My elderly parents were backseat passengers in the car that I was driving along Mount Barker Road in 1977. Pa was 60 and Ma 54. I was 19. Teenagers can be nasty to their parents, I realise that now. To a teenager, they were old. Very old. So old, I was already worrying about their well-being. That is not exactly correct. The truth is I was worried that they would die at any time. Etched in my mind was my father’s remorse and tears upon opening a letter from his family in China. His mother had died many weeks earlier and he had no idea for all that many days as mail took a long time to arrive in those days. He would have felt every laughter, every pleasure he had during the mourning period sickening. Pa was far away from home, he felt the distance at that moment incredibly vast. He was alienated by it all. What was the purpose of life except to labour for money so that he could send some home regularly? He didn’t get to say goodbye. No last minute embrace or holding hands. Just written words to tell him he won’t ever see her again. That is what happens to the aged. In the last quarter of our lives, death can come suddenly. Quickly. No time to embrace. Pa passed away in 2007, peacefully and without pain. I held his hand during his final hours, whilst listening to the Buddhist chants being played on a cassette player on auto-reverse. Surprisingly, instead of driving me crazy, the repetitive deep and melodic sound was soothing, trance-inducing and helped make the room calm. It would have been a huge regret for me had Pa left us in a state of tension and pandemonium. No written words. Just comforting words to let him know his suffering in this world was at an end – that he could leave at the time of his choosing, when he was ready. I was one of the first to know the exact moment when Pa took his last breath. I gasped and turned to my mother but she already knew. Married for 66 years, I suppose they understood each other by telepathy. My brother reminded me to remain calm and quiet. No noisy regrets, no loud laments, no despair and definitely no wailing. To this day, I still regularly (at least weekly) light a joss stick for Pa. The Mrs insists he has gone to the next world in his afterlife. A new body, a new being. “He won’t remember us anymore,” she confidently assures me. It matters not to me, for I remember him and I want to forever remember him.
Pa was a 60 year-old man in my car. He had just recovered from his first stroke. His birthday bash was too exciting for him, the poor old man could not keep calm at his big do. Suddenly, he found himself slurring his speech and the left side of his body refused to listen to his brain’s commands. He had George Peppard’s good looks but without the blue eyes. Tall and handsome are words that apply to him. Always neatly attired whenever he went out, he presented himself as a confident successful man with a lot of self-respect. Pa never kept his hair long, he liked them short and neat. They complimented his well-proportioned eyebrows and high bridged nose. His eyes were friendly when he wasn’t being audited by Ma, but they sometimes turned blank when her interrogations became ridiculous. Perfectly shaped and blessed with double eyelids, they were not slitty and not bulging. Looking at him in the rear view mirror, I thought he was old. I feared he could die any day. Today, I am 63 with three quarters of my life spent – the average lifespan for a man here is 80.9 years. Heck! Wasn’t I driving that car along Devil’s Elbow on Mount Barker Road, a notoriously head-spinning turn to Eagle on the Hill, not so long ago? Didn’t I have an exciting future ahead of me? Wasn’t I deciding what profession to be in when I grew up? What kind of person I would become? Would I be studying Philosophy and discussing the merits of Rousseau’s The Social Contract? Would I be thinking the Queen had divine rights over her subjects? Sun-tanned from Boy Scout activities and football games played bare-footed in the school field, I was fit, sure-footed with a strong left foot always positioned as a left-back. Gashes and sprains were normal aches and pains for a boy growing up without a busy mother to molly-coddle and fuss over a broken hand or worry about knees riddled with pus. Ma had eight children plus one dead-on-arrival after a sneeze and three miscarriages. A busy mother maketh a tough kid with scabrous knees, I think. She was too occupied with chores and audits to chasten me for my misdeeds and misadventures. Contraceptive pills were not available yet and they were expensive when first introduced. So, she would not have used them anyway, even if they were available. When pregnant with me, she tried to get rid of me the cheap way using some foul herbal mix from the drug store in Campbell Street. I refused to die. It made me tougher but I do not know if it made me more defective. I have been described as “empty inside”. But, what does that say about my shell? An empty shell can still be prized. I know because I have two in my bathroom. Big ones, a conch and a Nautilus. The Mrs and I carried one each in a bag all the way from Bali. Precious to her, so it matters not if I am empty, see? Besides, Buddhists would see nothingness as a great thing. Nothingness does not mean nothing exists. It is simply a state of pure consciousness in which the mind is emptied of all desires and objects, a sensation a baby must surely feel when snuggling on the bosom of its mother. I had never hoped to be clever but to know contentment, even if it means to be emptied.
A classmate’s wife died three days ago. May she rest in eternal peace. I could die any day too. This isn’t a sudden realisation. Not since the pandemic struck. Without vaccines, we were all candles in the wind. As it turns out, even the fully jabbed are not fully protected. I got my first jab in August. Since then, I have suffered from debilitating pain. The cause? Adhesive capsulitis. My doctor said it wasn’t possible. The frozen shoulder is on my other arm. Not on the arm that was jabbed. A coincidence then. From old age. If Pa was elderly at 60, I am certainly no longer young at 63. Many school friends have retired, some gracefully, a few dismally. Ban Leong, a very good friend from secondary school, announced yesterday he will retire soon and duly listed a litany of things he would do once ‘Freedom Day’ arrives. His loud announcement made me feel older and much slower. It felt like they had all reached their destinations and reaped their goals with utmost satisfaction and pride. In my mind, I am the old turtle struggling to make a little headway out to the open sea against the strong currents, punishing waves and unyielding headwinds but invariably finding itself being swept back to the shore, overturned and over the hill. Once virile, now going senile. Once fit, now feeling like shit. Once lean and fast, now a has-been and fasting. Once modern and decisive, I am mordant, corrosive and toxic. Yesterday seems so far away, it was about golden eggs and investment gains, today I harp about back aches and shoulder pains. Yesterday, I felt peerless, tireless and ageless but now, what bothers me is the tardiness, stiffness, and giddiness.
Earlier this week, I took a photo of the rocky pathway that leads from my pergola to the chicken run at the back of my garden. The land slopes down gently from the rear, so we landscaped it with moss rocks, stacked as a retention wall yet looked like they are in their natural state in the wilderness. The nooks and crannies are perfect hideouts for the local population of blue-tongued lizards and the recent arrivals of small black geckoes. Undoubtedly, there would be the occasional brown snake but I shall not scare myself and pretend they aren’t there. These moss rocks have always appealed to me. Anything that is naturally formed is beautiful, especially moss rocks, stones and pebbles. I shared the photo with my family and someone promptly replied, “Nice composition!” I suspected they would have missed the moss rocks, since the standard roses would have demanded the most attention, complemented by ‘wild’ cerise Red valerian (Centranthus ruber) flowers from seeds spread by playful gully winds a few seasons earlier or perhaps a glimpse of the fuchsias and the mature trees in the back had drawn their eyes to the neighbour’s side gate. My eyes actually did not leave the moss rocks, the kiss-me-quick’s failed to entice me. After they were laid in 1996, I could saunter up and down the slope, even in the rain, as sure-footed as a mountain goat. But, suddenly last year, I lost my confidence. Gone was the goat, and in its place, an old man emerged. As I stare at the photo, I can see the old man checking his step, heaving his leg up, hesitantly, slowly, painfully. Uncharacteristically. Similarly, on his way down, he limped untowardly down each moss rock like he was barefoot on a pile of shattered glass. Visibly struggling, this was a man clearly in decline. An old man. I guess the image shocked me. I was young for so long. It felt like youth would remain with me forever. But, without any warning, that youth was no more. As I take a deep breath and sigh, I realise the gentle reminders were there all along – such as the time when my eyes could not discern the black buttons on the black remote of my since-discarded Pioneer surround sound system, or the weekend afternoon naps that I started to take last year – a luxury I thought at the time, but were actually a necessity in truth. I have become the old man. Not lubberly but still, clumsily. Fingers have turned arthritic and stubborn, refusing to do the simplest of tasks such as threading a needle – they used to be nimble, dancing and racing up and down the neck of my German-made violin. Taste buds play havoc with my mind. Even a favourite beer can become mawkish. Every dish is salty, every drink less divine, and made me sickish. Every little deterioration not quite noticeable but over time, I begin to realise how pernicious these changes have been to my moods and therefore my character. I am not becoming old. I am old. I am already in a state of decline. The body is decaying and the mind is malfunctioning. Learning new things and new words was never a challenge. Now everything is! The eyes are tired, no amount of rubbing helps. The time for audio books has surely arrived. Not so long ago, a holiday would perk me up and a pretty woman would make me sit up. Not anymore. This old man has become languorous, happier with inactivity and rest.
Lately, I have been listening to The Armed Man – a mass for peace, written by Karl Jenkins. The part I listen to over and over again is XII. Benedictus, about half way through the choral work written to commemorate the victims of the Kosovo War. It starts with the cello solo and when the choir repeats the tune so beautifully played by the cellist, it bleeds my heart. The sorrow and pain is too hard to bear. Although it is about horrors that a war exacts on the lives of people, the agony and soul-searching misery strikes me personally. I feel like I am weeping. Mourning the loss of my old self, the young man is forever gone, and in his place now is the old man. A few bars later, the choir soars as if the spirits of the dead have risen to heaven. That’s when the hair on my arms stood up. It is so captivating in most parts yet at this juncture of the music, I feel relief. A release from this material world. There is hope even for the old man. The Armed Man to the old man is not all sorrow, pain, terror and death. After the Benedictus, “Better is Peace” brings a surprising calm to the old hoary man. There is hope. There always is. Yes. Hope springs eternal as much as life returns to my garden in Spring. In this soliloquy, I didn’t want to dwell on the popular idea that age is just a number and a matter for the mind to dismiss. The physical impairments are real, not imagined but certainly can be slowed down if not reversed temporarily with proper diet and ample exercise. But, can we deny that the excesses and neglect of our past have consequences and isn’t it true that when we were young, we never thought we would be old so soon? Being old is a shitty feeling, our internal organs which originally radiated perfect health and efficiency now feel ( and maybe even look) like copper pipes weathered with verdigris, the encrustation clogging our once pristine pipes, veins and arteries.