Note: BWIWD = Back When I Was Dying. See previous posts December 9-15. At the end of the series I will collect into an e-book.
THE PERSONAL CONTEXT OF MY DISCOVERY. Part 2
Yet I was surprised at my own response, even though it was precisely what I had intended! For years I had been intensely curious to discover just how I would respond if I discovered I was dying. I wanted to be able to embrace death as a part of life, but didn’t know if I could. For me, what my lifelong quest to continue learning and growing tends towards, what fills life’s trajectory with its ultimate meaning, is its climax, the final act, a “good death:” death without fear, and, if possible, in full awareness of the dying process. I have long prayed that I be allowed to move through the veil with consciousness intact.
This is a tall order, I realize; and for most of us, outside the range of what we think is possible. But I’ve heard stories of high masters of one kind or another deciding on their time to die, and then just doing it.
Scott Nearing, for example, a well known back-to-the-land person in the ‘70s, had an agreement with his wife Helen that neither would interfere when the other decided it was time to die. Nearing died eight days after his 100th birthday, having told Helen ten days before that it was his time; that he was going to lie down and she was not to bring him either food or water for the duration.
I read some time ago, about a Buddhist monk, who when he knew his time had arrived, left this life while in sitting meditation, body still upright. And of Eskimo elders, who, when they decide their time has come, walk out on the ice and never return.
But how, in a culture that fears death, does one find out if one is prepared to die except by dying?
I didn’t automatically assume that I would die a good death just because I had been training for it. I knew very well that my ego mind might cling to life; and especially, I knew that the body has a will of its own, and that its strong survival instinct might fight on long after my mind had let go. One 84-year-old friend, for example, as she lay dying, thrashed about restless, and at one point grousing to the granddaughter attending her, “Dying is HELL!”
On the other hand, my sister-in-law Kathy, who had been using alternative treatments to fight breast cancer for three years without calling it that, finally gave in, saw an M.D., and agreed to chemotherapy. After one session, the doctor told her that it was too late, the cancer had spread, the chemo wasn’t working and there was nothing more they could do.
When her friends brought her home, she told them matter-of-factly that now that she knew that she was dying, she would make it quick. First, Kathy sat on a stool in the kitchen while her handmaids washed and combed her hair. Then she climbed into bed, lay on her back and closed her eyes. Twenty-four hours later, her breathing turned ragged and loud. During a moment when I, on shift as her caregiver, had stepped out of the room, she released.
I admired Kathy, seeing her as someone who truly knew how to die, and wondered how I would respond in the same situation. Would I freak out? And if so, would I be able to come back into balance before I actually crossed over?
In short, I had long been curious to discover if the serenity that I had been cultivating for so long would remain when faced with terminal illness. A part of me secretly feared that my hard-won composure would suddenly or gradually crumble in the end.
So it is no wonder that even on the first day of my three-day sojourn, I was intensely grateful to discover that even in extremis, equanimity had not only not deserted me, but in fact, had solidified.
My attitude of immediate acceptance was perhaps the clearest indication of just how far I had traveled from the dominant culture.
For I had long been strange.