Everything that his life had been was reduced to this. Every sinew in his body burned, every joint grated in such a way as to send sharp pains shooting through the very fibre of his being, like glass slicing relentlessly through skin and bone. His mind was fading, just as his body was weakening, but as long as he kept moving towards his goal he knew that he would be fine. His legs had been failing for years and so he had an increasing reliance on his walking canes, which had become like a second pair of legs throughout his daily trip to the shop.
Every day at 12pm he started out on this long, torturous hike. It was only half a mile from his house to the shop but to him, with the effort he had to exert to get there, it could have been Mt Everest. Never could there be an endurance athlete who exercised such willpower as this old man. Such was his focus, that he barely acknowledged the greetings of passersby that saluted him, not that there were many of those these days. Most people he had ever known had already perished in the relentless fires of existence. Many of them had rotted away, forgotten, in front of televisions in old folks homes, drugged up to their eyeballs so as not to be too much of a nuisance to the staff who cared for them; treated like children by these people who knew nothing and cared less about the lives of the empty decaying shells of those who used to be regarded as people.
His father had taught him about the importance of goals long ago. He was an old bastard, he thinks now, but it was burned into the core of his being that goals were not important, just the pursuit of them. It was only the determined pursuit of goals that could sustain your life force. “Keep moving forward,” his father told him time and time again, whenever he protested, as a child, that he was too tired or bored or sore to keep focused on the task at hand. “Pain is temporary,” had been another one of his mantras. Many things this old man had forgotten, but these two pieces of advice served him well, even though he had hated his father when he was alive.
He had known sweetness in his life, but the sweetness was always balanced with the sour. The memory of the electricity that coursed through his veins the first time he kissed his wife was as vague now as the day he held her hand and watched her breath her last gasp of air. She was only 37 when she passed away. She arrived in hospital well enough, but suffering from stomach pain. Within a few short weeks her body wasted away. He was confused when the doctor had said, “There’s nothing we can do but provide palliative care.” He wasn’t a man of words and didn’t know what “palliative” meant, so he had asked, stupidly, “What’s palliative care? Will she be okay?”
“She’s going to die soon,” the doctor intoned, casting his eyes towards the floor. Two weeks later she was dead, and he was left to rear his seven-year-old son. Alone.
Things were hard for a time, for both himself and even more so for his son. But he kept moving forward as if nothing had happened. He kept focused on his brick laying business. He didn’t allow himself to think of his wife’s suffering or the joy that he had felt during their short few, happy years together. Besides, the joy he felt the day his son was born was equal to the joy he had felt when he got married and it was better to focus on the joy that one holds, rather than to lament the joy that one has lost. His son adopted his father’s strength and, as a man turned 25, had been about to marry himself, but then he fell off a scaffolding and broke his neck, dying instantly. Another man would have been completely crushed by such a double tragedy, but this man kept moving forward, was still moving forward.
Fairytales always end with everyone living “happily ever after,” but that never happens in real life. The cold concrete facts of life are that hardship and suffering are mixed with flashes of joy and contentment in what is often hugely unequal measures. Nothing is guaranteed. There is no once upon a time, time is infinite and there is no eternal happiness. There’s just the seemingly endless cycle of birth and death. Of decay and regeneration. Of night and day. Of hope and despair. Of hot and cold. But right now the heat was still in his body. Right now he was still alive, standing, and on his way to the local shop.
He would die standing.