By Nicolo Nasol
“Yet, with all its life,
even at the peak of its bloom,
the garden was its own graveyard.”
— Jerzy Kosinski, Being There
THIS happened when I was still a college student.
I decided to run through the stages of life: I began the day by going to a hospital to see the newborn and the ill. Then I roamed around a mall to observe the workforce. And before dusk fell, I visited a home for the aged where — under the pretext that what I was doing was for a school project — I had been granted permission to talk with a few destitute.
Their stories were among the saddest I had heard, especially from the sixty-year-old man with tearful blue eyes. — He had no family to remember at all; all he knew was that he was left alone in this world to survive and that he was picked up in the streets when he got old and was asked to live in the center.
By nightfall, I was in a cemetery, sitting on top of someone’s grave, reflecting on my day’s work so far, in flickering candlelight.
Above, the heavens were cool, clear, empty of stars; the moon hung like a scythe about to be swung, its light glinting on what yet remained of the world.
I started walking around, studying the epitaphs. — In the end, I thought, what survive us but these: bones, names, dates, and quotations occupying a piece of land? — Despite knowing nothing of their history, I felt strangely close to the dead people, even pitying their misfortune of dying as though I wouldn’t suffer the same end.
Some died old, some died too young. The youngest one I saw had died a week from his birth. When I asked myself where these people are now, the air around me grew somber, as though in response to my question.
“When one is born,” I recalled a line from my callous professor, “one is already old enough to die.” That ghastly aphorism closely mirrors the perfect laconism of the words engraved in epitaphs: its first phrase mentions the miracle, or the accident, of life; the second phrase forebodes the eventuality of death. Such a line reflects the uncertain shortness of life.
The unpredictability with which death arrives at someone’s feet serves as a cold reminder of how frail our lives are. But rarely do we contemplate on this matter as its conclusion will likely drive us thoroughly neurotic, unable to live or even sleep.
It’s only because of repression — a survival mechanism of the mind to keep itself sane — that we can bear the terrors of our mortality. Repression creates a fog that hides the truth’s darkest hemispheres and also buries unbearable thoughts, such as death and dying, deep into the bowels of our unconscious. Point in fact, without repression, our sanity is unlikely.
But with the reality of death seemingly unreal or denied, at least psychologically, we tend to either sink into the vices of idleness and procrastination or lead a toilsome life that is not even ours, only to regret all this in our dying moments, wishing for a few more years to live fruitfully and truthfully, and even selfishly.
We squander our time as if we are immortals or still have a long life ahead of us. But what guarantee is there of a longer life or of an afterlife? What guarantee is there that we will return home alive the moment we leave our beds?
I went back to my spot atop the tomb, heavy with thought: I realized I could be very well one of these people underneath the ground I was treading on, feeding the worms, fattening up the soil. Under my feet, I felt the constant danger of death while one was still alive. I sensed the illusory world of the dead. So I poured all my thoughts, however disorderly, onto the moonlit pages until my back became sore and I felt pins and needles in my hand.
It was past midnight when I got home. I slept with the thought that my bed was my grave, and woke up the next morning feeling glad to be alive, so incurably alive.