Friday, August 06, 2010

When the End Comes Sooner Than You Thought

I don’t know how to write about this.

It’s easy to chronicle my expat existence in a big Asian city, describing daily life as well as journeys near and far from home, parading opinions about political and theological matters, and even being critical and giving advice, wanted or not. Though at times this blog has bordered on the confessional, my aim has been above all to generalize and universalize my experiences. I wanted to write about aging from the inside, both to help me understand it myself and also to provide suggestions for a human user manual (no one ever prepared me for this!). What do the events of our life mean in a philosophical or spiritual sense? Even if it’s all accidental, we can still creatively interpret. While I do not indulge in fiction here, there is much about myself that remains private. Who of my tribe over 70 does not have something to hide?

It’s easier to talk about death than taxes or other money problems. I recall vividly the day I got the results from a prostate biopsy. The urologist was a woman and she didn’t mince words. I asked questions in an attempt to soften the blow but she emphasized the seriousness of her diagnosis. That obscure walnut-sized organ hidden from sight or touch was riddled with cancer. It’s amazing what goes through your head at times like this. I felt like I was in a movie and had forgotten my lines. Should I cry or scream? She handed me a sheaf of papers and I went out to my car where the dog was patiently waiting. My wife was out of town on a holiday in Mexico with friends and what I didn’t know then was that shortly after her return she would put an end to our 24-year marriage."Bad timing," she said of the cancer.

The day was cloudy and cool and I walked with the dog on the beach. I don’t recall my exact thoughts, but they were along the line of: “Isn’t this odd. I’ve got the Big C, a terminal condition (is cancer a disease?). Who do I tell about it and how? What will be my response to their questions? Will they pity me (yuck!).  I wonder now how long I will live.” The situation seemed to be happening to someone else, and I was an innocent bystander. Should I sympathize or empathize? I was in search of a script so I could learn my lines. In the meantime I talked with the dog and he listened silently.

Learning that I had prostate cancer was not the worst thing that has happened to me. The end of the second marriage was far more catastrophic and it took much longer for me to adjust to it (even though there are far more movies and scripts for this sort of thing). I had to, as what author advised, reinvent myself.  Learning to die was easier than learning to live alone after two and a half decades of family life. My best friend Peter got his cancer diagnosis not long before me and we commiserated about the future of our internal organs. He was not philosophical about death, however, and avoided any discussion of it, even during his last week after it had moved from the prostate into his bones and I kept him company as his body failed. Peter was surrounded in death by his family and friends as he listened to music that he loved from his hospital bed in the living room. Being with him at the end helped me to see that death was not the enemy. By this time my family had broken up and I was living in a series of rented rooms.

I’ve not been very secretive about being a piss-poor father. I abandoned my first two boys to their psychotic mother in order to continue a glamorous yet destructive life in the music business. And though I tried harder with my second family, in the end I pursued self-interest over the needs of my two younger children while reinventing myself as an academic scholar. I was also a lousy husband, a poor listener, an insufficient provider and, while putting limits on my wandering eye, retained an appreciation for the beauty of other women while clinging to my marriage vows. My first wife was impressed by my travels and the promise of more adventures, and the second thought I was a poet. She eventually learned that artists and intellectuals are not very useful around the house when broken things needed to be fixed, food cooked, and children raised. I acknowledge all these failings and admit that some could even be categorized as sins, the details omitted here.

I grew up in a middle class family where the mother was a dedicated housewife and the father steadily raised our standard of living with various jobs as a salesman. I resisted his attempt to instill a work ethic in me and chose my goals for glamor and excitement rather than salary and responsibility. My first ambition was to be an actor like my uncle who achieved a bit of fame on Broadway, followed quickly by the desire to be a jazz musician, and soon after to be a famous writer, none of which panned out. I changed jobs frequently in numerous fields, often sacrificing position and income for something new and more exciting. When a job with Fantasy Records in Berkeley turned out to be less than interesting, I quit to travel to Europe with first wife and our two young sons. Since we were almost broke, we did it on credit cards in the hope that I could find work in London as I had once before. Failing that, one Christmas eve we snuck out of our rented house and flew back to Los Angeles where eventually I had to declare bankruptcy. It took ten years to get my credit back, and by then I had a new family.

In each of the jobs I held (only the last one for more than two years), I contributed into the Social Security system, and by the time I retired I was awarded something over $1,000 a month in benefits. In California this didn’t amount to much since over half went for housing expenses. I used my savings, bolstered by my share of the sale of my late mother’s house and a house buyout from my ex-wife, to travel around the world looking for an affordable place in which to retire. Thailand won hands down. Here my income was five times that of an office worker and infinitely more than that made by rice farmers and construction workers. Despite my many failings, I had clearly earned a spot in Paradise.

Enter the snake. Three months ago I learned that my Social Security benefits have been suspended. The reason is related to some serious trouble I got into fifteen years ago that has had long-term consequences. In my ignorance I assumed all was now well. But there are some debts that can never be repaid, sins that can never be forgiven. That the denial of benefits was based on a technical mistake makes no difference. Try solving legal and bureaucratic problems and snafus from a distance of 10,000 miles and a time difference of 14 hours, even in this age of the cell phone and the internet. Lawyers and courts apparently avoid email like the plague for fear of a deluge of complaints and angry litigants. One lawyer's suggestion -- move back to California -- served to alienate me from my brother and son when I said no.  Returning to try and straighten things out is an option that I can no longer afford to do, nor can I fund any more legal help. And the thought of saying goodbye to Nan leaves me distraught. It would be very hard for her to survive without me.

Here the veil of silence must remain. I will save the details for my memoirs (to be written shortly). Suffice it to say that I am now an old man struggling to survive in a big Asian capital without much of an income, surrounded by excesses of wealth and poverty. I continue to receive a small pension from my retirement from the university that puts me slightly ahead of the average office worker in Bangkok. My savings accounts are dwindling rapidly, and I am reaching new extremes on my credit card bills (it’s amazing how many daily expenses can be charged). Teaching English, unfortunately, does not bring in much additional income and payment is erratic. I’ve looked for more work on the education web sites here, and though there are jobs in abundance,  I’m afraid prospective employers hold my advanced age against me.

Nan has been incredibly supportive, even though my fate must undermine to some extent her future plans. She has to know that loving an old man is a short-term affair. I’m not sure she fully understands how dire the situation is. Some days, when my phone calls or internet research give me cause for hope, she rejoices with me. The more numerous dark days, when all I can think about is the end of my money, I try to disguise for her. She is consistently upbeat, suggesting that eventually we can go live in her northern province near her family. There are several empty houses in the village, and her mother recently bought more farmland. I wonder how I will survive in the country, far from a dependable internet connection, bookstores, movie theaters, and Starbucks. My first choice would be to live in a shack on the beach until I run out of breath.

How can this blog post NOT be about my individual experience? In an earlier post, a comment on this continually depressing financial situation, I wrote about the difficulty of coming to terms with uncertainty, with the inability of any of us to be able to control even the little things in life. I no longer can conceive of God as a puppet master pulling the strings, and I do not believe that prayer of petition can somehow convince the divine to play favorites. We all know that too often the righteous perish while the evil succeed beyond their wildest and wickedest dreams. I have to contend with the consequences of all my past actions, even when they seem patently unjust. And I fail at that necessary acceptance, time and time again.

What happens when our hopes and dreams, as well as our carefully laid plans, do not come to pass? What philosophical or religious perspective can help us adjust to reality, to what actually happens? A hospice counselor once told me that devout Christians can deal much better with a terminal diagnosis than people without any such faith. That would probably go for all the religions as well since each has some doctrine promising rewards (as well as punishments) after death. What if this is all just a helpful illusion? I am still not able to believe it.

In a crisis our lightly held convictions are sorely tested. I am beginning to think that without early indoctrination, what Dawkins would call religious child abuse, religious faith is flimsy and easily rubbed off. Adult converts, even to Buddhism, maintain faith as an idea (although converts can often be most fanatic) rather than a deeply held certainty that what they’ve been taught is so. Perhaps because the end is so near for me, I am less able to accept intransigent fate that will not be moved. However, when I was diagnosed with cancer, I did not want to become one of those people who dedicated their lives to fighting it. I did not want to think of the tumor as an alien invader but rather hoped to be able to accept it as something that I and my body had decided to do (like pimples). If it killed me, so be it. I thought of this as a wonderfully stoic attitude and patted myself on the back constantly. Why can I not do that now about the financial crisis that has overtaken my life?

Right now, today, life is wonderful. A truly remarkable lady is in love with me and I in her. We live in a comfortable apartment in an exciting city and I am privileged to spend time each week with young monks who are eager to be taught my language. My health, aside from the Big C, is good. I have enough savings, along with a little additional income, to last possibly six months. We lack for nothing. What more could one ask? My chattering mind unfortunately has much to say about that, along the lines of “why isn’t life fair,” or, “are we there yet?”


Hobby said...

The living is much cheaper in the larger regional cities like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and in Isaan, and still plenty of facilities (and opportunities).

All the best.

Tiff said...

oh dear. Well, you sound very stoic and resigned to your fate, but I'm still optimistic that, in the age of the internet, you can find some freelance writing jobs (or something) to bring in a little extra cash. Yes, be thankful you do have some savings to carry you for a few months - many people are losing jobs left & right without *any* cushion. And a lot can change within a few months.

Anonymous said...

Please get a copy and read the book 'Opening the door of your heart' written by Ajahn Brahm. This book changed my life. It could change yours.


Ed Ward said...

Well, I certainly empathize. I, too, live in a foreign country and work in a field which became less profitable very quickly, although as of this moment my health is good. Uncertainty as to when I'll have enough to pay the bills has been something I've lived with for my entire professional life. It does bring to mind that quotation about the immediate prospect of being hung concentrating the mind.

What I recommend is calm. Panic is the killer. You probably know this, but it doesn't hurt to be reminded. I can't promise that a solution will come to you any more than I can promise one will come to me, but losing faith is not an alternative, as I'm sure you're aware. You have savings. I don't. You have the love of a woman. I don't. I've never seen my situation as impossible. You shouldn't, either.

Good luck, and let us know how it goes.

Anonymous said...

Hope in Christ and God. Never in ourselves.

A brighter day will come. He hears when we open our hearts to him.

Blessings & Best Wishes to you and your loved ones, Will.

Randy said...

Will, You write clearly, openly and fluidly. You have love and the warm smiles of a beautiful woman, some income and obvious intelligence.
Happiness and contentment is 99% our attitude and perspective. I believe you will adjust and living simply can be 'freeing' if the mind and heart are at peace.
You teach the monks and they can teach you too. Wishing you all the best. Randy