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Disappear: The Eternal Endpoint for Everything, Except Love

By Keshia Naurana Badalge

Consider the word Pompeii. The idea of it, the Pompeii in your head, was cast from its destruction. Yet Pompeii is not the volcano — that privilege goes to Mount Vesuvius. Pompeii is the place, the residue, the still and the destroyed, an icon of eternal destruction. I say eternal because the walls and the bodies still remain in the Pompeii museum, and are gazed upon by people who are alive, witnessing a moment of absolute loss.

Theatre-maker Edith Podesta and film-maker K. Rajagopal’s Pompeii takes this mythical endpoint and brings it close to the daily lives of Singaporeans residing in an apartment complex known as Pompeii. With the laden name as title and backdrop, Podesta writes of a community in grief and grieving: the loss of a loved one, the loss of hearing, the loss of parents, the loss of a friend, the loss of a dog.

Three condominium units are set up on stage, and above, a large screen livestreams velvety black-and-white close-up shots of the various actors in their apartments. Cinematographers in black make their way around the units on stage, filming the actors interacting with objects, showing the audience angles that they are unable to see from their seat, and more importantly, what to pay attention to. On stage, someone sprays water onto a pane to create an effect of rain, and at one point a screen showing a cityscape is brought on as well, revealing for all how a film gets made.

In one home there is a Japanese composer (Futoshi Moriyama) who has been commissioned to create an orchestral work “to fill the quietness before the funeral convoy leaves the morgue”. He is staying with an architect (Sharon Au) whose home is filled with objects “exceptional in its normalcy”. “Take her plates, for example, you’d open the kitchen cabinet, and there it would be, the most plate-like plate in the world that you could ever see,” goes the script. In every scene, the prose is charming, literary, and keen.

The architect lives beside an expat (Helmut Bakaitis) who is still grieving his deceased wife. He relives memories of being a child and eating crumpets prepared by his mother early in the morning, though with regret, as “he had never thanked her”. This childhood meal is interrupted by a helper (Cindy Yeong) who has come to clean the expat’s apartment and help him move out, while her child (Lauren Teh) tags along and tells the expat of her recent grief from losing her dog.

An erudite narrator (Remesh Panicker) provides the overarching commentary. Backstory is difficult to provide in a play, but Podesta circumvents this through this omnipresent voice which sees both past and present and gives reason to the actions we see. For example, while we watch the composer performing a farewell ceremony for his bent needles, we learn he used to share this ritual with his grandmother, but she had become too frail to walk the steps to the temple in Kyoto and so the ritual of gratitude had to be performed across from her at the dining table. The narration prevents the play from becoming a mime (or silent movie) – the dialogue between the characters is sparse – and gives each scene emotional significance and a thorough injection of loss.

While the characters are understated, they are, like Pompeii itself, cast from the griefs they have experienced. The heft of the play is carried in its philosophical, poetic narration, and here is also where it is the most moving and where it has touched me the most.

To live with loss and death is a human condition which is bestowed upon every man and woman, but some of us live close to it, day after day, fearing the loss which is about to come our way; and some of us live as if flying above loss’ palm, seeing it grab hold of objects, memories, places in time, but never us, not yet.

I count myself in the former. I take heart in the composer’s pain. I was born close to my own Pompeii. I was that precocious child who, instead of having the skills of football (I wish), was gifted with a preternatural awareness of death. While my peers would only begin to worry in their 30s or so about their parents getting old, the person I loved the most – my grandmother – was already old. She was old when I was born, and she has only gotten older.

Her timeline was already the shortest of the people I knew, and from my earliest youth until the present day, I have been inflamed by this terrible fear of having to live without the person who raised me and cared for me. I watched as she grew frail, and – like the composer and his grandmother – she could no longer walk from her apartment to Hougang Mall for our ritual of McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish. I now buy McDonald’s on Grab and sit across from her at the table instead. I watch her and I see the loss of her teeth, the loss of her hair, the loss of her hearing, the loss of her mobility, her wrist displaced and broken from a fall, the loss of her dignity, and I see my personal Pompeii inching closer every day to the inevitable.

But there is one eruption that the animal-geologist-eruption-specialist predicted would come sooner.

Hemangiosarcoma is defined by its eruptive nature. Like a volcano of the organs, of blood. A bunch of cells, cancer cells, that together make a tumor, taking over the organs, and one day in the next one or two months, the organs will explode, leaving a spewing red wreckage in its wake, blood flowing from the tunnels of the body.

I never want to see this eruption but this is what was foretold to me. It has been two years since June 2021 when the animal-geologist-eruption-specialist made his reading: my dog, my sister, my Shandi, my goldador, at 13, would live for one or two months more.

From the initial diagnosis of hemangiosarcoma, I calculated the possibility of an eruption. A consult with Google yielded this result: Average survival time with surgery and chemotherapy is five to seven months. 90% of dogs are deceased one year post-diagnosis despite surgery and chemotherapy with almost 100% mortality two years post-diagnosis.

Upon the animal-geologist-eruption-specialist’s advice, I chose not to seek chemotherapy. The specialist had told me there was no point, there was no stopping this hemangiosarcoma, no stopping a volcano that needs to spew, no point in an operation for a dog so old.

And here I am, two years after the initial diagnosis, holding Shandi’s rough, black, round, soft, furry paw. Every day, I know: Pompeii. It is coming. It is here. And every day, knowing that this life as I know it, this life with Shandi, my furry dog sister beside me, will end before I am ready, I ask myself: How would I spend my day, if today is the day that Pompeii comes to be?

There are countless times throughout Pompeii where I thought: this was written especially for me. On the topic of hearing loss, I thought about how Shandi has lost her hearing. I have wondered: what is a Shandi if she cannot hear her own name? For she cannot read the alphabet and see her name spelled out, or understand her name in any way other than this specific tune of syllables she hears us say when we look at her and want her attention. In silence, who is Shandi to herself?

And to these very personal and intimate fears of mine, whether the loss of Shandi’s hearing, or the loss of Shandi herself, the play comforts and soothes. On the topic of a dog’s passing, the narrator says as if directly to me: “It's the beginning of a great loss when a dog enters your life, it's the genesis of an anguish waiting to happen. And if you follow this line of seeking, you may come to the loneliest thought of all that maybe it would be easier if you never fell in love with anything at all.”

So I am grateful to the play for reminding me of this terrible mortality, and the choice to love the beings I do even when none of them are above death’s way. The play also consoles me, telling me: “Life, all life, will come to an end, that it will not turn out differently, that the terrible thing will happen, and if you’re lucky, you will bear witness to it…somehow we will be able to bear it.”

I will bear the losses that are close to me and the losses that are far. I will put this play in a chest of things I can draw strength from, along with the poem that this play ends on, As I Walked Out One Evening by W. H. Auden. Here are my favourite lines. I will keep them in my heart, I will look to them when I, and those I love, become symbols of an absence, a loss, a grief, become my own Pompeii:

   ‘Love has no ending.
‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
   Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
   And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
   Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
   Like geese about the sky.

‘The years shall run like rabbits,
   For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
   And the first love of the world.’

 

I love you Shandi. I love you grandma. My first loves of the world.

 

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