Friday, April 9, 2010
27. My Reading Life (3) [March 2010] Wayson Choy: Not Yet
I came across Not Yet by word of mouth: Glennis Pitches, the principal at my school, put me onto it. She’d heard an interview on the ABC with its writer in which he’d talked about his memoir and about discovering in his late fifties that he had been adopted; Glennis thought I might be interested. And of course I was.
It took me a while to find the book. It wasn’t helped by my propensity for jotting things on bits of paper that I promptly misplace.
‘Not to worry,’ I thought. ‘I can’t recall the title but at least I can remember the name of the author.’
I tried Borders and Dymocks and Angus & Robertson, but no one could find any record of a Canadian writer named Waylon Chan. Which is not altogether surprising. Eventually I found the piece of paper, and discovered my error, and located a copy of Not Yet.
Wayson Choy is a gay Chinese-Canadian, and Not Yet is his latest book, published in 2007. It is a memoir, but sadly it not the one I was after.
Paper Shadows: A Chinese Childhood is the relevant memoir – the story of Choy’s discovery, in his late 50s, that he had been adopted as a child. As I had been. It’s not readily available in Australia, but Amazon managed to get both Paper Shadows and Choy’s award winning novel, The Jade Peony, to my door step within a week of my placing the order.
Not Yet is a meditation on death and dying, the kind of book that men and women of ‘a certain age’ probably should read. After he collapses during a severe asthma attack, Choy wakes in the hospital, contemplating his situation:
Was I dying? Was I afraid?
I told myself: Not possible.
In my twenties I convinced myself that I would never be afraid of dying, never e afraid of that euphemistic ‘last stage of growth’. And I accepted that my dying would be inevitable – like everyone else’s – but mine would be entirely without pain.
A painless death had always seemed to me a sensible prospect.
I had my own brush with death in the early 1980s, when I was 37. I collapsed in the toilet at home as I expelled stale brown blood from my stomach and bowel. Four ulcers had been seeping for a week or more. The blood had accumulated in my stomach and intestines. I’d gone off my food and felt bloated all the time. I’d gone upstairs to lay down. As I climbed the stairs my legs suddenly went leaden. I crawled the final few steps and lay on the bed.
I felt a bout of diarrhoea coming on, and staggered to the toilet. When I came to, on the floor of the toilet, I was lying in a huge pool of brown liquid. I’d fallen to the floor, unconscious. Moments later, I lost sight – a result of blood loss to my brain.
Finding me unconscious on the floor, my wife had run next door and called our neighbour who was a nurse. As she sat me up against the wall, I remember saying: ‘Am I dying?’
Like Wayson Choy, I was not afraid. Indeed, what I felt resembled a blissful calm, and not resignation, but rather a willingness to accept whatever was to come. Like Choy, I don’t think I have been afraid of death; but I am afraid of pain. A painless death always seems to me a sensible prospect to me, too.
As I read the book, the title niggled at the edge of my consciousness: ‘Not Yet’. I “got” its primary meaning: Choy was saying that he was ready to die – just not yet.
But what was the echo that kept titillating my mind, the other connotation of the title? Then it came to me:
St. Augustine’s prayer: Oh Lord, make me chaste – but not yet.
And which of us would not say that: Not yet? Provided of course that we were not in pain.
When my father died in early 1989 he was ready to die. Ten days before he had taken a fall in his room at the hostel; his hip was broken. It was a very painful injury. His advanced emphysema meant he could not be allowed to lie flat in his hospital bed. I find it painful, even now, to recall our last conversation.
He knew his ‘number had come up’. He was in dreadful pain from his cracked hip, and was probably badly affected by the drugs they were pouring into him to ease that pain; on top of that, he could barely breathe.
I dropped in to the Royal Melbourne Hospital to see him after work one evening. He was agitated. We talked, but he was in pain.
‘I’m buggered,’ he said. ‘I’m completely buggered.’
Finally, in anger, he spat at me:
‘If you were any kind of son, you’d go out of here and bring me a gun so I could put an end to this!’
He’d never spoken to me in such away before – with such anger and venom.
I mentioned to the ward nurse that my father seemed very distressed and angry.
‘It’s probably the drugs,’ she said.
Wayson Choy came very close to dying, but in time he recovered. He’d had – now what’s that cliché? – a wake up call. In time, he recovered. As someone remarked, ‘There’s nothing clears the mind like the prospect of being hung’.
‘With everything that had been done for me: by my extended family and friends, I was determined to be in charge of my life again.’
And for a time, he did ‘take charge’ of his life. But we’ve all done it. Some scare reminds us of our mortality, and we realise that we have to take better care of ourselves: we need to eat better, eat less cholesterol, exercise more, lead more balanced lives, stop burning the candle at both ends.
But then we grow complacent; we slip back into bad habits. Or maybe we are just not up to keeping the reality of death firmly in sight; we prefer to fall back on our all-too-human forgetfulness; we prefer to act as though we will live forever.
By 2005 he was back into his old tricks – working too hard, taking on too much, not taking care of himself. This time, it was a heart attack. His arteries were 95% blocked; he needed a quadruple bypass.
I said Not Yet is a book about death and dying; but it’s also a book about friendship. Choy has lived for 30 years with two friends, a married couple, and their children. And throughout this account there are friends who come and support him through his illnesses.
He’s a terrific writer, with a gentle clear voice.
All of us know that our lives turn on a breath, and that any breath could be our last. For people like Wayson Choy – who suffers diabetes, and asthma, and has had a quadruple bypass – the statistics aren’t great.
But for Wayson, I want to join him in saying ‘Not yet’. May he live for many more years, so that we can continue to enjoy his writing.
Not Yet was published in Australia by Scribe Books, and sells for around $30.