It’s a cold and cloudy Wednesday morning on this twenty-fourth day of January when I find myself sitting on this green chair, writing on a circular, wooden table of the school library. Beside my journal is a coffee that I bought straight out from the vending machine in front of me. Every day, I make it a routine to reserve a ten-peso coin in my pocket so I can pay for this drink. I suppose drinking coffee every morning has been my ritual. It’s what keeps me going these days: making my heart beat faster as it normally does; evoking emotions for every beating of it; and finally turning these emotions into words. So whenever I am lost for words, I only pause for a moment to sip this coffee of mine until the right words come along. It seems to me that it is the only thing now that keeps me writing my troubles out, so to speak.
The weather today has surprisingly turned into a gloomy one when nobody expected it as the sun has been shining brightly as ever since the last few days. I suppose life is akin to the weather: it glooms in an abruptly way just as when it has made you used to the sunny days. In this particular instance, however, I think about life and how I spend my every waking day with the same strict routines that I follow. I think about how people unconsciously forget what really matters in life because of “other things” they would rather immerse themselves into. I think about how our routines gradually consume us and divert our attention intensely focused toward worldly affairs and trivial matters. I think about the reality of life: that one day, all of these things surrounding me will vanish; that one day, I, too, shall die.
It happens every day that we wake up in the morning, take a warm bath, have some breakfast, drink a coffee, and drive or commute to school or work. We would attend to our classes, our appointments, or sometimes to our organizational meetings. We would then watch a film or a series if we have the time. We would talk excessively with friends about almost anything. We would laugh out loud and think of a good restaurant to have some meal together. We would go to our most desired coffee shop, read a book therein, or perhaps study. We would prepare for a scheduled presentation, or surf the net for how many hours. We would go home right after, have a good night sleep, and in the next day: repeat the same routine.
It happens that Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday all seem to follow the same path most of the time. It seems as if our entire life had been programmed to be in harmony to the same, continuous rhythm every day. Can we transcend this?
As we are living the mundanity of our lives, we are gradually absorbed into this way of thinking where our perception of everything around us becomes constant and typical. Everything seems to flow with the current. Everything is under our careful control. Nothing seems wrong, at least hopefully. And everything seems so orderly, systematically, and accordingly just as the way we expect them to be.
This absorption has become so efficient in fixing our perspective. The process too is so transparent that, without our consciousness, it has successfully placed authenticity, meaning, purpose, and death to the background. Because of this, we are no longer aware of them, nor perhaps even spare a minute to ponder upon them. Like the fish that is unable to recognize the water as it has become ordinary for it, we are living under the mundanity of our lives oblivious, deliberately or not, to the reality and value of life itself.
While we are trapped into this matrix, somewhere out there are people who have already made an abrupt escape—people who have woken up from the illusion that hid the true reality of life. I refer to these people as those who are suffering: those who are afflicted with illnesses, diseases; by war and genocide; depression, worry, and grief; those who have recently lost a loved one; and many others alike. More than that, somewhere out there is a father diagnosed of cancer and a son anxiously bothered of his old man’s condition.
Unexpected things always happen in an instant. It doesn’t remind you beforehand. It doesn’t inform you of its coming, nor does it even give you a warning sign just like when you are driving on a highway and a road undergoing repair is one kilometer ahead from your location. Just when you think everything is normal, things could change in a blink of an eye, disrupting your personal routine, reducing your driving pace.
It was on a Monday afternoon in the middle of a class discussion when, all of a sudden, I received a distress message from my eldest sister, telling me that our father has just been diagnosed of a suspected cancerous cyst in the kidney according to his doctor. I was in the middle of a recitation then when I received the message. My teacher kept on asking the class questions about a previous lesson of which I still could remember. I uttered an answer to my teacher and then I half saw the text message. I read it afterwards properly. Even then, I knew that something doesn’t feel right even though everything around me seems as usual as they are. I didn’t know how to react. All I could ever recall was the sudden blurring of my vision of my teacher, my classmates, the chairs, the Power Point, and my notebook.
I reached for my handkerchief inside my pocket to dab my eyes. Tears were already filling my eyes, I realized. I was captured by the moment. Even though my body was physically present in the classroom, I felt mentally, emotionally, and spiritually isolated from my classmates. I could not hear my teacher speaking as if all the noises had suddenly been muted. My eyes were fixed towards my teacher but I could not see her. It seemed as if my consciousness went to somewhere else, but I knew I was arrested by the moment—a moratorium amidst the mundanity of life.
All the memories suddenly flashed back to me like a new episode of a TV series reviewing the previous events before it begins. I thought about how, in my kindergarten days, my father would buy me a box of Cloud 9 chocolate every time he arrives home from work. I recalled how, during my early elementary days, I used to borrow his screw driver to enact Harry Potter casting a spell. I recalled how he used to spoil me with almost all the things that I wanted: from toys, shoes, guitars, drum set, clothes to cars. I thought of the times when he provided me with everything that I needed in school. I thought of the times how he supported me with my decisions and my choices in life. I thought of how often he would give me words of wisdom that would always soothe my heart. I thought of how during every meal, we would share our favorite fish that my mother would cook for us; we would cut it into half so that his would be the head part and mine the tail.
While my mind was mentally traveling, I pondered upon the idea of death—that death is the only thing certain in this life. I reflected upon how short life really is that in every passing minute, someone somewhere is dying. I reflected on the simultaneity of things: that while we are here in class listening to our teacher’s discussion in the comfort of our air conditioned room, someone else from somewhere else is suffering from an illness, from a loss of a loved one, from depression, from poverty, from war, and from many other unfortunate events. This parallelism of world events made me think that just because it isn’t happening here at this very place that I am currently sitting into, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening at all. What would seem so little to me, to anyone might be all.
All the people suffering in this world because of numerous reasons such as international disputes, politics, religion, terrorism, crimes, and even stretches out to the people afflicted with different kinds of disease such as brain tumors, cancers, dengue fevers, malarias: these are the people who have to pause in the rhythmic patterns of their lives, who have to drop whatever they are doing in order to attend to the crises at hand. All of these sufferings are what we normally hear on the news, from other people, and from the hospitals, yet all the same we do not lend an ear to them. All of these do not seem to matter to us. Why should we even care? Who are they to us anyway? We do not really understand something so deeply unless it finally happens to us or to our loved ones. We do not really value the true essence of life until an alarming situation comes forth. We do not really know how something truly feels until finally it knocks on our doors, disturbing the comfort of our lives.
Many would pity these people, but I say that this pity is misattributed. I say these people are lucky enough because life has given them a way out from their routines which have gradually made them forget the essential things in life—routines that have blinded them to the reality of life. A breakthrough in this so-called “everydayness” of our lives would make us value our existence even greater. It would make us rethink on the essentials in life: our loving relationships, our family and our ties with our relatives, our behaviors, our faith, our mistakes, our shortcomings, and the people we may have hurt or wronged. It would also make us reevaluate how we are living our lives, how hardly do we forgive others, how easily do we get angry over trivial reasons, and how tightly do we clutch on to our grudges. The possibility of death is an enough lesson for us to learn about the most important things in life that we wouldn’t probably learn in the four corners of our classrooms. Suddenly, I regained consciousness from my mental journey in one of Mitch Albom’s famous lines: “Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” I then immediately told my seatmate that I won’t be able to come to class for the next subject. “I have to go now. I need to see my father.”
I drove on to where my father was on that Monday afternoon. I was driving really fast without minding the speed limit, recklessly beating a lot of red lights on the way. I did not even bother warming up the engine upon ignition anymore. I knew Papa would scold me had he known.
Somewhere in the traffic-laden roads of Davao City, however, there was one intersection where I was so close to traversing, but I was caught up by the red light the moment I was near. Abruptly, I stepped on to the break really hard and brought the car into a full stop. Annoyed and anxious, there was nothing else I could do but wait. So, I looked around instead and I saw a sticker of a fish in the car ahead of me. It was a simple fish, but beneath its existence is an underlying truth of which has rendered me in deep thought.
A fish’s natural habitat is the water. Once it is born, it does not need any “swimming lessons” like we humans normally do; rather, it just automatically learns how because that is its nature. It probably doesn’t have any idea at all that what it is doing is actually called “swimming” in human language; it just is. More so, the water is the fish’s safe haven. It goes around to it every day, swimming in its vastness. The fish probably does not recognize the water anymore because for all its life, it’s just there made available in its whole lifetime.
Because of this, I suppose the fish no longer acknowledges the value of the water because it has grown used to it every day. However, this recurring pattern in the fish’s everyday life reaches a point of cessation when it has been caught by the fisherman in his net. In that way, the fish wouldn’t have seen it coming. Once it is trapped into the fisherman’s net, it would desperately grasp for the water. It would try its best to reach for the water. But, when it is already too late for the fish to return to the water is the only time when it would regretfully realize the true value of the water that it had ignored for its whole lifetime. Sadly, there is no going back for it now.
Finally, it’s becoming quite chilly here in the school library. I reached for my cup of coffee but it was already empty. I am still very worried about my father’s condition and I guess this would be the only thing that will occupy my mind throughout the day. I guess a short title would be most suitable for this essay—perhaps that one simple thing that struck me most during that Monday afternoon. It would be enough, I hope, as life as well is short-lived.
I suppose we have all been too hasty in trying to meet our academic and work-related deadlines, notwithstanding the fact that even our personal lives are inevitably subjected to it. Nevertheless, I must always keep in mind that I should not become the fish that has made used to the water so much that it has become transparent to its eyes; rather, I should learn to value the water even before I am caught into the fisherman’s net—a “not-yet” and also a “will-be.”
On that Monday afternoon, the sticker of the fish in the car ahead of me had slowly become smaller and smaller in sight. Loud horns from the cars at my back made me shiver, bringing my attention back on the road.
The green light came, and I drove on to see my father.
Ali K. Satol Jr. is an incoming fourth year student of Ateneo de Davao University (ADDU) with the course of Bachelor of Arts Major in English Language. He is born in Cotabato City and is currently living in Davao City to finish his studies. Ali is the incoming Internal Vice President of SALAM: The Ateneo Muslim Society, a Muslim student organization of ADDU. As an English Major, he is also a member of the Society of Ateneo Literature and English Majors (SALEM). His essay, “The Fish,” was written for the said subject and is one of the many essays in his collection called, “Of Truth and Memories.” The said piece won Ali his place in the small group of finalists for the World Youth Essay Competition (WYEC) 2018. He is now competing for the final round of the contest.