Living away from family we spend a lot of time with people our own age. When I stayed with my relatives I saw…
When careers end
I gate-crashed the local equivalent of a RSL club. For a morning I did my own thing at the library while my grandpa and his companions had a jolly good time doing free photography, dance and singing classes. Others played mahjong and ping pong. Some looking like they were more absorbed in the latest gossip than their game. Others, meanwhile, were determined to win even if it meant resorting to school-kid cheating tactics. The retirees weren’t that old. Many were fit and in their sixties.
My not-so-evil step-grandma is a busybody. I like her because she’s easygoing and cooks great food. She likes me, I think, because I listen to her – how this person used to be a general, that person was medical, and the other was in charge of army discipline. This one got remarried, the man is still looking for a younger woman, and him, well he had cancer and almost died like the man before him who is already dead. Then it struck me that who they used to be, their skills and ranks, is only a small part of who they are now. Careers end, even when it comes to a good and natural end.
On the other side of the family, I always thought this grandpa wasn’t 100% cognitively because each time we visited he would say some random things that didn’t really make sense, then spend the rest of his time watching or reading the news. But when grandma became sick, I realised she spoke a lot so he didn’t need to say much. This time, the whole family had some quality bonding time at the hospital bedside. After talking about my job, their favourite segue to the next topic is “那么，个人问题也要处理好…”
“Why do people get married? Why do they have children anyway?”
“Well that’s the milestones most people go through. And when you get old, they can look after you.”
“But what if they don’t turn out right? Anyway, where we are lots of people go to nursing homes.”
“You see your grandma now? There’s your aunt, uncles and your mum. We can have close friends visiting but it’s not the same as our own children, it’s different. It’s close.” Hmm.
That’s my fear of the unknown and of life changes speaking. As I look at the friends around me make major life changes, I wonder, why aren’t they scared about all the potential problems that come with being married and staying married, with having children? Apparently some people think, then go ahead and work out the problems as they come. But I think a lot and end up being too scared to go ahead with anything.
In a separate conversation with my step-grandma – “you know it’s not like some maths problem that you can sit down and work out!”
The weight of regret
Regret weighs heavily on a man’s (or woman’s) heart.
My first aunt bought a new house out in the sticks and it’s not the most convenient place to commute to. She says the air quality is good, there are a few hills nearby, and it’s a good investment because a brilliant five-star resort and new malls are being built within its vicinity. As we went for a short hike up the hills, she reminisced about the last time we were here many years ago, as a whole extended family. I probed whether she chose to buy the place to be closer to her mum and younger sister’s grave, and metaphorically closer to them.
My grandma died more than a decade ago. My second aunt, who was a doctor, exemplifies how unhappy it is to be the relative-who-is-also a-doctor. The family blamed her for not being able to diagnose grandma’s non-specific symptoms as cancer earlier, and my first aunt argued with her for months to follow. Sadly for our family, the doctor aunt also became sick herself and died later that year. Years later, we mourn but I think my first aunt does so more than any of us. There’s echoes of regret every time she speaks of this and I wonder if it directs her actions more than she realises herself. I suppose regret with death is all the more heavy because there will never be the opportunity to make amends in that relationship.
“Better do that now than have could-haves, should-haves, would-haves. It’d too late for that then.” my friend said one day. We were talking about priorities, and trying to learn something from our patients’ end of life experiences. But as much as we try to, is it possible to avoid regrets? What are we to do with the ones we have?