A Self-Fulfilling Prophesy
Photo by Tim Cooper on Unsplash
Peering into the kitchen on mornings before getting dressed for school, I often saw great-aunts Gigi and Sugar perform a strange activity. Hovering over the stove, Gigi and Sugar each heated a test tube suspended at the end of a test tube holder. Patiently, they waited to see if the yellow liquid in the test tube changed colour when a blue liquid was added to it.
“Why do you do that?” curious 9-year-old me asked, wondering if when I grew up I too would have to perform this early-morning ritual.
testing our urine for sugar,” replied great-aunt Sugar, though
her nickname had nothing to do with the amount of sugar in her
At 9 years old, I was unaware both great-aunts suffered from diabetes. They seemed to be dogged by one illness or another. Whereas Gigi walked around the house with Mercurochrome (a red dye) painted all over her skin, a supposed a cure for a recurring skin condition, Sugar drank and extolled the wonders of a milky white liquid, Asafoetida, touted as a remedy for her myriad complaints.
“Sickness, sickness, sickness,” I mocked. “That’s all you ever talk about.”
When my mother reached their age, history repeated itself. Talk of “sickness” also became a regular feature of her daily conversations.
Growing up in a house with two elderly great-aunts who moaned about their myriad maladies, and who compared notes to see who had the greater affliction, cemented in my mind that old age should be feared rather than embraced. Small wonder I dreaded turning 60. I refused to acknowledge I’d soon be old with all the attendant illnesses, if my family history was anything to go by.
A few close friends, together with my only sibling (older sister) who was visiting from England, began to brainstorm activities to mark my milestone birthday later in the year. The suggestion mill went into overdrive.
“How about a disco party to relive the 70s?” said one of my friends. “Remember Purple Haze and J B’s Discotheque? Those were the days.”
Not thrilled with that idea my sister, the consummate party planner, intervened.
“I was thinking of a tea party. We could order local delicacies like arepas, mini rotis and pastelles. Everything else I’ll make. People always enjoy my tea parties.”
Renowned for her soirées and dubbed the Queen of Entertaining, my sister gave free rein to her imagination.
“Or maybe an intimate lunch at a high-end restaurant with a handful of your closest friends?” she continued, winking at the friends present while ignoring the wearied expression on my face in response to each of her bright ideas.
“So you’ll be returning for my birthday in October?” I asked.
“Sure; of course,” my sister replied.
your money or your time,” I stated. “I don’t
even want to be reminded of my birthday. No cards; nothing.”
My friends raised their eyebrows but kept quiet. They knew they couldn’t convince me to change my mind if I felt strongly about something. My sister, on the other hand, refused to lose an opportunity to plan a party; so she persisted.
“You’re being ridiculous. So many persons don’t live to see 60. You should be grateful you’re still in the land of the living.”
These well-intentioned planners had to be stopped. I had to put a clamp on their eagerness and enthusiasm before it gained more momentum. In my opinion, turning 60 was nothing to rave about.
“Didn’t you hear me? No celebration. That’s final.”
“As If we believe it,” my sister sniggered.
“I’m dead serious. Please respect my wishes, ALL OF YOU!” I shouted.
Days later my sister boarded a plane and off she flew, back to her home in England. When it was her sixtieth, she indulged in year-long festivities. Why I was being so negative about my sixtieth was beyond her. That said, I expected her to respect my wishes, though I suspected she’d still be defiant and post a card or send a floral arrangement via interflora.
October rolled round and all seemed in order the day preceding my birthday, the Hindu festival of Divali. One of my close friends, Jeannette, and I got invited to an open-air Divali concert and dinner in the evening ̶ a welcome distraction from the pending gloom of the next day. Mesmerized by the young talent on display, I wondered if in forty to fifty years these youngsters would be reflecting on their youth, as I had been doing in the run-up to my sixtieth birthday, and ruing the exciting dreams, goals and ambitions that had fallen by the wayside.
I had hopes of becoming a world-renowned scientist. “Young woman unravels the mystery behind cancer; discovers the cure!” I could see the headlines in national, regional and international newspapers. Journalists clamor to interview me. My name goes down in the Annals of Oncology. I have made my mark on the world and will be remembered decades after my death. Alas, aspirations unfulfilled. I settled for a job as a science teacher at a high school with at- risk students.
My musings were interrupted when I spotted in the distance, at the other end of the outdoor arena, silhouettes of a man and woman bearing a distinct resemblance to my sister and brother-in-law. Improbable, I thought. They were miles away at home in England tucked in bed, given the plus four hours time difference.
Convinced my eyes were playing tricks on me on the eve of turning 60, I reached for my varifocals to double check. In disbelief, I nudged Jeannette whispering in her ear, careful not to disturb patrons in earshot of us.
“What the hell are Anne-Marie and Tony doing in this country?”
She shrugged, smiled and whispered back: “Guess you’ll have to ask them that.”
My sister, Anne-Marie, and her husband, Tony, had endured a ten-hour flight to ensure I wouldn’t be alone on what they regarded as an important day in my life. They felt my sixtieth should be commemorated and decided to journey across the Atlantic, despite my explicit instructions to the contrary.
Jeannette knew of the plan but remained mum, not wanting to incur my wrath. By the time we all left the outdoor arena and arrived at my apartment, initial shock and anger at being disobeyed had turned into warm chats, frivolity and laughter over cups of tea and a few Divali sweets.
“Okay. I hope this is it. You had better not be planning any shindig behind my back,” I told my sister. “It’s one thing to return to spend the day with me, and I do appreciate both of you being here. But I specifically said NO CELEBRATION. And that still stands”
“Yes, of course. We’ll just go for lunch at the Hyatt. That’s all. Just the three of us,” my sister said.
“Just the three of us ̶ you, me and Tony?” I repeated for clarification.
“Are you sure?” I asked my sister, not knowing if I should believe her.
“I said yes. What part of the word “yes” don’t you understand?”
They were already in the country, the table had been booked, they were delighted to spend time with me so I should at least admire their efforts to please themselves, if not me, and go along for the ride.
My birthday arrived. From early, a deluge of telephone calls, texts, WhatsApp and email messages descended on me. Did no one receive the memo that I didn’t want to be reminded I had reached old age? Why did they ignore my wishes? Had I lost grip on my friends? Should I add this to all the other faculties one loses on turning sixty – visual acuity, flexibility, muscle tone, memory recall, taut skin, hair melanin, sex appeal, patience?
“Table for three,” my sister announced as we entered the Hyatt Hotel dining area.
“Yes, your table’s ready; follow me,” the waitress said with a smile.
The Hyatt is a plush waterfront hotel in the capital city, overlooking the Gulf of Paria. Al fresco dining offers a spectacular view of the ferries as they sail from one island to the other. A faint outline of Venezuela is visible in the distance. Lining the waterfront are palm trees that add to the ambiance. The waterfront is a common spot for artists to erect their easels and be inspired. Why hadn’t the waitress seated us outside?
“It’s such a lovely day. We should be dining Al fresco like those other customers.” I mutter as we follow the waitress. “Anne-Marie, you should have requested an outdoor table,” I suggested to my sister.
My sister did a wave of the hand which, in her sign language, meant, “Shut up. keep quiet. I know best.”
Save for a table at the very end of the dining hall where three ladies in Hindu garb sat all in a row with their backs to us, the place was void of diners. The lady in the middle wore an orhni or headscarf around her head. Strange they all sat on one side of the long table. In my country, it’s customary for Hindus celebrating Divali to invite the marish and parish to their communities to partake of the lavish vegetarian smorgasbord. Perhaps this was the reason we had the Hyatt dining hall to ourselves though I found it odd the waitress, with we three in tow, walked past empty table after empty table before selecting the table at the end of the dining hall where the three ladies in Hindu garb sat.
I should have smelled a rat but didn’t, until the lady in the middle removed her orhni. All three then sprung to their feet shouting: “Surprise! Happy Birthday!” They were my closest friends disguised in Hindu garments who, at the beginning of the year, had joined forces with my sister to brainstorm sixtieth birthday celebrations. They had ganged up on me, ignoring my pleas for serenity and solitude on turning sixty. I shook my head in amazement at the lengths they went to defy my instructions. I was moved. I tried to swallow the lump in my throat, but it wouldn’t budge.
“So, no one listens to me anymore just because I’m sixty?” I said, pretending to be angry. They had pranked me, so it was only right for me to return the favor. “I say one thing and you all do the exact opposite?” I continued, feigning fury with an Oscar worthy performance.
Turning to my sister I yelled: “And you lied to me. How could ‘just the three of us’ become the six of us overnight?” I’ll never trust a word you say again.”
My brother-in-law, the perpetual peacemaker between my sister and me, put a calming arm around my shoulders to avoid a full-blown verbal onslaught in public. He had become accustomed to our sibling squabbles. One by one, the others followed, offering hugs to quell my pretend anger. They admitted being scared when my sister called from England to tell them of her plans. She, however, assured them all would be well and she’d stand the consequences. I enjoyed playing with their emotions like they had played with mine.
In truth, the thoughtfulness and effort that had gone into planning the surprise event overwhelmed me. I was treated to a mouth-watering lunch seasoned with local herbs and spices, numerous gifts, a birthday cake with a solitary candle since 60 candles might have been a fire hazard, and a special happy birthday chorus sung by them all, waiter and waitresses included. I left the Hyatt feeling honored, loved, appreciated and touched that they had dared to override my orders for no celebration on my birthday. Turning sixty was off to a better start than I had imagined.
Then calamity struck. On the way home I started to feel queasy, cold, despite the blazing sunshine and soaring thirty-three degrees Celsius temperature. My head throbbed.
“Is anyone feeling ill?” I asked, stretching out on the backseat to get some relief.
“No. Why, are you?” Glancing in the rear view mirror my sister, the driver, exclaimed, “What’s wrong?”
“I feel so ill. When I say stop, just pull to the curb so I can vomit. Tony, call the others to see if they’re sick. It can’t be me alone.”
My sister and brother-in-law had no symptoms; so too my friends, who were on their way home.
“Well, it isn’t the food, because we all had the same appetizers and most of us had the same main course and dessert. Plus, we all had water and wine,” I reasoned.
I was right. The exclusive Hyatt Hotel wasn’t at fault. I had been the beneficiary of a special sixtieth birthday present, thanks to the magnanimity of the female Aedes Aegypti mosquito. I had no idea when she visited, but she delivered her gift of a virus directly into my blood. Such intimacy. I, like scores of fellow citizens, had contracted the debilitating disease, Chikungunya (“ChikV”), sweeping through the land. And, the symptoms appeared on my sixtieth birthday.
“I don’t understand. How is it Ms Aedes Aegypti picked on me and not you?” I moaned to my sister as she brought me a glass of water and sapped my forehead with Limacol. “Doesn’t she like foreign blood? I mean you’ve spent so many years in England you’re like a foreigner now. ”
“Perhaps you were bitten last night at the open-air concert,” my sister replied.
“But you were there too! Couldn’t believe it when I spied you and Tony in the shadows,” I said.
“As soon as we got off the plane Tony and I sprayed ourselves with Odomos.” Anyone would think my sister, a nurse by profession, had shares in the Odomos mosquito repellent company the way she bulk-bought the stuff. “We heard about the Chik V epidemic on BBC news. Tony and I came prepared. We weren’t going to take any chances.”
And so my sixtieth year began, with no let-up in the months that followed, reminding me of the American opera singer Beverly Sill’s quote: “In youth we run into difficulties. In old age difficulties run into us.” It marked a year in which I attended a record number of funerals, forcing me to issue a warning to all friends and acquaintances:
“Okay people; listen well. I’ve already attended my full quota of funerals for the next five years. So if you die, don’t expect me to attend the church service, the burial or the cremation.”
Still, even if I had decided to pay no heed to my own warning about funeral attendance, a series of sudden ailments conspired to immobilize me to the extent that I wouldn’t have been able attend anyway! Thank goodness for WhatsApp, my lifeline.
“Jeannette, I’m speaking with you but I’m in so much pain right now.”
“What’s up?” Jeannette asked. “Thought you had gotten over the joint pain from Chik V.”
“It’s not Chik V, although that monster virus took months to vacate my system.”
“What’s wrong now?” inquired Jeannette
“It’s the sciatic nerve. I’ve consulted Dr Google and I’ve narrowed it down to the nerve stretching from the buttocks down the back of the thigh.”
“I know you don’t like taking pain killers but maybe you should, if the pain’s unbearable,” Jeannette suggested. “There’s a variety concert on next week. Does that mean you can’t go? I’m going to get tickets tomorrow.”
Jeannette didn’t let pain, rain or anything prevent her from attending an event. She’d have to be lying on a cold slab in the morgue before that happened. She had an aversion to staying home. Maybe Linda our other close friend might be interested in accompanying Jeannette to the variety concert. I called Linda.
“Hey Linda. I know we haven’t spoken in a while. Just called to find out how you’re doing.”
“Long time no hear. How are you doing?” Linda asked.
“Not as good as you, I’m sure. I have a malfunctioning thyroid gland. I consulted Dr Google and that’s the diagnosis. I’m gaining weight and feeling weary,” I replied. I’m sleepy all day and eyes.....my heel... my back...”
Linda and I chatted for a
while. I ended the call forgetting the purpose
ask if Linda wanted to attend the variety concert with Jeannette.
Talk of sickness and more sickness dominated our conversation and it
only took the opener:”How are you doing?” to set the
wheels in motion. The situation hit home. I was turning into my
mother and her predecessors, my great-aunts. Hello! Sixty was living
up to expectations with a bite and a bang.
The negative messages I had received and absorbed as a child gave me a jaundiced view of life after 60. The string of ailments suffered, beginning with the mosquito bite on my sixtieth birthday, proved to be a self-fulfilling prophesy.
I was open to anyone who
could convince me of the benefits of old age because I could see
none. Sure, people often say age brings wisdom. But
what use is this wisdom now, when I needed it back
about the memories created over the years? others argue. What good
are memories if you have Alzheimer’s?
By sheer fluke, my favorite talk radio station mentioned a new programme to be aired called Life After Sixty – about the wonders of turning sixty. Did this programme have the potential to dispel my negative beliefs about old age? The advertisement sounded promising:
“Feel better than you’ve ever felt before and live your most wonderful life after 60. Let’s talk about the challenges, explore some solutions and discover together the wonderful possibilities that await you.”
Then came the punch line:
“brought to you by
Belgroves Funeral Home, and A. A. LaQuis
Supplies Company, specializing in adult
aids, diabetic supplies, blood pressure monitors, wheel chairs and
other products for the elderly, sick and infirm.
Should I live my most “wonderful life after 60” thinking about the “wonderful possibilities” of death and illness? Is this all that awaits me on turning 60?
It’s been a couple years since my sixtieth birthday. I’ve travelled by public transport for free, sailed on the ferry at no charge, returned overdue library books with no penalty, received retailer discounts at many stores, dispensed valuable life advice to youngsters, and spent days and nights in pleasurable leisure pursuits. My time is my own. Who knew there’d be benefits to old age after all! Old age has given me a new-found freedom which, I am learning by trial and error, doesn’t always apply to my tongue! Well, you’re never too old to learn.
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