There were so many things that could have happened that day, but underneath the sweltering Malay sun, fate decided to bring together two souls: a dying man and a girl who wanted to die.
“Alor Setar?” the girl asked as the dying man stopped his car next to the rocky sidewalk. When he looked at her, he saw no hint of melancholia. Her smile was wide and bright and her eyes lit up as she asked him how he was doing.
She said something about a border cross and heading to the city to meet up with a friend. She looked Malay, so he wondered if she was from around, but she couldn’t speak the local language perfectly, and her accent sounded different when she spoke English.
Nevertheless, he told her to haul her huge backpack and get in his car. He was taking her to the city. Just when he thought the girl’s face couldn’t be brighter, she seemed to radiate at his response. Maybe she had been standing on the sidewalk for quite some time and was too happy to finally hitch a ride.
The dying man, now 57, has been picking up hitchhikers ever since he was diagnosed with Stage 4 stomach cancer. His friends thought that it was crazy and warned him that he might get robbed, but he thought, “What can I do about it? If it is fated that I should die that way, then so be it.”
They finally concluded that he was mad, but the man was unstoppable. If Stage 4 cancer couldn’t stop him from driving around Malaysia as he pleases, then a couple of thrifty or adventure-seeking foreigners lugging 45-liter backpacks wouldn’t be much of a threat.
The girl who wanted to die, on the other hand, was no threat at all. Despite hitchhiking across Southeast Asia and spending a good deal outdoors and in local homes, she had no knife or pepper spray in her pockets. Why would she need it, if the world has shown her nothing but kindness? If it showed otherwise and she had to fight, then she would use her fists, what little she learned from Arnis classes, and her clever mind.
The girl had been like this for six months now, walking, hitching rides and immersing herself among locals. Inside her was a beast she needed to tame, a monster (and eventual friend) that came and went unannounced, a creature that pushed her to her limits and urged her to end her life multiple times. It forced her to stand on the busy highway and wait for a ten-wheeler truck to hit her. It whispered ideas to her ears like sweet nothings. Wouldn’t it be nice to go underwater and never come up? It said. Falling ten stories below couldn’t be that bad. It said. You could down that bleach bottle like how you down that cheap rum you and your friends would always drink. It said.
Despite all these words from the creature, the girl never succeeded in her attempts, and now, she was sharing a ride with this Malay stranger.
“Nama saya 10,” she finally said, still beaming from the passenger’s seat. My name is 10. “Nama?” she asked, pointing towards her driver. Name?
“Nasir,” the dying man said.
“Do you happen to speak English?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered, nodding, and relief washed over her face. This wasn’t going to be a silent ride. He drove. “Why Alor Setar?”
“I’m only traveling by walking and hitchhiking!” she said proudly. “And now, I’m crossing back to Thailand to visit my friends and maybe head to Laos. How about you? What do you do?”
“I’m a history teacher,” Nasir replied.
“Where did you come from before you picked me up?” 10 asked.
“Penang,” he answered.
“I came from Penang too! It’s too bad we didn’t catch each other earlier lah. I had three rides before you.” she shared, adapting the widely-used Malay suffix. “Why were you in Penang?”
“Ah, I went to the doctor lah.”
Nasir smiled, probably wondering if he would tell the cheery girl about his terminal illness. Earlier last year, the doctor told him that he had Stage 4 stomach cancer—the final stage. He underwent surgery, dropping half his weight along with his esophagus, but this year, the cancer relapsed and came back with a vengeance. He was on Stage 4 again, and frequent hospital visits returned as his doctor monitored his condition.
Despite the cancer gnawing inside him, Nasir didn’t look one bit sick. He stood upright, and when he talked, his voice still commanded the room. His skin was tanned from his days spent fishing and lounging on the beach. His graying hair and moustache were quite a contrast on his darker skin, and his built was strong for somebody who had a due date for death and underwent an operation in less than a year.
Nasir decided to tell her.
“I have cancer,” he said casually. He didn’t say it with finality, though. He had fought this battle once and won. The cards were out of his hands, but he still had another chance to emerge victorious.
10 thought that he sounded too relaxed about it and that his voice exuded acceptance when he said it. Her joyous disposition turned somber, and she apologized.
“Stage 4,” Nasir added, telling her not to say sorry. “What can I do about it? Come what may. Let it be.”
She chuckled. “Just like The Beatles song? Do you know that?”
The girl who wanted to die didn’t wait for him to respond. Instead, she launched into her own rendition of the song. Nasir told her that it was beautiful. She thanked him, doling out tiny bows to an imaginary audience.
Nasir told her more about the cancer, and recently when the doctor reluctantly told him that it had relapsed, he responded with, “Okay, fine. Last year you told me the same thing. I’m still moving around, so hopefully, I will move around another one year. Hopefully.”
“You will live one more. You will live a lot of years!” 10 beamed.
“I don’t know!” Nasir shrugged. “Like I say lah, 10, come what may. Let it be. Enjoy the time I have. Just enjoy life and take it as it comes.”
“Learn to appreciate life, and enjoy it when we still can. When you are helpless, when you are bedridden, then nothing doing. You cannot do anything. For me, just like me, I’m still walking around. I love it. I enjoy it, and today I enjoyed meeting you. Of all the people in the world, you are the person that I meet today. I enjoy it. I hope you appreciate it.”
Nasir looked over to the passenger’s seat to discover that the girl who wanted to die had tears in her eyes. If not for the seatbelt and the Islamic customs surrounding the country, she would have hugged him.
Instead, she said, “Yeah, you’re right. What’s important is we are happy, you know.”
For a girl who was only beginning to learn what happiness meant and what happiness was, Nasir’s words hit home, and boy, did they hit her hard. She would always carry them with her, and they would shape her journey, especially in the months to come.
She asked him how he did it, how he just embraced death while others struggled to overcome it. She asked him if he was afraid, but he told her that he was ready. She then asked if his family was. He told her that they’ve come to terms with it, although his four kids and his wife still feared letting go.
The girl knew that loved ones were always the last to accept. Her own family tried to stop her from ending her short sweet life when she locked herself in the bathroom. Her friends flooded her inbox with messages coaxing her to come out, telling her that the pain will cease and that things are bound to head uphill.
They did, when she packed her bags and got on that flight to Siem Reap. She just wished she listened to them earlier, but alas, life had necessary pains.
“I want to tell you something,” the girl said. She refrained from talking about the beast, still a victim of the stigma surrounding those wrestling with it, but something about Nasir was comforting. Similarly, he knew what it was like to look death in the eye and welcome it like a friend.
“Before this trip, I wanted to die… a lot of times.” 10 went on with her story, telling Nasir about the pressure she felt while studying on her country’s premier university. She told him that she loved her degree program, journalism, and that she had a strong passion for it, but she failed to take care of herself. She told him about her sleepless nights, about living without shut-eye and depending on caffeine and cigarettes three nights in a row.
“I wanted to finish my studies on time. If you finish, you make your family proud. You have a sure income in the future. It settles everything, but it doesn’t matter if you are not happy. That’s what I realized. If you do not make other people happy and if you are not happy as well, you can have all the money in the world, you can have many cars, but if you’re not happy, it doesn’t matter,” she said, tears still streaming down her cheeks.
“10, I tell you,” Nasir began. “Appreciate whatever you have, even if it’s just an inch. Whatever you have, that’s the best part of you, so enjoy it.
She knew he meant every inch of her, including the beast.
“Don’t give up hope. There is always problem. There will always be trouble, but God willing, there will always be a solution,” he added.
“Insha Allah? Right?” she smiled, wiping away the river gushing down her face.
“Yes, Insha Allah. If I’m supposed to die—death—maybe it’s the best solution, then so be it. Everybody wants to be rich. If I can be rich, I can move around the entire world, wherever I want to go. I can have anybody I want, but at this moment, this is all I have,” he said, gesturing at his car, at the near-empty highway, at the trees and at the blue sky.
Finally, he stopped at the girl.
“Just like you. I appreciate meeting you. To me, you are just like my daughter.”
“I don’t have a father,” she said weakly. “How do you say ‘father’ in Malay?”
“Aya,” he replied.
“I got four kids of my own. I got seven adopted daughters and sons,” Nasir started.
10 laughed. “I’m the eighth one!”
“You’re the eighth!” Nasir said, joining her. The car was filled with the rich sound of the laughter coming from the dying man and the girl who wanted to end her life.
Nasir smiled softly at her. Here they were: a man fighting for his life and a girl who almost gave up hers; a man possibly nearing the end and a girl only discovering the beginning. Two lives intertwined under a scorching Malay sky, thanks to a much-needed ride to the border.