In Portuguese, when a person celebrates a birthday the person enters the house of the following year. If a person has completed an 89th birthday the person enters ‘the house of ninety’ or ‘a casa de noventa.’ I always found it a unique way of expressing the experience of ageing. Each day of the year is like a brick which makes up the ‘house’ of that year.
A few days back we entered the casa de noventa. Sr. Michael was celebrating her 89th. I knew Sr. Michael since I was a child in school. Her booming voice was the same, the twinkling eyes, but most of all her laughter and her sense of humour. It just grew on you.
She recalled things I said when I was little – things even I could not remember. She spoke of mum and how she was a wonderful person. She spoke of the towns we had stayed in, in the past, and common acquaintances. Somehow she seemed to sum up life and all there is to it, i.e. that life is finite and we must try to be happy without hurting others.
When we ask her to come home for a meal she usually declines, preferring the solitude and prayer of her room. Unafraid of death – ‘the necessary end’ – she composes herself and prepares for it. She told us she gets up at 4.30 a.m. to pray. Basking in the silence before dawn she reaffirms her surrender to Him.
There is a certain joy in being near the old. The life they have seen, one still has to see. There are many ‘houses’ one has to live in before one inhabits the ‘casa de noventa’ – if at all.
The joie d’vivre Sr. Michael finds in every day in an inspiration to all. She is not, like so many old people, ‘grimed by sorrow’ as Tanya Mendonsa puts it, in her poem ‘Spending Time with Old People.’ In the community of her own, she was cared for and at peace with life. Her inner strength propelled you to examine your own life, your values.
Firmly ensconced in her ‘casa de noventa’ Sr. Michael is the very embodiment of the past, the present, and the awareness of the future. Happy for the exercise, climbing the stairs gives her, she lives her routine with grace-filled joy. A keen reader and writer, she keeps the mind alive and is up-to-date on the latest world events.
When we left she wished each one of us, told us to love each other. I raised baba up so she could bless him. She did so, kissing him tenderly. ‘Come again’ she said cheerily. The birthday cake and snacks we had brought were dismissed and consigned to the refectory. She did not even glance at the chocolate cake – her favourite -- and the lettering ‘Happy Birthday Sr. Michael’ with a bed of flowers, done in icing beside it. Her detachment was so eloquent. A life being well-lived!
This article was published in the Gomantak Times, Weekender, Panjim, Goa on Sunday 24 March 2013. I handed it to Sr. Michael the next day. Pix source: dpc.org.au