A Message to My Son: Thoughts on Fate, Aging, Death, and the Future
When I was very young, an uncle who was in the Philippine Constabulary let me hold his government-issue revolver. “Don’t worry, it’s empty,” he said, letting the weight fall into my hand. It was gray and dented and scratched up. It looked like it had been used many times. I aimed it randomly, at a flowerpot, at our living room stereo, at my father’s favorite chair, I don’t remember. But before I could pull the trigger, my grandfather snatched the gun from me in a single move and jerked the chamber open. Three bullets tumbled to the floor.
I was in college taking a tricycle to our local grocery at night. Our neighborhood was not large and I had ridden that tricycle many times before. We were going pretty fast on the dark street. He knew me enough not to hold back. A pedestrian suddenly stepped off the curb and he swerved to avoid him. The tricycle turned turtle twice, thanks to its uncentered weight. The pedestrian fled; bystanders rushed the bloodied and unconscious driver to the hospital. When they yanked the tricycle upright, they found me unharmed, my feet planted on the ground.
Several years later, I sped off in my father’s beat-up Toyota to go to work in the middle of a typhoon. The electric pole that had stood in front of our house for over twenty years was knocked down by the wind and missed the car by fragments of a second before it landed in a shower of electrical sparks. I never knew what had happened until they told me when I got home hours later.
Those were just a few ways I’ve dodged death. Something tells there have been dozens more of these random instances. There might have been speeding cars, falling objects, poisonous squid balls. I surely would have been within sneezing distance of avian diseases and a light brush away from other regrettable and irreversible conditions.
This is about growing old, not about dying. At 43, weary and very much the worse for wear, I’ve accepted the deceivingly simple but enlightening fact that the only way to accomplish old age is to dodge death. These are trying times after all, and this is a prickly place, this city and this country and this Earth.
But about these particular times, that grandfather of mine, a gray-haired war veteran who always smelled of pomade and alcohol, would have differed. After all, he considered it a miracle to have survived the War with all his faculties intact, and not much else. His family was exterminated en masse, thanks to an efficient grenade and a practical-minded enemy soldier. We say ‘thanks’ because instant death is always more welcome than any other kind.
Today, I have come to consider even horrific accounts like these, told to me several times when I was a child, thanks to the tiresome repetitiveness of my grandfather’s aging mind, as anecdotes, circumstances, happenings. Or, really, bedtime stories. At my age, I’m filled to the brim with details that can no longer be part of a continuum. I can now call on the grand verbal gesture of having read too much and seen too much. Or so I’ve heard from my grandfather. This was probably part of the reason why he felt his war stories were all worth repeating.
According to an Internet quiz I took just a few minutes ago, I will most likely die at 49, most likely of cardiac arrest, which are the exact age and manner my father died.
Yes, I’m aware that I’m talking a lot like an old man, but even youngsters will agree with me that these days, there’s a lot of stuff going on, but nothing much to talk about. A quick glance at the Internet will confirm this. I’m constantly browsing the web as I write this article. My information and my opinions are constantly updated by my feeds: Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, you name it. This is why it is fragmented and diffused. This is why I find myself a bit distracted.
According to an Internet quiz I took just a few minutes ago, I will most likely die at 49, most likely of cardiac arrest, which are the exact age and manner my father died. I have no idea how those invisible machines arrived at this figure, and heaven knows how much they had to know about me to come up with it. And even if they were wrong, I can feel it: I am closer to the end than to the beginning.
There was hardly any Internet to speak of in my father’s time. That was probably why he didn’t have an idea about when he was going to die. There was hardly anything except TV and movie theaters. He was a writer; he wrote about what he knew and there was hardly anything except what you knew yourself and found out for yourself. When he was writing a movie called Balweg: The Rebel Priest, he had to go live among the rebels in the Cordilleras. When he was writing a movie called Macho Dancer he had to actually go to those macho dancer bars.
I’m sure I could explain things better to you, son, but I’m sure the Internet can do a better job in less time, about everything ever.
Here is an anecdote about your grandfather: I always remember him as a youthful man, despite his high blood pressure, his belt bag, and his gartered jeans. He worked late, often until morning, propping up his keyboard on a salvaged block of Styrofoam. He had been a banker in his 20s. He knew how to put everything at stake. He spoke with energy and earnestness. He quit, at the height of his career, to write movies full-time, which is, when you think about it, and I am telling you to think about it: deadlier than a stray golf ball coated in H1N1 fired from a giant revolver at your head.
He was in his early 30s and I was about seven when he had a bike accident. Early in the morning I saw him struggle to put his brand-new racer bike in the back of his car and drive off. He arrived much earlier than expected, the backs of his forearms torn up into shreds because he had fallen off his bike and rolled down a hill. He could have died, he told me. He told me he rolled all the way down the hill and when he hit his head at the bottom his eyes almost popped out. His eyes almost popped out? Sorry, uh, Pop, that still doesn’t beat getting thrown into a cave and getting grenades thrown at you.
I never witnessed him get old. He just expired and disappeared. I was in my 20s, making much less than he did at my age and wanting to be so much more. Like many of my generation I still lived in my parents’ house and had no intention of settling down, at an age when their children were already in grade school. I don’t know the details of his death. I wasn’t there when it happened. My brother called me on my brand-new cellphone from his brand-new cellphone to say my father had suddenly felt very tired that morning and had asked to be brought to the emergency room. I said, “how is the emergency room?” He said, “it’s a very crappy emergency room.” I said, “how is he now?” He said, “He is dead. Come up here now.” And then the phone went dead. That’s as far as technology could take us those days. Knowing this and not much else, I had to drive all the way up to Baguio to see them.
Someone said to somebody: “Never make decisions after a lifechanging event.” My life has been full of scattered pieces of advice. I’ve gotten them from bosses, clients and friends. And today mostly from Facebook, that immense and endlessly fascinating cesspit of self-help. None of them was around to give me advice when I quit my job to set up my own enterprise, back then composed of two persons and a fax machine in the study my father had hastily abandoned in his death. And that particular piece of advice at the top of the paragraph came uselessly late. In fact, I might have been the one who gave it, most probably to an employee who had wanted to leave my firm in its early days.
But what is a life-changing event anyway, and how does it compare to any other event? By this time I’ve lost track of the multitude of paths and possibilities laid out behind me that have brought me here instead of somewhere else. Had I married early instead of late, for example, I might have ended up living just a few floors below me, with the same wife and child and surroundings, my circumstances delivered to me by a different set of incidents and accidents. Or, by equal chance, I might also have long been dead and buried. But still mourned, I hope, for having lived a life spent laughing loudly and indulging with abandon and being kind to people, like my father had done, or had tried to.
But if I had died at an early age, I would not have known what it is like to change one’s point of view, for better or for worse, as one passes from one life stage to another. I’m quite sure this kind of perspective, bright and dark at the same time, only comes with “growing old.” I surround the term in quotes because I am making a weak denial: I’m only 43! That’s only half of 86. One-third of 129! Also: wikipedia.org speaks matter-of-factly of directors who made their first features at 46, of businessmen who made their fortunes only after four or five decades of struggle, of thinkers, writers, artists, leaders who peaked very late in life.
But what is a life-changing event anyway, and how does it compare to any other event? By this time I’ve lost track of the multitude of paths and possibilities laid out behind me that have brought me here instead of somewhere else.
But I am also way past those beautiful years, endless and deceiving, where you could take any turn, make any bad decision, and right yourself before the idea of “too late” arrives. There are things that can’t reverse themselves: poor eyesight, diabetes, certain criminal habits. I have a patch of dodgy skin on my hand that’s been there since high school. My male mammary glands haven’t gone away. There are unnatural bends and odd sensations—I still refuse to call it “pain”—that pay their visit at random moments. And I’ve gone from begging women to “please take me as I am” to telling the universe, at odd, desperate times: “take me, please.”
Because seriously, it will get worse. Brain cells will die. Proteins will follow the laws of physics and deaminize. Oxidation happens. Alcohol is a pain reliever, not a vitamin.
By now, I’ve identified the things I can live with, or live through. I’ve identified the people I wish to bring along with me through the rest of my life, and those I wish to leave behind.
It is my mother who I’ve seen age. Over the years her back has slowly assumed a curve and her voice has lost its melody. I can vividly remember a time when she liked to wear her hair long and her skirts a bit too short. There was a time my father and I picked her up at the airport and we saw her speaking to a white man and I saw my father get very gruff with her.
People said I looked like her when I was a child. Today when I look in the mirror I wonder where the connection went. There’s a stoop and a droop to everything now, from the ridge of my brow to the skin on my neck to the expression on my face. I recognize it as “growing old.” I recognize it as surrender and self-pity, the contemplation of youth and death all at the same time.
“The older I get, the more I believe there’s nothing,” my wife, a decade younger than me, says. “Well at least you still believe in something,” I quip. It’s old men’s humor. It’s not even funny. It doesn’t contribute anything to the conversation. I may as well have said nothing.
If I had died at an early age, I would not have known what it is like to change one’s point of view, for better or for worse, as one passes from one life stage to another.
Along with mounting doubts about success and happiness and dimming hope for reinvention, there are increasingly grandiose thoughts I find myself preoccupied with. That my life is really only populated with minutiae: writings, keepsakes, tokens, heirlooms, investments. What little they amount to, along with what hope there is left in this world, I solemnly bequeath to my wife, and to you, who are turning three this year.
Three! There’s forty years between you and me, and just for that I’d like to give you a piece of advice, while I am lucid and useful: This is a great moment in humanity. A few minutes ago IBM just announced it had made the world’s smallest movie “just by pushing molecules around.” Scientists are already making advances toward near-immortality for humans, and industrialists are selling one-way tickets to Mars and Europa. It’s becoming vividly clear that future generations will fill a whole new world, both people and planet unburdened by time and the need to live in its sordid past or recover it, or remember it.
You will be unburdened by narratives, plans, actuarial statistics, unconcerned about strategies toward self-preservation, significance, or escape.
There was one story my grandfather didn’t tell very often. He had turned to the mountains after they killed his family, and as a guerrilla he personally executed all the Japanese soldiers he encountered and captured. They were all in their teens and 20s when he shot them dead.
I saved your life when you were born, and for all time. I had a doctor extract fresh blood and tissue from your umbilical cord to be frozen in a vat of nitrogen. If anything goes wrong, they will rebuild your life. There will be computing power so vast they can make you a whole new you, complete and correct to the last cell. Already there is a cloud, whatever that is, wherever that is, that will play you back your songs and your thoughts and your calculations and everything you will have ever done. It’s like a perfectly working fax machine. I don’t know exactly how that really works, but I’ll tell you, for the nth time, for as long as I’m alive, how I think it all works.
This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.