These thoughts on old age
are dedicated to my grandmother, Lola Adoracion Sanchez.
We love you.
. . .
As I’m writing this, my good and brave and loving grandmother of 87 years old is at an intensive care unit of a hospital, battling pneumonia as her sons and daughters and her grandchildren grapple with the thought of a future that while everyone has already imagined at some point, is no less forlorn.
The news of her getting hospitalized reached me while I was on vacation in Baguio, a faraway city in the mountains in the northern part of the Philippines. I was with my girlfriend of over two years and her family–and her extended family: uncles, aunts, cousins, and nephews, some of whom I only got to talk to for the first time. I’m 32 years old; my girlfriend is 27. This was undoubtedly one of those trips that take you one big step toward that next stage in life, a stage for which I’ve honestly been ready for a long time even if my finances aren’t completely there yet.
The truth is I’m completely at peace with the fact that I’m already at that stage of life even though there’s no shortage of reports that say millennials have been putting off marriage more than any other generation before them. I am done with being single. Frick–I am done with a lot of things. I am done with drinking, horrible attempts at flirting, playing the guitar, writing haikus, screaming at authority–you name it. If I win the lottery today, I’d book the nearest church, retire, and start tending a garden.
But the news that my grandmother was in a very delicate medical situation back in Manila hit me like a ten-ton truck. Nobody’s ready for news like that, even if the possibility of losing people has been lurking in your mind for quite some time. I was launched into a pensive mood and one of the first things that popped in my head was that I really wanted my grandmother to be there when I get married, and it was painful realizing how that prospect had begun to grow colder every second, even colder than Baguio’s incredibly cold weather.
Getting Old is a Weird Thing
Getting old is a weird thing. Throughout your life, you think you’re old but you’re not. Perhaps because I’ve been an arrogant schmuck most of my life, I’ve always thought that I was old and wise for my age. In fact, way back in college in the university, I looked at everyone around me as little, fumbling children who did not know half the things I knew. Every laughably tiny academic achievement I got just furthered my belief that I had everything figured out, like life was a test and I was passing my paper before everyone else. And when I started working, I still felt like I was ahead of others in wisdom, versed in some underlying philosophical truths that most of my colleagues’ infantile brains couldn’t possibly comprehend. I basically believed that I was an old man in a young man’s body.
I was a fool. And like I said, an arrogant schmuck.
Looking back at it now, nothing was old about me then. And absolutely nothing was wise. On the contrary, I know now that everything about my way of thinking in those days screamed the rage and insecurity of youth. I wasn’t old. I was just emo as fuck.
Now it’s different and I know it. Because old age is not a thought or a self-declaration. It’s a train station and you know you’re there because… you’re there. The big sign overhead the platform says so.
My grandmother is old. And she didn’t reach that train stop one or two or five years ago like me. She’s been old for decades. I can’t even imagine waking up each morning knowing, feeling that deep-seated certainty in your very being that you’re definitely as old as the sun is hot. That there’s no denying the truth anymore. And you’re just growing older every single breath you take.
She was already around 10 or 11 years old when the Japanese army invaded and occupied the Philippines in 1941, leaving death, destruction, and despair in their wake. When I mentioned this to my mother, she told me that my grandmother actually told many stories about them having to hide from the murdering and raping Japanese soldiers in the rice fields back in those days. I immediately pictured my grandmother as a little girl in a dirty dress hiding with her family behind thick rows of rice crops under a sullen sky somewhere in the province of Bulacan, everything silent and in a stereotypical sepia filter like in the movies.
I don’t know why I never actually heard any of those stories even if we lived with my grandmother in the same compound for many, many years. Now I wish I could listen to her tell those tales herself just so I could get a glimpse of how life was back then, and maybe ask her how it feels to witness the country change so much (and change so little) before her eyes over all those long decades. There was a lot I missed and I regret it.
Getting Old is a Task
I’m writing this in the middle of the holidays, which is why it probably struck me that getting old is a lot like last-minute Christmas shopping. You’ve got a list of things to buy and things to do and you cross them out one by one, mostly because tradition says you have to and you don’t want to be a scrooge to people. Getting old is crossing out items like marriage, buying a car, having kids, moving upward in your career, settling into a nice, cozy, lazy hobby such as gardening, growing your retirement fund, etc. These are basically tasks in a long task list and you have to perform them before you can show your completed form to the one in charge and you’re given the go signal to finally check out.
But it’s not all tradition though I maintain that a lot of it is. A huge part of it is also that ticking sound in your ear that tells you the buzzer is going to ring any second now, so you have to stop horsing around and just haul your ass to your destination as soon as possible.
To illustrate, in the last 2 or 3 years, I’ve been the most active in my art (the little comicbook-style drawings I call “art”) than at any other point in my life. That’s not just something that happened out of the blue or due to a sudden massive inspiration from the magical muses of lore. It’s because–after reading about the old comicbook artists I idolize (like Brian Bolland and George Perez) growing so old that they couldn’t draw interior pages and detailed drawings anymore–I calculated that I only had barely two decades of healthy hand muscles and joints left before my skill started deteriorating physically and I couldn’t progress as an artist anymore.
The thought horrified me. I ordered a massive, unbelievably expensive book of art from abroad and worked harder than ever at trying to master anatomy, shading, lighting, and everything else that I disregarded before because I used to have all the time in the world. I began scratching the paper with my pen furiously–maniacally.
It was simple: I was running out of time. I need to produce as much art now as possible because soon I’ll never be able to do this again.
My girlfriend was laughing as she reminded me somewhat of the same thing a few days ago. Somehow it just dawned on her that I was so old (at 32) that I’d already be around 50 by the time my son or daughter goes to college. It is something quite strange for the generation of our fathers who still enjoyed some span of youth alongside their children because they married and had kids earlier.
That’s even stranger to the generation of our grandparents who made churning out babies something of an economic strategy to achieve some security for the future. In fact, my grandmother and grandfather had a total of 9 children, my dad, who’s now at 63, being the eldest. Grandma started making fine children for the world to get its hands on starting at just 24 years of age. Grandpa was just 22.
It was a different time, and you could say the earth was greener. Maybe they didn’t fuss about having children as much as we do now.
After my girlfriend pointed out how old I was to start being a father, there were a few seconds of panic when I thought maybe we should start making that baby now? Like, right now even though I was sick with flu?
I shook my head and snapped out of it.
Getting Old is Marvelling at How Childhood Went on Forever
All this is almost too much for one to ponder. More and more, it feels like every second not spent crossing out that task list of old age–not adulthood but old age–is wasted time. If something doesn’t get you nearer to marrying, getting a car, having children, getting a promotion, or building your retirement fund then it’s senseless buffoonery. Sitting here is a waste of time. Writing this is a waste of time.
But procrastination–which always feels good regardless of your age–gets you during those tiny breaks in the hysteria, and you start daydreaming. And remembering your youth.
Youth is the complete opposite of all this boring rush.
In a weird way, life feels like a minivan–wide at the back and snub-nosed at the front. My childhood days feel like they went on forever, even faint memories like playing tag with my cousins in my grandmother’s front yard felt like they went on and on–as if it took millennia for us to grow up and learn we weren’t into wounding our knees every time we fell down on the ground anymore. A day took years to give way to the night. And every morning opened up another choose-your-own-adventure chapter that you didn’t really know when it’s supposed to end or if it would end at all.
I remember my grandmother as a persistent, smiling figure in the background telling us rowdy runts not to run too fast. An older woman who reminded our mother to check if a cloth has been tucked underneath our shirt at the back to keep us from getting sick. My grandmother even took the role of mother to some of my cousins who spent so much time in her house they more or less lived there, and they were basically her children. She fed them every day and made sure they were fine and healthy. But as a kid, you didn’t appreciate those little things. You couldn’t. You’re selfish and immersed in your own colorful world of swordfights and action figures. I’d be lying if I said those weren’t the best days of my life.
Childhood is a haze of wonderful memories that get more rosy the more details you forget. My fondest memories of my grandmother place her at the center of happy family gatherings where all my many cousins and I had our rare opportunity to get together and play until the sky turned gray. She and the other faceless adults sat at a table talking about something important and we would sprint around it or hide underneath as if their world was a separate, barely recognizable one that didn’t exist for us.
I can’t help but let out a sigh when I think that we are now those faceless adults talking about something important around a table.
It’s totally unfair. Especially after discovering that the topics around that table weren’t that important after all. Jobs? Fuck off with that.
Then at some point in life, time sort of looks down at its own watch and says “Time to go now!” and everything starts moving like, well… clockwork. Days become shorter and shorter until you get numb at their passing. Years start to feel like minutes–and I guess for people at the tail end of this journey–seconds. It’s the snub-nosed part of that minivan and everything is just crushed into a hurried frenzy within that small space of opportunity that’s left.
Getting Old is Slowing Down Enough to Realize That One Thing You Need
One day I was watching basketball and the announcer was talking about how rookies differed from veterans. She said “the game hasn’t slowed enough for them yet.” It stuck with me because I thought it was the perfect description of how it feels to grow old.
Discussing the biological underpinnings of why your legs start feeling like logs and your speech starts to slow down into a tired purr as you age is not at all interesting. Everything has a biological or biochemical underpinning, anyway, even supposedly mysterious forces such as love and spirituality. What is interesting to consider is how it’s so true that–along with yourself–the world slows down as your gray hair proliferates.
Events unfold in slow motion, so much so that you have plenty of time to sip a cup of coffee before another wave hits you. It gets hard to be surprised at anything. Oh, some stupid teen ran away from their home and was found in the middle of nowhere? Ok. Oh, that girl got pregnant by some dude who isn’t worth scrap? Got it. Oh, the government is screwing the masses in a new, creative way that nobody has anticipated? Noted.
99% of it zips past your ear. Ultimately, things don’t matter if they’re not on your getting-old-task-list.
You’re not jumpy anymore. When you get in a bit of trouble, you don’t think “I’m screwed.” You think “I’ll be screwed for a couple of days. After that I’ll be fine.” Everything is now situated in a chronological context. You begin to see that every issue, every object, every concept, maybe even every feeling has an expiration date, and solving problems could simply be a matter of letting it all play out until their energy is exhausted. Sit in a chair and wait. Everything’s going to be ok.
But all that time to think comes at a cost. The long pauses in between situations and decisions act like black holes that drag you into morose philosophizing. What’s happening to my grandmother has pulled me back into futile questions that I haven’t asked since I was in college, sitting in the library, reading a book about metaphysics that I didn’t completely understand. What is the purpose of suffering? Why is their pain? Is there an afterlife?
In another fleeting phase of youth, I was a self-proclaimed atheist. I found no reason to believe that there’s heaven or there’s anything that could happen after people pass away. The arrogant schmuck that I was, I found religion to be a terrible hindrance to the goal of mankind to be a more scientific lot. I thought to myself–how could we make real progress here on earth, help real people living here and now, if most of us continue to believe that the real rewards–the real life–happens only after our last breath anyway?
It’s the kind of fiery conviction a young person who hasn’t yet experienced anything of significance can be so quick to adopt.
Eventually, it was my favorite professor who taught me one of the legitimately grown-up ideas I’ve heard all my life. It was an idea, an argument so solid that years later when I sat and pondered it, it brought me back to believing in heaven. In God. And I haven’t found myself swaying since. My professor lost his mother fairly recently back then and that event shook up his beliefs and flushed out any trace of atheism or agnosticism in his system.
The idea was this: ultimately, it doesn’t matter if there’s an afterlife or not. We can’t really know that, anyway. What matters is we need there to be an afterlife. We need heaven to exist. Because it can’t all end here. Our love for all the people we lost and all the people we’re going to lose demands that this world not be the end of it all. Our love demands that we must see them again–everyone and everything we care about–after all this is over.
Our love demands heaven.