Early in the morning, about ten years ago, on his way to his furniture shop with his wife, Tom's natural dad had a massive heart attack and expired, right there, in his pickup truck, on the road, going 55 mph. He just slumped over and was gone. God, in his mercy, had the truck aligned so that Mom could steer it into a grassy field that paralleled the road. She was unharmed, except that her husband of over fifty years, who'd felt fine at breakfast, no longer existed in this world. Just like that.
My 25 year old cousin was vacationing in the Virgin Islands, practicing holding his breath underwater for reasons known only to him, when he passed out, and drowned. He was found lying on the bottom of the hotel pool. Just like that.
Tom's adoptive father was cooking up sausage and eggs for the church's monthly Men's Breakfast at five o'clock in the morning when he got a funny look on his face, his legs buckled, his back slid down against the stainless steel refrigerator, and, spatula in hand, his body ceased to live. Just like that.
While piloting an experimental airplane, John Denver at age 53, made a fatal mistake because of the lousy positioning of the fuel valve. His aircraft nose-dived into the Pacific Ocean at Monterey Bay. Silenced forever, never again to write or sing another beautiful song, John stopped living. Just like that, he was gone from this existence, no good-byes, nor fare-thee-wells.
Thomas Merton, also at age 53, on an enjoyable, enlightening trip through Asia, with a full schedule of people, places, and events lined up, stepped from the bathtub, touched a poorly grounded electric fan, and was electrocuted to death. Right there, in a bathroom in Bangkok, here one second, gone the next.
I read somewhere that some Buddhist monks sit in silence before the body of one of their own who has died. They sit there, each day, until the body decays and bugs begin to consume it. They participate in this meditation so that they will come to understand fully that the body is not the person, that it is temporary, dust to dust. They do this to better grasp this interim existence. Observing the quick disintegration of the body helps them live deeper lives because they come to appreciate the vitality they possess, along with its fragility. A solid understanding of what is to come, lends itself to a richer appreciation of the here and now.
In this modern western culture we shield ourselves from death as much as possible. When someone dies, the body is whisked away, prettied up, and either privately burned or placed inside a gorgeous, ridiculously expensive box, lowered down into a cement casing, with a lid, and covered with verdant lawn. We are stunned, we are numb. We are shaken to our cores. While we'd prefer to take the time to process what dying means to us personally, our thoughts become quickly suppressed by decorum, regulations, and the tyranny of expectation.
Death scares us because most of us haven't realistically experienced it. We've survived it, brushed against it, and been frightened by it. But ultimately we try to outrun death. We mourn when a loved one 'passes away', and then we carry on with our busyness the best we can. The world doesn't slow down, but rushes past, urging us to hurry up with our grieving, and catch up. There's usually a window when we realize that this dear departing will happen to us, but we dodge that line of thinking rather quickly. So uncomfortable.
What I'm wondering is if, like the monks, I truly contemplated the idea of death, truly took the time to thoroughly study all angles of it, along with the fact that it really could happen at any moment to me or anyone else, would I appreciate more fully the vitality that I now possess? Would I appreciate the life around me more fully? Would I chuck most of the pettiness, the frustration, the controlling, and actually relax into observation and willingness? Would I realize clarity? Would I participate more, because I am able? I wonder.
Dad was mulling over plans for the day's shipment of furniture when he died.
My cousin was planning to attend his 2 year old son's birthday party then begin teaching him how to swim.
Tom's dad was going to feed 100 men breakfast, then study his Sunday School lesson for the following day. He was in the midst of directing a month of choir rehearsals for the Easter Sunday church service.
John Denver bought the little plane so that he could fly down to see his daughter in L.A. more often.
And Thomas Merton? His journals abruptly end with him looking forward to appointments and seminars for the days and weeks to come.
We live until we die. One thing is certain, though, we WILL die.
With that in mind, I do believe I could do living better.