The Train of Our Life: a Tale of Death and Being Alive

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this story is chosen in "top 10 most loved", among 136 stories I wrote in my first year blogging

click below to listen to my reading of it

There was a little boy, he was 5 years old when his mother died. Soon after that, this poor child was abandoned by his father. A Buddhist monk took him in the temple. So the child swept the temple’s yard during the day. At night, he slept on a torn mattress under the big Buddha statue, resting his back against the cold hard concrete floor. His task was simple: he must keep the yard clean of the leaves fallen from the big Bodhi tree. But the leaves fell every time the wind blew. Sometimes he raised his head to ask the sky “Why make the wind blow? Why make me suffer?”

That little boy is my grandfather. My grandfather had grown up to be a tough man, like good iron melted and molded under the heat and hammer blows of life. I did not spend much with him when I was little. Not as much as I did with my other grandfather, who was a poet.

The stern look on his face scared me. Stern because he was a military man who had fought the Vietnam War for 3 years. There was one time, he said, his troop marched across a forest in order to reach the south of Vietnam. At night, they hung up hammocks to sleep in. Their breath was tiring. Their sleep was deep. At dawn, my grandfather woke up to find all of his comrades dead; termites had covered and consumed their body. Everyone else was dead, except him. Nobody at home expected to see my grandfather again. Still, he fought his way home. Those dead bodies, and many other in the battlefield still haunted his dreams.

I still remember my grandfather in his sixties, his broad shoulders, his thick torso, his tall figure, casted shadow over me. He was the kind of “old” man who drove hundreds of kilometers to the countryside to fetch back a young orange tree, tied at the back of his motorbike. Then he climbed four flights of stairs to his rooftop garden, carrying the orange tree in his arms.

Gardening kept him calm. He sought solace in the budding of orange flower. I think it reminds him that life goes on, and flowers grow for you, and orange tree gives you sweet orange, no matter how much blood had stained the souls of your feet and the palms of your hands.

One day, like every other normal day, my grandfather was walking downstairs from his garden. Only on that day, he fell.

He had a stroke.

My grandfather - my tough grandfather - again survived the 50/50-chance brain surgery. But his stern look is replaced by a confused look. Now he can hardly move from his chair. My grandfather becomes like a child, who shivers and cries aloud when he sees his own family members. Maybe he senses the hopelessness, as he spirals deeper in the wormhole of disorientation, knowing how his fragile body and mind, like a flower vase, will break the moment it reaches bottom.

When I visit him, he reaches his arms out to me – something he never did before the stroke – like a five-year-old orphan yearning for a warm embrace. As I see him closely, through the thick layer of fog in his eyes, I know he is teaching me how to live.

We are all dying, aren't we? Every day, every hour, every second. I imagine you and I are on a train, and at some point, we will need to say good bye to each other because the train has arrived.

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Whenever I catch myself in the dark hole of pleasing, proving, perfecting, I must look up to the light and ask: “Do I really have time for this?” “Well, I don’t! Life is just too short, too precious.”

Gotta live!

These days I ponder this question often: “If tomorrow was my last day, what would I change?” And I feel at peace when the answer is “Not much, really.” I would still do yoga, teach yoga, dance and write in the morning, make art, inhale the fragrance of green tea, and drink my cup slowly, make lunch and dinner for my family, have heart-to-heart conversations close friends, and spend the evening talking to Rapha, and close my eyes at night feeling that I am enough.

Maybe I still want to change something. Maybe it is to savor more each bite as I eat, let the grain of rice stay in my mouth a little longer, sucking its sweetness. Maybe it is to whisper to my parents “I love you so”, and hug them, and touch my mother’s face, and press my cheek on my dad’s back, smelling his smell – even though it has a hint of alcohol and cigarette. Maybe it is to treat others, even strangers, with more tenderness, so that when I wave at them, when I depart this train, with contentment and gratitude because life has given me much, someone will smile with longing in their eyes, and wave back.

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What about you?

If tomorrow was the last day of your life, what would you change?