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 —