FACING DEATH AND LIFE (2005)
I would like to talk today about what the last two months have been like for me. On August 14th my brother died after many months of declining health. He was 39 and severely physically handicapped for his whole life. I was fortunate to be with him when he passed and I felt at the time that he had waited for me to be there with him. I’m still telling myself that. For me this is a fact.
I had been visiting him almost every Sunday during the last six months of his life. My family lives up in New Hampshire and they are old and not themselves in good shape and are unable to travel long distances. So it was up to me to fill in and be there for my brother. I knew that he had entered the next phase of his life, that being his last and I was always happy to see him and visit with him as much as I could.
He was always happy to see me too and we grew very close during this period of time. When I would arrive and park the car I never knew exactly what I would fine when I reached his room. Would he be awake and alert or would he have congestion in his lungs or be on so much pain medication that he could barely hold his eyes open? Each time it was all of those things and every other variation imaginable. All I really knew was that I was there and this was what was happening. I was facing the unknowable and unexpected every time I went to visit him and every time I called on the phone. All this sounds pretty depressing and it was. But even though our visits were exhausting and heart wrenching I have to tell you that there was also something wonderful and true about the whole experience.
Clearly, he was dying and I would be there as much as I could to go through it with him. Very simple, that was my task. I feel I was just doing what had to be done. Not even what HAD to be done, it was there to be done, so I did it. It sounds strange to say but this was not an entirely bad time for me. In many ways I have never felt more engaged or connected to life as during this phase.
In John Tarrant’s book Bring Me the Rhinoceros there is a chapter discussing the following koan: “The great way is not difficult, if you just don’t pick and choose.” So much of our time is spent setting up conditions and rules for just about everything, all our likes and dislikes, what we think we need and want in order to be happy, how we want things to go. All this so we can live in the midst of our cherished beliefs – or core beliefs as Joko says and feel comfortable so our lives will be easy and pleasant. One of the things that I have learned over this past year is that my desires and conditions don’t mean a thing while facing life and death.
“The great way is not difficult, if you just don’t pick and choose.” Tarrant asks, “What if events don’t have to be anything other than what they are? You might be armored against an unpleasant event that turns out not to be.” This was my own experience. Being with my dying brother and then being there at the moment of his death turned out to be not all bad. Yes, so very depressing and sad. But also a relief that he was no longer suffering and indeed my parents and I were no longer worrying about his condition. My sadness has a substance to it and it is not abstract. I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to be close to him in his final days and to live inside his world if only for a short period of time.
The grieving process is an interesting one and a state of mind that’s hard to explain or talk about. It’s confusing and I was hoping that by writing this story and talking about it today that maybe it would help me to understand what was going on. But grief seems complicated to me. At first it was just exhaustion then sadness. In the weeks following all I can say is that I have good days and bad days. Sometimes I replay the time of his death over and over. I don’t want to do this but there it is like a song I can’t get out of my head. I did the same thing after 9/11. I saw the first plane hit while standing at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 8th Street and for months afterward I replayed the scene constantly, just watching. It’s the same thing now, I just watch him die over and over. Even though there is no occasion more real than death, there is still something unbelievable about it. I always knew him alive. Now I know him a new way: lifeless and gone. That’s a whole new thing.
In Joan Didion’s new book “The Year of Magical Thinking” (about the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne) she writes, “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” She says she considered adding the words, “the ordinary instant.” She says “I saw immediately that there would be no need to add the word ‘ordinary,’ because there would be no forgetting it; the word never left my mind. It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it.” I know just what she means. My brother’s death was the event that I had fearfully anticipated for all of his life and it happened before my very eyes. At the time I thought to myself “THIS is what it’s like for him to die. THIS is how it is happening.” I remember asking one of the nurses about a half hour after he passed if it was really true, had he died? I knew it was true but still I could not believe it. I was there witnessing his passing and the moment was preceded with me reading the newspaper, talking with his nurse and having a cup of coffee. Then his breathing slowed down and he was gone.
Grief is less distinct for me than dying. Grief is a shadow and many dull shades of gray. Dying is black and white. What happens now? How am I supposed to feel? Is it all right that I feel liberated in his absence? But that’s me picking and choosing. Events don’t have to be anything other than what they are, so now I just sit with my color gray and feel like me after a very difficult period of time.