"Son, life is like a parade: One percent of the people are in the parade; Two percent of the people are watching the parade; and 97% of the people don't even know that there is a parade!"
---Harry Schertzer. (Said to his son a long time ago.)
Old ladies, big and small, where sitting around tables playing Bingo. Some of them were burping, acid reflux rearing its ugly head. Others were farting-- it could have been the meatloaf, or what passed as meatloaf, that they had for lunch. But I doubt it. Others still, were listening-- at least those who can still hear-- to a French crooner trying desperately to sing in English. "You're just to good to be true, can't take my eyes hoffa you."
I was sitting next to my mother watching her play Bingo. I can remember her playing Bingo since I was a teenager. That was 30 years ago. Back then she was healthy. She was vibrant. She could do anything, and quite often did. She made the best chicken soup and knishes on the block. During the holidays, our house was filled with the wonderful smells of Jewish cooking. That was then.
Today, and for the last 15 years, my mother has been confined to a wheelchair. The place she calls home is a Montreal Nursing Center. She is well taken care of, but she hasn't taken a step in over a decade. She can't do very much for herself or others anymore. The chicken soup and knishes are now made by the cooks in the kitchen. This is now. My mother has Multiple Sclerosis.
That Bingo and meatloaf lunch, including the French crooner and other bodily noises, took place six months ago while I was home on a six week holiday. I always enjoy going home, although it's a rarity. I'm a restless soul and can't seem to stay home for very long. I'm not sure where I got that from. I spent time between sleeping on my fathers couch, listening to an old, crippled cat croaking like a frog, and in my sister's basement. She's the one with two teenage daughters that I didn't recognize. Imagine, being away from home for so long that your own nieces become strangers.
It was a warm day in late May when I left the nursing home. To say it's a depressing place is a huge understatement. It's been described as "God's waiting room." People go there to die. That's a horrible thing to say, especially when my own mother is there.
Walking down Ste. Catherine Street that warm afternoon, I began to ask myself some important questions: "What is life all about? What matters most? What is the best way to live life? How should life best be lived?" For six weeks I spent time with the people I love most. I ate the food I love most. But was I doing what mattered most?
I went into Chapter's Books on Ste. Catherine Street, and looked through the Philosophy section. Besides "Philosophy for Dummies," some of the titles actually fascinated me. "The Socrates Cafe." "Six Questions of Socrates." "Life: The Way it Ought to be Lived." "On Fate."
"Man's Search for Meaning." "What Matters Most." Wow! So much to read, so little time. So I bought a few of them hoping to find a nugget of truth, a pearl of wisdom about the way life ought to be lived; about our search for meaning; about what matters most.
To tell you the truth, when I left my mother's nursing home on that warm day in May, I was scared. I was frightened. Actually, I was terrified! I was terrified because in 20 years from now, I could actually see myself where my mother is now-- playing Bingo with a bunch of crabby, grouchy, cantankerous old people who burp and fart and have forgotten where they left their teeth! I saw myself in 20 years with nothing to look forward to but the meatloaf lunch and watching endless re-runs of "Who Want's to be a Millionaire?" I saw myself in 20 years listening to the same French crooner-- or maybe her daughter-- singing the same songs. "You'd be like eaven to touch. Hi want to old you soooooooo much!" I saw myself listening to-- or worse,
smelling the burps and farts of my fellow nursing home comrades. I even saw myself joining them in their bodily music of "The Old and the Restless!"
It was then that I made a very important decision walking through downtown Montreal around Concordia University. How can life best be lived? Simply by living it. By grabbing life by the balls befo re life grabs yours! I walked into a travel agency and bought myself a one way ticket to Bangkok. I considered it an early birthday present.
Bangkok is certainly not the answer to most of life's ills. In fact, Bangkok has been known to contribute to many of life's ills. But Bangkok gives a person pause for thought. It also gives one the opportunity to live-- if we are willing to take advantage of that opportunity.
I'm not 25 anymore. I'm 45. A 25 year old comes to Bangkok for a variety of reasons, but mostly to FIND himself. At 45 I'm not the least bit interested in finding myself. It's way too late for that. I have neither the time, nor the energy. I came to Bangkok to BE myself. That takes courage and freedom. Don't get me wrong. One is no better that the other. I'm talking about different stages in a person's life. There are plenty of 25, 45, and 65 year old pigs on Patpong both finding themselves and being themselves. But the big question is, what brought us here? What were-- and continue to be-- the specific circumstances that compelled every single one of us, young, middle-aged, and elderly, to buy that plane ticket and move to Thailand? The responses will probably vary not only from age group to age group, but from individual to individual. And that's the way it's suppose to be.
Since my mother can't walk, her decendants, including myself, do her walking for her. I take her with me through Bangkok, (except Soi Cowboy! I doubt if she would appreciate that.) I have a picture of her in her wheelchair. I'm kneeling down next to her, my right arm around her. She is smiling. So am I. She's smiling because her children and grandchildren are with her. Her legacy.
Multiple Sclerosis is a hideous and insidious disease. It robs you of just about everything. It robs you of your ability to walk, to run, to leap with joy. It robs you of your ability to cook dinner for your children and grandchildren, those very same wonderful meals she used to loving prepare 15 years earlier. It robs you of the ability to get yourself out of bed in the morning and pee without someone watching over you. But most of all, this disease-- any disease-- can rob you of your dignity. Every shread of dignity you thought you had, and took years of your life to build.
Multiple Sclerosis may have robbed my mother of the ability to do many things. But there's one thing it can never rob her of: Her "Willingness." Her willingness to see and watch her children and grandchildren continue to grow, and live the lives that we were meant to live, is her legacy. And what a legacy to leave! Her willingness to go on, in spite of everything, in spite of all the indignities she has suffered, is her legacy. A legacy that has been passed down to her children and her children's children so that we may be free and have the courage to leave legacies of our own.
I remember my grandfather's funeral several years ago. In my eulogy to him, I looked out at his four children, one of which was my father. I looked out at his grandchildren-- my sisters and my cousins. I thanked my grandfather for leaving a legacy-- this wonderful legacy of successful decendants, who will take his torch and move forward. What I didn't realize at the time was that you don't have to die in order to leave a legacy. Watching your children and grandchildren grow, live, love and learn-- actively participating in this living legacy-- is arguably life's greatest gift.
People continue to ask me why I came to Bangkok. My students ask. My fellow teachers ask. Some of my employers ask. I've even been asked at job interviews. My answers were ordinary and, quite frankly, boring. "To teach English," I responded. "To travel; to see the world; to meet many different people." This is all true. But it's only part of the story. A very small part.
Now here's the REAL reason why I came to Thailand. I came here to live life the way it ought to be lived; I came here not to find myself, but to BE myself; I came here to live the story of MY life, not anyone else's; I came here to do what matters most; I came here not because I expect more from life, but because life expects more from me; I came here not to change people, but to have them change me.
But most of all, I came here to leave a legacy. My grandparents passed the legacy torch to my parents, and they, in turn, passed it down to me. This legacy is an awesome responsibility. Contained within this legacy is the responsibility to make my parents and family proud; to not let them down.
I have been given that torch, that legacy, and I have taken it to Bangkok with honor and pride. This is no time to watch the parade go by. As my mother courageously lives her life within the confines of a Montreal nursing home, I will take the torch handed down to me and move forward into life, into the parade. I will not watch the parade go by. I will join it. I will join it.