Watch Me Entertain Myself!

Sacha Guitry once said, "You can pretend to be serious, but you can't pretend to be witty." Oh yes, I'm the great pretender.
(pilot episode: 20 January 2004)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Death And Detachment

Kane: Your story last night about death, made me understand you a lot more.

McVie: Really?

Kane: It was one of those moments na parang everything clicked… why you are the way you are.

McVie: That I have a dark sense of humor? Hahaha!

Kane: Gaga.

McVie: That I have this nothing-lasts-forever attitude?

Kane: Your detachment.

McVie: Yeah, yeah. True!

Kane: I think you yourself said it. =)

McVie: When you have two family members and a best friend dying one after the other, you get a crash course on detachment.

Kane: Alam mo ba, matagal ko ng pinag-iisipan yan about you.

McVie: Which one, my sense of detachment?

Kane: Yes. =) I have been curious about it.

McVie: Aaahhh.

Kane: I keep noticing it about you, in your stories, in your blog entries, and I’ve been wondering where it came from. I have rarely seen you flustered.

McVie: Ay, I do get flustered! Pero mostly with work.

Kane: The rest of the time, you are always composed and in control. =)

McVie: Hmmm... I must have been a Tibetan monk in my previous life, HAHAHA.

Kane: Hahahaha, or maybe the opposite, baka Victorian princess ka!

* * * * *

I was in third year high school when Death decided to become an acquaintance.

It was December 1982. My younger brother Brian was four years old, and two weeks before Christmas he was already sick with what my mom thought was just the usual fever or flu thing that children got. That was at the start; by the second week, she knew something was wrong because no children’s fever lasted that long.

Around that time my paternal grandmother was brought to the hospital. She was 92 years old. She often didn’t recognize the people standing before her. She carried conversations with folks long dead. We knew they were there to accompany her to the other side; it was only a matter of time.

It was Dec. 23 that my parents finally decided to bring Brian to the hospital. The doctor said they needed to run tests that would force Brian to stay overnight at the hospital. He felt it too cruel to confine a child while celebrating Christmas.

Brian spent Christmas at home. Dec. 25 morning found him on my dad’s lap, while my mom opened his gifts for him. He listlessly held each and every gift, but settled on a toy truck that he placed on his lap. He never got to play with any of them.

Dec. 26 my parents brought him back to the hospital so that the doctors could run some tests; results were to be available the day after. But on that same day we heard the sad news; our grandmother had joined her chat mates on the other side. My dad needed to shuttle from one hospital to another. My mom volunteered to be the one to stay overnight with Brian at the hospital.

At 9am the following day, my mom woke up to see Brian looking at her, as if the sickness had disappeared. He asked for water. She rang for the nurse, but when no one came around, she decided to go get water herself from the water fountain along the corridor. When she got back, Brian was in pain and cried to her, “Mommy, sakit! Sakit!” while clutching his chest. In a panic my mom picked him up and rushed him to the emergency room.

My dad and older brother arrived that morning to a frantic scene of the doctors trying to revive Brian, who had gone on cardiac arrest. My brother peered through the glass window of the ER doors. He saw an image that to this day he could never forget: a towering adult doctor pressing all his massive weight down onto the chest of our frail four-year old brother in a vain attempt to start his tiny heart pumping again. My brother had to look away.

In less than 24 hours my dad lost his mother and his child. Death was our family guest for that holiday season.

I was in first year-college two years later when my best friend since grade school was killed in an accident. While crossing the pedestrian lane in front of the Sto Domingo church on his way home at night, Mark was hit by a taxi trying to beat a red light. The taxi smashed his legs; the doctors said had he survived he would never walk again. But the initial impact plus the momentum of the taxi tossed him head first onto the sidewalk, where he met the broken piece of the steel fence jutting from the ground.

Mercifully the taxi driver didn’t run away; instead, he drove Mark to the nearest hospital. My best friend was pronounced dead on arrival.

Early next morning the news spread like wildfire in college (this was before the invention of pagers and cellphones). I remember feeling numb when I heard the news. One of our kabarkada was back in the country for a short vacation; he was already taking up pre-med in the U.S. I volunteered to go to his house in Loyola Grand Villas to break the news to him in person.

Two of my classmates drove me to his house. The household help informed me my friend was still asleep, but let me in when I told them the matter was urgent.

I remember shaking him awake, telling him not to get up from bed. I told him the news. And despite the news jolting him awake, I could see that part of his mind refused to let the information sink in. Maybe he didn’t want it to; perhaps by refusing to believe the news, he might will it to be not true. For a moment, I wished it too.

But the coffin in the funeral parlor and the picture of our smiling friend beside it bore the inescapable fact: Death was now a part of my life.

After that day, I swore to make peace with Death. He was now on my friends list; I wanted the ability to laugh at His face. Accept the inevitable, I told myself. And to cope with that, I learned to detach.

Back in first year high school we were made to memorize John Donne’s poem “Death Be Not Proud.” Every time I hear of someone’s death, that poem is the first thing that flashes through my mind.

Today I can still recite it by memory.

* * * * *

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow.
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and souls’ delivery!
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppie, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better then thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

– John Donne

(I re-typed the poem to update the Old English spelling of certain words.)

* * * * *

Of course, accepting the inevitability of the other people’s deaths is one thing; but Death and I, in a final, eternal embrace?

Now that would be the ultimate: detachment from oneself.


red the mod said...

Its inevitability affords that distanciation. That to dwell on its impassibility can only lead to frustration. So why frustrate on the factual, when one can obsess on the potential? :)

Fickle Cattle said...

Beautiful, dark post Joel. Reminds me of a story I'll probably tell some other time.

Stories of change, loss and alienation get me every time.

Ex Jason said...

Being detached because you have witnessed death. Interesting. Most people I know who have witnessed death developed an love for life.

It's a bit ironic that we are most scared of and most unprepared for the one thing that we know is inevitable.

joelmcvie said...

@EX JASON: Having a sense of detachment does not automatically kill one's zest for life.

There are two separate actions: engaging and letting go. It is easy to engage oneself in people and in life; as kids, we are at our most engaged. As we grow old we also learn the art of letting go. Perhaps a peaceful death is the ultimate letting go.

rudeboy said...

Death's been "pirating" a number of our colleagues one after the other lately, eh Joel? Makes me think there must be some major pitch going on in that Big Agency in The Sky.

I'm with you on the detachment, though. Other people misconstrue it as pessimistic and bleak. But it isn't, is it? Strip away the drama and detachment simply becomes acceptance of the human condition. And the paradox that although we move inexorably towards death from the moment we were born, we were not born simply to die, but to live.

And tomorrow is but a hopeful thought, for all we ever really have is today.

Mu[g]en said...

Dark post indeed.

When being confronted by death, all I could think of is a life on the other side.

Who knows, you might be a Reclusive Tibetan Monk from your previous life.

While Kane was a Pretty Victorian Princess.

joelmcvie said...

@RUDEBOY: Well said. My thoughts exactly.

"Life's a pitch and then you die..." and go to an eternal Pitch In The Sky?! How very Ionesco. Or Samuel Beckett.

@MU[G]EN: I'm sure that Kane was more of a Pretty Victorian Courtesan. LOL!

mysuperalterego said...

I just cried. It's very hard to deal with death. If that happened to me, I might go insane.

Anonimus said...

Ah, yes. For McVie, dying is easy. Comedy, hard.

Anonymous said...

i never knew this happened to you. at this point, death is still something i cannot freely accept.

but you're right, we've got to learn to live with it.

Thad said...

It's always hearbreaking when a loved one dies, lalo na yung bata. When I encounter parents who have toddlers or babies, I always tell them not to take for granted even the most common symptoms like fever. We also had a three year old patient who died of Dengue, it was hard to see the doctor trying to revive the kid. It was too late, the internal bleeding had been severe. The parents were inconsolable..

On the bright side, the young ones are probably angels now :-)

Kiks said...


i have never found myself being so moved yet given-enough-space-to-breathe-still-normally-alright by a post.

aside from haruki murakami.

joelmcvie said...

@KIKS: Thank you for your generous comments. Next time I appear smug, slap me virtually, okay? =)

Sig said...

It's always hard to see people dying. What's even harder is to accept the fact that death is part of us.