A couple of weeks ago, I managed to get out of two gatherings of classmates, one was organised by some primary school friends and the other by a secondary school classmate. A writing friend said, you are lucky, your school friends include you in their gatherings. To be honest, I literally spent time agonizing to go or not to go for the secondary school gathering, there would be classmates whom I have not seen since we left school. As for the primary school gathering, my elder daughter was back for an extended weekend so that was an easy decision for me to make. What do you say to a friend whom you have not met since teenage years or in the case of primary school friends before I was even an adolescent? Will you be speaking about your fears and your unfinished dreams? I know we have to live in the moment and I have done that all my life. I know you have to be contented with where you are as you are supposed to be. But you also must know that your time is running out thus you have to be prudent with what you do with your time. Maybe these school friends feel that years are catching on, they have to catch up with one another and see where everyone is at this point of life.
I do not mind tête à tête with a friend but having afternoon tea or lunch and dinner with a bunch of former classmates or school mates is not my kind of thing. You do not need an objective to meet, but I am racing against time to read and write more. When I turned down both invites, I felt good. From the photos sent via whatsapp, quite often someone would forward photographs from our young days and childhood days and have everyone guessing who they are. Anyway I have far too many books to read and I am just not doing enough writing. I feel compelled to write even if nothing significant comes out of those words.
During my first year studying abroad decades ago, I shared a house with four guys and one girl. When I found out that two of them had since passed on, I was reminded of the movie ‘Final Destination’ that was shown in our eight-seater van on our way back from a diving trip in Krabi. When I was in Form Five, I wrote a little script for an amateurish mime musical for our class. It was about a student dozing off on her desk while studying for exams. She dreamt about what she wanted from life, a degree / certificate, money, house, knowledge and fun. Perhaps an angel of death could have been included in one of the scenes as the script was supposed to be about the meaning of life. Truth being told, life is about going through passages of life and preparing for the eventual death. But nobody would have told the young students that.
One of the books that I have read recently is Fear of Dying by Erica Jong. Vanessa Wonderman is restless and as she turns sixty years old, she is feeling the onset of the final stage of life and wonder aloud about mortality. She watches her parents age, fade away and then die. She attends doctor appointments with her pregnant daughter, formerly a drug addict and she sits by the hospital bed of Asher, her husband who is twenty years older than her and is worried whether he will get well. When he recovers, he acts as if nothing has happened. Asher is an optimist, optimism was the source of his success. He is a good stepfather to her daughter and has healed all the old wounds of her earlier marriages. Vanessa knows she cannot ask for more and she learns to accept the reality that not even fame will keep one from getting old and dying. Vanessa muses,
‘As I walk home in the snow with Belinda, I think about how impossible it is to explain to the young what happens when you know you’re not immune from death. Everything changes. You look at the world differently. When you’re young, you have no perspective. You think life lasts forever- days and months and years stretching out to infinity. You think you don’t have to choose. You think you can waste time doing drugs and alcohol. You think time will always be on your side.
But time, once your friend, becomes your enemy. It gallops by as you get older. Holidays come faster and faster. Years fly off the calendar as in old movies. All you long for is to go back and do it all over, correct the mistakes, make everything. My father must feel that way. I understand when it is too late to tell him.
Does everyone dies with unfinished business ? What about those gurus who choose the hour of their deaths, call in their students, and say good-bye? Or is that just a pleasant myth?
Being young is not just about looks or sex. It is about energy. I amaze myself by having such sudden abundant energy that Belinda and I jog all the way home in the slush.’
Her big black poodle, Belinda Barkawitz is old. One morning, the dog ‘ lies ,unable to move, panting, her nose dry and her eyes tearing big gray gloppy tears. You get attached to the dog and then the dog dies. ‘ We project our fears and wishes onto our animal companions. I watch Holly, our dog at home and try not to become too attached to her. Life is about going through passages in lives and negotiating with death eventually.
In Vanessa’s voice, Erica Jong writes,
“ I am going over to my parents’ apartment to visit them, and I dread it. They have deteriorated drastically in the last few months. They both spend their days in bed attended by aides and caregivers. They both wear diapers- if we’re lucky. Their apartment smells of urine, shit and medications. The shit is the worst. It’s not healthy shit like babies produce. It seems diseased. Its fetid aroma permeates everything- the oriental rugs, the paintings, the Japanese screens. It’s impossible to escape – even in the living room.’
Everyone who has encountered or been through caring for old parents or grandparents know about their days shuttling between one hospital and another. My late mother’s ninety-three-year-old sister is still living three decades after my mother had passed on. For over a decade, my aunt suffers from dementia and her condition has deteriorated drastically in recent years. I have not visited her the past couple of years and dread visiting her but I know I have to pay her a visit soon even if she does not know who I am. I still remember the time when I was back home for summer holidays during varsity days( i.e. once upon a time) , she drove her little white car over to our house to pick me up to go downtown for a cendol and ice cream. She could drive but my mother had never learnt to drive, in a way, being able to drive a car or ride a bike gives you a certain sense of independence.
Fear of Dying is a meditation about love, marriage, family and dying. Erica Jong is insightful and humourous when writing about the process of growing old and facing head-on life’s challenges that come with children grappling with adulthood and watching parents coping with old age and sickness.