(A five-year-old boy died of cancer one month from diagnosis. He was just one of the many people who die unexpectedly. On the other hand, my Uncle Billy, who led a very unhealthy lifestyle, defied death. Why?)
“His eyesight, I suspect, is failing. My prying, curious eyes peer at his own a bit too closely but he doesn't blink. Recently stooped, he is smaller than he already was, the vestiges of once sturdy arms fading. In their place is a promise of twin reeds, scaly and shriveled. The thick, durable fingers of old are almost transparent, with veins and bones like roots intertwined.”
Thus begun the unfinished essay I wrote about my uncle Bill, one of those who doted on me in America in my youth. His sharp wit, undiminished by his almost one hundred years of charmed life, made excellent copy. But I quit writing it because, who would want to read about a very, very old man, unknown to everyone but me?
Well, maybe health buffs, habitual dieters, or even doctors would.
Up until ten years ago when he came back to the Philippines for good (after over 60 years in the US), he was a walking cliché. He smoked like a chimney (three packs of non-filter cigarettes a day). He drunk like a fish (every lethal liquid). He loved wine, women and song (poker for two straight nights in a smoke-filled room blaring with loud casino music and and cusses). He lived it up (high-fat, high-cholesterol diet of bacon, ham, eggs, pork chops and pizza). He had sweet tooth (four heaping teaspoons of sugar in his coffee).
By medical statistics, he should have died of either lung cancer, kidney and liver failure, cardiac arrest, massive stroke, or diabetes years back.
But at 97, his vital organs were intact, defying laws of human nature and turning health facts into myths. He still read two newspapers, finishing the crosswords in one sitting; devoured the Bible; quoted Shakespeare; and wrote letters in ornate penmanship on unlined stationery. His body was slower, but his spirit was like the song, "Alive, alert, awake, enthusiastic," outliving everyone in his family.
He drawled in an American twang he couldn't shake off, "My flight to heaven has been too long in comin'!” When he sought back his home country ten years ago, he also sought back God -- like a dusty old book shelved, discovered, and read again.
And he was a cliché no more. "That's all in the past now, you're lookin' at a new old bull!” He settled in a beach house in far-away Bolinao, Pangasinan, where his lifestyle was diametrically opposed to what it once was. But, can one decade of clean living repair the damage wrought by over six decades of physical abuse?
Well, how many people ever make it to 97? Not many. Not even those who live fumigated lives, as medical journals show. But uncle Billy did. I've asked my doctor friends why. They could only reply, "God's ways are not our ways."
In Ecclesiastes 8:7, the teacher wrote, “Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come?”
Now, how many people are ready to fly out? Again, not many. But uncle Billy was. Whenever my family and I would visit him (on halloween to keep a long-standing joke running: visit the living, not the dead), I'd begin with a terribly inane, "So how have you been?"
Like a recording he'd reply, “Eagerly awaitin' my flight out. But God keeps delayin' my departure. I'm ready when He is.”
He would add, “Next time you come I won't be here."
I'd reply, “The old man who cried wolf! You threatened us last year and the year before last.” But I begged God, By Your grace, he'll say it still next year... and the next...”
Uncle Billy's statement was right that last time. One month after our visit on halloween, in his sleep at age 97, he took his much-awaited flight to our permanent home.
I rushed back to visit him, praying I'd hear his twang one last time, but he had left.