Life & Death: Immortality

The plane from Kuala Lumpur spinning in the air, the horrendous English Channel crossing, cobras in the yard, the spot of tuberculosis on my lung: I took these facts of life in with equanimity, believing myself immune from death. I was afraid of the witch in Disney's Snow White, of Singapore's absurdly big and vicious insects, and of friends' betrayals and cutting remarks, always unexpected. The world passed by, often at the pace of a ship: out of the fog, Gibraltar or the Thames docks with their coal smell. The idea that any of this would go away did not occur to me.

I've read that children with fatal ailments are aware that death stalks them. It must age them to be sick, and death may look like deliverance. This is human, too, our desire for a doorway that leads us out of some sticky situation. We dislike being cornered. The villain who might confront us, who haunts our dreams, can be eluded.

This form of immortality goes hand in hand with being, the other prerogative of childhood. Without thinking about it, we live fully in the moment while the adults around us do their best to tame and socialize us, acquainting us with plans and deferrals and the need to work. We trade our pleasures in for the dubious line they hand us. Soon, we're collecting badges and other trinkets that speak to our merit and maturation.

The evidence piles up: if not mortal, we are at the very least subject to degradation. Girls prove fickle. Plants make us itch. Puberty makes us hairy and alienated. The school of hard knocks makes it harder and harder to believe in our omnipotence. With each succeeding blow, we lower by a notch or two our self-belief. And this is what it really is: a belief in the immortality of the self: against the odds, we'll keep on living.

Only we didn't really know the odds. Someone's mother died and my oldest son asked who would take her place. Surely some agency will send another? My sister's friend died after my sister's birthday party. My mother was upset, and I assumed it was because it was a breach of manners, to die like that. When the orderly came to wheel me to the operating room when I was five, I told him I had to put my shoes on, my mother having taught me not to go out without them. He let me put them on. (They expected me to be knocked out, but whatever they gave me didn't work.) "He needs to have his tonsils taken out," the doctor told my mother and me, leaning out of his Triumph convertible. It never occurred to me to wonder how they'd do it.

Still, I remember being fascinated by doctors, whose many inoculations were a source of pain. They knew something my parents did not, and were held in awe by them. What was it that they knew? In the midst of this, my friend Robin's father drove us to see a Chinese funeral - I think it was for King George VI, so a memorial. There was a big cart, elaborately decorated, and the din of music like Cantonese opera: wailing music. I knew the King from his image on stamps. He looked just fine on them.


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