Monday, April 23, 2007

Just Like That

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.


cecily said...

Woah, Cherie! I think I'll skip sitting before any rotting, worm ridden cadavers and just read your post instead.

I too think we run away from death in the west, and in doing so we miss much of the significance of life. I'm all for weeping, wailing and rocking backwards and forwards in acknowledgment of the finality of death - much more in touch with the reality of life and death.

Thanks Cherie

Cherie said...

I'm with you, Cecily. I'll skip the actual watch the rot. It is enough for me to picture it in my head, but more, to contemplate the meaning behind the action. The facing of the truth of life....and death.

Pam said...

I heard a cancer patient once say that she didn't like people to refer to what she was doing as, "She's dying from cancer." She insisted she was "living with cancer," and she was right. Living is what we do. Dying is something that happens, eventually and inevitably. Most of us could, indeed, do our living better...

Cherie said...

Thanks for the feedback, Pam. I crave the thoughts of others for it helps the mulling process. You and Cecily have given me a little more to chew on. If you could hear my brain, you would hear a whirring, clunking, and chunking today. Thanks!

deanna said...

I needed time to read this one, and now my brain's clunking along, too.

I guess our imaginations can supply the images of what's happening to what's left of the one who has died. We're made (maybe all creatures are) to see life, though, to know life. Death is when life's been pulled away. To where? We wonder, and we need time to ponder it. Like you say, Cherie, we tend to dodge the uncomfortable. Even faith can let us say, "It's fine. I'm fine, because it's God's will." But we ought to admit when we don't understand and then try to observe.

Okay, rambling now, sorry, but you got me started. :o)

Cherie said...

Don't stop, Deanna. Keep going. This is what I want to are on the right trail.

When Tom and I went to Alaska with the girls, we had 14 days to explore. We used each and every one of the hours in that 14 days to the fullest. We knew the trip would come to an end, and it would seem like it had just begun. We didn't want to waste a single day, to have regrets, but to absorb all we could. We had the time of our lives! No, we didn't hurry and scurry. We had plenty of quiet, pensive hours soaking in all that is Alaska, we slept, we ate. But we were always aware that each moment was precious, and so we enjoyed each and every one. We were in the moment completely. We knew we had to do what we wanted right then and there, because who knew if we'd ever return, or if it would be the same when we did. And we knew our time was limited.

Contrast that with a trip to Alaska where a person seldom ventures out, in dullness sits around the hotel watching TV or soaking in the hotel hot tub, puts little effort into exploring, visits only the tourist traps, and then goes home with the impression that Alaska ain't so great - just like anyplace else.

I guess my point, or one that is impressing me, is that when we knew that our trip was limited, we put more into it, we sought answers, we observed, we felt, we loved, we appreciated, we remembered.

I want to know all I can about God, about life, about myself, and I often feel like the fact that, in my mind, I go about life as though I will always be here, dulls me to the reality that stuff is happening all around me, like I'm 'watching TV and soaking in the hot tub' of life.

The idea and the certainty of death are spoken of in euphemisms. And faith, as you stated, "it's God's will," or "I know the departed one is happy in heaven now and that I will see him again there," may be true enough, but it seems like to only stress that, and not the fact that what happens here is important, too, well, I feel like something is missing in that way of thinking. I'm glad you added that point to this discussion.

Now I'm rambling. I could go on and on.......but I'd rather you, and others would have a crack at it, this idea of living better, more aware lives because we FULLY, without flinching, comprehend that there is, in fact, an end - which can come at any moment, or not for years, but it will abruptly end - here one second, last breath, gone. This squirming around death is dulling us, I think.

(Just for the record, yes, I know that physical death is the beginning of eternal life for a true believer. This is wonderful. But, God put us here for a reason, gave us awareness, the ability to learn and communicate, to observe his handiwork, and I think many of us take that for granted - we go only halfway, not enough focus. We squander this opportunity. Don't we?)

Thank you so much for reading this far, and considering this with me.

Anonymous said...

I have dealt with many people over the last 7 years that have either lost everything they had: materially, mentally, emotionally, or physically; or they are losing what they have. Their journies have been incredible to watch. From the people I've dealt with, I've seen an amazing appreciation for life. They are thankful to wake up in the morning, sleep at night, and for everything they experience. When I ask them how they are, some say, I'm here and I'm grateful I have another day.

I think as long as we appreciate what we have, no matter what state of mind we're in, then we can live life to our fullest potential. If mountain climbing is what you want and if it's possible then hopefully you get that chance. Some people can only wish for small things, a smile with meaning, a hug without pain, or an escape from someone they fear.

I guess what I'm saying on the grand scale, is your right. We should all appreciate our lives and live better. To get to that place where we appreciate every moment though, can be a journey that a lot of us are either afraid to take, or don't want to work for.

There, you have my two cents. Thanks for letting me vent!

Cherie said...

It's worth way more than two cent, Sandy. Way more. You have a unique perspective, in that you work with people who understand loss in a way lots of don't ever experience.

I'm going to reread and think about these words you've written here for awhile.

Thank you very very much for taking the time to write them. They help.

It didn't seem like venting to me, but you are welcome, even encouraged, to vent any time. :-)

tshsmom said...

This post really hits home!
I don't fear death. I fear losing a loved one. The dead are the lucky ones; they're in a better place. The living have to fill the huge hole that has been left in their lives.

L and I have become much more attentive to each other since our dear friend died 10 days ago. We suddenly realized how short, and precious, our time together is. We don't want to waste our remaining time together by taking each other for granted.
Our friend would be pleased to know that she provided us with this wake-up call!

Cherie said...

From the teeny tiny bit I know of K., I know you are right. She'd be very happy to know that she enriched the rest of your lives with the knowledge of how precious you are to each other. I doubt anyone can fill the huge hole Ks death has left behind. Memories help, though, don't they.

You and L are examples of the effect I am talking about. You have wisely looked right at the thing, and found clarity.

Thank you so much for sharing such personal insights, tshs!

Marianne Elixir said...

Cherie - Thank you for taking the time to write this post.

I loved learning about the buddist mediation and thinking about how sheltered we are from the raw facts of life.

We just found out that my cousin doesn't qualify to be on the kidney donor list and will be dying shortly, as his kidneys have already failed and been removed.

This will make the 3rd slow and painful death for our family since mid-January. It hasn't really fazed me, because I do believe death is a part of life and I know that the person is not the body. But I think that it has also been easy to escape from thinking about because they were not really loved ones, they were just relatives, and I have had too many other loved ones to attend to, keeping me sufficiently busy enough not to think about death and temporality, you have motivated me to take some time to think about it, and to relish the life I have, for it is really only moment by moment.

I loved all the dialog this blog brought, too. You have great readers.

I think I will post a blog of a poem I wrote when I was in 9th grade that still seems to sum up my understanding of death. Thanks for always giving me good food for thought.

Cherie said...

Marianne, thank you for also sharing such personal insights into this issue. You have my sympathy about your relatives. My heart is with you. Seems like deaths bunch up like that - one after another after another. It's odd.

Like you, I love the dialog with my readers. They are so smart, so insightful, and each one so different, that, when they all chip in, it becomes an amazingly educational and inspiring experience. (Thanks, readers! You add depth to the conversation, and it makes a huge difference - I hope for all of us. I know it helps me. You are included in this, of course, Marianne.:-)

Thank you for letting me know that what I wrote is motivational for you, that it is food for thought. A lot of the time I think that what I write is weird, or could be depressing for people who don't 'brood' as I do. It's nice to know that it has a place in other hearts and minds beside my own.

I'll be watching for your poem. I'll bet it'll inspire me.

Anonymous said...

Cherie your entire blog is my favorite blog by far! I have never found another one that gives me this kind of stimulating dialogue. Without being too intellectual or hard to read. It's easy to read but it has big issues and interesting points and humor too. I find my self challenged by this post about death to the point that I believe my outlook will change for the better. Thank you so much!!

Cherie said...

It is a humbling thing to think that something that comes from my heart has an impact on another person's life, an impact that can actually lead to betterment somehow. I honestly believe that God uses us in ways we don't even know or imagine. Mainstream writing is one of the more common ways - but blogging? Who knew?

Thank you, Annie. You have given me pause....