Tag Archive: Death


Pre-accident, my parents were a lively young eighty-year-old something couple. Post-accident, I look through my father’s eyes and see life’s bewilderment. Hmm, the future for both of us is an uneasy fear – an fear of the future and declining health. Pre-accident, my father was lively, inspired and full of wonder. Post-accident, he sits in an easy chair, moves little and stares endlessly into repeat episodes of NCIS.

At dinner, my mother discussed how many members of the 55+ retirement community often commit suicide after receiving terminal diagnosis. “Somehow,” she muttering string through her coffee, “I thought our final years would be different.”

After 14 years in the medical industry, I with certainty that the final years for the majority will be unlike any Hollywood film illusion. In “On Golden Pond,” Henry Fonda’s character, Norman, is similar to my father.

“You want to know why I came back so fast? I got to the end of our lane. I couldn’t remember where the old town road was. I went a little ways in the woods. There was nothing familiar. Not one damn tree. Scared me half to death.”

Many of us in the shimmering landscape of life will seemingly suffer needlessly. Living this life means all of us will have to navigate the constant demand of human growth and change. And what my father is living is fear. It’s the same fear his father lived, and his father’s father. Like Norman, the road for all leads to nothing familiar.

Everyone ages differently. Then if we must age, as all do, we must age differently than our fathers and refuse the role of victim or recluse. We must remain interested in maintaining relationships, remain nonjudgmental and approach our “twilight” with a sense of adventure.

In life, and in death, in order for us to understand the ideals of harmony and peace, a certain amount of discord and dissonance must be endured. Human frailty tests the limits of personal endurance. Yet if we overcome our frailty, even in death, we join the cycle of the seasons and become what God has always wished – perfection.

Ganges River 2What is a good death? What defines a good death?

In a beautiful price on Public Radio International, Atul Gawande talked about the biggest checklist that relatives and an aging family have to make — what conditions should occur in which a family member should be allowed to die.

People talk about wanting to have a good death. I don’t know if I believe in a good death. There’s lots of things that aren’t dignified about dying. He soiled his bed. We had to put a urinary catheter in him when he became so paralyzed he couldn’t pee anymore. He was almost shrinking in front of us. How is dying ever at all acceptable? How is it ever anything other than this awful terrible thing?

The only way it is … is because we as human beings live for something bigger than ourselves.

But there was something about the ritual of the same thing that families have been going through for thousands of years and we were doing it. And you could almost feel the links of hands across generations.

What I felt on the Ganges was he had brought us there and connected himself to all that was important to him, but he was connecting us as well.

There was a kind of handoff occurring. That we are a link in chain and making a contribution that goes well beyond our own life. And that’s part of what makes dying tolerable. That’s what makes — being a mortal creature — tolerable.

As one who should have been dead already, I found this piece very moving. As a Buddhist, I don’t have a fear of death or unnatural hurry to get there. However, as man whose heart could give way at any moment, there have been many days I wish the Angel of Death would descend and carry me away.

But just as Atul Gawande noted, I long for the links – to look for my friend Kanako, to touch the hand of a loved one, of those lost and of friends who’ve stood beside me for all these years. Yes, it’s about the links.

It’s in the links.

serenityThere’s always a strange weirdness felt when being followed. Sudden inexplicable moments where one senses a curious onlooker, a faint breeze where none could be found, a gentle touch when none are around. At times, I even felt Ms. K’s presence. For me, the past several weeks have been filled with the invisible, yet visible.

Maybe these moments were angels surrounding me with a sense of peace. Although unusual, such experiences might also be attributed to the disease lying stealthily within. Better yet, maybe these are the last futile moments of a broken man whose life has seemingly accounted for little. In either case, I am both touched and perplexed by such random experiences. I often wish to explore them as friends versus some episodic tryst of nature.

Last night’s sleep began like any other night. Bathe, brush and floss, open the window to adsorb the cool 62 degree night air and slip beneath the sheets. The 30 gallon aquarium hum offered a serenity of peace as water circularly percolated. Before slipping into dream, there were no unusual thoughts, no obsessive task boring through my mind. I was at ease, at peaceful.

2:36 AM drew quickly, as the severe pain tore through my left shoulder, radiating down my left arm. Mentally, I knew right away … another heart attack. I remember blurting to my phone, ‘Siri! Call Hospital.‘ To which I laid silently, resigned to succumbing.

Everything went quiet and felt as though sleeping. There was no pain. No struggle. Silence. An inexplicable sense of peace. For a brief moment I just felt as if everything was alright, like a huge weight had been lifted and I could finally be free.

I awoke finding the Fire Department Paramedic, “Welcome back.” I quickly retorted, “Sorry to have awoken you. I meant to have this heart attack at 2:36 PM.”

Processing this morning, I at no time felt death was the end, it seemed to merely signal the end of body. The spirit seemed to remain at a higher purpose. I saw no angels but but I also knew she was there. Simply put, I felt love.

Some Buddhists claim the way we pass reflects the way we lived our lives. Thus, a good death (if death could ever be considered good) places a ‘good stamp‘ on a life well lived. Personally, in light of many horrific tragedies, can one really place such connotations upon the victims of Flight MH17, Japan or Indonesia tsunami victims or children shot by stray bullets in an apartment complex in Chicago?

What I am reminded of is of the closeness of death. I will emphasize an importance in getting to know death and take time to prepare, to those whom you do love. Secondly, live in a manner you believe is responsible, good and positive for yourself and towards others. This leads to calmness, happiness and an outlook which contributes to a calm and controlled mind.

Lead a compassionate life and have no regrets. Be grateful for what we have but do not clutch and cause ourselves to suffer more than needed.

~Peace~

 

BlacksquareSix days after the Boeing 777 was shot down over the battlefields of eastern Ukraine, the first bodies finally arrived in the Netherlands, a country that bore the heaviest toll in flight MH17. As a lone bugler sounded the traditional “Last Post,” traffic ceased, church bells tolled and citizens stood in both silence and tears as a country offered a dignified return where Russia could not. Where Putin failed, Russian citizens did not.

Outside the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Russian citizens expressed their condolences and sorrow over the downing of flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine, a solemn reminder that there is rarely little difference between the people of one nation to another.

Flags at foreign embassies within Moscow flew half-mast, in solidarity with the Dutch declaration for a day of mourning. One touching point worth mentioning is that some Russian citizens wrapped themselves in Gold/Blue flags, the colors of Ukraine, and others draped themselves in the red-white-blue of the Netherlands flag.

For Putin, none of events seemed worthy of his attention. Instead, Putin criticized the sanctions the US and EU imposed on Russia, which began before and after the MH17 plane crash.

The very concept of the state [Russian] sovereignty is becoming diluted. Unwanted regimes and countries that are trying to exercise independent policy or simply stand in the way of someone’s interests are getting destabilized,” Putin said.

Oh Mr. Putin, trying saying “…Unwanted regimes and countries standing in the way of someone’s interest …” to any Malaysia Flight MH17 victim. Who speaks for them?

CNN analyst, Fareed Zakaria noted, “We should be aware of the fact that this is truly a historically defining moment. If we do the things we need to do, if we are firm and clear, but also somewhat flexible, we can still give Putin the chance to redeem himself and to rejoin the community of nations.”

Seriously, I simply ask, “Does Putin even deserve to join the community of nations?”

It’s hard to imagine … one day the world looks so beautiful; the next day it’s awful. Scientifically, it seems impossible for the world to change so radically. But as lovers, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, family and friends, we’re forced to reconcile that the world does change, sometimes quite significantly. Ecclesiastes 3:3 tells of there being “… a time for everything under heaven, a time for giving birth and a time for dying, a time for killing and a time for healing, a time for war and a time for peace.”

I don’t buy Ecclesiastes 3:3. All I see is a missing symphony of love, laughter, peace, joy and miracles – so many unfinished notes.

Citizens of Netherlands are changing their Facebook profile pictures and Twitter avatars to black squares and using #BringThemHome to commemorate the 193 Dutch citizens killed when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine on July 17.

To honor all those we’ve lost, I do the same.

imageJust one day after the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 14 faith leaders wrote President Obama requesting a religious exemption in his planned executive order barring hiring discrimination based on sexual orientation by federal contractors:

… an extension of protection for one group not come at the expense of faith communities whose religious identities and beliefs motivate them to serve those in need.” And, “Without a robust religious exemption . . . this expansion of hiring rights will come at an unreasonable cost to the common good, national unity and religious freedom…

In opposition, a June 2014 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, signed by over 90 religious, civil rights, women’s, and LGBT rights groups maintained:

“Religious Freedom Restoration Act should not be interpreted or employed as a tool for broadly overriding statutory protections against religious discrimination or to create a broad free exercise right to receive government grants without complying with applicable regulations that protect taxpayers.”

The 14 faith leaders aren’t appealing to law, but rather to Obama’s own history of opposing same-sex marriage and stated goals when forming the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. However, while many of the faith leaders who openly requested exemption publicly emphasize all people are created equal in both divine image and love, they imply reaching consensus may be impossible. So rather than even try, a case is made for religious bigotry.

Basically, these religious leaders are requesting the ‘right‘ to discriminate via religion. Apparently Jesus recognizes ‘equality‘ is difficult and that being homophobic and discriminatory, is at times, ok. In truth, these are not moral, loving people … they’re assholes. When discriminating, the impact is not limited to that specific person. Mothers, fathers, children, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts, and grandparents feel bigotry’s burden.

Using religious dogma trivializes people, demeans loved ones, their life and families. Zen Buddhism doesn’t make a distinction between same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. Instead, the expectation is not to harm, exploit or manipulate others, which would directly violate the third precept. For instance, Zen Buddhists often refer to hedonism, ascetic masochism and prostitution as practices that violate the “Middle Way.”

If two people have taken no vows and both love each other, why should sexual orientation matter?

With YouDear Ms. J:

Over the past several weeks, I’ve sat across from countless nursing home patients and families discussing their prognoses. Somehow, the standard pieces include “it’s a marathon, not a sprint, so get your daily rest” and “illness can drive a family apart or bring it together — be aware of each other’s needs and find extra support.”

Having been given such a “grim” diagnosis so many years ago I abhor the “days to a few weeks,” “weeks to months,” “months to years,” “a few years to a decade or more.” In my case, I was cited detailed statistics, including twenty-five years of good life. But today, any one of us can readily find counterpoints for and against just about anything, let alone the types of challenges you and I face.

I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis also thirty-years on Good Friday. And for many months, I knew I had something, so I wasn’t all that surprised. In fact, there was a certain relief. The next steps were clear: console the spouse, refinance the mortgage, write overdue letters to friends I thought I would never write, plan trips, make amends and other assorted details I meant to do in life, but nothing could be more obvious when your day’s work included the next paycheck or this … or that.

In theory, if I knew how many months or years I actually had left, I would bucket list the whole thing. Three months, I’d just spend time with an annoying family to remind me how MS was actually a blessing. A year? I’d have a plan. Ten years, I’d skip the drama and get back to life.

In truth, I can’t tell you a time. But I can tell you to find what matters most to you.

There are no easy answers. Biblically speaking, the Bible is full of different stories in which God relates to humanity in times of tragedy and pain.  Some suggest God uses calamity to punish the unfaithful; others that God uses tragedy to instruct us or improve us.  Still others suggest God remains far off, disconnected, choosing instead to leave us to whatever catastrophes befall us.

Bart Ehrman, professor of religion at the University of North Carolina, once said he turned from his evangelical upbringing and became agnostic because he found Christianity incapable of answering a simple question: How could there be a God when there is so much suffering in the world?  He found it difficult to believe in a loving God when there is so much in the world that is without love.

And there are many days when I can concur with Professor Ehrman. Still I reflect upon Nicholas Wolterstorff, a professor of philosophy at Yale and a Christian, who lost his son in a mountain-climbing accident.  Like C. S. Lewis, he wrote about his struggle, and his pain, and his questions in a memoir entitled, Lament for a Son. There is a hole in the world now,” he wrote.  “In the place where he was, there’s not just nothing…  I cannot make sense of it by saying ‘God did it’, but neither can I do so by saying, ‘There was simply nothing God could do about it.’

So where is God? Well, I can only state that God is in every hug, every kiss, every comforting word. God is in every tear, every ache and every sorrow.

And just as Christ is with me unto the end, so I am with you. I will be there as best I can.

john-quincy-adams-2About a week ago, I awoke suffering from tremendous vertigo, blurred vision in one eye, tremors, and a stiff neck with pain in the jaw.  Some might say, “Hell of a night Mr. Buddha.” Truthfully, this is just a part of the disease I must endure to the end.

Waiting for the usual plethora of tests, I’ve been asked several times about how I’m doing. When queried in such a manner, I internally reflect upon Quincy Adams last letter and quote, The Buddhist “… is well, but the house in which he lives at the present time is becoming dilapidated.”

I know the real battle is the not the disease, it’s within the mind. As CNN anchor Zain Verjee described her battle psoriasis, “My mind is living a separate life from the body beneath it.” Many sitting in the impractical and uncomfortable hospital lounge chairs understand the ocean of pain and fear crushes far worse than the disease. That fear slaughters and drives many from their faith. Likewise those clutching rosaries, religious revivals have swept through thousands of new converts.  Yet death’s angel culls both faithful and unfaithful equally.

All of us will stumble upon someone dying. Technically speaking, life itself is both sexually transmitted and terminal. But as we meet those transferring from this life to another, it’s important to remember: this is not about you. It’s about the person with the illness. If you are a friend you will need to get over your discomfort or get out of the way. Those dying really don’t want to console their visitors. For those suffering, romantic conceptions of the battle and gallant heroes riding to save day rarely come. No one visiting someone’s personal battlefield should ever regard life in quite the same fashion as before. Doing otherwise catapults one to being worse than the enemy.

If I can be so bold as to speak for others, being a compassionate and caring friend does not require personal experience identical to what I am living. Don’t disappear. Sure I represent your fear, but I also represent God’s love. Check in with me. Remind me that I’ve not been forgotten. Remind me that I’m your friend.

I will close with an excerpt from When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner:

“Life is not fair. The wrong people get sick and the wrong people get robbed and the wrong people get killed in wars and in accidents. Some people see life’s unfairness and decide, ‘There is no God; the world is noting but chaos.’ Others see the same unfairness and ask themselves, ‘Where do I get my sense of what is fair and what is unfair? Where do I get my sense of outrage and indignation, my instinctive response of sympathy when I read in the paper about a total stranger who has been hurt by life? Don’t I get these things from God? Doesn’t He plant in me a little bit of His own divine outrage at injustice and oppression, just as He did for the prophets of the Bible? Isn’t my feeling of compassion for the afflicted just a reflection of the compassion He feels when He sees the suffering of His creatures?’ Our responding to life’s unfairness with sympathy and with righteous indignation, God’s compassion and God’s anger working through us, may be the surest proof of all of God’s reality.”

As Quincy Adams wrote, “Time and the seasons have nearly destroyed it; its roof is pretty well worn out.  Its walls are much shattered, and it trembles with every wind.”

But I my friends … I am having a great day.

How Did You Make It?

thThe Barnes and Noble I currently sit offers little comfort my from the muscle aches and pains I endure.  Literally, some days wrench my life with true exhaustion.  While I am not some fanatic guided by overbearing and miserable thoughts, my wonder of the hereafter often cruise through my brain on such days.  The basic question is similar to those who probably sit around me, “If there is indeed an afterlife, is it really any better? Does the sum of your days condemn one to an afterlife of pain and anguish or does a merciful God await one’s soul near life’s end?”

Would that merciful God appreciate all the deaths from Ireland’s Catholic/Protestant wars, the anguish Catholic Priests caused during sexual scandals, the genocide of Hitler, Rwanda, suicide bombers, fake evangelical television preachers and the like? Would God allow politicians utilizing demagoguery to pervert the very nature of kindness and love a wonderfully filled heaven with incense and mirth? Would God call me, the most vile of humans, to live at all?

Philosopher Samuel Scheffler doesn’t believe in a traditional afterlife — that is, he doesn’t think that a spirit or soul survives the body’s physical death. Profoundly, his thought is that we have a profound effect on those who live beyond us, that many of the things we now regard as worth doing would no longer seem to us worth doing. And by living beyond us, we are ensured for moments, maybe even years, that our spirit lives on.

The Rev. Gabriel Salguero suggests we as people have learned to live together, despite difference and despite our cultural backgrounds. This means that acts performed over the centuries in the name of faith (i.e., God) will become washed away. A right relationship with God here on earth, and also in eternity. So we’re going to see people from across the geographic spectrum, and across the racial/cultural spectrum, and we’ll all be one.

I am not sure if either of those perspectives would comfort any of those whom surround. Most would certainly follow those often chimed words, “Everyone wants to go to heaven – just not today!

Truthfully speaking, here and now, I know exactly where I will end after my days close.  How I know will be set for another writing.  But being Buddhist, I believe what God really wants all of us to do is to develop and invest in the right relationships. For some, that may be through the Christian faith. For others Muslim. And others, leading a wonderfully beautiful atheist life. I believe any right relationship established here lasts throughout eternity.

I am befuddled by those who despise such an earth as elitism or socialism. Yet, almost to a word, that’s almost how they perceive God’s view of heaven.

But being a Buddhist, what if we built heaven now? What if we built our heaven here? What if we built a world where there’s no concept of power or money. The hungry eat, the thirsty drink, no iPhone APP, nothing to kill or hate, no one to rape or abuse. No one to politicize. No wars. No unnecessary death.  All receive healthcare. All are cared?

Buddhists believe that there is a deeper, more complete understanding of reality than the one we think of and participate in every day. Having partially seen part of the next world, I can say our bodies may die, but our minds will live. Like a river running through several countries, we continually pass through one boundary into another. That river never changes.

I suggest we life heaven now.  As Kevin Spacey quotes in the movie K-Pax:

Even your Buddha and your Christ had quite a different vision, but nobody’s paid much attention to them, not even the Buddhists or the Christians. You humans. Sometimes its hard to imagine how you’ve made it this far.”

How did you make it this far?

Cloud Atlas“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”

~~David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas~~

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Several days ago, I read of a friend passing in December of 2012. Johnny lived unknown to most.  Yet, as a paraplegic, he was a remarkable man. I remember his laughter, love of politics, his guitar music and his smile. He is so much more the man I ever could become.

If one held his hand, he would instantly bond. I cannot explain, but he had something special. He was an instant friend and whenever I was in Southern Illinois one would seek to find him time and again.

I restlessly thought of Johnny these past days.  My unease and restlessness was self-created. I traveled near and far. “Ah, too busy,” I would say. “There will be another day.” I convinced myself with lovely phrased internal deceits until the one I miss becomes so deeply missed.  My very angst displays the many life lessons remaining to learn.

In watching the movie “Cloud Atlas,” I found some peace. In essence, Cloud Atlas is about the world you see and those you don’t. Six interrelated and interwoven stories span different time periods. But Cloud Atlas’s riveting story lines and nonstop action veil weighty lessons about bigotry, oppression and resistance. All things are interconnected.

For the true Buddhist, everything is interconnected. The crux of our own individual story is that every action has a reaction. Maybe our role changes throughout life. Maybe we learn one lesson at this moment while learning another more poignant time changing experience another. Does this sip of whiskey that currently nips my lips impact my life now as much as it does later?  Can we carry love and hatred forward at the time our death? And more importantly, does one believe all living creatures experiencing awareness deserve an awakened life, either now or forever? Will I connect with those whom I’ve lost and loved somewhere between here and heaven? Will I remember Johnny for all his strength and love of life?

In truth, to condense such a wonderful man into a homily of words seems next to impossible. Yes I will remember Johnny. I will remember his life, and want to see him again, again and again.

So Johnny, in the words of David Mitchell:

“I believe there is a another world waiting for us. A better world. And I’ll be waiting for you there”

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