After weeks of nods and smiles and thank you and I love you, my Chinese friend has decided on conversation again. My last visit found him in bed sleeping near lunchtime. I learnt from the Nurses and some of the residents that he was up all night. He did a tour of the place, and even sat on a few beds inquiring of the welfare of the person thereon. Some entertained him, some did not. The Artist in particular said that he was in no mood to talk at 3am, so he asked him to leave. It was more than an hour after my arrival that he was up and ready for his massage. He was most alert and recalled that he did a lot of walking the night before. One reason I was hired was to help him to walk unaided. Now that he is doing that, they want regulate it. I wondered if they considered that the rounds he made that night was his way of saying goodbye, then to slip from us when we least expect it. But one does not care to be roused from their sleep at 3am by a man in the dark who is suddenly most friendly and sympathetic to your ills when you are busy trying to use sleep to numb you to those very ills.
As I listened to him he did not seem aware that his behavior was offensive, he was just being himself…a nice guy who has received a lot of love and was simply returning that love to his fellow human beings. Near us another resident began singing aloud. I asked if he could sing. Yes! Classical. But he did not sing for me. He recounted how his father, the shopkeeper, eventually brought all his family from China to live here and had shops from La Brae to Port of Spain, thus providing employment for the family. In time he became a representative for the people. (His people? Not sure.) His father even had a place where rooms were rented to Venezuelans. It was unclear whether this was the same place where my client lived on Henry Street because the other man’s song drowned out some of the conversation. But there on Henry Street he would sing lustily, and he would look out of the window to see ladies on the street gathered to listen to him sing. This amused him for he was merely doing what he loved, not trying to get anyone’s attention. He sang in Church too. He loved to go to Church and sing. And there in Church he saw White girls in the choir he liked. And every time he decided on one to be his wife, his sister, who was also in the choir, would advise him against it saying the girl was only pretty, but she was a dunce. And he could not understand why it should matter, but his sister would not let him talk to the girls.
He also sang in school. He attended Port of Spain East Government School for boys, and his sister went to the one for girls. He said that singing in public was the ideal way to get kissed, but he did not like it. Ladies would hug and kiss him, and he had to adopt the habit of putting his hand over his mouth when they approached him because some of them would dart their tongue into his mouth and that displeased him. Then one day much of that changed. His older brothers enlisted in the Army and he wanted to do the same. He was tired of working in the hardware store. It was hard work. Goods to be cleared at the wharf, then transported to the store where they had to be marked and packed. He applied to the Army too. The acceptable age was 18, but though he was only 15 he looked mature because he used to swim and lift weights. With no ‘birth paper’ to prove or disprove what he said, he was accepted on his word that he was 18 years old.
It took him three and a half years to become a Sergeant. He was stationed in St. James and fired a rifle better than the Instructor. He excelled at every task he was given and did not have to do any ‘hard’ work, except for one time when he was sent to guard a ‘government’ house. It was the coldest night ever, and very boring, but he had to have that experience. This was still during the War time and he was very good at signaling, so his superiors did not allow wastage of his skills on guard duties. After the War was over he was scooped up by the Americans who wanted him to work for them. He was in charge of a warehouse where ‘machinery’ was stored. Then one day he got a visa to go to Venezuela to work and he approached his boss to advise him that he was leaving. His boss listened and said he will not let him take all his knowledge and skills and apply them in service to another company or country. He promised to raise his pay. And so it was that he never left the company. His salary was increased by $10. He was shocked at such a significant increase. He asked what would happen when a new boss took over. He was told not to worry, things would be put in place for the increase to remain the new standard for him.
It was during the Army days that his brother told him one day that he would like him to meet some friends of his who lived in the ‘countryside.’ He made preparation and went with his brother, only to find that it was in Barataria. He said Barataria was a lot of bush then, but it was not countryside as he could have ridden to that area on his bike from his home on Henry Street. And it was there that he saw a family of seven. Five girls and two boys. And he immediately fell in love with his wife. She had soft plaits. He said she was an ‘Ollivierre girl’ who worked as a cashier at Fogarty’s. He felt compelled to talk to her parents and asked her where they were. He then learnt that her father had died. He spoke with her mother and told her he wanted to marry her daughter. He was asked about his profession. Everyone gathered listening. He told them that he was a soldier. The two little boys began laughing. Then everybody laughed. A Chinese soldier? And where was his uniform? And where was his gun? He said those were only for when he was on duty.
Courtship began. He spent every moment he could over at Fogarty’s. Then he told her they have to start looking for a place to live if they were to be married. They both agreed to look. In three months they found a place. In Barataria. A few months into the marriage he checked in with her to see if she was comfortable there of whether she wanted to move to another place. She was comfortable. So he secretly bought the property. Repairs started. He wanted to build something grand, but she would not let him. She said when she is old she cannot climb steps. So he did what she wanted. Built a flat house. Years after, he said he felt like he was living in a hole, as one by one the neighbours built high houses around them. But he loved his wife and desired only to give her what she wanted.
If I may back up, with her father dead, it was the mother and older sister who took care of the others. Her sister used to teach ‘Commercial’ classes: Typing, Bookkeeping, and Short Hand. This came in handy for him, for after he left the Army it was she who taught him typing so that he was able to get the job with the Americans. He said they were so impressed with him generally they wanted to know which university he went to. He said he never went to university. They insisted that he must have at least gone to college. He told them he did not know what they were talking about. He went to secondary school and took in his education. In return for assisting him, when he heard his sister-in-law complaining that the typewriters were malfunctioning, he took them, cleaned them, oiled them, and returned them. They typed perfectly and she inquired where he learnt to repair typewriters. He was always amused by persons finding his odds and ends skills remarkable. His real skill was hunting. Said he even used to breed and sell dogs for that purpose. He had a deer rifle long before he joined the Army which was why his aim was better than the Instructor’s.
Within the hour we spent together I heard this story at least ten times. It was like he found his favourite 45 record and put it on. Every time it was finished he restarted it, and I thought that it would be a total insult to stick an Alzheimer’s label on this one. There is too much soul in it to bring it down to a medical condition. For me it was a reminder of the cycles of life. My repetitive strokes in the name of a massage might have caused him to ask himself whether I have Alzheimer’s. Life is full of repetition, and try as we may, we can’t seem to get out of the cycle. Viewed from another level, it is a reminder that there is no real beginning or end. Everything is one. At night, the light of the sun is merely elsewhere, but it is still day. The earth and the atmosphere around it remain unaltered in any manner by our perception of the periodic shifting of the solar rays from one part of the globe to another. But these ‘changes’ allow for our perception of cycles which necessitate our growth, or at least, allow us to make changes. In the many times that he recounted the story, there were seven daughters, but most of the time he said there were seven children, five being daughters. So he had opportunities within each cycle of the story to make changes, but the five daughters were consistent and I have accepted that version as being the more accurate one.
And the possibility of his recent behavior being preparation for his move elsewhere is not our typical conversation as death is dreaded in thought, word, or deed. But here again we see opportunity. For if life in its incarnate aspect, with all of its uncertainties, imperfections, pains, etc. were to last forever, then we would be in a truly intolerable state; especially those who are handicapped. And it is through the mercy of death (or the threat thereof) that we are given a chance to look at themselves without the props and be more purposeful about the future. And as profound as that view might be when such a moment is upon us, we might still forget all the changes we promised to make to our lives when we recover from a grave illness or a new body is handed to us. This body is quite a challenge. Many good souls are reduced to scheming and deceitful behaviours for the sake of the preservation of our bodies, and our drive to fulfill its myriad desires. When we no longer have those obligations, then we stand bear with our purpose (fulfilled or unfulfilled) glaring back at us. And we see the million ways in which we could have made better choices, and the million ways in which our every action unleashed a chain of events that made our life what it was (fruitful or not), and to what extent we were responsible for it while we shamelessly blamed others. The tunnel-vision of the physical eyes does not allow for such viewing, but a little meditation here and there is the antidote for our impaired sight.
But getting back to cycles… If there was only one day and night in the whole universe, and it never occurred again, it would be impossible for us to understand what day and night are (not that we know…still). Many would not even know that such existed as stories of them would be passed down to generations who cannot conceive such a notion. So, the cycle of light fading into obscurity and obscurity fading into light gives day and night their sense and enable us to discover important facts about day and night, and through these discoveries understand the ‘truth’ behind it on a higher level. These opportunities are also presented in the many areas of our lives when we awake each ‘new’ day to the same things we did yesterday. The ‘hidden mysteries’ behind repetitions like cooking, or bathing, or praying, could be revealed to us today. And when we seriously consider the cycle of death and rebirth it should be with the knowledge that had there not been within our consciousness somewhere, a secret memory of the repetitions of our lives, we would not be able to turn our thoughts to lofty questions about the universe, or even accomplish some of the remarkable things that we have, like the musical compositions that fill us with awe and fulfillment and swirl through us with such knowing that it leaves us speechless. Nothing can be added, and nothing can be said while they play as that would be sacrilege. If there are no repetitions and our life here is all there is, then where do we get such talents from? Are they stored in the birth canal and we randomly grab one as we exit? Then the rapist could argue that he was weary with his unsuccessfully attempts at making something of his talents, and was merely trying to grab a new one.
If our existence stopped forever after our physical death, we would spend the beautiful gift of our lives in a curious mental obscurity, as there would be no incentive for wanting to live or learn anything. And if we did find some motivation, when we die, the experiences that we would have carefully accumulated would have been for nothing as there would be no scope for putting into practice the lessons we learned. But there is a knowing in us that in some way our lives are recurrent, so we set about learning and this learning renders us better servants to the Divine as well as it serves our inner growth and spiritual unfolding. And while we can have heated debates about reincarnation, our energies are better spent personally trying to understand the renewal of life. Music is very helpful in this regard…probably my unconscious reason for preferring repetitive music. It is the periodic emphasis in music that allows it to make sense. A rhythm that is only played once has no meaning. It is only when repeated a certain number of times that it will begin to impart sense to the listener. Like rhythm, cycles are the basis of all life – from molecules to planets. We depend on cycles for coherence. Where we find no recurring pattern, we find chaos. This disturbs our equilibrium, and we automatically seek to enforce order – a cycle of how things should be done continually hereon.
At age 90, my Chinese friend has moments when he expresses weariness at the physical cycles. I’ve never heard a verbal complaint, but it happens nonetheless. That which shows itself as Alzheimer’s is one such. Alzheimer’s says that the normal cycle of his brain is being interrupted. Sometimes he passes blood in his urine; a sign that the cycle of his heart is being interrupted. We can look at our own lives and see where our cycles are being interrupted by the various dis-eases that trouble us. And we can express annoyance at having to repeatedly treat the same condition or attend to the same problem. That is natural. We can also choose to take these mundane occurrences to another level and see what they are telling us about life in general. We might learn something new from an old situation, and in our awareness that day and night are one, we could pull strands of daylight out of the night of our situation and weave for ourselves a new dawn. Better yet, having had the experience, it would be added to our repertoire of knowledge which we will carry forward in the continuation of our lives, after death. And since the seed of a red rose could only engender a red rosebush, may we take care in our selection of the quality of experiences we choose to have. From what I have heard, the lower planes of consciousness should be no one’s aspiration. Not that aspiration is needed, for our level of consciousness at our passing will land us in a comparative zone. Let us therefore strive to arrive at the ultimate transformation of ourselves by finding a sacred aim and applying ourselves to it. And, if mercy would have it, per chance we might meet a true spiritual teacher who would help us to realize ourselves.