A new year is born. An old one passes.
I spent new years eve in silence on a week-long meditation retreat. As I reviewed the highlights of the dying year, my mind recovered the wave of death I encountered in the final months of 2011.
Early in October, I decided to do an internet search for a dear friend I had lost touch with. Eva and I had studied Occupational Therapy together at the University of Toronto. We were the same age, our birthdays close to each other, and we had offered refuge to each other as two creative misfits in a more conventional, medicalized world.
We kept in touch through the years often enough to delight in the unexpected parallels in our lives. I found myself drawn to Dance/Movement Therapy and Eva began using music as therapy. I learned about native American spiritual paths and Eva married a First Nations man and embraced the his culture wholeheartedly. Our friendship represented a certain soothing security for someone like me who changed homes and occupations so frequently. It was good to know there was a kindred soul out there who could understand.
Things changed after Eva’s sister suddenly died of breast cancer. Soon after, we lost touch. About once a year, I would try finding Eva online to see if she had decided to venture into the 21st century from her back woods log cabin, but I never found her, until October. In the back of my mind and heart, I had carried a fear that Eva had followed her sister, so it was and wasn’t a shock to come across her obituary.
No, it’s not true. Death is always a shock. Just like birth. One can never be fully prepared for the mystery.
The greater shock came the next day, when I discovered Steve Jobs had died. Again, his death was expected. The shock was on another level. The intellect had no problem with the event. The heart balked.
Steve Jobs, like Eva, was exactly my age.
We are all interconnected…
Resonance is a wonderful thing. It can also be painful. I choose for my heart to be so open that I feel the pain of others passing me on the street. I find that allowing myself to feel the pain also enables the depths of joy. Where, however, does other become me?
Learning about someone’s death probably always offers the potential for existential re-evaluation and reflection. When the dead person has something in common with us, the offering is potentially greater.
Steve and Eva were my age. And they were dead. Was there a message here?
The message for me was about life. I had been witnessing my father’s slow, dragged out approach to death for some years. This had offered the ongoing gift of remembering each moment the preciousness of life. Now, this preciousness was highlighted. Were Eva and I still on parallel paths after all these years? We never know, even if we smugly pretend otherwise, when our moment will come.
To quote Jobs,
Almost everything--all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure--these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
Interestingly, this quote was read to us at the meditation retreat last week. What does it take for us to remember we will die? How easily we lose ourselves in the tasks and activities of everyday life, forgetting what may be more important.
Around the time that I found Eva’s obituary and Steve Jobs died, I received a sad email from my father stating starkly, “Mary has died.”
Mary was my mother’s closest friend. Like Eva and me, Mary and my mother (and the Queen my mother would include) were exactly the same age. Their birthdays were a few weeks apart. Mary had been remarkably well and active at 85, and was always there to support my parents in countless ways. She had suddenly become quite ill and died. Just like that. She was gone. My father seemed to take this as a message. My mother cried.
A few weeks later, on November 4, my father also died. He had been in and out of hospital repeatedly. Again, his death was not unexpected. In fact, his doctors would reportedly ask him, “What are you still doing here? You’re supposed to be dead!” One of my father’s quips was that he couldn’t die yet. “I still have a few more people to make miserable,” he declared. I guess by November he had made enough people miserable and was ready.
I had witnessed him move into readiness, visiting and Skyping frequently the last few years. As I watched my father struggle with breath the day before he died, I was reminded of the many times I had tracked his breath from his living room floor. He would sleep in his reclining chair as I did my Continuum dive in the morning. I would hear his breathing, loud and uneven, his mouth open, in a desperate gesture to bring in even a little more oxygen. Sometimes I felt compelled to look closely to check if he was still there. And then another breath would come.
Holding my father’s body after he died was a profound experience I shall be forever grateful for. As a cranial practitioner, I felt I was being given an incredible gift. His body still warm, I sensed the fluid in his tissues no longer guided by the Breath of Life. The energetic midline I am so used to orienting to with my clients had disappeared. I could feel life energy gradually lifting off the body and, eventually, the tissues beginning to dry out as the warmth of life diminished.
On the retreat last week, I had the opportunity to sit with a human skeleton provided as a tool to support our awareness of the impermanence of being. The skeleton’s mouth was open like my father’s, sometimes smiling, sometimes smirking, sometimes apparently at peace as she watched us in our slow walking meditation back and forth, back and forth in front of her. What did my father watch now?
And Still More
The final shock of the year was when my mother’s other closest friend died two and half weeks after my father. They had been in the hospital at the same time, on different floors, tracking each other’s progress as best they could.
Who plans these things? What cruel intention took these people from my mother within such a short period of time? How much loss and suffering can one person endure? How fully can I feel her pain, sharing without becoming lost?
What determines when a life ends? My father had said he was still alive because the man upstairs and the man downstairs were still arguing about who was to get him.
Decisions are made. Upstairs or down, decisions are made. Life passes. Life arises. Life, like all things, must pass.
I was stunned when I wrote to my students to postpone the classes planned for the last two months to hear from so many that they, too, were being affected by death. Decisions are made. Changes happen. We love and we lose. The heart cries. It seems it is a time of many changes, many losses, many transitions and many tears for many people.
Gifts in our Midst
Again and again, I return to the offering of this challenging time. Things must change. Life is movement. If we hold on to what has been, we cannot breathe. Life is rhythm. I am reminded of Emilie Conrad’s refusal to make someone a Continuum teacher until they have died enough times. We must be willing to shed old skins to allow the new to come forth.
The Buddha encouraged us to be aware of our attachments. We cling to what we know. We hold on to the familiar in desperate hope that it will hold on to us in moments of danger. We seek security in what we know and in so doing create a profound insecurity.
And so a new year arrives. A new year of unknowns. How do we prepare? What do we need to let go of in order to fully meet what arises next? What skins need shedding? What seeds crave water?
Can we just know that the mystery will express itself however it does and that we are that? Can we just remember that we, too, will die when the time comes? And if that time were now, would we have accomplished what we intended? Would our relationships be in order? Would we have said what we meant to say to that person? What is most important to have completed, not by the end of 2012, but by the end of this moment?
And his one?
Thank you. Thank you for traveling the world path with me and reading these words. If I were to die in the next minute, perhaps I would have said more of what needed to be said.