily they are of no use whatsoever, and when things are at a critical point they are practically the death of you.”
First published as Lan Wei. By arrangement with the author.