Learning to Imagine

“We’re foolish, don’t you think? After hundreds of years of living, humans still don’t know how to die. And after hundreds of years of dying, humans still don’t know how to live

I wrapped my jacket tightly around my chest, bracing myself against the cold wind. As I walked through the maze of quiet city streets, I couldn’t help but think of my husband at home. I wondered what he had cooked for dinner. I imagined him sitting at the kitchen table with two mugs of hot tea, waiting for me to get back from my night class. On cold nights, this was usually how he received me.

Really, he’s so considerate…

Lost in these thoughts, I slowly made my way home.

As I waited for a red light in order to cross the street, I noticed an elderly woman walking carefully in my direction. She was wrapped in a thick coat, and her head was lowered slightly to avoid the cutting wind. In both hands she carried several cloth shopping bags, all filled to the brim. Slightly alarmed, I hurried over to her.

“Sorry, ma’am, do you need help?” I asked.

She stopped walking and looked up at me. I was startled by how old she seemed to be – definitely over ninety, I thought. But she seemed incredibly fit and healthy for that age.

“Oh, no thank you,” she replied politely. “I can carry these on my own.”

Her voice was slightly deep and had a lyrical quality to it. For some reason it immediately made me think of my husband’s voice…

“Then, may I help you cross the street?” I asked her.

She gave me a gentle smile. “I wouldn’t stop you.”

We crossed the street together step by step. She didn’t really need that much extra time, but the light still changed too quickly, so I stood in the middle of the road and stopped the cars for a few seconds as she made her way to the other side. When I did this one of the cars honked at me. At first I thought, how rude! But when I turned to look at the driver, she gave me a thumbs up and smiled.

After we had crossed, the elderly woman turned and thanked me. “You’re very kind,” she said. “The world needs more people like you.”

I blushed. “It wasn’t anything, really…”

“Would you like to stop by my place for a cup of tea?”

The offer startled me. What a nice lady, I thought.

“No thank you, I wouldn’t want to impose –”

“Please,” she insisted. “I would like to repay you. It’s cold out, and a cup of tea would do you good.”

I thought of my husband at home. I didn’t want to keep him waiting. But at the same time, I couldn’t really refuse this elderly woman’s offer…

She saw the look on my face and brightened a little. “Let’s go,” she said. “It’s not far.”

So saying, she turned and began to walk. I trailed her, slightly amused.

We reached her apartment building a few minutes later. It turned out that she lived on the second floor. There was an elevator, but she headed straight for the stairs and I followed, impressed by her strength and endurance.

She set her bags down in the hall while she took out her keys. Then she opened her door and encouraged me to enter first. I found the light switch, flipped it, and held the door open for her as she brought in her groceries.

The place was a little small for my taste, and it was very sparsely furnished. But that gave it a clean, crisp look that was somehow appealing. There was a kitchen area, a living area, and a couple of doors that I assumed led to the bedroom and bathroom. I looked around, trying not to seem rude.

The elderly woman set her shopping bags down in the kitchen space and started to boil water. “You can sit at the table,” she said. “What kind of tea do you like?”

I lowered myself into a chair and took off the backpack I’d been carrying all this time. “Anything is fine,” I replied.

She made jasmine, which just so happens to be my favorite. I was very happy, and told her so.

“Good!” she said. “I’m glad.”

She brought two matching blue mugs over to the table and sat down across from me. “Here you are.”

I drank in the warm, refreshing scent. “Thank you very much, ma’am.”

“No, thank you.” She smiled and took a long drink. “I didn’t catch your name.”

“Oh!” I flushed with embarrassment. “Sorry, my name is Kohaku.”

“Kohaku… that’s a nice name.”

She didn’t offer her’s, and I didn’t push it.

After a few silent minutes of enjoying the tea, I gathered up my courage. “May I ask you a question?”

“Of course.”

“I don’t mean to be rude, but how old are you?”

“Over one hundred.”

“Wow…” I shook my head. “I can’t imagine living that long.”

“Hmm… I think you can.”

I was surprised. “What do you mean?”

The woman gazed down at the table between us. “Tell me, do you imagine what tomorrow will be like?”

“Of course. I think about the things I want to do tomorrow, the work I have to get done, the places I have to go, the people I have to see.”

“So if you can imagine tomorrow, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem to just keep imagining all the tomorrows for as long as you live.”

I thought about it for a moment, trying to figure out what she was saying. “Well, I guess you’re right.”

“Besides,” she said slowly, “it’s not always about whether or not you can imagine it. Sometimes I can’t imagine my tomorrow. But the thing is, there are some people whom I love who absolutely cannot imagine their tomorrow if I’m not in it.”

She smiled at me kindly. “So this means that even if I can’t see it, my tomorrow must exist.”

I let this roll around in my head for a bit. “So basically you’re saying that you’re still alive because other people need you to live?”

“That’s right.” She nodded with approval. “When they don’t need me anymore, I’ll die.”

“Wow. I never thought about it that way before.”

“Most people don’t. I think humans are very foolish.”

She downed the rest of her tea and then looked at me right in the eyes, her gaze surprisingly intense for a hundred-something year-old woman. “You should think about these things more often, Kohaku. Otherwise, you won’t be able to die.”

I shook my head. “Sorry, I don’t understand. What?”

“I think humans are very foolish,” she said again, exasperated. “After hundreds of years of living, humans still don’t know how to die. And after hundreds of years of dying, humans still don’t know how to live. Do you want more tea?”

The sudden change of subject startled me. “Um… I’m sorry, I would love to, but I think I should head back home now. My husband is waiting for me.”

“Oh, why didn’t you say so earlier?” She rose from her chair and took our empty mugs to the kitchen sink.

I put my backpack on. “Thanks for everything, ma’am.”

“I will walk you to the door,” she said. Apparently she meant the door of the apartment building, because she went all the way down the stairs with me.

Once we reached the ground floor she turned and raised a hand slightly. “Listen, Kohaku. Think about these things more often. You should learn how to live and die. Teach your husband, too! Don’t forget!”

“Okay, I will,” I promised. I still didn’t really understand what she meant by all this, but I figured I’d at least try to think about it. “Have a good night, ma’am.”

As I headed back out into the cold, windy streets, I thought, Either she’s too old, or she’s really onto something…

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