By Emil van der Poorten –
As I write this the television newscasts are awash with the horror of the terrorist attacks in Paris. It is easy enough in such circumstances to pretty well give up on humanity as a whole. However, in stark contrast to the wanton bloodshed with which we have all been inundated recently, I have had the privilege of being witness, over several years past, to a chain of events the final outcome of which, while unfortunate to say the least, more than restored my faith in the capacity of human beings to give of themselves absolutely selflessly with no expectation whatsoever of reward of any kind, certainly not pecuniary! That this happened in my home country, to boot, was cause for more than simple satisfaction.
It was only a few days ago that we saw an old friend who trod the halls of Trinity College in the Kandyan hills at the same time as I did, breathe his last.
His passing was not without pain to him and those who knew and loved him and the fact that his deteriorating health was spread over a fairly long period of time did not, I know, make it any easier for those near and dear to him who looked after him while he, literally, faded away.
I have chosen not to name names in this piece because I believe that the burden of grief that the survivors bear will in no way be helped by their exposure to public gaze, no matter how limited or how laudatory. However, I do not think that the caring and love they displayed under the most difficult of circumstances should go unremarked. Let it, in no matter how small a way, be proof that humanity’s upper reaches have not been completely abandoned and that “ordinary” people can rise to extraordinary heights even when seemingly bereft of the material means to do so.
When I returned to Sri Lanka after a long sojourn in a place as far from Sri Lanka as can be imagined, it was either the fates or simple circumstance that brought me into contact with someone I’d known, not particularly well, at my alma mater. On our first meeting, when he was still in full control of all his faculties, he reminded me that I was responsible for his entering a school boxing ring for the first (and only!) time because, through a (misguided?) sense of loyalty to the “House” to which we both belonged, I had persuaded him to enter the school’s House Boxing Meet. The reason I had exerted my skills of persuasion was that we were having difficulty in fielding a full team for the competition and every entrant garnered a point, win or lose, towards the final tally and, even though boxing was very much an individual “sport,” the team’s success was what mattered in terms of the ethos of our school. My recently-departed friend reminded me that I had, no matter how unwittingly, pitted him against one of the hardest-hitting and most skilled boxers in the entire schools system at the time and that, as a result, he only had a very vague recollection of what transpired in the ring on his first (and last!) foray into competitive boxing!
We often visited my friend and his wife who was closely connected to my partner, by marriage. It wasn’t just that connection that brought us close. It was the warmth of their hospitality, always good-humoured company and bottomless fund of never-malicious anecdotes that kept bringing us back, often “overnighting” with them when we visited the Hill Capital.
Our friend had retired prematurely from employment as a plantation manager and then from the administrative end of that sector as well, the cause being his need of a several “by-pass” surgeries in Great Britain and Sri Lanka.
Despite these serious health issues, complicated by diabetes, our friends appeared destined to a relatively sedate retirement, living off the interest from the funds they had accumulated by hard work over many years. This expectation, however, was rudely destroyed by the now-notorious collapse of the Golden Key business empire into which they had deposited the entirety of their life savings.
What ensued was the emergence out of this devastating blow of a story of love and compassion by many people who made my friend’s passing, spread over more than half a dozen years, a great deal less painful than could ever have been imagined.
I have never, despite having proceeded beyond the proverbial “three-score-and-ten” years on this earth, EVER witnessed anything like the love and devotion that my friend’s wife, children and extended family and friends gave him.
As one who has (and probably still does!) greet with suspicion any overt display of formal Christian devotion, the absolutely selfless manner in which my friend’s wife nursed him through years of steady physical and mental deterioration, could not but convince me that it was her faith in a greater power that consistently sustained her in a situation that would have completely destroyed anyone of less faith. I have thought long and hard about what I saw unfold over the years before my very eyes and I know of very few, if any, who might have come close to displaying the love and care it was my privilege to see.
In this she was assisted by her adult children, one of whom, not having children of his own to care for, would take several days off work in Colombo and come up to provide his mother with relief from her responsibilities in the matter of personal care of someone whose ultimate mode of mobility in his final days was a wheel-chair propelled by a care-giver.
Gratitude is an increasingly rare commodity as time passes and the world changes. However, the many selfless acts that my friend and his wife had performed in the years leading up to their time of greatest need, both financial and otherwise, did not go unrewarded, with nieces and nephews and other relations and friends rallying round to provide invaluable support of various kinds. I was gratified to see bearing fruit that old saying that, “As you sow, so shall you reap,” when one of their nieces travelled halfway round the world to be with her uncle, not taking so much as a day off, to make social calls to friends and relations in the land of her birth, because, as she said, “Uncle and aunty have been so good to me that I felt the least I could do was spend all the time I could with him during his last days.”
In a microcosm, this was what Sri Lankans can still be capable of: the display of a capacity for persistent love and caring under the most trying of conditions despite the destitution without retribution visited upon them by those who can, truly, be defined as the forces of evil. What I saw in the matter of surmounting seemingly impossible odds was, in and of itself, enough to keep burning the flame of hope for a future of decency and dignity for our homeland.