Near Death Experience

<December 2007>

I returned recently from a three-week stay with a very dear friend of mine, whom I’d gone to help as her partner was dying – at home – of liver cancer. Unexpectedly, it all turned into an amazing on-the-fly workshop in Buddhist principles. (I don’t consider myself a Buddhist, by the way, I’m just…me. Scooping up useful insights and nuggets of wisdom wherever I happen to find them, whatever their source.)

In what was perhaps not a “coincidence,” exactly, I’d taken along Eckhart Tolle’s amazing book The Power of Now – A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment to read while I was there. When I arrived, I found Barb & Frank had a copy of his more recent book, A New Earth – Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. As I say, not perhaps a coincidence, exactly.

For my first few days there, I often found myself feeling pretty intensely frustrated. I’d discover I was spending the day in the shirt I’d worn to bed the previous night, or be brushing my hair for the first time at 11 in the morning. Or I’d set out to do a seemingly straightforward task such as putting in a load of laundry, but find myself getting tripped up by a series of domino-like obstacles that would turn a supposedly simple task into one of almost epic proportions. I’ll spare you a rendition of what’s involved in shovelling snow at a semi-detached house with a small yard in the Beaches area of the city of Toronto…

It all put me in mind of the kind of frustration I used to feel sometimes as the mother of two young children, many years ago now, when one of them would do the seemingly-quite-simple thing of, say, soiling her bed, & I’d suddenly find myself desperately in need of at least two extra pairs of hands to perform the complicated mop-up.

It made me feel what I suspect it might feel like trying to walk across a gymnasium-sized floor covered with three feet of molasses. Just as you’d spring one foot free of the gluey mess, down would go the other in another equally stubborn, sticky pile of it.

I’d had molasses-y experiences before. At first, this time, I’d say to myself, inside my head, “Pass on the molasses, thanks!”

As the days went on, though, I learned to slow my pace & narrow my focus, & I came to realize that the very thing I was learning was not to label things as good or bad, positive or negative, frustrating or …whatever.

The molasses was teaching me to simply surrender myself to the present moment. To say often to myself, “It is what it is, hmmm?”

“Here I am, soaking dirty sheets,” I’d say to myself. Or “How good it feels to be brushing my hair.” Or, as time progressed & Barb & I met a succession of wonderful palliative care professionals & volunteers, “My, what an unexpectedly rich experience this is turning out to be!”

Barb & I have been friends for over 30 years, but due to the vagaries of life & family circumstances, careers & geography, had never been able to spend significant chunks of time together. We had the most amazing & unexpected moments of rich conversation, & even occasional fits of hysterical laughter. Our friendship, already plenty deep, deepened even more.

I loved it when she said to me that she feels the passage of years has made us “bigger” – & I knew it wasn’t our body weight to which she was referring.

I think Barb is right. When I think of some of the qualities I’ve particularly noticed among my 50-ish women friends, the vaunted Buddhist ones of compassion & non-judgment spring quickly to mind. We have indeed, most of us, grown bigger - ever so much bigger.

Another key Buddhist principle ever at the edge of my consciousness throughout those three weeks was the inevitability of things passing…of change.

From having lived through the incredibly fleeting years of my daughters’ childhoods, & also having been present at the deaths of two other people, I knew that what we were caught up in felt as though it was going to go on forever…& also, that it most assuredly would not.

Everything changes. We really can’t grab onto a thing, can we? It all passes away…sometimes mighty darn suddenly, too.

All my deepest life lessons, it seems, have been born out of significantly challenging circumstances. Suffering, hmm? Another critical mainstay in Buddhist thought…

As it turned out, I wasn’t there when Frank died – & this was a disappointment to me. It’s hard to explain, but somehow, being present at the death of someone you care about is… a quite special experience. I quickly realized my “attachment” (to the thought or desire) & reminded myself, “Everything isn’t all about me.” Frank died in the presence of his beloved Barb & a wonderfully caring palliative care volunteer; my presence was definitely not required.

For sure, I had known all along that being able to help Barb & Frank at this time was very special. I knew even before I went to Toronto, from the other deaths I’ve attended, that in some perhaps-impossible-to-articulate way, being with someone at the time of their death is an honour.

It’s also true, finally, that as has always been understood in Buddhist thought, we are none of us alone; we are not separate. In a culture that encourages us to be selfish & materialistic, it can be quite useful to remind ourselves from time to time, “The best things in life are not things.” Plato said, “Your wealth is where your friends are.” The troubled times in my own life have certainly helped me grasp this truth – in the deepest possible way, right down to my very bones.

Now, perhaps, instead of saying, “Pass on the molasses, thanks!” from here on in I’ll be saying, “Pass the molasses, hmmm?” There’s really nothing like that sticky, goopy, gloppy stuff to bring us right into this very, very moment…the only one there ever actually is to be truly alive in…

Janet

p.s. There is a post entitled 'Life & Death...& Life & Death...& So On' that may be of interest.