a scotch in time, part five.

There has to be some whittling mechanism in your brain when you turn 65. Or maybe at 75. There’s so much that fogs up in there, and there’s so much that clouds everything you know, makes it indecipherable; it smashes everything you own in your brain together, so that it’s shapeless, unable to be molded into something ever again. I have always been a spiritual person, but – along with this belief of the supernatural and of eternity and an afterlife that I had been taught throughout my entire life – I have occasional, worrying thoughts that perhaps the whole thing truly is a farce.

When I look at my grandfather and the severe stage of dementia he’s in, and this short special about it I had seen on BBC World in the summer of 2008, my misgivings and doubts resurfaced after a few years of dormancy. I had had a long hard pondering session on what would happen to the mortal mind before it jumps into eternity in 2006; contemplation went on and on until I could not think about it any longer and I had to write it all out before my brain would seem like those people at 75, slowly deteriorating to something less than real. The answers I came up with were never concrete, but I had some hypotheses that calmed me down and made me fall asleep that one night in 2006.

Certain thoughts about my grandfather and others who have dementia and Alzheimer’s become blatantly visible in my head: what happens to these people when they die? What happens to their souls? How does eternity treat them? How does eternity treat us all?

As a child, I pictured the moment I would die: a quite intriguing moment when I would float upwards in the same linear timeframe as when I was alive and enter the heavenly realm in the same state as I was when I was alive. Physically. Mentally. Now, of course, I don’t believe in the physical similarity; according to the Christian religion, we will have new bodies, indescribable, glorious, vivid. But what about our souls, our minds? How similar will they be? If your mind deteriorates while alive, how is it represented in the afterlife? Does it cease to exist? Are our souls the only thing we have? Is there any thinking? Or is it nothing at all like that? If he were to float to the sky after his death, would my grandfather alight with the same mind as he had in 2008? Or would it be 35 years ago, when he was in his prime, or in his or youth, or as a 3-year-old? I wonder how it will be. Will his mind reform, revert back to how it was at 30. Does he forget everything after that? Or will all things transcend this puny idea of time and how much we are obsessed with it?

If my grandfather were swept into eternity exactly as he is when he leaves earth, well, that just doesn’t seem right to me.

And then I get frustrated and think, well, I guess it won’t happen like that at all. We’ll simply fall into a pit and be worm food, and we won’t know a goddamned thing because we’ll cease to exist.

But I don’t want to simply cease to exist.

It can’t be that simple. But I want it to be simple.

So what happens really? I can’t just think, okay, when we die, we sleep (or whatever before Judgment Day) and then we go and live with God in heaven. Because our minds are so complex, so mortal, so unstable, so intriguingly genuine and whole and beautiful. And then it decays and returns to how it was at infancy, with no remembrances, none at all? If my grandfather’s cognizance evaporated horrendously, it won’t come back a million-fold wherever we go when we die. It just seems so impossible.

But maybe that’s just it.

We can’t comprehend it perhaps, like with the whole complexity of ourselves switching from mortal to immortal, temporal to eternal. We’re unable to find a true answer. I’m not sure what else to think about this, or how to think about it just now.

*****

For a weekend trip in 2005, I traveled to Edinburgh with two of my fellow classmates at the time, Gareth and Noah. We departed Scarborough by train that Friday afternoon. We curved through the English countryside, farmlands and pastures with sheep sprouting into view as we zoomed past. The train car we were in was full. And it was loud, one side packed with women readying themselves for a hen weekend (the British equivalent to a bachelorette party). I did not have high hopes after experiencing off-key renditions of Brown-Eyed Girl and Leader of the Pack multiple times as the train threaded past farmlands, through towns, and over rivers. The following day however became embedded in my mind forever; I can still picture the experience, it was that strong.

The next afternoon, we did some sightseeing in the morning around the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle – to sate the tourist in all of us. After that, we went toward Arthur’s Seat: one of the seven hills of Edinburgh and an extinct volcano south of the city, noted as the highest point in Edinburgh by multiple, un-certifiable sources. We had read about the spectacular views of the city from the summit and thought it would be something inexpensive to do before dinner.

So we set off. There was no cable car to carry us to the top, no funicular perched along the slope. The roads were paved at the base of the hill, and the trekking skyward started out smooth and painless. Eventually, the path forked. We did not have a map, so we simply went up one particular way. Stone steps directed us further along, many of them eroded and brittle. Weeds grew out from all directions, obscuring some of the steps and waving with the breezes, more so the higher up we went. At times we had to stop to regain our footing, especially if loose dirt or rubble separated from the mountain. It had to have taken 40 minutes or so to scale it completely.

Soon enough, the incline evened out. Tall grasses, not cut for a good long while, swayed madly from the wind. Thankful for the 70-degree weather so late in the year, I let the deafening gusts tear away at my face as I climbed along the prairie-like landscape so close to the peak. At times I had to dig my feet into the softer parts of the grass, almost like a climber would on an icefall with their cleats.

The surface of the topmost part of Arthur’s Seat was rocky with little, if any, grass. A white monument, like a decapitated ziggurat, sat in the center, telling one and all that this was indeed the pinnacle of the climb, that there was nowhere farther up to go. A few other tourists had made a similar trek and were sitting around, taking photos and gabbling among each other. We took a few photos as well but tried to separate ourselves from the noise of civilization. Instead of staying at the actual topmost part, we returned to the rolling knoll that sloped to the left of where we had stood at the summit. The grass was drenched in sunlight and the wind sent my hoodie in the opposite direction, as if that article of clothing wished to run away and never return.

All three of us eventually lay down on top of the grass and gazed at the sky as the clouds went idly by, at times in bunches, sometimes a small puff floating by its lonesome. Time seemed to stop. I could see it in the outlines and shadows of each cloud that painted across the late afternoon sky. I just lay there and reclined. The wind kept blowing past but we did not feel it at all, lying there and looking up, the gusts pounding around through some sort of barrier we could not comprehend. It must have been spiraling around the formless shape of Time. I felt accomplished right there. I had only walked up a somewhat difficult hill, but it was nothing to boast about. Thousands of others had done so in the past, probably millions. Many still do so now.

The three of us talked about inconsequential things. Not one word of those conversations I could recall to you today. It was as if my brain rose into the air and made me think of the sky and simply being – without any kind of exertion on my end. I remained where I was and let everything go and continue as it always did. It was fresh and real. I breathed in. It could have been an eternity there, but I would be unable to tell you for certain.

*****

That evening we wandered around to find a decent place for a pint or few, and – perhaps spurred by the transcendental moments up at Arthur’s Seat – I decided to have a scotch, since I was in the land where millions of kinds are distilled and stored for years. Also, my grandfather turned into a big scotch drinker in his prime; my uncle was a big scotch drinker as well. (To be fair to my grandfather, he was originally a bourbon man. He did not go anywhere near other forms of whiskey, with or without the E. Then, he met his father-in-law and soon grew partial to the whisky sent from the Scots to quench all liquor-based thirsts across the world, peaty or smooth, iced or neat.)

The name of the pub has escaped my memory and will not return to me unless I go back to Edinburgh and see for myself – which might not be the most frugal thing at the moment. In any case, it was a roomy and sedate place, drawings of ships and other sketches on the wall interspersed with strange mahogany carvings of gargoyles with babies’ heads coming out of their stomachs. Apart from that, the ambience was what I go for in a pub: low-key, local, and clean. This place stood apart from other high-priced places one might normally find in an area of a city where a lot of tourists frequent.

I went to the actual bar area near the entrance and ordered a scotch. When asked what kind I wanted, whatever whisky knowledge remained in my brain slinked away in a hurry. I admitted not being a connoisseur of the beverage and asked for something simple and palatable – for the beginners on the road to scotch perception, appreciation, and maybe snobbery. The ’tender placed a highball glass below the upside-down Famous Grouse bottle in true U.K. fashion. I got my small shot of the scotch and walked with Noah and Gareth to a table. The glass sat there on the wooden table, waiting. It flashed beneath the muted lights in the pub, a striated gold, calmer than a windless sea. It looked appealing. It was as if the eyes of everyone I knew returned the gaze sweetly, appeasing me to take a sip, that I’d love it. My grandfather was spurring me on somewhere. Gareth told me to take the whole thing down in one gulp; Noah looked at him skeptically. I did not know what to do. I had never done this.

I placed the glass to my lips. I let the liquid inch its way closer. And then I tilted the glass farther horizontally. I let it swivel around in my mouth and was met with something foul. I cringed as the burning began, this smoky, medicinal texture soaking into my gums and into my taste buds. I winced and almost did not swallow the sip I took. I coughed. Gareth informed me I had to finish it. Instead, I took the ale in front of him and washed down the first sip of scotch I had; I also put a note down and paid for his beer, which was now mine.

The first venture into the realm of whisky was not as I had anticipated. I did not drink it for a long time. It was not until 2008 in Barcelona when I first started to appreciate the taste, the texture and the peaty feeling of it after the first, the second, the third sips. I guess this is normally the case to the outsider, the first try for most things being a repulsed reaction; it will be disgusting. For most of the time that will indeed be the case. But a relationship will always grow, evolve, and reshape itself into something multilayered – a wonderful diorama displaying the best and worst aspects about it. The low point in the relationship was the first moment at that pub in Edinburgh; as years passed and I tried out bourbon and Irish whiskey, the dislike slowly went away, at least for those varieties. And then – almost three full years later – I returned to what I had tried to avoid. Now it was impossible to avoid it. It was as if my grandfather’s appreciation of single-malt whiskies passed on to me while floating down Montjuïc, seeing Barcelona below me, and remembering a life that had been lived. And now it will be relived. It remains somehow enmeshed in me in a way I would have never expected. So I say cheers to that!

el fin 

a scotch in time, part four.

I was swept away from the suffocating hotel in Banská Bystrica by Peter – who was my father’s cousin’s wife’s brother and my guide around the towns and the countryside of Slovakia. We drove around mountains and valleys, the fall colors full of rich reds and yellows and golds. Mošovce, a small village 40km or so away from Banská Bystrica, felt like a faint thumbprint in a long meadow surrounded by these colorful trees. We pulled into a driveway adjacent to a small, brick house on the outskirts of the village. The roads leading to this village were stick-thin, dirt indentations. Some asphalt crept in from time to time, but it was mostly a hedge maze the size of vegetable rows in a garden. This was where we met Peter and Olga’s friends.

Inside the house, sweets were baking in the oven, a rich autumn smell like pumpkins and allspice. As I sat and waited for the next destination, Peter and his friend Peter offered me a shot of some liquor that did not have a name – at least not a name that I remember. It was homemade and tasted of apples, and I think that fruit was indeed mentioned; that I do remember. After the liquor went down my throat, I could feel its sweetness trying to mask the strength of the distilled beverage. I had another. A third would have been foolish, especially with the little food I had had that morning. Thankfully, we only stayed for two shots.

There was a street market that afternoon in Mošovce. Candies, clothes, foods, and handicrafts leapt up on all sides; the five of us opted for goulash and – for me at least – a small beer. We did not wait long at the picnic tables. We still had to explore the fair-ish area: Dodgems and win-a-prize-by-doing-something-impossible games, steeple-like tents and spin-and-barf rides. I missed the target on all shots I fired with this toy rifle; I also could not find the hole for the token so I could drive my Dodgem and bump around on air as if I were nine again. But my mind held firm on the present and the fact that there was so much fun spilling around us in Mošovce, in this little town in the middle of Slovakia; we had all afternoon and evening to relax, explore, and eat, and forget. Peter was showing me around his neck of the woods, and I was willing to oblige.

The next location was Martin. It was a normal spot, a blip on the countryside. A mix of old and new buildings littered the town. I felt breezy and light as I wandered Martin’s concrete-tiled squares, looking at the modern monuments that stuck up almost foreign to the century-old architecture of the town. The wind began to howl from the mountains, and we all thought it would be smart to head into a café for an hour or so.

Bowling followed. Another bit of escapism. I tried, tried, tried to evade the inevitable trek to the computer at night. But we bowled. I had to use 8- and 13-pound balls with awkwardly-placed finger-holes. I played subpar, below 100 during the first two rounds, but finally a decent 113 stared back at me after the 3rd game. Maybe I had more on my mind than I thought. When we had completed our games, the four of us headed back to Mošovce.

On the way back, worrisome thoughts plagued me. It was as if my brain floated out of Peter’s car and into the cold night, full of clouds and autumnal reproof. I tuned back to my elementary school years’ thoughts about eternity, and then about the lack of human consciousness. I was drifting into that forbidden territory I had visited before 2008. I tried wrapping around endlessness like a constrictor, I tried so hard, tried to squeeze whatever life resided in that idea, the abstract notion that we could go ever close to the afterlife, but would we ever get there or know we did get there? Are our lives asymptotic?

The body that sat in the front seat of that car was a shell. Sweat seeped out. The heat that was on, the lack of light for us around the curves and the turns in the valleys, it all brought me fear; we were going to have a head-on collision with a semi as it veered over into our lane. Everything whirred so erratically then. I could not remember things on a coherent timeline. It was as if I transcended something just then, in that car, swerving around in the dark, a passenger entering William Blake’s vicious plane of Experience – away from the Innocence of the past few years.

Peter’s friends left our company in Mošovce, and the three of us headed to Peter’s apartment in Banská Bystrica, mainly so I could check my e-mail and hear news from Ohio since my own computer battery had given up the ghost. As I ate my dinner of eggs, ham, cucumbers, and peppers, I found out the updated status of my grandfather’s condition. He had died on Friday in the afternoon in Ohio.

I tried to picture when exactly this had happened, when during the day it had occurred. Here in Slovakia, it had been the previous night. I had looked at an e-mail from my parents at Olga’s workplace, most likely a few hours before the death actually happened. Peter, Olga, and I were therefore at some bar in Banská Bystrica playing (and me losing) at darts until it grew too late and I had been dropped off at the hotel. I knew nothing for almost 24 hours. I had woken up the next morning nervous and ill-at-ease. But nothing else had been done. I had no real way to check for the news, and I did not want to at the time.

And now here I was. My stomach, full of eggs and ham, curdled and churned. My eyes grew heavy and strained; I did not want to break down there in the apartment. Everything felt like a blur as I talked and stared and did whatever it was that I did there … like a heavy fog obscuring my memory, giving me the taste of what those who just died might have felt upon that final breath, the first taste of what happens beyond, something that you will inevitably experience but will forever be impossible to keep close and replay over and over and over – much like my End of the World dream.

*****

I was sitting in a musty attic, derelict and full of cobwebs. I was looking for something, something very important. It was something that had to be found; it was as if my life depended on that thing – whatever it was – and it had to be found, no ifs ands or buts. But I could not find it. I upended stacks of magazines and other documents gathering decay and mildew. Cardboard boxes were moved; I pushed more over. No success. Then a light bulb went off. It had to be at the local college, wherever that was, and not up here in this attic. My guess was Baldwin-Wallace College, my alma mater.

I bounded down the stairs and left the building with the attic. I ran as fast as I could, and it did not take long before I was at the college, in front of the main building, the student union, stretching far in both directions. For some reason, I was compelled to get to the other end of the building, but the only way to do this was to go through the middle of this building. The outside was painted orange – a quick change from one saw every day at that place.

I went in and wound around labyrinthine corridors and eventually found a wooden door. I opened it and entered a narthex-like room similar to some foyer in a church. This led to a jam-packed sanctuary. There was a service going on, so I did not go through that room; if I did I would have felt dirty, unholy, sacrilegious. I still had to get to the other side of the building somehow.

Suddenly, I looked upward. Behind me overhead was a balcony-like hallway, similar to what one would see in most motels. I, therefore, darted up the stairs leading to this hallway and made my way into a room lit with a 30-watt bulb. Inside this room was James Bond, Pierce Brosnan as the current actor. Halle Berry was the love interest here, but how she looked in Gothika, not Die Another Day. It still was as real as could be; I did not second-guess what I was seeing for one second. They were having a short break on this waterbed, but it looked as if it had been punctured. They were in swimsuits and floating around with floatation devices and palm trees on the surface of the water.

I did not have time for their festivities – whatever they were. My eyes drifted to the right and onto the floor. A bulging light-blue suitcase full of money fluttering around it lay on the floor near an open window, letting in sunlight – bright, invasive sunlight – right onto the suitcase. It was not what should have happened. Halle Berry did not want it, either. She leapt out of the swimming-pool bed and dashed to the suitcase. The money was cascading out of it; she ran to shove it away from the sunlight, but it was too late.

It was cinematic. The camera zoomed in quickly out the window. All I could see was black-and-white hues. The building across the way was like a large apartment complex. Through one of the windows were two women; both of them were gazing through binoculars. They removed the binoculars revealing enlarged heads, giant sneers, tiny eyes. They looked like demons. They reminded me of the ones I had heard about when I was younger. But I could not do anything right then. The camera began trucking to the left past more windows. More people were gazing out these windows. They had the same demonic heads, the same sneers, the tiniest eyes I had ever seen. Their faces were twisted as if an impish trick had been pulled and there was no way away from them. They had found out what we were hiding and they were going to swoop in for the kill. We could not run; we could not escape from them. They knew.

*****

Though dreams like the one before were – and still are – very disturbing to me, they are part of a memory I long to keep intact. Someway, somehow, I will try my damnedest to retain and keep my brain as active as possible. With all the forgetting I continue to do, with all the increasing fears that I am already obliterating cells in my head, I keep these memories and these tiny remembrances close by.

Much of what I remember is visual in nature; sometimes the things that stick blatantly out like a thorn are episodic in nature. I attach certain visions and memories to various aspects of the past. My parents are astounded that I recall as much as I do. They were agog at my recollection of the moment I ran into a tree when I was four and wound up out like a light, coming-to with many people over me, and the paramedics having been called to make sure I had not gotten a concussion. This episode only I recalled. No one else in my family remembered when I asked them about it twentyish years later.

One particular thing I remember is the number of the hotel room we had when my family and I went on a vacation to Florida when I was four. The hotel number 321 always whirred into view: black numbers on an off-white door. Simple numbers to remember, but the image of the door on the third floor, the balcony overlooking the parking lot on one side, the window within our hotel room peering out at the swimming pool I obsessively wanted to be in – and would pout if I did not get my way and stayed there in the chlorine and the rippling aquamarine water – are vivid and unforgettable to me.

Years later – in Florida once again – this time in July of 1992, dangerous storms smacked into Fort Myers Beach on multiple nights. The flashes blinded us as we watched storm warnings scrolling on the screen in red on The Weather Channel. The swell of the gulf, monstrous with the lack of any other light available, the swirling sky whenever I headed to the window despite my father’s warnings not to get too close, the nights that arrived where lightning simply carved patterns faster than anything I could comprehend. Thankfully, we witnessed all this. Thankfully, we were entertained by Mother Nature’s dissonant orchestra. Thankfully, we went back to Ohio and the normalcy – at least to me – of a summer as an eight year old not long after that. Hurricane Andrew hit south Florida one month later.

Speaking of weather and memories coming back and filtering in my frame of thought, there was a moment in first grade when the entire school had to head to the bathrooms in the basement floor because of a tornado warning. Despite the warning having been lifted, we all remained sitting in the hallways of the basement – the entire school, teachers and students – for a long while. We wound up returning back into the bathrooms as another warning sounded. That afternoon was full of May warmth, end-of-school excitement, and one of the kick starts for my fascination with weather. That and the Florida storms and Hurricane Andrew.

I could go on and on and on. But I think you get my drift. I want to keep all these things. Deep somewhere. Fresh and fluid. Already so many things in the past have fizzled and shriveled up into something I cannot ascertain; more recent scenarios have fizzled away. Nor do I seem to care about these forgotten things. However, when I look back and notice what I have forgotten, or what I might have forgotten, I do care. I care a lot. Words my grandmother said to my father resound harshly with me, even now, years after they had been said, years before she became entrenched and overcome with dementia.

“Whatever happens, the main thing that I wish for is that I don’t lose my mind.”

Every time I think about this, my heart wilts. My eyes sting. Two of my grandparents having lost their cognitive abilities, and both losing them severely. Even stronger now is my urge to grasp onto memories, to grasp onto what I remember. I still want to encounter and experience new things, new memories, new sights and scenes of beauty. But I want it all retained. I want it all, to steal loosely from Freddie Mercury. I want everything forever. Retained forever in some fashion. The way I have it here, right now, on earth. Is that selfish?