Which person has had the most positive impact on your life? Describe this individual’s personality and in what ways he or she has influenced you. (2019 O-level English Paper 1, Syllabus 1128)

TW: mention of death and an old person dying

Death is a strange thing. Many people fear it, but it stands as a chance to express our greatest triumphs in life. As a teenager, it is a little strange to say this, but the person who has had the most positive impact on me is no longer with us, and it is exactly his death that changed my life. While I have struggled to understand the precise nature of his giant spiritual stature and how he has influenced me, I will try to convey the sense of who he was and what kind of effect he had on me — how he helped me feel a lasting sense that life is alright, even though things may look bad at times.

I first met Uncle George when he met my family for dinner at home, and by that time he was already old. Not old like the kind of old most of our parents are, but old like the kind of old where it starts to get difficult to imagine how that old man could be so sprightly and happy. I eventually saw him lose that former quality, but Uncle George never lost his sense of joy and peace, even as he lay on his deathbed. I am getting ahead of myself a little, but to understand the gravity of his death, you would have to understand the nature of his life and how he was in life.

Uncle George would act as if he was always a little drunk and a little sad, but also always ready to laugh and make people laugh. As an octogenarian, he avoided alcoholic drinks, but my grandfather spoke of Uncle George’s younger days as a “hot mess” (where these old folks get their slang, I have no idea) of irresponsibility and way too much drinking. How did he remain so joyful and silly, then? When I asked this of him, Uncle George pretended to be shocked that I would call him silly, as he childishly threw back the accusation — “You then silly!” — in Singlish. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he looked straight at me with his thick glasses on his face, and said, “I never, ever want to lose the ability to be playful and childish. Something in a person dies when they lose that.”

Now, as a teenager, all I want to do is to grow up and be an adult. I struggle to understand what Uncle George means, but I feel like, maybe, there is something there, especially since I know that my parents spoke to him frequently for advice on philosophy and spirituality, and especially those boring “spiritual disciplines” the older people are always so excited about. Uncle George did say to me that if I found those things boring, that I should chase the things that fascinated me, like novels, politics, and girls (he added that last one), and that these disciplines would always be waiting for me if I ever wanted a little something more. I am now convinced that there is something more there, because his deathbed scene was tearful, sure, but also joyful.

It was something special to see Uncle George comfort the people around him even as the cancer ate away at his body. I felt awkward about being in his presence since he was so weak, so all he did was to ask to hold my hand as he spoke to my parents. Now that he is gone, I struggle to understand how he has left me with that enduring sense of peace and hope. I guess it must be something about how he made peace with his inevitable death. There must be something, after all, in those boring spiritual disciplines.

618 words

Note: this is completely fictional, and I had to dig a little deeper than usual to come up with this response. Reading all kinds of text (novels, self-help books, memoirs, biographies, etc) helps with essay questions that you may have trouble with, especially when you have to write from a place that may be slightly less than authentic. Also, this one gestures at religiosity, so the same old caveat applies — when in doubt, ask the adults already in your life! I’m not your pastor ;D

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