I stepped into the dimly lit nursing home, immediately transported into a bleak realm that reeked of decay. The formerly white bed sheets were now a pale yellow, and the elderly sitting on the beds and chairs seemed half dead. I knew I had to pull myself together if I was going to provide any services. So, I struck up conversations with the elderly and attended to their needs. Each weekend that I returned, I noticed one or two more empty beds. Had the bed’s occupants gone to live with their families? Had they switched to a more modern nursing home? My gut knew the answer, but a part of me refused to accept the inevitability of aging and death.
The chilly autumn breeze marked my third month as a volunteer. One afternoon, we were watching a black-and-white film in the lounge. The elderlies’ eyes seemed out of focus. Maybe they had seen this movie too many times? Maybe they were apathetic to the dull plot? As I tried convincing myself that the premise was inane, my eyes involuntarily wandered to the open window.
Beneath a towering banyan tree, an old man was doing martial arts, his grey hair glistening in the sunlight. Unlike the lethargic atmosphere in the lounge, each of his punches and kicks was filled with vitality. Intrigued, I shadowed the man on my subsequent visits. I gradually came to learn that the man, Yang, was even ‘stranger’ than I had imagined: he planted saplings in the backyard, which was not allowed, and secretly watered them at night; he often wrote poetry and prose, which he read aloud to the others; he shared his war stories while teaching us chess. Each moment by Yang’s side was a delight, and I often forgot that I was the caretaker, not vice-versa.
One day, I couldn’t help but ask Yang, “How come you look so much younger than your peers?”
“I don’t look young,” he responded with a mischievous gleam in his eyes. “I just live young.”
At the end of that semester, the volunteers planned to take a group photo with all of the elderly. Summoning everyone to the backyard was a challenge, as most of the elderly were hesitant to stand in front of the camera. Maybe they didn’t want to record their fading youth or accept that they were nearing their ends. Again, Yang was the only exception. He put on a smart sky-blue T-shirt and a pair of sunglasses, stood in the center, and instructed everyone on where to pose. As he flashed his biggest smile, it dawned on me that youth has nothing to do with age and everything to do with attitude.
After the Christmas holidays, I returned to the nursing home, excited to bring Yang a brand-new chessboard. Expecting to see his sunny smile, my stomach turned when I stepped into his room and faced an empty bed. Maybe he had extended his holidays? Maybe…I ran to the administrators praying that they would tell me anything but the truth.
The head nurse informed me that Yang had been hospitalized for a tumor that plagued him for several years, which caused him prickling pain on a daily basis. My sadness morphed into admiration: despite physically suffering, Yang chose to embrace every day with vigor. While most people wasted too much time attempting to stave off the aging process and lamenting their mortality, Yang never forgot to savor every beautiful, transient moment.
Spring came. Although Yang was gone, I helped his traditions live on. Every other week, I organized the volunteers to help the elderly leave the dim room. Sometimes we planted in the garden; sometimes we did Tai-chi beneath the banyan tree; sometimes, we reminisced around the chess table.
I keep the group photo on my dresser, and every morning Yang’s smile reminds me to live each day to its fullest.