Writers in their twilight

HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - April 6, 2014 - 12:00am

In the last 10 years, I have been attending so many wakes, I am continually reminded that I am already in the departure lounge hoping that the flight will be delayed. Wakes are somber — even sad — events, but they also enable old friends — distanced from each other — to meet again and indulge in the dubious pleasure of remembering.

The Manila literati, then as now, isn’t all that big and sooner or later the better and more persistent writers get to know one another. At one such wake, I met once more that most beautiful poet, Virginia Moreno, and of course, we hurtled back to the ‘50s — that far and distant time. We recalled happy gatherings, the idiosyncrasies of friends. She concluded, “We are survivors.”

Indeed, I have survived World War II, Marcos, the harsh vicissitudes of the Filipino condition, these I remember only too well — but most of us, alas, don’t!

People who knew me for some time think I’m fit because I have become a tub of lard and, therefore, have few wrinkles. I tell them “the good die young — bad weeds thrive long.”

They don’t know how much I hate this condition, the senior moments that flay the flesh and the mind. These days, I forget names, words, and for a writer, such forgetfulness can be embarrassing, even tragic. I was introducing Nelson Navarro whose conversation always brightened my day — and I forgot his name!

My distaste and disgust for getting old are not mine alone. I’ve read of Norman Mailer and other authors condemn this inevitable catastrophe. “Growing old gracefully” is one of those myths hoisted by hypocrites who don’t want to admit they have become feeble, who put up a facade of resilience and well-being. For writers, aging will show in their prose that has dulled and lost its early lyricism.

There are those very few who, in their old age, retain a residual vigor which they use to make permanent what they have built. Washington Sycip is not a writer but an accountant and as such, he says he has only one book. We should emulate him; when he reached 90, he planted 90 trees!

And there is Chitang Nakpil, who is 91, her mind still active. In her twilight, she wrote this splendid autobiography and closed it with searing honesty. She admitted “all is vanity” and that in the end, only God matters.

So many wonderful people pass, many of them anonymous and unknown to us, some through an accident of fate, some through the inevitable toll of time and disease. Who, for instance, knows and reads Purisimo Lazaga, the Ilokano writer from La Union? He was very good as a writer and as a man.

Another was my own father-in-law, Dr. Antonio Jovellanos, an unassuming giant of a man in my eyes, who never cared for worldly praise or fortune — the epitome of rectitude and simple honesty. I remember one incident concerning him which I never tire telling whoever wants to listen. He was then director of the government Eversley Childs Sanitarium in La Consolacion, Cebu. My family often vacationed there. I was writing, ran out of typing paper and I asked him to give me some. I had expected someone to go to his office nearby and simply get the paper from there but after half an hour that I did not get it, I asked what happened. My mother-in-law said he had sent a clerk to Cebu to buy the paper for me.

I have purposely used some of my friends as models for my fictional characters and I hope they will forgive me for this. Like myself, they, too, have become decrepit. The other week, Francisco Nemenzo, Jr. stopped by Solidaridad for coffee. Like me, he now uses a cane. We compared notes about our diabetes, our perception of depth particularly while walking, Dodong Nemenzo, Jr. is a traditional Marxist and though I hesitate describing myself as one, I told him that in this, my unhappy twilight, I still passionately believe in the righteousness of the class struggle. Dodong is the model for Professor Hortenzo in my novel, Mass.

I also visited recently the Jesuit house in Diliman to see old friends, Arsenio Jesena — my model for Father Jess, also in Mass; he walks now with a cane, too. I met him way back in the ‘60s when as a young Jesuit; he worked incognito with the migratory sugar workers — sacadas — in Negros. Father John Schumacher (Father Jack Macker in Viajero) was on his sickbed. He had worked on the Propaganda Movement and I convinced him in the ‘60s to take on Philippine citizenship. He did — I hope, not to his regret. Fr. Jaime Bulatao from Pangasinan was ill in bed, too; I had many conversations with him on paranormal phenomena, a lot of which I put in my novels and short stories.

Advantages that go with us ancients are few but very welcome. Thanks to former Senator Ed Angara for providing us with a 20-percent discount in drugstores and restaurants, and in Quezon City and Makati, free entry to the movie houses.

My wife and I were in Davao at the Marco Polo hotel sometime back and, one evening, we found the hotel restaurant full of seniors. It turned out that if a senior’s age is 80, his bill is minus 80 percent — 100 years old, he doesn’t have to pay a cent!

And of course, in civilized countries as in Japan, my wife and I are always offered seats in the crowded subway trains.

I’ve heard young people say that they are either amused or embarrassed when they see elderly couples kiss. Why shouldn’t we express our affection physically? True love never ages and although the eyes dim in old age, what is beautiful to a 20-year-old — a pretty scene, a lovely face — will be pretty to a 90-year-old as well. But as that old Ilokano folk song goes, “The love of an old man is bitter.”

And sex?

I bring to mind an interview in Esquire magazine sometime ago with that famous comedian, Groucho Marx. He had just been awarded yet another medal from the French government.

The interviewer asked, “Mr. Marx, in your old age, you have already received so many awards. What do you think about your latest?”

Said the great American comic: “I’d give them all up for just one erection.”

End of interview.

If the bones turn brittle, the senses, too, and even the lust for living are numbed. Fortunately, for so many octogenarians, the mind and the imagination are as youthful as ever. The aging Leo Tolstoy in his waning years brought himself nearer to God. Yasunari Kawabata agonized over a Japan that purloined its soul and degraded its beauty. Unable to bear his pain, he ended his life in the tradition of his people. To the very end, Norman Mailer was irascible but still writing. So was Nick Joaquin — in my continuing conversations with him that often morphed into shouting matches, his views on art and nation had hardened. Yet he didn’t stop writing.

At the risk of being erroneously compared with these literary monuments, I look at myself, how this tired old hack had changed as he inches towards 90. Sure, I cannot race up the narrow flight of stairs to my cubicle anymore, or jog in the Luneta as I used to. But thank God, my mind is still lucid and my anger is ever throbbing and alive — anger at our cupidity, our shallowness, and above all, this seething hatred of the injustices heaped upon us by a shameless politicians and a rapacious oligarchy. It is this anger that moves me, this heart and mind, and so I continue to write no matter how seemingly futile it seems.

All of us who write short stories, novels, poems — we endure the agony of creating these, maybe because some celestial hand has touched our hearts and perhaps, just perhaps, we will be able to create beauty that will endure to adorn an otherwise dismal world.

Then we see all those piles and piles of unsold books in the bargain counters of bookshops — a most unnerving sight. We are never discouraged, though, consoled by the knowledge that art is long and life is short. Vanity again as Chitang Nakpil intoned, and we feel even closer to God.

Seniors of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose now but your lives anyway. In the meantime, make good use of your little time left. You can age with wisdom. American researchers have found out that the elderly have more information (of course!) in their minds than younger people. Use this surplus to find “meaning, contentment and acceptance” in life. Banish the thought that you can’t stand yourself because you can’t do anymore what you used to do. Reduce narcissism, ego, self-centeredness. Adapt, “with lightness and humor.”

I am going to Mindanao shortly to address a meeting of barangay tanods. I think I will paraphrase what Mark Twain said when he addressed the English Parliament more than a hundred years ago.

“Homer is dead. Cervantes is dead, Rizal is dead. And now, I am not feeling too well, either.”


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