‘Once in a lifetime. Once in a lifetime.’
Repeated my 72-years-young friend Pholung, as we trekked up a cliff on an island off the Andaman coast in Thailand. We were ascending to reach a point from where we had a chance of spotting a peculiar sea creature called ‘Dugong’, also known as the sea cow.
As Phulong took tiny steps up the coastal cliff, I could sense a silent determination in his spirit. His enthusiasm helped him tide over the limitations imposed by his body. I would help him out with my hand at difficult spots of the trek, but otherwise, for his age, he was supremely fit.
At a point on the way, when we stopped to catch a breath, he turned to me and said,
‘You know, I have lived in Thailand all my life, yet I never came to this island to see this beautiful creature. Now, as my age catches up with me, I realise I have limited time on earth. Sadly, the Dugong has limited time on earth too. This island is the only place in all of Thailand where you can hope to see this shy sea creature. I have grown up listening to stories about the Dugong swimming freely all across the coast of Thailand. Sadly, in the past century, their population has dwindled. We’ve hunted them down mercilessly. The few hundred Dugongs that remain, swim in the shimmering sea that lay in front of us. I hope I can see them frolic in these waters today. For me, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.’
He finished with a smile that a feeling of impending closure brings to the hopeful.
In a bid to encourage him I said, ‘And you are going to see the Dugong today for sure, Phulong. Something tells me that today is the day!’
He smiled, with a resolve you often see in someone who believes they can shape their destiny.
‘Once in a lifetime…once in a lifetime,’ he heaved under his breath as he walked up the cliff, one step at a time. The brittle sedimentary rocks crumbled gently under the determined stamp of his footsteps. The flowing wind ruffled his hair, inviting him to ascend further. A tuft of clouds screened the shining sun to light the sky up with hues of an arrival. All forces of nature seemed to be welcoming his resolution. His eyes shone bright, like emeralds in feeble daylight.
At that moment I wondered,
‘It is likely that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me too. Chances are slim that I will get to visit this remote island in the Andaman Sea again.’
I wondered why, despite it being a once in a lifetime experience for both Phulong and me, it held so much importance to him. I guess, that at his age, he understands the importance of time and the finiteness of existence much better than I do.
But, does one need to grow old to realise this fact? How most of the experiences we have in life could well be once in a lifetime experiences?
How many of us remember the last time we played in the school ground with our friends? Or the meal granny would cook for us whenever we visited her? The last time we cheated in a written exam? The last time we cried out of happiness? Or the last time we embraced a loved one we are not together with anymore?
How about the feeling you got when you received your first salary, the first time you held hands with someone you love, the first time you tasted an exotic fruit, the first time you heard your favourite musician…
All first times tug us to innocence, all last times tug us to nostalgia.
All ‘first times’ only happen once, so do all ‘last times’. This thought might bring a sense of wistfulness. But as we dwell on this thought, we’ll find gratitude gurgle out of the depths of our being, for to have the ability to experience these moments is, in itself, a gift of life. Beyond the notions of ‘first’ and ‘last’, we will dwell in the joy of being able to experience these moments. And once we come to that realisation, we will discover the inherent richness of every experience. You can read this story for the first time just once. And as you read these lines, you are coming to realise that this indeed is a once in a lifetime experience.
Realising this brings a gravity in every moment that leavens the sweet pie of life.
By being solemnly aware as these moments unfold, we present ourselves with the possibility of making the mundane memorable.
The next time we cross paths with a stranger, we may think of it as the only time we are going to see them in life. We may find the openness to offer a friendly smile to this once in a lifetime encounter. If destiny has it in store for us, that might mark the beginning of a lasting friendship. And we’d be glad to have chosen to smile.
I remember the first time I saw Phulong at Bangkok railway station, waiting to load his bicycle in the luggage wagon of the train. I clearly remember the smile he offered me from across the platform. It could have been the first and last time we got a chance to see each other. But look where that smile led us today! On the edge of a cliff overlooking a beckoning ocean, where the Dugong frolic to fulfil an old man’s dream.