17th January 1999
By Punyakante WijenaikeSunset cast a glow over his world. The weeping willows wept less as they bent over the bubbling stream. Touched by the magic of twilight, water bubbles seemed to dance along the stream hoping to reach meadows beyond the high walls. But they would be re-cycled back. They could only dance round and round within the restricted, boundary of the Transit Home. They could no longer reach an outside world.
But for once the neurotic fear of the effects of time, the oppression of old age and impending death was banished by the magic of the evening. He saw, once again, the proud beauty of flaming anthuriums although they were embedded in pots. A low fence of inter-woven sticks separated the anthuriums from the pale pastel roses on the other side. The same fence that separated the men's quarters from the women's.
A bunch of old ladies, their wrinkled faces and white hair softened by the glow of the gentle sun turned their heads with the breeze, smiled, nodded and waved to him, alone on his stone cold bench under the weeping willows. He smiled and waved back. On impulse he wanted to jump the fence that separated them to touch and speak with them. But he dared not do so. Rules were rules and the good sisters, the nuns in stiff, starched robes with faces encircled by guimpes who ran the home would strongly disapprove of old men crossing boundaries set them.
When he was born into this world he had been governed by rules and now, once again, in his old age his life had re-cycled back to the beginning.
Once again he was in a restricted area, a play-pen of a sort from which he must not stray. He must not be a naughty boy. Very soon, he feared, the good sisters maybe compelled to put him in pampers if he became incontinent.
How fast life had flown! His prime time doing what he wanted to do, going where he wanted to go, was over. His wife had deserted him by dying. His children had taken his grandchildren and flown to other lands leaving him alone in this home. A picture postcard, a letter, a long distance phone call and, once a year, a visit home at Christmas. They paid for his stay in the Transit Home. They knew he would be well looked after, well protected. And of course the moment the Home notified them of his death they would come, dutifully, for his funeral. They would never shirk their duty. They were GOOD children. But they had over-looked one thing. His loneliness. Himself.
And now this beautiful evening had made him feel alive again.
He was not dead. Not yet. A bell tinkled from within the Home. Lights sprang up. Floodlights chased the glow of the evening into darkness. The whispering of the old ladies, so different from the free call of birds in the tree-tops, ceased as abruptly like a water tap being turned off. They began to walk silently and in order into the well-lit refectory where a well cooked meal awaited them. It was difficult to imagine those women once walking, getting into a bus or driving a car after marketing, to cook for their families who awaited them in hunger. They had turned into obedient children who ate whatever was cooked and put before them.
Through the glass windows he saw the men move more in a hurry than the women. Nevertheless when they were at their places the good sisters would make them pause for prayer before eating. No grumbling, just praying and thanking those who supported them in the Transit Home. After dinner a little television was permitted, a game of carrom or cards. But no gambling.
He was back in boarding school where at nine sharp the bell would ring again for 'lights out.'
He would be reprimanded if he did not move. But the birds were still singing undaunted although the bubbles had vanished. Suddenly he felt a glow as if a light had been switched on within him by mother nature to dispel the harshness of reality. It was a gentle light, part of nature's gradual change in contrast to man's organised system. Although his flesh was growing weak, his grey cells were still active, the light reminded him. The magic of the lost evening was still with him, urging him to create a poem in its defence.
In the men's dormitory he would draw his curtains after 'lights out' and scribble with the light of his torch. A poem on the flaming anthuriums and the gentle roses. He would begin a secret life apart from his official life in the Home. It would make him less angry, less cantankerous and.... less afraid of the transit from life into death. He began to hum a few lines of a familiar song.
'I have a dream, a song to sing. If I see the wonder of a fairytale - can meet the future even if it fails....'
He felt lighter in heart and in his feet as he went towards the refectory. He realised then that age was not just the flight of years but also the dawn of wisdom. He had found a way to make a dignified exit from life into death.