Intimations of Mortality

Undertaking a lifestyle change though exercise and diet (Source:

Undertaking a lifestyle change though exercise and diet (Source:

Have you ever had one of those insightful moments when it suddenly occurs to you – from out of nowhere – that your remaining years on earth could be much less than you have used up? I woke up one morning with this disconcerting realization, around my birthday two years ago, and it has lodged in the periphery of my consciousness ever since.

The issue of mortality has been on center stage in my life recently, when some very dear friends were stricken with serious ailments due presumably to a youth carelessly lived and/or the strong sense of denial, that is reportedly common among the Baby Boomers, of the inevitability of aging.

Despite our daily ration of health-related warnings and findings from the media, we are still reluctant to consider the possibility of our no longer being able to do what we want. When we hear of some disturbing news, we get scared for a few minutes and then we say, nah that can’t happen to us, we feel younger than our actual age and we still have the energy to change the world. And then one day, the news hits home – someone we actually know has cancer, or a stroke, or died unexpectedly because of some previously undetected illness. That’s when we scramble to have our check-ups and resolve to make some long overdue lifestyle changes.

We start an exercise program and try to cut down the fat, the sodium, and the calories from our diet. We stop drinking alcohol. Just when we think we have this illness thing licked, we hear of someone our age who is slim, athletic, and a long-time vegetarian, who has died from a stroke, and we pause from our frantic health binge and ask if our self-inflicted punishment is really worth it. Could it be that our elders are correct, that when it’s your time to go, no amount of healthy living will save you? And what if we don’t die right away, and instead suffer years of helplessness? We ask each other these questions – comparing ailments is usually topic number one in any get-together – and come nowhere near getting a satisfactory answer. Meantime we hedge our bets by compromising between eating healthy and living la vida loca.

I tried going on a no-meat, low fat, low salt diet once. It was easy the first week but then I got a whiff of our neighbor’s adobo and I started hankering for pork slathered with the sweet-sour, garlicky sauce. The desire stayed with me, chipping away at my resolve until the thought of feasting on meat became almost an obsession. I would daydream of mechado, lechon, and the Cebuano dish humba (with lots of pork fat swimming in soya beans and soy sauce). When I woke up craving a McDonald’s hamburger (which to me is like groveling for food), I knew that I had reached my limit.

I reverted to my not-exactly-healthy diet but with moderation. I tell anyone who cares to listen that I eat whatever I want – but in smaller quantities – while I am still able because a few years from now, I may have to follow some dietary restrictions. And when that time comes, I expect to be able to accept such restrictions with grace because I’ve had my fill. [Ah, the lies we weave just to justify our appetites.]

Beyond watching our food intake, living healthy also means being happy. Of course, the concept of happiness is defined differently by each individual but, if we are to believe the gospel of self-help books, it means slowing down, doing what you want and getting rid of your stress. Which means happiness is beyond the reach of working stiffs who have no choice but to drive through horrible commute traffic each day to earn a paycheck that can hardly meet the bills. Just like 90 percent of the workforce in this country.

A friend of mine seems to have mastered the art of this looking-at-the-glass-as-half-full-instead-of-half-empty approach to life. Since she can’t control her two-hour daily commute, she considers it as “quiet time” where she can listen to soothing music without interruption from her kids. She spends part of her lunch hour walking and appreciating the wildflowers by the roadside, the smell of the air, the warmth of the noonday sun. These rituals have done her so much good, she says, that her blood pressure is now normal and she is able to handle the stresses of her life better. “You just have to grab whatever trickle of happiness comes your way,” she tells me.

That perhaps is the key to living well. Instead of setting our standard of happiness so high that it’s almost impossible to achieve (a prime example is winning the Lotto and living happily ever after), we can focus our attention on the simple, attainable things. Like driving to the park at the end of a hectic day at work to watch the sunset. Or shutting out the rest of the world while perusing old books in a used bookstore. Or even just being completely present when the children start talking about their day (instead of the usual perfunctory uh-huh while your mind is somewhere else).

The next time you wake up with an ache in your joints or discontent in your soul, pay attention. It could just be the pain of a life not yet fully lived.

From Heart In Two Places: An Immigrant's Journey (Anvil Publishing, 2007)

Gemma Nemenzo

Editor, Positively Filipino