To Everything There Is A Season

“Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”
J. R. R. TolkienThe Return of the King (1955)

Time is either a gentle breeze, or a sandstorm sweeping the Arabian coasts. If the former, it soothes the melancholy soul with a whisper; if the latter, it is blinding and abrasive, tearing into the skin like a serrated claw dripping with the vengeance of the endless hour. Time is a forgetting. Our chores and worries wash over and smooth those burning footprints at noontime, and suddenly it is evening; the toll of the day’s burden weighs heavily on us, and we sleep to wake and sway to Earth’s diurnal rhythm once again.

Two weeks have passed since his passing. He died twice—once on a bed embraced by a tangle of plastic tubes with a flatline for a eulogy, the next when he was wheeled into the fire to the tune of cacophanous wailing. Death pervades all realms of signification.

I was there when he left the second time.

As the climactic closure and public acknowledgement of a life lived and expired, the final send-off at the viewing gallery of Mount Vernon crematorium is a theatrical experience that is at once surreal and sobering. As family and friends file onto the tiered platforms, the scene is disconcertingly reminiscent of an amphitheatre silent with anticipation. The cue is the forlorn appearance of the coffin below draped in white lilies, slow but sure in its fatal course. Then a sudden outpouring of grief ensues. Behind the veil of glass, a paroxysmal clamour erupts as the scene momentarily transforms into a grand spectacle of mourning—one that seems almost as contrived in its orchestration as it is heart-wrenching in its desperate pathos.

I remember clasping instinctively onto the wooden rail in front of me, as if for metaphysical support, with a strange detachment even as I was for many reasons emotionally invested in the scene. To be sure, it was a moment of lasts—last farewells, last professions of love and promises of waiting, last apologies muted behind the unmoving glass, last glimpses of the mortal vessel we call the body. Nonetheless, even in my blinding sorrow I did realise: this procession is undoubtedly a symbolic performance of our mortal condition. The glass of the gallery itself metamorphoses into an existential barrier between the living and the irrevocably dead—and our powerlessness over the decrees of Nature seems palpable in every way. It is a moment of human defeat—one we cannot bear to concede willingly but will need to, eventually, because it would be folly to stand vigil by the husk of the one we love, indefinitely (love them as we may). Our time is a life punctuated with many such losses and partings—and seated deep within our anguished reluctance to let go is the knowledge that we must.

And Time is a remembering that our own grains of sand will one day fill our graves. While the narratives of the dead are spent, ours continue to be written. That is why, in spite of our fierce grieving, we enlist the services of those who wheel the dead into the place of ashes; they play the part of fate and necessity, to do what we alone cannot.

Brief Candle

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”
Shakespeare, Macbeth (5.5.19-28)

I was fearful of what I might see. How much has Death already taken away from a man struggling to breathe, not to drown under the weight of his own mangled body? Pallid green curtains, like a shroud of shadow, enclosed the beds—encapsuled—each leaving its resident to fade away in quiet privacy; or else to shield the wet eyes of those to be left behind, weary with grief, from the visible inevitability of what is to come.

We stepped into the ward. There was a silent pall hanging about in the still sanitised air. The short path to the bed at the end was lined with a scattering of mourners—here a pair, arms about one another in shared pathos; there a solitary boy, face hung with blank resignation; then there were the unmistakable sounds of sniffling and blowing noses like the early drops of rain before the monsoon.

As the hospital drapes were drawn, an unfamiliar visage faded into view—more unfamiliar, and distant than I had imagined. He was a crumpled canvas, almost bleached white; his cheeks were hollowed out like a palette that had run out of paint. The easel that once stood propping up vital colours of boyish mischief and paternal severity lay now in shambles. How vividly he had appeared in my memory as I left him some ten years ago, when our cars left each other at the Tuas causeway after our routine family trip (the last of many) to Genting Highlands. I still remember that face—full, glowing, my father’s friend. I recall navigating the theme parks with his boys, my childhood partners-in-crime—all of us blazing with unspoilt youth, all of us candles dancing in the dark.

Now I see them standing around me, heads once dizzy with childish delight, now hung with indescribable sorry. We have all grown up, some taller than we remember. All of us look tired, like the years have chipped at our gleaming mantles and left the frays drifting in the wind. How I wish I could reach out to embrace each of them with the same yesteryear innocence and careless glee. All of it has passed, irretrievably.

I look at his face, spaces once filled with hearty laughter. I do not recognise him. Those gentle eyes are now bereft of joy, only agape in shock like one trying in vain to escape the onslaught of an oncoming catastrophe—a speeding train, or the sudden collapse of civilisations. He stares as each of us draw closer in turn, his sobbing wife whispering our names as though they were her best kept secret. I know she wishes we had met one more time before, under lighter circumstances; now she sees us for the first time in years, all past our childhood prime—like her own children. Oh, how the years have worn us out.

Standing bent over what is left of her husband, she seems not to have aged at all. Her trembling fingers sweep his fringe to the side, and turning, she flings wide her arms with bitter reunion. We embrace her, the three of us—like her own children. And she sobs into us; we are all helpless. The scene melts into a torrent of tragic nostalgia. I feel his skeletal fingers as they twitch in my own, and I know it wouldn’t be long. He nods weakly, like a leaf of a book flipping in the breeze. What could I say? How much I wished I had seen him when I still remembered him as he was? Now the rest of him floats in frozen images in the darkroom of Memory—undeveloped spools of less trying times up in the cloudy mists of the Malaysian highlands.

“Rest now, close your eyes,” she says, maternally, in an assuring but broken voice. And he momentarily shuts them, but opens them soon enough, mouthing in weak whispers something else back. Here, there are no more formalities; the hiddenness of private souls are laid bare. Here, in a room at Gleneagles Hospital, on a Sunday afternoon, there is only a naked, desperate, helpless humanness—among us all, between us, we know.

I know he is going.

Memento Mori

“From the middle of life onward, only he remains vitally alive who is ready to die with life. For in the secret hour of life’s midday the parabola is reversed, death is born. The second half of life does not signify ascent, unfolding, increase, exuberance, but death, since the end is its goal. The negation of life’s fulfilment is synonymous with the refusal to accept its ending. Both mean not wanting to live, and not wanting to live is identical with not wanting to die. Waxing and waning make one curve.”
Jung, ‘The Soul and Death’ (1972)

self_portrait_with_death-large

‘Self Portrait With Death Playing The Fiddle’ (1872), Arnold Böcklin

These days, the nights are longer—more protracted, like an unravelling spool of thread stretching searchingly into the sable screen overhead. I try to follow its invisible trail, my mind precariously tethered to its fraying helices—and at once I see the vast constellation of Memory. At once I gaze at the facticity of all that has happened, and the vacuity of all that has not. Then once more—as always—I turn inward, downward, into what is not yet but must be.

Umberto Eco and Harper Lee are no more; I wonder where they are, right now. Are they peering from the gilded windows of Heaven, or wandering amidst the inscrutable mists of Catholic purgatory? Against better Christian judgment, perhaps, they are simply asleep now and forever in freshly dug beds of earth—the physical voids we create for them to fill, to fill the metaphysical voids they leave behind. And then they will disappear like they never existed, their lives one more fiction in the literary legacy they’ve left to those left behind.

We are leaving, one at a time. Sometimes halfway across this small, pendant world some few scores leave in a supernova of ash and gunpowder—on the dreams of blunt concrete and mortar. Sometimes just a few metres away someone exhales in his sleep, and the story ends. Sometimes there is an ironic vigil around a dying, flickering ember; the moment is pregnant with anticipation, for arrival or departure—I do not know. But it always ends in the sweet smell of smoke.

These days, the sunsets are tinged with a peculiar afterglow—an infusion of dirty lilac and ashen orange, the kind that makes you remember what a spectacle you’d just witnessed, but that has become a spectacle of Memory—the wispy ghosts of a mighty conflagration. And then there is a sudden urgency, because Nature has a way of colluding with Fate, to write metaphors in the smallest or biggest things.

I have become increasingly aware of the finitude of my time here on this little mote spinning around a burning pebble, in the middle of nowhere. It is so strangely visceral—sometimes I touch the soft pads of my fingers, and I feel the fragility of the skin that separates flesh from this chaotic, terrific universe. And oh—how very, very impossible it is that I should still be alive! And momentarily I am in awe of the miracle of my existence—before the pall draws itself once more around the dome of my consciousness. I become aware of my every physical sensation—it is something like waking up in turns, by the turn of the second hand. With every flood of phenomenal data, I feel that warm light of life, and the inevitable shadow it must cast. What is the space between the seconds?

Life slips through these cracks.

Deadline

Deadline the great carrion crow keeps watchful vigil overhead, now encircling her hapless victual, now hovering stationary to mark the invitation to dine – that faltering step. He, sojourner against the frigid tundra gales, plods unerringly, his head bent with his beaten back, yoked with a burden that rests squarely on the arch of that oppressed frame. Conscious of the danger of tipping over with each laborious step, he measures his balance with his arms apprehensively outstretched, like hands gripping the length of an invisible rail extending far into the misty distance. He might as well have crawled. His declined gaze plasters itself upon the white, downy floor – one, two steps before him; it catches the gloating shadow of death that sweeps ahead, left, then right. Sometimes it dances, no bigger than a rock. But now he feels a great wind rush upon him from behind, or above – he nearly trips over the heavy imprint of his feet in the snow. That dancing speck ceases to dance. It expands suddenly like gas in a vacuum, and metamorphoses into a kind of great dark-winged Lucifer; black is engorged with more black, until a deathly pall falls over him, and he dares not to raise his eyes to the real horror, but stays his course, though the weight of the shadow adds now more weight to his stilted frame.

So Deadline, in her graceful landing, unravels the pitch-black and feathery expanse of her aerial gown, and as her leathery claws enclasp themselves upon the towering encumbrance of this strangely human Atlas, she draws close to her sides her morbidly fashionable wings. Perched like a grand dame for a portrait, not once does she sway or break her stoic posture even as occasionally her carriage meets with a sudden depression in the road, and flinches at loose snow newly fallen. Ever so often, her glassy opaque eye catches the glance of an enervated stagecoach driver who tries to look back at his uninvited passenger, but is only met with an amorphous shadow at his vision’s periphery.

She keeps Time, and she knows; he hesitates more, his strides grow less regular, less calculated, more hesitant, though heavier. His eyes dart to and fro – he feels like he’s being watched. In his unchecked paranoia, he does not notice an oncoming wave of snow conjured by a torrent of air. Impact. He is plowed with the full force of the cold, dry onslaught. Like a horse forcibly reined, he feels the entirety of his weight – his and his oppression – pull him backward. Left foot kicks back. Knee buckles. The cargo tips precariously. There is a recalibration of weight and balance. He throws himself forward, and his right foot catches him. There is shock and uncertainty in his frost-blasted countenance. For awhile after, there is no movement, only the aftermath of that wintry blitz.

The frills on her dress are ruffled, and she is annoyed – impatient. It is about time, and she needs to feast. Seeing the stalemate crystallize before her in the immobility of her perch, she caws. She crouches, then flings her black draperies wide. She springs, upward, and the force of her flight drives a sharp wedge into the heart of his burden. His legs tremble violently, then their sinews, stiff and brittle from inordinate toil, let slip their hold on those rattling bones. There is a cry of timely surrender. He falls.

She rises, and in her exalted height watches the beast fall with his burden. She squalls hysterically in stolen victory and quivers in delight – this is her moment; her prey has been dispossessed. She swoops in. Her voracious claws she brandishes like a bloom of sickles hungry for harvest. They clatter in ecstasy and open their terrible twin maws as she descends.

He lies motionless, gasping – for air or in fear. The yoke has slipped off his shoulder, but his right arm is ensnared by the weight of the abject load that in its abjection has opportunely fallen where he had flung himself in resignation and self-pity.

He feels the faint warmth of the arctic sun leave his face; above him, the angel of death arrives, eclipsing the last halos of cold light. Marking his black deliverance drop from above, he prays.

There was a tussle of wing with wind, and Deadline the great carrion crow bore his burden away.