The Precariousness of Life

IMG_20200301_165048

This photo was taken exactly a month ago when my family went to a park. Back then we never thought it would be sometime before we could go out for a stroll again. Our city has been under a “community quarantine” for almost three weeks now. My sister, my nephew and my son have not left our house for almost a month now. I get to go out for essentials.

The streets are eerily quiet; most businesses are closed. The streets and the air are much cleaner, but somehow it is not easy to enjoy the quiet and the clean air when you are very much aware of how people who have lost their jobs are suffering and fearing for their future.

These are very uncertain times.

When I left China in early January, I thought I would be back in two weeks. Now, it’s almost three months that I have not seen my husband, and we still do not have any idea when we will see each other again, or when he will see our son again. Sure, technology allows us to talk with each other everyday, but we all know the limits of technology.

Perhaps it will be sometime before our world goes back to normal. Even then, it will probably be a different normal.

The only certainty is: life goes on. Sadly not for everyone; but for humanity as a whole, it goes on and will continue to go on.

Wishing you a peaceful weekend.

T.

“Howards End” and the idea of death

“Death destroys a man; the idea of death saves him.” — E.M. Forster, Howards End

I read Howards End last week, and I made several notes on it on my Kindle, but for now I want to write about this line spoken by Helen Schlegel as she was talking with Leonard.

Death does destroy a human being, literally — our bodies decay with death. But the idea of death is what drives most of us to live our lives the best we can. Knowing that there is an end or becoming aware that the end is near, people tend to try to become their better selves — asking forgiveness, fixing broken relationships, showing kindness, completing tasks, etc.

Though I am afraid of a painful death, death itself, to me, is not something to be feared, but something that is merely necessary. It can be a hassle when you have responsibilities that you cannot simply entrust to somebody else, but you know it is a fact of life.

In the novel, Helen says: “I love Death — not morbidly, but because He explains.” And she goes on to explain how with Death, one can see the emptiness of Money.

Death does explain this and much more to us, but the idea of death leads us to ask the questions that really matter:

Why am I here if I’m only going to die? How can I make good use of my borrowed time in this life?

There’s not much use asking where you’re going after you die. It’s enough to answer the two questions above and live your life with purpose and passion.

May you find purpose for and passion in living your life. 🙏🏽

T.

On Death and Promises

My husband and I have the weirdest conversations between a married couple simply because I am weird. One of the things we talked about a couple of years ago was what would happen WHEN I die (because I have to die first, and I would never forgive him if he dies before me! To which he agrees. He says he would like to be able to give me a proper funeral. This I truly appreciate.)

I told him that at my funeral, he can look around and see who among my friends he can marry. Well, this was too weird for him. (But perhaps he was just thinking my friends would be too old for him!)

When I told my friends and sisters about this they thought I was crazy.

Maybe. But my point is, I would like my husband to be happy when I leave. My only condition is that whoever that woman who can make him happy is, should accept my son like he is her son, because I want my son to be happy too.

Unlike the characters in the Disney movie, “Coco” who feel the need to be remembered — I don’t feel the need to be remembered. It would be nice to be remembered, but I am not sentimental about it. What matters most to me is number 1: my autistic son is taken care of until such time he can look after himself; and number 2: that the people I love will go on to live happy, healthy lives after I’m gone.

The day before my mother died, I saw the look on her face change when my then 13-year-old nephew who is my mom’s first grandchild, entered the room. Her eyes lit up, and there was a fondness for my nephew that was so visible that I, her youngest child, felt a little jealous even though I was already 44! We all knew she had not wanted to leave yet because she was worried about him. We gave her the assurance that we all would take care of each other.

I have tried to keep that promise.

I hope that when it’s my turn to go, I would get the same promise that my son will be taken care of. And that they will keep it.

🙏🏽

T.

———

Sonnet 71 by William Shakespeare

No longer mourn for me when I am dead

Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell

Give warning to the world that I am fled

From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell:

Nay, if you read this line, remember not

The hand that writ it, for I love you so,

That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,

If thinking on me then should make you woe.

O! if, I say, you look upon this verse,

When I perhaps compounded am with clay,

Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;

But let your love even with my life decay;

   Lest the wise world should look into your moan,

   And mock you with me after I am gone.

“Do not Go Gentle into that Good Night”

Three years ago this month, I lost my mother. And every year this month, I buy flowers (pictured below) that I put next to her photograph. Every year in March, as I look at both flowers and my mom’s photograph, I am reminded of the uncertainty of life, of its ephemerality and the sadness that comes with being left behind by those who go before us.

This month my musing on the transiency of life is made even sadder by the thought of 2 of my best friends facing serious illnesses. My 3 best friends, unlike me who wanted to die at 20, have always wanted to live long, happy, healthy lives.

For the lovers of life, I hope you never lose that WILL to live even when doctors give you that diagnosis that sounds like a death sentence. I hope in your heart will burn that desire to prove the doctors wrong and that you “RAGE against the dying of the light.” ♥️

T.

Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night

by Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Because there’s no such thing as forever…

I saw a picture of a huge graffiti on a wall in my city that read: WALANG FOREVER (There’s no forever) and shared it with my family, joking that whoever wrote it must have been really hurting. But my ever-serious 16-year-old nephew replied: “There really is no forever.” To which I said: “But that’s not what Kenny Loggins said!”

When I checked on Google, there is actually a good number of people asking why “forever” is promised by people in love when everyone knows this is a mere impossibility. I did not bother reading the answers because I think we all know what the answer to that is.

And I am not going to dwell on the reason people say it, but rather on the benefit of there being no forever.

I learned this years ago when I was young and naive and stupidly in love with the most unromantic man I have ever met. We were walking in a quiet, wooded area, dead leaves crackling under our shoes as we walked. I looked up when I heard the sound of the leaves as a gentle breeze blew. It was such a beautiful moment, walking with the man who meant the world to me then. So I told him. And he said casually, “You know why this is so beautiful now? It’s because you know it’s not going to last.” At that time, it made me feel so sad, but now whenever I think of it, I am grateful that at that moment, I learned to appreciate things that have a short life span.

Now when my husband leaves for work in the morning and says goodbye to me, no matter how busy I am, I stop whatever I’m doing and give him my full attention.

As I travel every month, I say a proper goodbye to my family and friends because who knows, we may never see each other again (that plane could … you know?)

This is not to dismiss the anguish of those who are suffering, but I sometimes think those who are told they only have this or that much time to live have the benefit of preparing not only themselves but also their loved ones of the former’s impending departure.

A few months before my mother’s demise, I was telling bestfriend no.2 what a terrible time it was watching my mother suffer. And as usual, he was his brutally honest self and said to me, “This time in your mother’s suffering is God’s gift to you, her children. You will become so tired from not having enough sleep and in pain watching her suffer, you will eventually be ready to let her go.” He was speaking from experience, of course. He gave up his own dreams to take care of his father for two years until his father’s death from pancreatic cancer.

And he was right. Although it was a stressful, exhausting time, we — my mother, my sisters and I — were given enough time to prepare ourselves for what was going to happen, so the last few days were filled with kind words, sweet smiles, lots of tears, of course, but they were tears of love.

The beauty of there being no forever is that we then see beauty in everything, and we appreciate everything, and are thankful for everything.

We become better people when we remember there’s no such thing as forever. Or at least we should.

May we always try to become better people. 💕

T.

The Indignity of Old Age and Dying

“..Death tears away the veil from all our secrets, our shifty dodges and intrigues.” – Dostoevsky, Mr. Prohartchin

 img_2789

Taiwushan Cemetery, Kinmen, Taiwan

Death can’t reveal all of our secrets, because some of them we carry to our graves. But death can literally reveal what we keep hidden underneath our clothes; when we die (if our bodies are intact) then our bodies become mere objects seen quite objectively by doctors, nurses and embalmers, all strangers to our bodies. But of course one can rationalize this and say, “Who cares? The dead don’t.”

Perhaps people will say I overthink things when I say this, but I feel nothing but compassion for sick people in hospitals and how their bodies become merely like an object that the healthy can just point to or talk about as if it is lifeless. I felt this the first time I saw my mother being given a sponge bath by my sister. I felt this as I stood next to my mother’s bed as she lay there in pain, while the nurses were changing her clothes. I witnessed the indignity of aging, and it made me feel so so sorry for us, human beings.

Hopefully one day we won’t have to deal with incontinence, hip fractures, loss of mobility, etc. and just go quietly with dignity intact.

Meaning and Purpose in Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go”

IMG_5484

In general, there are two kinds of people according to how they view their life: those who continually search for meaning and purpose in life, and those who don’t. These two kinds of people come to the same end, however. They die. We die. But that time just before death is where the dying differ. Those who believe (even without any real proof) that they have found meaning and fulfilled their purpose in life, pass confidently though sadly, and those who feel they have unfulfilled promises or dreams or tasks left undone, leave bitterly.

In my lifetime, I have seen enough number of dying people to see this. It is always sad as I know it is the fate of each and every one of us.

Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” reminds me of that sadness I feel when pondering on the fate of human beings. At first I found this novel disturbing and then extremely sad; and only today, two days after I finished reading the novel, did I finally realize what I found so sad about it.

It is not that the “students” unquestioningly accept their fate of dying young because they are mere clones, created to become organ donors.
It is not that despite their being more humane than the humans who created and raised them, the latter are repulsed by them.

Rather it is that human beings despite their being “superior” to the clones, are ignorant of the real meaning and purpose of their existence, while the clones aren’t. Hence, the former can face death which they aptly call “completing” without fear or regret, albeit with a little sadness. Ishiguro found the perfect word to call death in this novel. When the clones die from having donated their organs, it is because they have accomplished or “completed” the purpose of their existence.

There are people who are convinced that they know their purpose for being in this world – they have faith or they make up their own purpose, but is it really the real purpose for our existence? How will we know for sure?

This is why I envy the clones in the novel, at least there is no doubt in their heads why they exist. For somebody outside looking in, it is a very sad existence, but the “students” in Hailsham had a happy childhood, lots of fun memories, and there was no question in their head as to what was going to happen to them, how their lives would end. As for us, humans, though we know our time is limited, and we attach all kinds of meaning or purpose for our lives, in the end we are all Jon Snow.

We know nothing.

Noli Timere

img_2961

A few weeks ago, I read an article by a writer reminiscing about his friendship with the late Seamus Heaney, and of course his famous last words, a text message to his wife — Noli timere (“Don’t be afraid”).  Unfortunately I can’t find that article anymore as I don’t remember the title nor the author’s name, so I can’t give you the link.

That article led me to read about Heaney’s last words as recalled by his son in his eulogy. And this in turn led me to remember what my mother said to me a week before she passed as I cried in front of her, exhausted from all the seemingly insurmountable problems that had befallen me — her worsening health condition, my son’s autism, not being able to get a visa for my son, among other things. She reached for my hand, as she lay in bed, and said to me in a voice full of confidence, “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right. E. is going to be fine.”

I wonder if it is just the dying’s way of comforting the living, so as not to make them worry about what life would be like for the living without them, or if somehow they have some kind of vision of what the future will be like, or if their faith is strengthened as they near that end.

But my mother’s words really comforted me, and I believed her. And I believed her words even more as indeed, after she passed, we were able to find a special needs school for my son, and the same embassy that made it difficult for us to get a visa for him, gave him a travel document instead.

Even now whenever I have a problem, apart from praying, I would think of my mother and how she would have stormed the gates of heaven to pray for me.

As a mother myself, I keep praying for my son. Some nights I lie awake wondering, fearing, what the future would be like for my son. I read articles like this one about a parent describing what life is like for someone with a 13-year old son with ASD , and I fear dying before my son can learn to live independently.

For now I can protect my son and comfort him when he is hurt or scared, but no parent can or should do this for the rest of our lives. Our children grow, and we pass on. But hopefully, our comforting words will live in their hearts and give them courage to live their lives.

************

BE NOT AFRAID
(For E.)

The sky may darken
And let fall the rain
That doesn’t seem to end

The winds may howl
Like a crazed person
Banging on the window

The lightning may strike
And give you a glimpse
Of the dark clouds outside

The thunder may roar
And cow you into hiding
Under your soft blanket

But don’t be afraid,
Mommy’s here to keep you safe
And warm as you sleep and dream
Of a beautiful sunrise when you wake.

 

Remembering Mother

It’s been two years since my mom passed on, yet a part of me still feels she’s just back home in the Philippines. But that feeling doesn’t last very long because I am conscious that I just can’t make a call and hear her voice again.

Life is so different without a mother, even for an adult daughter in her 40s.

I have so many fond memories of my mother as she was a funny woman who laughed loudly and was talented at story-telling. She could never tell a story sitting down — she gestured; her facial expressions changed as quickly as Chinese opera players changed masks, and her voice made it difficult not to imagine whoever she was portraying.

My mother was a very interesting character; I hope one day I can really write a story about her. She would love that. Since I started writing poetry in high school she had asked me to write about her, but I only started to write about her as she lay dying, two years ago.

One of the things I truly regret in my life was not being able to give a good eulogy for her. My mother loved drama, and she would’ve liked something dramatic at her funeral (and I say this with fondness for memories of her ), but unfortunately I failed.

Last week I bought flowers (photos above) to put next to her picture which I keep in my apartment. It was her death anniversary, and wherever she is, just in case she has a way of knowing, I wanted her to know I still think about her and wish she was just a phone call away.

Thoughts after Reading Gogol’s The Overcoat 

I’m not entirely sure if it’s mere coincidence that last night I read Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat , and this afternoon, I watched the second episode of The Young Pope where Jude Law’s Pope Pius XIII spoke to the faithful for the first time, and he said something like we have to be closer to God than to each other, that he will never be closer to the people than he is to God because we are all alone before God. 

Akakievitch’s death was truly tragic, just as tragic as his life. Tragic to the reader, anyway. If he existed in our times, he would probably be diagnosed as being on the spectrum and would get some help. But in the story, in his adult life, no one cared about him. 

The quote I pasted on the photo reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend a few years back. I told him how the sight of so many people who came to my father’s funeral made me think there would be very few people who would come to my own funeral because as I grow older I’ve become less sociable, less friendly. Especially now that I’ve been away from home for 14 years, and most of my friends and former students have left the city or the country, and I don’t visit friends or relatives whenever I go home; I don’t attend family (clan) reunions….

At my mother’s funeral last year, I was moved by the number of people who came to condole  with us. A lot of them I’ve never even seen before — my sisters’ co-workers and friends, my mother’s former co-workers and students, my father’s former co-workers. It was comforting to see so many people cared about my family enough to come to my mother’s  funeral. My parents were luckier than Akakievitch. 

Now and then I would remind my husband not to die ahead of me, or I would never forgive him. We often laugh when I start talking about this, but we both know I am serious. No way he’s dying before me. Good thing is we agree this is a good idea. 

Having said that, I’ve decided to try to be a little more sociable again. Not because I want people to remember me, but because I want my husband and my son to find comfort in the thought that they’re not alone, that there are people who care enough to come to my funeral. 

In today’s society where fake online friendships are common, will people care if one day you just disappear? Or will you be like Akakiy Akakievitch whose death mattered to no one? 

Old Age and Dependency in Neruda’s Don’t Go Far Off

dont-go-far-off
Mindanao, Philippines 

Don’t go far off by Pablo Neruda

Don’t go far off, not even for a day, because —
because — I don’t know how to say it: a day is long
and I will be waiting for you, as in an empty station
when the trains are parked off somewhere else, asleep.

I like the hesitation expressed in the repetition of “because,” as it seems the speaker seems unsure whether the reason he is going to give for asking the other person not to go too far even for a day, would be reasonable enough for the latter. And to me, he succeeded in sounding convincing with his use of the imagery of the empty train station – empty of not only people, but of the trains as well as they are “parked off somewhere else, asleep.” This last line of the first stanza emphasizes his feeling of emptiness – everyone and everything else has gone and they are asleep (not dead, just having a rest), which I think signals what the speaker himself is going through (revealed in the last line of the last stanza.)

Don’t leave me, even for an hour, because
then the little drops of anguish will all run together,
the smoke that roams looking for a home will drift
into me, choking my lost heart.

His demand not to be left alone becomes urgent as he argues even an hour would be too long. He knows himself and knows that slowly but surely anguish will come in full force. I think “smoke” here refers to fear that can overwhelm a person and make one’s heart rate grow faster thus “choking my lost heart.”

Oh, may your silhouette never dissolve on the beach;
may your eyelids never flutter into the empty distance.
Don’t leave me for a second, my dearest,

Whereas in the first and second stanzas, he gives reasons for not wanting the other to leave him (he will be waiting, feeling empty; he will be full of anguish and be heartbroken), in the third stanza, he reveals further that he is not only thinking of physical distance, but emotional as well – “may your eyelids never flutter into the empty distance.” These words show the total dependence of the speaker to the other person. He never wants to lose sight of this person (“Oh, may your silhouette never dissolve on the beach;”), nor to have this person not being in the present with him. From not being able to be without this person for a day, then for an hour, then for a second, the speaker obviously relies heavily on the other person for his existence.

because in that moment you’ll have gone so far
I’ll wander mazily over all the earth, asking,
Will you come back? Will you leave me here, dying?

Normally, I would be very cynical about people being too dependent on other people, emotionally. But I totally understand that certain people like the elderly and young children, and people with certain developmental disorders cannot help being so. And this is how I see the speaker of this poem. He is not a young and healthy man in the best years of his life. Rather he is old, and nearing his end and fears dying alone. This is not a man speaking to his lover, but a mere human being asking the one he trusts not to leave him, physically and emotionally.

This is not a love poem.

A couple of times, I have heard old men, who when they were young, were once brave soldiers and then, stern fathers; but, as they became old and frail, they became fearful of being left alone, begging their children not to leave them. This, I find extremely sad.

This is perhaps the saddest Neruda poem I have ever read.

 

Here’s the Spanish version (probably the original)

“No lejos de mí un solo día”
Pablo Neruda

No estés lejos de mí un solo día, porque cómo,
porque, no sé decirlo, es largo el día,
y te estaré esperando como en las estaciones
cuando en alguna parte se durmieron los trenes.

No te vayas por una hora porque entonces
en esa hora se juntan las gotas del desvelo
y tal vez todo el humo que anda buscando casa
venga a matar aún mi corazón perdido.

Ay que no se quebrante tu silueta en la arena,
ay que no vuelen tus párpados en la ausencia:
no te vayas por un minuto, bienamada,

porque en ese minuto te habrás ido tan lejos
que yo cruzaré toda la tierra preguntando
si volverás o si me dejarás muriendo.

 

 

Home is where …

img_0390

I’m home,

But somehow it doesn’t feel the same

I have time alone now, something I have always wanted

But somehow it doesn’t feel as comforting as it used to be. 

Your bedroom door’s open, 

And I turn to look at it

And I see your wheelchair in one corner,

It’s gathering dust. 

The curtains and the bed sheets were changed this weekend 

Like you were still going to lie on your bed 

But this room has not been occupied for months. 

It’s  a strange feeling — knowing you’re never coming back 

But like you’re on a vacation somewhere far. 

Maybe you are. 

I hope you’re happy there. 

 

Like you used to

missing miming 1

For my Miming

Today I read something that made me laugh
And I thought of you, and for a second,
I thought of picking up the phone
To tell you the story,
And hear you laugh
Like you used to.

But then I remembered
That I had already said my goodbyes
That I won’t ever hear your voice again
Nor ever see your eyes disappear
As you laugh at my silliness,
Like you used to.

You’re no longer here.
That’s something
I have to get used to.

Words left unsaid, deeds left undone

bitter tears

 “The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.” — Harriet Beecher Stowe 

How often have you heard people say: I wish I had done this. I wish I had said that, after someone had left them? I have heard those too many times. I have even said them a few times when I was younger.

Most of the time we just take for granted the people around us, especially those close to us. We care about them, yet daily life makes us forget their need for affirmation. Or perhaps we are embarrassed to express our appreciation or even love for them. Unlike little children who would give a loving parent a kiss or a hug just because they feel like doing so, adults would think twice about showing affection for whatever reason.

When we, unexpectedly, lose someone, we tend to regret so many things. We cry because there are words we had wanted to say to them but did not get the chance to say (because, who knew he would die today?) Perhaps we had promised to visit but never got around to doing so. These regrets and the guilt can last a long time. I know. After 14 years, I still have not forgiven myself for not spending more time with my father before he passed on.

With my mother, my sisters and I were able to say what we wanted to say to her before she left us: we said sorry for the times we made her cry;  we told her we loved her; we promised to look out for each other. And she, herself, was able to confess, ask forgiveness, and thank people,  and let her daughters know what she wished for us to be and to do.

When my mother passed on, tears were shed. But they weren’t bitter tears. They were tears of sadness as we said goodbye to her, knowing we won’t see her again; they were also tears of love as we prayed for her eternal rest.

We may not know the time we will lose someone we care about, but we can try to avoid shedding bitter tears when they go, by saying those words and doing those deeds meant for them. 

Playing Dead

 For My Miming


You used to play dead
When you felt
I wanted
Too much attention.

You would close your eyes
Stiffen your body
And hold your breath for a minute
Not making a sound, not moving an inch,

Making me think
You were dead
That you’d left me
And it was my fault.

You used to enjoy telling people
How scared I was as I shook your body
How hard you tried to control your laughter,
And how smart I was
To tickle your foot to “wake” you up.

Now as I look at how your lids don’t move
As your eyes are closed
Your body stiff and cold to the touch,
I am tempted to tickle your foot again.

But I’m not a child anymore
And I know this is no longer the silly game
That the once-goofy mother
Used to play with her youngest child. 

The machines don’t lie
You’re gone.
You have really left me
And you won’t wake

No matter how many times
I whisper in your ear
Or squeeze your hand
Or kiss your cheeks.

The game has ended.
And I lost.

 

On living, loving and leaving

shakespeare1

Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare

That time of year thou may’st in me behold 
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, 
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. 
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day, 
As after sunset fadeth in the west, 
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest. 
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire 
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, 
As the death-bed whereon it must expire 
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by. 
   This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

 

There has been much debate on the meaning of this sonnet, particularly the last couplet:

   This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

What is the young man supposed to eventually leave before long: his friend or his own youth?

I will not join in the debate, but I am quoting the sonnet here because I was reminded of it (and John Donne’s Sonnet 10) twice today: first, when I read this poem by John White called Laughing about it ; second, when I read Temple Grandin’s tribute to Oliver Sacks, who also wrote a moving article reflecting on his relationship with his Orthodox family and the Sabbath.

Whether the speaker meant that the young man had to leave his friend or his youth, to me, is not the point, rather that the knowledge that one is leaving something valuable makes one appreciate it or love it even more.

My first real understanding of this line happened one summer day when my best friend and I stood in a forest, listening to the sound of the leaves of the trees as the breeze was passing through, and I said it was beautiful I wish it could last forever; and he said it was beautiful simply because it was not going to last.

(Not long after that my best friend left, and for a while, that memory always made me cry. But with time, I have learned to call on that memory, and it just brings a beautiful feeling.)

If we truly love someone or something –a place, a person, a pet or life itself —  the knowledge of our imminent leaving of it/them will make our love for it/them even stronger.

Perhaps it is the best way to live every minute of our short life here: to always remember that we won’t be here forever, that we are always about to leave. Perhaps then we can love wholeheartedly, not only for a minute or an hour or for a day, but for a lifetime.

Birthday Dirge (a funny-kind-of-sad poem)

image

You came home the other day
And solemnly said to me
You wanted to have a long life.

And when I asked you why
You said you wanted to be around
To make sure I would get

A proper funeral.

I would’ve been moved
I would’ve thought, “Aaw, how sweet!”

Had you not forgotten
My birthday yesterday
Had you said sorry
That you forgot.

But you didn’t .

I’m still alive.
Here I am.
Can’t you see me?

Schadenfreude and the Sick Mind

IMG_3306

RIP, SFP.

SCHADENFREUDE AND THE SICK MIND

I just finished re-reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and thought about how the most important characters all seem to have mental problems. The most interesting characters are the eccentric ones, and the dull ones are the very normal people.

Rogojin loved Nastasia, even though she kept humiliating him in public; but, that love eventually turned to hate and led him to murder her. When she died, he kept her body in his house and watched over it. He did not laugh at her death. He was sick, but he was not happy that she died.

Myshkin understood and did not condemn Rogojin for killing his bride-to-be. They called him the “idiot”, but he was the only enlightened one among all the characters. “The Idiot,” just like “Crime and Punishment” and “Brothers Karamazov” (my number 1 favorite novel), made me think about a lot of things – about myself, my family, friends, and life and death. I started re-reading it at a time when, someone I know, was dying.

After reading the book today, I read, not a fictitious story, but a true-to-life one of a person in terrible pain and with only a few hours to live being visited by some people who made jokes and laughed loudly in the room. Perhaps they did not realize the person was in pain? I do not think it is hard to tell if a person is in pain, especially when they are groaning.

As a child, I was scolded by my father for making my sister laugh while our other sister was crying because she was itching all over from an allergy. Back then I thought what’s wrong about laughing? We were not laughing at or about her. But before I could say anything, my father said, “When somebody is suffering, you do not make light of their suffering by laughing.” It is not only rude, it is evil.

In our life, there are people who love us and those who hate us. There are people who like us, dislike us, or to whom we mean nothing. Being an introvert, I have very few people, apart from my family, I trust and truly like. But should I find myself dying, I would not want anyone except for my immediate family to see me on my deathbed. I do not want visitors who may only come to see how much I am suffering and be happy to see me thus.

Because believe me, there are such people. They look quite normal, so normal that they even managed to graduate with a bachelor’s degree even though they cannot spell their names correctly. They look good and are very sociable. They walk with a swagger even though their stomachs are sticking out. They speak loudly in front of their acquaintances but simply to sound important. Yet what little knowledge they have is simply based on hearsay, God knows if they have even touched a book!

These people enjoy watching others suffer. It is difficult to understand because they are supposed to be “normal.” I can understand a mental patient laughing at someone who had been run over by a car, because the person is mentally sick. He has no control over his thoughts and feelings. I can understand a drug addict laughing at someone who fell down the stairs because his brain has been corrupted by drugs. But how to understand  people who are not into drugs, talk normally, act normally in front of most people yet laugh at a dying person?

How are people like these different from the rebels who tortured the 44 SAF and laughed while they were doing so? I find these supposedly “normal” people scarier than the MILF rebels who killed the SAF. We can stay away from the MILF. But, these “normal” people are scarier because they live amongst us, watching us, waiting for us to fall, so they can laugh their evil laugh. But they do not scare me. I know their kind, and they can never come near me or my family.

They laughed as she lay dying.

MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.

Will you remember…?

erhu

I love the melancholic sound of the erhu

 

I took this picture morning of Christmas Eve while I was walking at the park. I’ve always loved the melancholic sound of the erhu, so when I heard it, I  walked towards where the sound was coming from and saw this old man facing the pagoda as if he was playing for the one for whom it was built. Fortunately for me, he turned around and, click! I took a photo.

The ever sentimental me imagined the old man was probably playing for his grandfather or great grandfather, and I thought how nice it would be to be remembered the same way by the ones you leave behind. (Of course the practical and realistic part of me has something else to say.)

That night, Christmas Eve, my husband and our friends and I talked about death instead of having dessert after dinner. It came about after our friend complained about being over 60 and feeling that he was  getting really close to the end. I just laughed at him saying 60 wasn’t old, and I remembered crying when my father turned 60 as I thought he was going to die soon, but he lived to be 81.

It was not the first time we talked about death instead of having dessert. I remember another time when I thought aloud about dying and nobody would be coming to my funeral because I have not lived in my hometown for a long time, and my friends have also left. My husband, who is introverted,  felt the same way. And so did our friend who was in his early 50’s then.

But really, does it matter? Would we even know?

I would like to think my father is aware that we have not forgotten him, that I have not forgotten him. That I light candles for him on important dates, and I smoke a cigarette on his birthday and on All Soul’s Day, that I visit his grave whenever I go home and again before I leave. I do all these because I want to, because I like remembering him, and I want him to be happy, just in case he is aware of these things.

My husband once asked me if I thought our son (this was before our son was diagnosed with ASD) would ever visit his (my husband’s) grave in his hometown in the north of China on Tomb-sweeping Day. He was a little shocked by my blunt and totally unsympathetic reply: “Are you crazy? Why would you burden your son to travel every year just to visit your grave? You would not even be there anymore!” I did apologize for the bluntness, but he admitted it was a burden.

I don’t want to be buried. I want to be cremated, and my ashes scattered in the sea in my hometown or any sea really. Or, if Eli, by that time is already capable of feeling love and loss like typical people do, perhaps he can keep some for himself that he can carry around with him wherever he goes. And if the dead me sees that, I would be truly happy.

I think we all want, desire to be remembered by people we love. But when we’re gone, it doesn’t really matter if they do or they don’t, does it?

Remembering is only for the good of the living, not of the dead.

Serenity in Solitude

IMG_1592

The other day I read about a father who sang a song and played the guitar for his dying baby.

I couldn’t stop crying, and just wanted to hold my sleeping Eli as tightly as I could.

There is so much pain and suffering in this world, but since I was 19, I have always believed and seen pain and suffering coming to an end, joy taking their place, and making people stronger, until the next round of pain and suffering comes.

A friend once called me masochistic because I said I liked feeling sad and experiencing pain because the experience made me think and introspect, thereby making me know myself better. And thinking and introspecting always give me peace and the energy to go on living in such an absurd world.

When I am down or just want to vanish from this world, I am blessed enough to remember the only time I had a one-week retreat in a Carmelite Monastery by the sea. It was so long ago, almost twenty years ago when I was at the height of searching for answers to questions that my mother worried were driving me crazy. (She always complained that it took me forever to finish doing the dishes because I was always lost in thought!)

For one week I was mostly alone in a 4-story building that was the retreat house. My retreat guide came to visit me twice and did not stay longer than two hours each time. I had a room on the top floor which was close to the big balcony that faced the sea, where every half an hour, a ferry from the west port would cross to the south port. I stayed out in the balcony in late afternoons and waited for the sky to turn from orange to gray and then black; and then the lights from the ports came on, and I could see the lights from the ferry moving in the darkness. In the morning I went to a wooden gazebo on stilts right in the water connected to the retreat house by footbridge made of bamboo. I would listen to the sound of the small waves as they hit the bamboo stilts underneath, smell the briny scent of seawater, and hear the occasional squawk of a bird overhead. These images, sensations come back to me as clearly as the time I was there.

My theosophist friend with whom I used to spend a lot of time talking TO (she just listened most of the time, bless her) once told me that one reason we miss somebody or something too much when they/its gone, is that when they were there, we did not give our whole self to them. Our mind perhaps wandered to somewhere else, and so our experience of them was incomplete. So that time when I was on a retreat, I made sure I was completely there. I watched,listened and felt my surroundings. I will say I miss being there, but I can also “go back” to that place whenever I need to. I can have a few minutes of peace and serenity just by remembering my time in that retreat house.

I do not mean to offend people who suffer because I, too, have suffered, but I find beauty in suffering and pain. I get energy from knowing that this suffering would come to an end, and when it does, I will experience joy, and it will be very sweet just as sweet food tastes even sweeter after eating bitter food.

But to find beauty in suffering, one needs to get away from everything. One needs to be quiet and look within to be able see better what is outside. This is nothing new, and I’m not trying to sound like an expert on this subject, but I speak (write) from experience.

These days it is extremely difficult to have some real quiet. People cannot get away from their cellphones. For everything that happens in their life, no matter how trivial, they feel somebody else has to know. Or they feel they have to know what other people are up to. People are so concerned with what they look like on the outside that they have forgotten to look within and know themselves, who they really are and of what they are capable. There is more self-absorption than self-awareness    , and it does not help anyone.

I hope we can all find time, especially when we are down, to get away from it all and go to a place –physical and/or spiritual — where we can recharge and be better equipped to face life’s absurdities.

Have a pleasant week!

Remembering Papa

I  don’t remember ever celebrating Halloween as a child. We observed All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day by going to church and the cemetery to clean the graves and light candles for our departed loved ones. When my grandparents passed on, my mother would “offer” some of their favorite delicacies and tobacco leaves for my grandfather, (he rolled his own cigar) on our small altar which had small statues of Jesus and several saints. As children we eagerly waited for our parents to finish praying (for the souls’ “eternal repose”), so we could eat what had been “offered.” That was fun.

When my father passed on 12 years ago, I started my own tradition of drinking and smoking a cigarette twice a year — on All Saints’ or All Souls’ Day and on his birthday/death anniversary. I’m alcohol intolerant so one glass of rum (okay, rum and cola) is enough. He never liked beer.  I’m not into smoking, so one or two is all. I used to like watching him blow smoke rings, so now when I do smoke I try doing the same.

So Halloween is here again. I cannot really get into the spirit of this festival. Tonight when people party celebrating life, I’ll be lighting a candle and smoking a cigarette and drinking rum (and cola) while listening to Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole, remembering one of the most important people in my life.

 For Papa

(This was written 8 years ago. I know it’s sentimental, but I think we are all entitled to be sentimental once in a while. So bear with me.) 

Is it true?
You see your entire life
Flash in front of your eyes
The second before you die?

And if it is,
What did you see?

Did you see yourself
Smiling and waving
To people who called out your name
When you won that basketball game?

Did you feel proud
Being in that moment again when
Your opponent shook your hand
After you beat him at tennis?

And what was it like,
When you relived that moment
At the altar, with that young woman
With whom you exchanged “I do’s”?

Was it as amazing as the first time
In May, when you first saw
And then held your first child,
So tiny and fragile in your arms?

Was that October day vivid still,
Or did tears make the flashback hazy,
As to the altar, you led your second daughter,
To where her groom was waiting?

Did it make you laugh hearing
Your third daughter’s ringing laughter,
The one you always tried to copy
And made her laugh all the more?

And did it pain you again,
When your youngest daughter came home
That night you would pass away, when she barely looked at you
As she hurried to her room to work on her thesis?

Did you feel that love
That we sometimes were too greedy
To give you, yet, you know we had inside.
Did you feel it as we surrounded you

On your death bed?

Did you hear my mother and my sisters crying out your name?
And did you hear me whisper, “Don’t go, Pa. Please fight.”
Was that why there were tears in your eyes
That few seconds before you died?

papajpeg