"The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment, but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy." -- John F. Kennedy
My first memorable experience of death was coming home from school at the age of ten and seeing my mother crying as she vacuumed the carpet. She kept vacuuming the same spot over and over as the TV behind her showed scenes of the emergency room in Dallas where JFK had been rushed.
It was one of those times in history that people of my generation always talk about... their memory of where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. Just like 9/11 for a later generation, I suppose.
Two months later... my grandmother passed away. My first experience of a funeral home and that slightly surreal feeling I guess we all have had when somebody we dearly loved is laid out in their best while friends and family chat nearby about work and their upcoming vacation. Of course, all of that only after the "how did the end come" discussion was completed.
We are fascinated with those details... I don't know why... but we surely are.
Later... in the late '80s seemed my time to really squarely face the issues surrounding the death. In a short five-year span I lost my eldest brother, my mother, and my father in rapid succession. It was about that time after living in Asia for more than 15 years that I found comfort in the Buddhist philosophy about death.
Buddhists take a fairly practical view towards death. We are all dying from the minute we are born, etc., etc. But here is indeed where "east meets west": Buddhists are keenly interested in having a calm composure at the moment of death. Yeah, the "how did the end come" moment.
We believe that peace and acceptance at that moment along with the all-important karma we generated in our lifetime will determine our rebirth. It's not a matter of whether it will happen or not (it will, it's "samsara") but more importantly, in what form our rebirth will take.
So I must admit we Buddhists take more than a healthy interest in the process of death our whole lives. I read the obits with a particular interest in those that reveal the measure of that person's life. And I find that many are written with great flourish and insight here in my adopted home in the Cordilleras. As I read the final remembrances of family and friends and look at the favorite family picture of th deceased, I often feel an overwhelming sense of regret that I didn't know that person as a friend.
I love that show on HBO, "Six Feet Under," where death is rather incidental and the storyline is more about the ups and downs of the family whose business is death on a daily basis (they run a funeral home).
But mostly, looking at death and how we all deal (or don't deal) with it helps me to practice compassion and face each day I have as the great adventure it should be.
When I first opened the Bliss Cafe, we had a regular guest from Switzerland. Her name was Joy and it was a very fitting name as that is what she brought to all those she encountered. She had fought breast cancer for some years and was a regular visitor of Baguio to see the psychic healers.
Finally, death did catch up with her. She spent her last several months in a hospice in Switzerland and I would like to close by sharing part of a remarkable email she sent to me just shortly before she died.
"I'm now in one of the most beautiful places in the world. In a big old house with a magnificent garden dedicated to people on the way to leave their bodies. It is a place with so much love you cannot imagine it does exist. I am beginning to leave my body slowly, slowly. The body begins to lose earth, water and sometimes I feel the fire. It is a real delivery! I am in big labor, giving birth to another entity lying in my bed with nurses busy all around me. For the body, it is sometimes difficult. I have such pain but I try to transform that pain into a gift dedicated to all human beings."
"But for my mind, it is ecstasy. I feel so strong, so high and all is full of beauty and light. Each minute is a gift, all of my friends are coming to speak about all that we have shared. And also forgiveness is here, then we say how much we love each other and then we say bye-bye." How deep for the heart.
How deep indeed. Miss you, Joy.