Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Please Look After Mother

I’ve just finished reading a book called ‘Please Look After Mother’ by a Korean author Kyung-Sook Shin.  It tells the story of an aging and increasingly forgetful wife and mother to five grown-up children who, on a trip to visit them in town, got left behind at a train station, disappears and despite intensive search by the frantic family, is never to be found. 

The novel, narrated from different perspectives, including the Mother herself, is a beautifully written tribute to this figure we all owe our lives to, often take for granted and expect to always be there.  She is also someone we don’t expect to have a life of her own, let alone to have dreams, harbour secrets and longings; or if she does, they’re not something we’re comfortable with or interested in.  Mother for most of us, is a permanent fixture, a constant in a changing world and whose life ceases the moment ours begin.

Until one day, she disappears.  Suddenly the children’s world is shattered as they try to deal with the loss of a being by which all this time they have defined their lives, and as they discover that in truth they know very little of this woman.  That Mother too, is an individual and that until then, they care little about discovering who she really is and how she feels.  And whether she is actually happy.

A sense of Self is something we all have, but not what we think parents should have.  Their role is to worry about us, the children, and not the other way round.

Sometimes ago, my friend’s father disappeared.  He didn’t get lost like in the novel.  One minute he was at home as usual, relaxing in his favourite chair, and the next he was gone without a trace.  He walked out the door with just the clothes on his back and never came back.  He was getting on in years but his memory hadn’t nowhere disappeared into the darkness of Alzheimer’s.  He had been, as far as my friend was concerned, a happy dad enjoying the quiet pleasures of his retirement age and the comfort of a home in his village where he was well-loved and oft-visited.

For years my friend and the family searched for him.  Perhaps there was an accident.  May be he fell, had amnesia and forgot his way home.  Perhaps his Alzheimer took turn for the worse without their realising and he got lost and taken in by some kind people.  They searched the neighbourhood the hospitals and even consulted psychics.  Sometimes there would be report of his sighting somewhere and trips were taken to look for him, but to no avail.  Fortune tellers told my friend that the father was still alive, somewhere, and my friend believed so.  Somehow she would know if he had died.

There was a point when the worry about his disappearance turned to questions.  Questions that shifted from ‘what happened?‘ and ‘where is he?’ to ‘why?‘   He was her father.  My friend was prepared to see him grow steadily older and accept the fact that one day, he would pass away, like everybody else on earth.  But his disappearance was difficult to comprehend.  She wondered if the man who walked out of his house one afternoon never to come back, was the same man that she had known all her life.

Who was he and where was he going?  What went on in his mind?  Was he looking for something else?  Perhaps a new life, a new surrounding and new people?  Did he ever think about her, his daughter, and the rest of the family?  Was he happy?  Had he been happy all his life or was he waiting for this opportunity, to just get up and go and leave his life behind him for good? 

It took my friend a while before she could come to peace with his disappearance and stopped looking for him.  If he was still in full possession of his mind, perhaps he would come home one day.  Perhaps he did not wish to be found, in which case, she would have to live with the fact.  If he was no longer his old self and had lost his memory, she hoped that some kind people would feed him and take good care of him .

However, if he was no longer the father that she knew, who was is he now? 

What is this Self that we identify ourselves and other people with?  And is it the case when we no longer have recollection or memory about who we are and our lives, we cease to have a Self.  We cease to exist.  We would not be a somebody. 

Consciousness, according to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, is that which we lose when we’re in deep sleep or under anaesthesia, and to which we come back when we wake up.  It is to this sense of Self that we return to every waking morning, this ‘autobiographical self‘ that characterise our human existence and without which we can put meaning to our lives and relationships with our fellow human beings.

One day, we would lose this consciousness when we go into our final sleep, never to wake up again.  But what happens when we wake up, and instead of finding our old selves, we have no idea who we are and why we are here.  Would we feel lost in this world?  Or would we discover a completely different self?
(Desi Anwar: First published in The Jakarta Globe)

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