Friday, January 27, 2012
Old Age, Sickness and Death
Death is the permanent termination of the biological functions that sustain a living organism. Phenomena which commonly bring about death include old age, predation, malnutrition, disease, and accidents or trauma resulting in terminal injury.
(From the Wikipedia article on Death)
In teachings at various points on my Buddhist path, people have pointed out that the phrase "Old Age, Sickness and Death" doesn't mean just the "end of life" as we commonly would (want to?) think it does. "Old Age begins at birth," one teacher noted - the second you are born, you begin to approach Death. Sickness is also a life-long deterioration. We are impermanent, that's part of the womb-to-tomb contract we sign in blood upon entering this world.
The fact is that sometimes, when we are blessed, we can see death, for ourselves or others, coming. Sometimes we have a chance to do whatever preparing is possible - to say goodbye, to connect and let go of connections. To live a little, one more time. Recently, in the last couple of months, a friend/student's sister has been dying (Ellie died yesterday at 12:30pm). Also, a woman I am friends with, who also leads a Shambhala sangha I do a lot of teaching for, Karen, has been dying. She will likely die sometime in the next few days. For a couple of weeks, these two women, both in their sixties, both dying of cancer, both who don't know each other, stopped eating and drinking all together. They both invited death to come nearer and eliminate their suffering. Both have had amazing care teams, food, friends, relatives; love, tears, and plenty of fear.
As someone who lost parents and grandparents at fairly young ages (three grandparents - one was dead before I was born - and both parents, by the time I turned 22) I have had my own experiences with death. Except for that I have never actually been there when someone died. My father and mom's mother were sick for a long time, but I missed his actual last breath by a few minutes and hers by a few days. My mom and her father and my dad's mother were surprise deaths, and I was nowhere nearby. So I have often practiced being "near" the dying in the last week or so through thoughts. My thoughts are never far from Karen, in particular, whom I know personally. I know her, her daughter, her sangha, all of them well. It pains me that I can't be there physically for her death.
I believe it is an honor to be present for death. I remind myself that I will have plenty more "chances," if I want to call them that, in the future. In the second-to-most-recent issue of the New Yorker, poet Donald Hall (famous for writing an entire book of poems for/about his wife, Jane Kenyon, who died) wrote about growing old. Death is everywhere in his descriptions. In this poem, Affirmations, he notes that death happens long before death actually occurs - that we lose everything. His wisdom reminds me that I can be practicing all the time for death - mine and others' - that I can witness loss in all its forms and not just pin Death on the "permanent termination of the biological functions that sustain a living organism."
Karen has said goodbye. Ellie said goodbye. They both had time to say goodbye towards the "end", as they were both sick for awhile. Not all of us will be that lucky. So we best start practicing now. And if we forget to practice, we'll have plenty more chances, if we are lucky, to
affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.