So Much More At Sixty-Four

It was an awesome week for the old man. But, who wants to read about someone else’s good news, right? Otherwise, there would be at least one newspaper in the whole world that covers only good news. “No, somehow we gravitate to bad news,” the old man told me. “Maybe, that is the price we pay for human evolution,” he added. I did not ask him to elaborate. I got the gist of it quickly enough. As a species, we have been around for over 200,000 years, having evolved from probably Homo erectus who roamed the earth some 2 million years ago. It is knowledge and the ability to communicate that knowledge that has kept us ahead of the pack, and the most urgent knowledge that we constantly seek are the bad ones such as wars, accidents, diseases, misfortunes, etc. So, our attention is geared towards being quick to receive bad news that may threaten our well-being and our survival for that matter. Local news that spread fastest in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ such as the mad dog that was roaming the streets, or Miss Maudie’s house that burned down after the first snowfall, or Tom Robinson being falsely accused of raping a white girl weren’t about gossips but were pertinent to the folks’ security and safety. “So, was that what you got from the book?” the old man asked. “We can’t suppress bad news from spreading, it is ‘like wrapping fire in a paper bag.’” I replied. “Or carrying water in a fishing net,” I added, enjoying myself with such useful metaphors.

I wasn’t the least interested to ask the old man what good news he had. He had invited me to ask him when he came round my office the other day. “What do you reckon happened to me the other night?” he asked with a lopsided smile, carelessly revealing stained teeth that paid the price of decades of drinking tea and coffee without a straw. He turned sixty-four a few weeks ago but it seemed his body had since then decided to age at lightning speed. He wasn’t aware of it until his Mrs exclaimed after complaining about his long hair, “You look smart in your new suit but golly gosh, you are ageing so quickly.” “You should shave off your beard, it’s nothing but a white patch of hair that makes you look older,” she said without adding any solution to the absence of eyebrows that had mysteriously faded away at some unknown point in time. Not one to look at himself in the mirror, he took a selfie whilst resting in the park after a vigorous walk with his dog. “Dammit, she’s right,” he muttered to himself on the wooden bench that he assumed as his own since no one else uses it. Shocked at the sight of his own face, he breathed deeply, his body subconsciously sucking in the fresh air around him, in the silly hope that the sudden supply of oxygen would somehow reverse his ageing.

He sat there on that park bench for quite some time, his forlorn figure hunched and bent. The NMN he was taking and before them, the NAD+ tablets for some two years, seemed a con to him suddenly. To his mind, he had been enjoying a new spring in his steps, a fresh sense of frolicking in his demeanour, maybe even a childlike inquisitive attitude towards life. He had taken comfort in a passage he read in a quote by Marcus Aurelius in recent days, about digging deep within ourselves and we would find the good news, the good things, all the goodness we seek – in ourselves. The other daily reminder for himself was about the buddhist way of life – acceptance and contentment. In Stoicism, they talk about ‘the art of acquiescence’ – to accept rather than fight over every little thing. He sighed loudly, frustrated suddenly at all the buzz words he had accumulated in search of wisdom. Words that make most things sound easy to do, such as acceptance to find contentment and happiness. Happiness…. he sighed again. Even the Americans who were masters of slaves and therefore enjoyed immense wealth from the free labour they secured for almost 250 years still needed to pursue happiness and felt the need to include that pursuit in their Declaration of Independence.

Without gratitude what is the point of seeing, and without seeing what is the object of gratitude?

Epictetus, Discourses,, 1.6.1-2

“Ok, what good news did you want to share?” I asked the old man, as he sipped the freshly brewed coffee I had made for him. He is quite strange, I thought to myself. Black coffee in the morning, white coffee in the afternoon. He read my mind somehow. “That’s because I fast till quite late, no milk in the morning does not mean no milk today,” he said, almost sternly. He and I go back a long time, so he is less civil with me. A strange human trait. Somehow, we are less kind to the people closest to us. In our many long conversations, I know for a fact the old man’s injuries to his spirit were mostly self-inflicted but sometimes the knock-out blows came from the inner-circle of family and friends. We do not wrap one another in cocoons but why can’t we give each other the best down jacket to keep warm? What’s the use of the best down in the wet? “All you’ll get is a smelly jacket,” the old man said, proving that old men are grumpy.

Good news should be shared. Any good news, however big or small, should be celebrated. That has always been the old man’s way, especially now that those around him are really old or getting old. The old man was the first person to find out his Mrs was pregnant. That day seemed like an eternity ago. They were in their small 65 sq. ft. flat in Coogee which they called “an apartment” in those days to make it sound bigger and more expensive. His Mrs had transformed into a ravenous woman, always hungry and on the hunt for all sorts of meats and sausages, suddenly despising her favourite snack such as finger buns topped with hundreds and thousands, and often displaying a lethargy in her office at the OPSM Head Office in Sydney’s banking precinct. One night she insisted on Cantonese roast duck after dinner. “But, we just had dinner,” the old man said. The Mrs insisted and that was final. By the time he came home almost an hour later with a succulent freshly roasted duck from Chinatown, she had lost her craving.

“That’s not the duck I saw in my mind, this one uses colouring,” she complained.

“I was 23 and I realised it was impossible to understand women,” he said.

When she complained to the old tea lady that she was forever hungry, the rotund woman, who spent much of her time knitting at the kitchen table of the office when her chores were done, secretly gave her an extra piece of Arnott’s Lemon Crisp or Scotch Finger. “You’re with child, luv,” she said to the Mrs, offering not just the biscuits but also a kind grandmotherly smile. When Saturday arrived, the Mrs instructed the old man to go to the Randwick chemist for advice. The old man was reluctant. His reluctance was reminiscent of the same reluctance he showed a few months earlier when asked to walk into the chemist to buy his first pack of condoms. “Nah, we don’t need them,” he said at the time. His nonchalance at ‘protection measures’ wasn’t to say that sex wasn’t on his mind; his raging hormones insisted on frequent sex, but even in those early days, frequency of sex was not a dictate that he could impose on her. “You’re such a coward,” she snarled and gave him a cold scowl, her eyebrows knitted together and corners of her mouth drooped with displeasure. He waited in the car as she rushed into the shop after having pulled down her summer hat to either hide her face or hide it from the sun. She came back to the car with a paper bag containing her “protection”.

“Show you’re responsible,” she said to him but he would not budge. As she was unlocking her seat belt, he said, “You should complain to the chemist that the pills didn’t work!” “That is why you’re buying the test kit.” “Ask for a refund or at least a discount.” She came back with a paper bag containing their first pregnancy test kit. “Did you get a discount?” he asked. She said nothing but fumed all the way back to Coogee. The test was easy to do, simply add urine and wait for the chemicals to react. They were chatting in the kitchen whilst the Mrs was preparing a late lunch. Never a spendthrift, she would never entertain the idea of ordering coffee outside or agree to eat out at a restaurant. Thirsty? Just wait. We will be home soon, why pay for water? Coffee? Coffee? Silence. Silence never meant agreement, silence equals ‘NO’, that much he learnt from many lessons in bed. Suddenly, he yelped out. “Oh! The test result!” It was as if someone had clashed cymbals in his head repeatedly and violently. He had rushed into their bedroom to look at the test kit but when he reappeared in the kitchen, he was dragging his feet as if chained to a tonne of iron ball. His Mrs looked at him and did not have to ask. His ashen face said it all. He was still in shock or in a daze, he did not tell me. But, he looked completely wrecked. As if life had not yet really begun, yet life had already changed and the life that he had imagined had already ended. He hugged his wife and they both cried. So, he was the first to know about her pregnancy. (The tea lady didn’t know, she guessed right).

“I was the first to know about my niece’s pregnancy too,” the old man said. “That can’t be, surely,” I said. “Of course she and her hubby knew first, but apart from them, I was the first one to know,” he said confidently. Somehow, he felt special. As special as being the first person to know about his Mrs was with child. Bringing life into the world, that has to be the most amazing thing in life to do or witness. For most, it is a symbol of their love, a wanted result of their love-making, bringing a baby who equally represents the very essence of who they are, their DNA.

At the restaurant they were dining to celebrate his 64th birthday for the tenth time, the old man noticed the empty glass across the table from him. In fact, there were two empty wine glasses. He raised himself somewhat awkwardly from his seat – ageing does that to us, I had agreed with him just a few days earlier that we become not just slower but also clumsier in our slowness – and offered to top up the glass that his niece’s hubby had drunk from. Hers was empty, and although the old man was surprised she had declined the red wine, he did not insist on pouring her some, as he would often do with others. “C’mon, just a little, so we can clink our glasses for good luck,” he would often say. As he reached to pour the wine for her hubby, she said she didn’t want any. “I know, you said that before,” he replied and looked at her. He was struck by her radiance. He had known how beautiful she was even in her teens, but the radiance, her aura or glow, was captivating. He smiled at his favourite niece (but he tells all his nieces they are his favourites) before saying the wine was meant for her husband’s glass. “I have a reason for not wanting wine,” she said, smiling coyly with her big round eyes. Her lips curled upwards and made a sweet smile.

“I know,” the old man said. “You are pregnant!” he said, without guessing.

“How did you know?” she said, this time her eyes opened wider in amazement.

“I just know,” he said, unconvincingly.

The rest of the party somehow did not notice their exchange. She looked unsure about whether to repeat her major announcement to everyone at the table. The old man felt that awesome feeling of happiness. At that moment, he knew there was never any need to pursue happiness. Happiness just comes. It just happens. He felt the dizzying heights of elation and joy. Bursting with a foreign exhilarating and heartwarming felicity, he nudged at the chap sitting next to him to get his attention. The chap was busy in conversation with his wife on his right. “What?” he asked in a Malaysian accent that was vanishing quickly after having spent almost two months here.

“Your daughter is pregnant!” the old man almost shouted, trying to talk over the din in the room.

“What?” the chap asked again, proving that his hearing was defective.

“I said your girl is pregnant!”

“She’s pregnant? hahahahaha, she is pregnant!” the chap turned to his wife and shouted jubilantly.

“Our daughter is pregnant!” he exclaimed in a booming voice.

The Empress Chinese Restaurant got a lot louder after that. Everyone at the table behaved as if they were the only ones dining there. More rounds of clinking wine glasses followed. The pregnant niece’s still contained water. She would not be able to steal a sip of wine for the next little while, I bet. After another toast, the old man left the dinner party hurriedly for his orchestra rehearsal.

Happiness is like a butterfly, the more you chase it, the more it will evade you, but if you notice the other things around you, it will gently come and sit on your shoulder.

Henry David Thoreau

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