Old Age is Coming, Soon Enough

At the end of an impromptu upcountry visit, I was quite reluctant to get back to the mental drudgery of medical school. The serene countryside ambiance was naturally invigorating and enlivening, a stark contrast to city life. I had neither heard the disturbing, piercing cry of a woman who had lost her loved one nor encountered any tinge of hospital funk for the past approximately forty six hours. Two days! That was quite something.

So here I was again on a vehicle heading back to the city. I was waiting for other passengers to board so we could get moving. My mind drifted off to some obscure thoughts. The amount of mental clutter running to and fro in my cranium is sometimes enough to trigger an absence seizure. Anyway, my thought train ground to a startling halt when a boarding passenger heaved themselves on the seat right next to mine pushing me right up against the window.

I was forced to turn to get a glimpse of this person who lacked the decency to stick to the code of personal space. My stare landed on the plethoric face of a young, short and plump woman. She was panting a little. I guess the effort spent to defy gravity for a good thirty centimeters as she was hauling her body into the vehicle had left her lungs bereft of air. As I was settling from the sudden discomfort, she flung a flabby arm in my direction beckoning me to open the window a bit more. I did it reluctantly, after which she beckoned a hawker and asked for two cold Fanta Orange sodas. She then stuck her hand in a fittingly fat purse and after rummaging for several seconds, she dug out some archaic note to pay the peddler. With the drinks clamped under her arm, she proceeded to uncork one bottle, swung her head back and generously bathed her buccal cavity and throat with this cold, orange, fizzing, calorie rich liquid. I watched in bewilderment as the events unfolded almost hitting her with the cliche ‘food is not your friend!’ but I knew one better.

She was a young woman, the type that are laden with volatile emotion. Such comments no matter how sincere or true have the propensity to culminate in word battles, physical exchanges, gore or even burials in unmarked graves. You may call me timid all you want to. In my defence, I chose to stand for my pacifist beliefs. World peace shalt not be compromised by things as meagre as medical students telling fierce looking obese damsels to watch what they eat. I sat tight, plugged in my earphones and got my thought train chugging away once again. It was going to be a long two hour travel to Nairobi.

Back at home three weeks later, I am now trying to enjoy my holiday and feeling happy that my junior medic years are officially over. I suddenly realize something: this is my third last holiday at home as a dependent. I have mixed emotions about it. Before I even get my mind to think it through, I am jolted back to reality. My mum has just sat next to me letting out the ‘grunt’. You know, that noise old people make when they sit down? I call it the indicative ‘noise of senescence’.

Again it hits me. My mum has indeed aged. I joke to her about it. She laughs and blushes then resolves to renew her gym membership. Her face is not wrinkled, just treaded with womanly and motherly experience. Expounding that is beyond me. A lot has changed about her. She neither even shouts as loud nor as long as she could do when my brother and I were younger. That is when we would know that we were in real trouble. The days when mothers would yell at you to go to your room, not so that you can have some time to introspect about your latest breach of the family protocol, but to have limited space to manoeuvre during the inevitable whooping.

Isn't it interesting how certain ages, men and women look pretty much the same?
Isn’t it interesting how certain ages, men and women look pretty much the same?

My father walks in at that convenient moment. His physique too has borne the brunt of time. His stifled limp, a consequence of osteoarthritis of the hip. It pains him sometimes. His demeanor, however, is that of a young man. He too sits down with the ‘grunt’ and proceeds to sip his tea slowly. He takes the remote control and flips channels hoping to catch the news. He then relaxes on his seat and strikes me with some intriguing parlance, the kind that is intellectually erotic. Politics of the day, sports, relationships, philosophy, random people on the streets: topic after topic, we wear down the clock as conversation is intermittently punctuated with humor. My dad never holds  his laugh. He takes it from deep within his diaphragmatic recesses laughing heartily like a wild lad. His somewhat large belly trembles in unison to his guffaws. I often find myself in a dilemma on whether to laugh at his jokes or to  laugh at him. It is always a good evening when he is around.

I now fathom how the youth of the physique lasts only for a while.  For different reasons and at different rates, we all age gradually. How well that happens, depends on our genes and our bodies. Both my grandfathers lived to a century plus. I am not sure how much longevity or immortal blood runs in my veins. I do, however, believe in the need for us to take care of ourselves. I admit that I probably should have found a way to talk to our ‘passenger-friend’ about her weight ‘problem’. Maybe some carefully delivered counsel on obesity predisposing to a poor quality of life, restrictive respiratory diseases and heart attacks at a young age would have worked. I wouldn’t know.

I also think that young people should not despise their friends who don’t drink as much, party as hard, and who adhere to some structured diet. There sure is a chance that, at some point in life, we could all get hit by the proverbial ‘bus’ or be a casualty statistic to some unforeseen cataclysmic event. But if such morbid things don’t come to pass, some of us may end up taking our grand children for walks in the park while the rest are restricted to their wheel chairs, passing urine via a catheter, wearing an uncomfortable adult diaper, inhaling from an oxygen mask and frequently cursing the grim reaper’s poor swing of his scythe. It’s rather obvious who falls in which category. After all, you don’t really only live once now do you?

 

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Lessons from the Grim Reaper

While death is constantly lurking everywhere, few really appreciate its impact on life. The latter should include those who had a close brush with it, survivors of an experience approximating genocide proportions; and then those in the medical field. People die, others are born- it is the continuum of life: a cycle, one that many people simply resign to.

Why not take a chance to really think about death- reflect upon the grim reaper brandishing his hideous scythe, cracking his inter-phalangeal joints, brooding in wait for his next victim? It’s a rather hideous thing to do isn’t it? In the normal world, it is a preserve for masons, people on the verge of a psychotic break or those with suicidal tendencies. From my perspective however, it is a necessary undertaking sometimes- a chance at rebirth.

It was Friday last week, a day that had several parallel autopsy examinations. With a tinge of irony, I have to say that the morgue was alive with activity. Medical students, some eager for knowledge others eager to have their log books signed before embracing the Friday spirit- had chromed the autopsy room. On the business side of the room were several cadavers all due for forensic autopsies. Soon enough, tools and hands went to work and after processes branded with terms like ‘Y incision’ and ‘evisceration en masse’, there was blood, brain and gut everywhere.

A layman’s perspective of the scene would be… well: I suppose a layman would have fainted on sight before he even had the chance to formulate a perspective worth noting. But we were there, taking notes, listening intently to the pathologist… hanging onto her every word, oblivious of the grotesque sight before us, the stench, and the obvious social awkwardness of such a gathering. We were there to learn.

From how she was describing grotesque injuries using phrases such as ‘beautiful contusions’ and ‘beautiful hairline fractures’, learn we did indeed. Mortui vivos docent. That’s a Latin maxim commonplace among anatomists and pathologists whose meaning is ‘the dead shall teach the living’. The ‘living’ here pointing to students of medicine. The lessons of course revolve around the why of death and how to avert or postpone it for as long as possible. But what of life- does death not teach us how to live?

We hardly choose to see it that way. Many of us are left stuck in the sorrow it brings. ‘It robbed us of our beloved,’ we say, then curse and move on. Like medical students oblivious of the social awkwardness of their learning ‘predicament’, we are oblivious of the fact that we have been granted yet another day for a reason. Instead of living today for a better tomorrow, we choose to live like there is no tomorrow. That’s the ‘YOLO perspective’, which, just like death is very much misunderstood. As I made my final remarks on my note book concerning the autopsy, this kept ringing in my mind.

This morning again, it dawned on me how much life is a blessing. Though death is final, it does not make us equal. It only delineates those who will remain forever remembered from those who will soon fade from the memories of the living. As I press my shirt in preparation for the day’s activities, I notice that the water compartment of the iron box is leaking. The thought of two hundred and something volts of electricity coursing through my body nudges me to detach it from the appliance. That is not how I plan to die. I’d imagine my last day to be somewhat similar to this…

[They finally find his body, postured as though he was facing his assailants. He had bled out while fighting. His visage: firm and unyielding. His hand was still wrapped around his beloved Colt revolver. After taking in the sight, one of them manages to solemnly talk] “He held his ground so the rest could get to safety. This is where he made his last stand. He was brave to the very end.” [Insert instrumental evoking patriotic emotions here]

That’s just a thought. The inference is this- if there is anything the dead want from us it is that we live, live abundantly and then, be immortal.