Welcome to the last day of 2014, the moment when we are supposed to reflect, give thanks and set goals for the year that would befall us in less than twenty four hours. Just mere ticktocks before we cross another threshold.
There are, naturally, many things to be thankful for. Access to clean water and food. Speedy internet, a glossy hand phone. Taking part in writing projects. The wherewithal to travel and experience different countries, to meander through forests, dirt roads and rivers.
Yet, my thoughts keep wandering to death and dying. What does it mean to pass away? What is the difference between people who choose to die and people who died without intending to?
In a space of days, death bloomed all around, like peonies in the spring. Something passed away. Someone died on a plane.
Do you know that it is statistically significant to experience more instances of death the older we grow? After all, the longer we live, the more likely we are to see dead creatures. It is expected. Growing up means surviving, means being inexorably drawn to organisms that do not survive.
My tortoise died not so long ago and I only discovered its death much later. For days, it lay in the tank, neither crawling nor nibbling. The other tortoise nudged it, pushing it away to get to the fresh green kalian and orange carrot placed right before its closed beak. I washed the poor tortoise with warm water and fed it organic cucumber, its favourite food. Perhaps, it was just refusing to eat, tired of being circumscribed in the same glass tank for almost five long years.
According to online sites, it might react to warmth. Start moving and eating again. Quickly, I bought a heat lamp. It never occurred to me that it was dead. This tortoise had always been passive. Slow, shy and timid. Its companion is the energetic one, knocking over the tray of water and dragging shreds of leaves around.
I thought it wanted to die by refusing food, like the dolphin that looked into its caretaker’s eyes before sinking to the bottom of the tank and drowning.
Years ago, I jokingly named it Xiang Luck, after my younger brother. They are somewhat similar in temperament. Now, my Xiang Luck is dead.
What does the other tortoise think? To be living in such close quarters with a corpse for days. To have to look at a face with rotting eyes, a body that was beginning to attract flies. This tortoise has always been somewhat of a bully, always chewing the tenderest leaves and pushing its now- dead comrade away.
I imagine that they are friends and that this other tortoise, like me, is mourning. It seems less eager to eat.
Would you think poorly of me if I were to say that my tortoise’s death impacted me far more than my grandfather’s? The former had been with me for more than five years, allowing me to stroke its forehead and wipe it clean after every shower. The latter had always been a distant figure. He was the archetypal masculine authority, there but silent, supportive in an aloof manner. Sorrow is a centipede that crawls on us in the most unexpected places in the most surprising manner. We know how much we should feel but don't feel.
Exactly one day after burying my tortoise in a grassy patch outside my primary school – I must do it even though I trembled while doing it – private and public spheres of sorrow collided. An air plane fell into the sea. Many lost their lives. Others lost their loved ones.
This is a moment as good as any to remember what came before and hang on to what would follow hereafter.