Life: the long and short of it.

Like most Australians, I came across news of Dame Elizabeth Murdoch’s death yesterday. Flipping over to page 2 of the Brisbane Times to read the cover story – a short tribute to this remarkable wife, mother and philanthropist – a mum from school I was having coffee with remarked that she was saddened by the news.

“But at least she lived a very full life,” I said. “In her time on earth, she achieved so much, helped so many through the gifting of her time, person and patronage of various charities. If I could do even a tenth, I’d consider my time here very well spent.”

The other mum nodded. “Yes, she did a lot of good. She even outlived 1 of her 4 children.”

“Chinese are extremely fatalistic. We believe that life is predestined before birth; how long, how much, how well a life you will lead, has already been decided beforehand. Dame Elizabeth was extremely fortunate to have been given her life.”

It also depends on what you do with it, isn’t it?”

“That’s true. Having a very long life is meaningless if you only live for yourself. Quality of life is important too. She had a sharp mind until the end. What’s the use in living if your body is but a shell?”

“You see some of those people who don’t exercise, smoke and drink and yet live until a 100. Some others who take care of themselves get taken away too soon.”

“I know the kind you are talking about.” I told her about Dr. Richard Teo, multimillionaire plastic surgeon, felled by lung cancer at the age of 40. “He went to the doctor thinking he had a slipped disc from working out 6 days a week when really, he had cancer.”

Another mum joined in our conversation and I reiterated the insights we’d gathered so far. She said, “The Irish have a saying, ‘He who is born to hang has no fear of drowning.'”

“Even from within a family of long-lived persons, not everyone lives until a hundred. There was this man in China, who according to the New York Post, lived until 256. I wonder how many of his descendants lived past 100,” I said.

“No, it can’t be,” said the second mum, shaking her head.

“Sure it can. He was a master at the Science of Adaptogenesis. He practised Qi Gong. Qing government records show he was congratulated by them (the Qing government, then ruling China) on his 150th and 200th birthdays. The New Post captured a picture of him. He died looking like a 60 year old in the 1930s.”

“Maybe it’s a bunch of men with the same name,” said the first mum.

“I believe it’s true because traditionally no two names within the family are the same.” Chinese don’t have the tradition of naming a son after his father or grandfather. In fact, we believe naming the child after a parent will shorten the life of the parent. Ideally, names shouldn’t even sound similar. I continued, “Every male (and to a lesser extent female) has a generation name. The generation name is unique to that generation of a family. It comes from a family’s special poem. No two characters are the same. So outsiders, at a glance, can see who is related to whom and within the family, everyone knows which generation of the family the person comes from. Of course, this one-child policy business has changed all that in China. But among overseas Chinese, many of those with a Chinese name have one character which is used for all members of that generation.”

“How very organised you all are,” said mum number 2.

People also used to have a battalion of children, so I suppose it was a practical necessity.

“I too believe that life is predestined,” said mum 1. “Given your genes, there is just so long that you can live.”

“My mum had breast cancer and even though doctors botched up her treatment, she’s lived past the 5 year mark. They should study why this woman is still alive,” said mum 2.

“Well, you know there are survival statistics. Your mum is one of the lucky ones to live beyond what is common for someone with her illness. It’s been known to happen. That’s why I said it’s already written,” I said.

It’s the same message I convey to my ageing mother, who vexes herself frequently, and may I add unnecessarily, over every possible harbinger of death: illness, murder, accidents… You can be vigilant against disease that may lead to death, you can spend your time on the lookout for people and situations that may hasten your death, but ultimately, you can’t cheat or deny death. Its a given.

Death is not the absence of life. It’s the ending of life. So make the most of your time left. Let the petty and small-minded be (message to self about a certain cyber STALKER named Wendy). Live fully, live well, with purpose, and your time here will be well spent.