I come from a long line of people who died young, in their 30s, 40s and early 50s. Both sets of grandparents. My father checked out at 47, his mother at 36.
My mother is still going strong at 92, having outlived two husbands and three of her six children. But she too wondered for years if she would die young like her eldest brother who died at 29 and eldest sister, at 46.
The possibility of dying young hung over me all my life. In my early 20s, I would try to imagine what I could look forward to in the years ahead – finishing university, finding a job, settling down, having children. Those plans always stopped at 50.
Given the family history, I thought if I ever had children I should have them young, so that they would not be left with a hole in their memory where their father ought to be. Then I had children when I was in my late 30s and that old fear continued hovering in the background.
I went past 47 to hit 50, outlasting my father. Although I had a heart attack at 51, I reached 60 in a triumph for Big Pharma and all the medicines my doctors let me have for breakfast.
Now, lord help us all, 70 lies just up ahead, my children are all grown up and I’m older than I ever imagined I could be, way past all the If-I-Go-By dates that bothered me for years.
My mother is a constant reminder that the end could be further than I think. But when my older sister Barbara died at 72 in 2020, she left me a new number to wonder about. We are the only two in our blended family with the same father (gone at 47) and mother (still alive at 92).
Perhaps it’s time I made some plans for the years ahead, never mind how long or short the rest of this trip will be. I’m not going to sit quietly in an armchair reading a book, waiting for The End. So here goes.
If I live until 70
If I live another two years.
This is now.
The other day I was at the doctor’s clinic, peeing into a funnel to follow up on what a scan showed last year, and had glimpses of a future filled with more medicines, probes and snips and cuts and hospital stayovers and getting stitched up. Not happy peeking into that future.
Thankfully, I’m blessed with an inability to wallow.
Two years more? Plenty of time to write. I’m no environmentalist, but I’ve clung for decades to an idea for children’s storybooks about animals that have been in the news. A couple are on the way. I also feel an urgency to record the family recipes, because they have been with us for 120 years and suddenly I am in the older generation of the family.
I want to travel again, but the Covid-19 pandemic has changed everything, and each time it looked like getting on an aeroplane might become possible soon, a new spike of infections brought new restrictions. Forty-one years after I left, Malaysia keeps a piece of my heart, so that’s where I’ll head first, soon as I can.
If I return to regular prayer before I turn 70, I will say: Dear God, I’m still here, what have you got for me?
He may have an assignment I don’t know about yet.
But I’ve already started praying this prayer: Dear God, please, please, please don’t let me grow into a complaining, angry, grumpy old man.Because some days I sure can see the signs.
If I live another seven years.
I want to write. A writer is what I want to be when I grow up.
I want to learn some Malayalam, the language of my grandparents.
I’d like to stop driving, and move to a smaller home near an MRT station.
More walks in nature.
Outings to the cinema and theatre.
Feasts at home that I can still cook.
Time for God, family and friends.
Declutter: Starting with all the photographs from a lifetime. Then the things I’d rather get rid of myself, thank you.
Travel: I have no bucket list, only places I’d return to in a heartbeat for one last time.
Lose weight: It’s been my lifetime hobby, why stop now? I can aim to be 75kg by 75. Haven’t been that weight since I was 12, when I was one of the two fat boys in the Primary 6 class photo.
If I live another 10-12 years
I’ll practise quietening down. But what does that even mean?
Reading: I have books and magazines I’ve carried with me from my 20s and refused to let go of even though I have not re-read most of them in decades. If I am still here and they are still on my shelves, I will read them and fling them as I go, to leave less for someone else to do after I’m gone. They’re all ageing, browned around the edges and in no condition to be sent to a thrift shop.
I’ll still want to walk by the sea and in rainforests.
And what else.
Why is it so hard to think about just 10 years from now? I hope there will be things to learn, new hobbies and distractions to occupy elderly men who don’t want to watch TV.
If I live another 15 or 20 years.
Fifteen or twenty years? That’s a very long time to be sticking around without a plan.
My young friends who now have babies and small children will be suffering their kids’ adolescence, so maybe I’ll run a respite centre. For the parents, or maybe the kids.
I’ll write a book. Everything I learned living longer than I expected. I won’t care who reads it or thinks it’s rubbish. It’ll just be this old man’s collection of stuff he picked up along the way. Take it, leave it, or toss it into the casket to go with me.
If I start losing my memory, become incapacitated, need a wheelchair… That will be another story, by someone else.
If I don’t, I’ll start going to Mass every day until I get an answer to my question: Dear God, Why am I still here?
Then I’ll make a list of things to do for up to 100.