How to live at 90

At the annual Lenten gathering of the David family on Black Saturday, I asked my brother Bishop Ambo if he could lead us in a collective reflection on death — not Jesus’ but our own.  This unusual request startled my siblings and their spouses, who discreetly inquired if there was any terminal illness in the family which they were not aware of.  It was the message of renewal appropriate to Easter Sunday, rather than the thought of mortality that belongs to Good Friday, that they had looked forward to hearing.

By way of explaining, I noted that of the great religions of the world, none perhaps surpasses Christianity in the way it prepares its adherents for death.  And yet, I said, death for us remains a fearsome event that we prefer not to talk about.  I asked if we could use the time to reflect upon death as an existential moment in a closely-knit family like ours.  Can we recall how we felt when our parents died? What was it that we feared?  How should we think of our own death so that we don’t fear it too much?  How must we prepare ourselves so that we may always be able to accept death in the family with grace, serenity, and wisdom?

The bishop warmly obliged.  He started off with what he called a “fact check” – a review of our ages, our individual health conditions, recent health crises in the family, the catalogue of illnesses we may have inherited from our ancestors, etc.  He then talked about our parents and grandparents and how they died.  “There’s no doubt about it,” he concluded in an almost cold clinical tone, “we’re all going to die.  And life will move on after we die; it will not come to a standstill.”

From there, he proceeded to a scholarly and deeply personal reflection on the subject.  He proposed certain insights about suffering and death taken from philosophy, theology, and literature. Finally he talked specifically about our parents and what life had meant to them.  In the ensuing discussion, one thought kept recurring – death does not so much end a life as it frames it.  It is not how or when we die that is crucial but how we live.  Death only clarifies a life. Trite as it may sound, this thought assumed a concrete meaning for us when we began to reflect on how our departed loved ones shaped our lives.  Vivid recollections of memorable encounters with our elders brought them back to life at least for the day — not to make them answerable, but to make us understand ourselves better.  Time has not dimmed these memories; it has only made them wonderfully sublime or even funny.

Death is the philosopher’s unshakable horizon, and no philosopher perhaps has spent more time meditating on its meaning than Heidegger.   That is what his book “Being and Time” is about.  The classical view is that to be a philosopher is to know how to die. Heidegger counters this by arguing, in effect, that to philosophize is to know how to live — or how to chart one’s life — in the face of death.  I think I understand what he is saying, but I prefer to take my cues from the elegant example of a well-lived life — that of my mother-in-law.

Ninety is what Letizia Roxas-Constantino is, and building bridges for the living sums up her idea of an active and meaningful life.  Although she knows how fast the years are closing in on her, she intends to be present in her family and nation’s life for a long time.  Her daily routine, a steady menu of life-embracing activities, defies poet Philip Larkin’s fatigued description of “continuing to live” in the advanced years as “nearly always losing, or going without…. This loss of interest, hair, and enterprise…”

Just the other day, she dealt all three of us younger players a stunning defeat at a session of Mandarin mahjong.  She has regular circles of friends with whom she meets at least once a month. Twice a week she dances, sometimes in the company of her grandchildren. Everyday she writes her memoirs in the form of a long letter addressed to her great-grandchildren, especially those she will not get to see.  Last year she finished recording the last of her piano pieces, mini-concertos she has compiled in a set of CDs meant primarily for the unborn offspring of her grandchildren.  Every year she sends out to friends and relatives a thoughtful and finely crafted narrative of milestones in her family – the wedding of a grandchild, the birth of another great-grandchild, the launch of a book by a member of the family, a medal, a precious tribute, the passing of a loved one.   And, not to forget, she is the principal author of a series of bulletins dealing with a broad range of social issues that she sends out regularly to public school teachers.  Some of these have appeared as pamphlets under the title “Issues without tears.”

When her husband Renato died in 1999, she seemed instantly released from all anxiety about death.  Her worry had been that if she died ahead of him, he might not know what to do with the remaining years.  She had been not only his wife and closest friend, but, unknown to many, also his intellectual partner and brain trust.  He never published anything that had not undergone her analytical and grammatical scrutiny. That part of her died when he passed on.  For a long while she grieved, but willfully she also looked ahead to a new life without him.  Such a woman is she.

These lines from Larkin’s celebratory poem ‘Bridge for the living” might have been written for her:  “Reaching for the world, as our lives do,/ As all lives do, reaching that we may give/ The best of what we are and hold as true:/ Always it is by bridges that we live.”