A year-long goodbye

In Hinduism, when a person dies, a year-long mourning period takes effect in which the family does not participate in any celebrations. On the one-year anniversary, Shradda is recognized with a memorial service, in which closure is brought to formal mourning with traditions similar to many other religions: the reading of scriptures and of course, food. So I’m not Hindu but I am in India at the moment learning about some of the customs practiced by the local people. And learning about this year long mourning period leads my thoughts to someone the world lost this time last year, someone who changed my life in the most beautiful, if subtle way.

Today would have been my great uncle Ray’s 94th birthday. Just over one year has passed since he died. I know, I know, who hasn’t lost an old great uncle, right? People die, especially old people. They shorten and wrinkle, their eyes yellow and glaze over, their toenails thicken, their skin becomes spotted with time like the drippings of a well-steeped tea bag. Their hair thins and lightens to cigarette ash, or like snow for the lucky ones. The chin seems to simultaneously jut forward and droop, like it’s persevering against gravity. The skin under the chin sags like a deflated balloon–a remnant of a party long finished. We can’t see them but the bones soften and become more brittle, to signal resisting and relenting not just to time but to nature, as all sentient beings must.

Old people are like nature’s leftovers, leaves fallen from a tree as new life pushes through. Gorgeous perfect shapes marred with dry lifeless edges and dark veins. They quietly exit to make room for fresh new lives making their way into the world. We’re all part of a cycle of birth and death, spring to summer, fall to winter, to always come back around again. But then when the body is gone the spirit can, incredibly, live on. Why? Because we hold fast to memories, touchable objects–an old sweater, a pair of dentures, a favourite CD? A record of a laugh, a birthday video, a photograph so faded and creased it’s hard to even distinguish the subject–ah, but we know who’s there. We know that person from a now past life.

In India, when a person dies, the body is cremated and the ashes are given to the Mother Ganga, the massive holy river that both rages and seeps through the country, simultaneously giving and taking life. And there lives the spirit. I suppose belief is what activates the spirit. I have memories, certainly, but there it ends. And in a way I’m glad for that. To make a legacy of skin and bone seems, to me, to resist letting it be, letting nature take its sometimes exquisitely painful course. An active betrayal of the inevitable laws nature, rather than a passive acquiescing to it. Perhaps a soul exists and lives on in spite of an expired body, I don’t know.

All I have of my Uncle Ray are recent memories of a man who became, quite unconventionally, one of my best friends when I was going through one of the toughest times in my life. I knew him only the past few years of his time alive. For me, he was only ever an old man, but the youngest old man I’ve ever known. I have an image of him walking down a sidewalk in Leslieville, Toronto, a buoyant, toe-to-heel shuffle, in good shoes, his dry-fit golf shirt properly tucked into his belted slacks, a smart, collared jacket. He approached a swivel chair left at the curb–someone’s trash, and promptly sat down and began to, well, swivel. This 90-year-old man with age spots and thinning white hair and eyes that danced like bonus-round stars, spun himself around and around in this office chair on one of Toronto’s busiest streets, not a care in the world about what others might think. A joker-like smile claimed his face and he leaned back and enjoyed the thrill of random self-engagement for no other purpose than to make himself laugh. Most five-year-olds won’t even do this, already victims of social mores. Most 90-year-olds physically can’t do this because they’re burdened with bad hips and arthritic joints, or are already dead. And as I watched him play I thought, shit, when does this happen? When do we reach the point where we finally get over ourselves and everyone else and sit the fuck down wherever we happen to be and just spin? Why do we have to get old to discover that kind of youth?

My Uncle Ray was full of knee-slapper humour and squeaky-clean fun. His favourite joke–and he always forgot that he’d already told me a hundred times–was I hope the rain keeps up because then it won’t come down, always delivered with a wink and a look that suggested being privy to a juicy secret. He was quite proud of his clever jokes. Maybe he knew he’d already told me that one and was just testing my tolerance. He was a bit of a cheeky old bugger that way. And I tested him too. I once dared him to join me in lying supine on a field of grass in the middle of a park to kick his legs and throw his hands in the air and laugh as loud as he could, to engage my “laughing dying cockroach”. He accepted the challenge like I’d asked him to put the milk back in the fridge. We sang afternoons away to Eric Clapton and Edith Pilaf, The Beatles and Frank Sinatra. We even rendered vocal accomplishments of classical pieces, our favourite was Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto #2 in C Minor, one of the saddest and most delightful melodies ever composed.

He delivered health smoothies to my doorstep everyday for a week, served in a wine glass. Thick green sludge kissing the rim of a crystal glass and dripping down its side so when I lifted it to my mouth, my fingers tasted it. Banana, spinach, broccoli, walnuts, an apple, frozen blueberries. I don’t know what else. I loved every bit of it. It was the gesture of an old man taking care of a young(ish) woman. An old man who loved with an energy of heart of which few people are capable. A man who experienced the endless, dragging hours of limited days and nights–the paradoxical, almost-cruel culmination of a long life–with acceptance and spirit.

And then he started to go. I could sense it even from the other side of the world. His eyes started to look confused, hollow, lost, searching for something unknown to him. He talked a lot about his long-dead wife, her beauty and spunk that matched his own. He started to forget. He left food out, sent incomprehensible emails, forgot all his passwords. But he never forgot the words to Penny Lane and My Way. He knew without knowing that it was time to go. His mind was preparing even if his body wasn’t ready to quit. But it did just days before his 93rd birthday.

I suppose his spirit is the source of his heart’s energy. For that reason I can consider that there is one part of the body that never dies along with skin and bones, whether that body is given to a river or the earth or consigned to an urn upon a mantel. For a while that spunky, youthful spirit was contained within a body that started young, became old, and eventually just stopped. A body that spun itself around in discarded office chairs in public spaces, that danced in the absence of music, that weathered life gracefully but never claimed his heart, his spirit. That now belongs to belief, to memory.

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