Friend or Foe
My shrill, pea-less Fox-40 whistle rents the humid August air as I call for a safety break. Patrons in the pool grumble audibly as they grudgingly vacate their summer oasis against the sweltering Texas heat. As I head towards the shaded guardroom, I hear another worn-out grumble. Why? My friend is writing, or at least attempting, his college essays. Luckily for me, I already have an idea in mind: my secret fear. I try to keep it hushed up because many of my friends would laugh out loud at something as trivial as a secret fear. To be frank, it is rather childish, but it actually helped me refine my aspirations from a crude mass of indecision.
A tinge of nostalgia interrupts my thoughts as I shout at a bunch of screaming ten-year-olds for running around the pool. I, too, was once a happy, inquisitive kid. I loved to create elaborate fantasy cities in my imagination and attempting to build them with Lego’s. I reveled in all the neat little gadgets that I found around the house: egg timers, can-openers, mechanical pencils. I was the highly-evolved cousin of Curious George.
Unfortunately, my curiosity got the better of me. One sunny day, I was reading outside in my favorite lawn chair, enjoying the most wonderful daydream, when a tiny little voice popped in my head. “What happens when you die?”
This innocent little question soon grew in magnitude; the more I pondered the idea of death, the more I began to panic at the thought of the blank abyss that awaits me. What would it feel like to just pass away into nothing? Would I really go heaven or just simply be extinguished like a burnt-out candle on a cold winter night? The sun did not feel remotely warm anymore.
I stumbled into my home and the arms of my mom, who was shocked to see the tears in my face. I immediately confessed my terror of death to her, and to my great dismay, the pitiless woman actually laughed. She laughed at my youth and my naivete, and promised that I still had quite a way to go before I needed to worry about that dilemma. Quite insulted at the time, I was not wholly ready to believe the nonsense of such a heartless mother. And thus I ventured deeper into this terrifying tunnel of shadows.
The one source of light to my misery arrived a couple months later in the form of my venerable Grandma. I was overjoyed to have her visit me all the way from China. She has always held great respect in my heart, not only because she is my “honorable Grandmother” and all that filial piety yarn, but because she is an incredible woman by her own merit.
She was a doctor from the days of Communist China. Now unlike the overpaid, stuffy doctors that we witness in hospitals and television dramas, she studied medicine because she truly enjoyed it; for Chinese doctors back then were not paid nearly as much as they are paid now. This is the vital difference that made me respect her so much. For eight months, we had a grand old time joking around and savoring the delicious dishes she prepared. When she returned to China, I feared I was going to sink back into that pit of despair.
A couple weeks later, we found out that Grandma had been diagnosed with cancer. Of course there was the generic panic and painful treatments, but never once did my grandmother let it bother her. She kept on cracking her lame jokes with me on Skype and apparently had jolly time at her stay at the hospital.
I was appalled! Obviously this disease-stricken woman was of the same stock as my unfeeling mother! Cracking jokes with a life-threatening lump in her body, I ask you. I confronted her about this terrifying possibility of dying and her answer was shockingly simple.
“The goal of life is not death.”
Now to a 12 year-old boy, scared senseless about death, learning about this carpe diem ideology was an incredible discovery. Because of my Grandma, I began to see the way out of my gloomy tunnel, and the world outside seemed so bright and full of possibilities. With her advice, I felt compelled to experience as much of the world as I can: all the new music, new classes, new people, and new food.
Sushi is delicious. Wasabi? Not so much.
I still find it is hilarious that such a frightened little kid from five years ago could ever be brave enough to be a lifeguard; not only looking out for your own life but for others as well. In fact, I sometimes see my fear as more of a rough friend, the kind of buddy that would push you into a pool just to make you learn how to swim. My fear — no, my friend, was willing to push me out of my comfort zone and focus my attention on what lies ahead. For me, the only direction is forward: I will not be deviated from my goal of experiencing life’s riches, nor will I ever look back at the shadowy tunnel behind me. A very brave Indian man, who stood up to the mighty British Empire, pretty much summed up my new-found perspective: “I shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”