The title belongs to a short essay by the great modern Chinese writer Lu Hsun. He had written it just a few months before he died.
Recurrent illness exhausted him so much he likened it to excessive manual work. It was during moments of recuperation, between sleeping and staring blankly at nothing, that he discovered the pleasure of looking at the ordinary things.
“A street-lamp outside the window shed a glimmer of light in the room, and I had a quick look at the familiar walls and the angles between them, the familiar pile of books and the unbound pictures beside them, while outside night took its course, and all that infinite space, those innumerable people, were linked in some way with me. I breathed, I lived, I should live on.”
I remembered Lu Hsun when I visited retired UP professor and former Manila Times editor Hernan Abaya at his home recently. A very dear friend and a constant lunch partner and phone pal, he had suffered a debilitating stroke in early August. I couldn’t imagine a very active man like him confined to his bed. But there he was, completely immobilized.
Before this he had never been seriously ill. Though his eyes and legs were beginning to defy him, he always insisted on traveling unaccompanied. Last year, on a trip to the US, he took a train just to visit his friends, Noam Chomsky and Boone Schirmer. He had started to use a cane, but he preferred not to lean on it whenever he could.
He is 86 but he never talked of getting old, let alone of dying. One afternoon in January many years ago, he showed up at my house with a bottle of cognac. “It was my birthday the other day,” he said without any hint of complaint that I had forgotten, “call Dodong (Nemenzo) and let’s finish this.” I myself have always had a problem figuring out what I would do if I had another 50 years to live. But Hernan Abaya always seemed to know what else he needed to do. He was going to write all the books he had planned in his mind. He would re-read his favorite authors: Camus, Russell, and Chomsky. He would travel, alone as he always did. He would watch his grandchildren grow, and have regular lunch with his friends. And evenings he would spend with his books and his music.
Few men have managed to age as gracefully as Professor Abaya has. Gentle and soft-spoken, he is passionate about our country and its leaders. It takes only the mention of some politician’s name to make him bristle. Nearly forty years separate us, but he never treated me as a young man. And I never regarded him as an old man.
That is why, if only he could read, the news of Ms. Jeanne Calment’s recent immortalization in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest known person at 120 years and 238 days would have gratified him no end. Then his ambition of living till he is 95 would be very modest indeed.
That day, his nurse and househelp had told him I was coming. He tried to keep awake, I was told. But when I arrived, he was peaceful as a baby. He slept on his side, propped by pillows. He had been home only a week from the hospital where he had lain in coma for more than a month. But miraculously he came back. They removed the respirator to see if he could breathe on his own. He could. His color dramatically improved after that, and he began to regain the weight he had lost at the hospital.
But the left side of his body remains paralyzed. He still cannot talk, nor keep his eyes open for an extended period. He sleeps most of the day. The stroke had exhausted him, but, like Lu Hsun, he lives.
His son told me that he could somehow communicate through his right hand. I held his big hand and told him to get well so that we could resume our weekly lunches. And before I could say anything more, he squeezed my hand and opened his right eye. Then he squinted to get a better look at me. His eyeball moved, and he gazed at me as if to say thank you. Was he conscious, or was I over-reading him? Still clasping my hand, he went back to sleep.
As I drove home, I wondered to myself how long I wished to live given the choice. A number of my friends are senior citizens like Professor Abaya, and they continue to live fruitful lives. One of them, Lola Leling, whose acquaintance I made when she first guested in my show about 8 years ago, is 93. She still bakes excellent classic ensaymadas. At her last birthday, she served paella and roast turkey, and insisted, I was told, on cooking everything she served her guests.
I used to tell myself that if I reached the age of 65, that would be good enough for me. I realize now that that is still quite young by today’s actual life expectancies. In Europe and the US, people start new careers at that age, which in our society we still reckon as the age of retirement. Today, centenarians are no longer a rarity. In France alone, where Jeanne Calment lives, there are reportedly about 5000 other 100-year-olds.
I don’t know if all of these centenarians have enjoyed their lives, or if there is any sense in desiring to live till you are a hundred. But I have learned one thing from all my senior citizen friends: life is a gift you get only once. No matter who you are or what you are, say yes to life and, as Lu Hsun might have put it, make full use of it as long as you breathe.
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