"Death and life are looked on as but transformations; the myriad of creation is all of a kind, there is a kinship through all." ~Huai Nan Tzu, 2nd Century BC
A month before my client dies, he tells me about his new friend. Several months earlier, a little Italian woman in the neighborhood saw him sitting outside, all 120 pounds of his lung- cancer-ridden body, and began bringing him things to eat. All summer, she came with soups full of nourishing greens, ripe tomatoes from her garden. Using her cane, she walked by every day. He started watching for her when he wasn't sleeping. When she didn't come by for a week or so, he worried. Then she returned, telling him she'd been sick, but was okay. She brought him a container of pot roast. "That meat," he says, "was so good." Then she disappeared again. Her son, who stopped by my client's apartment, told him she'd died in the hospital. My client says, "Cancer...she had cancer too." Her body, almost as suddenly as she'd been given the diagnosis, gave up after a few treatments. My client weeps for a moment while telling me and then says, "Unlike my six years of treatment." He wonders if she had been afraid. The day of this discussion is the day his physician talks with him about hospice, his own ending. And yet even after hearing the news, he keeps talking about the garden, the Italian woman's and his own. How every year the flowers come up and how the daffodils with their yellow hearts will be buried by weeds this spring. He doesn't have the energy to care for his outdoor plot any longer. He worries that the weeds, the yellow dandelions, will take over the perennials. Still his flowers try to push up green leaves from the moist soil. What is planted, keeps coming. My client attended the Italian woman's funeral. It was one of the last things he did. Afterwards, her son brought over the last of the tomatoes, red and bloody as hearts. "My mother," he told my client, "knew you'd love these. She said to harvest what was left."
"And sorrow returns, though we drown it with wine. Since the world can in no way answer to our craving, I will loosen my hair tomorrow and take to a fishing boat." ~Li Po
I was not with him when he died. I had been there the day before. He took my hand and said, "thank you." I'd tried to move him up higher in the hospital bed, but his body was only weight, like fallen architecture, too heavy for me to lift. So I slid the sheets around and then rearranged them over him. I put chapstick on his lips. I looked him fully in the eyes and said goodbye as we squeezed hands. Then I was outside in my car heading off to the next thing and the thing after that with my mouth full of unshed tears. Grief, that gently rocking boat, waited for the tide to guide the trip. It is like the sky, this sadness, or like deep water. First the pouring down and wind and all the trees bending forward and back with such great force they seem as though they will break. What has been tossed apart will shatter something else– glass, soft flesh. And then there is the soaked swallowing of earth. The sky breaks open like an egg, pouring over until the water has been soaked up, to rain down again. Eventually, each drop is like a stone in a very flat pool, ringed outward until it disappears. What to do then, really, with this grief? There was no discussion of this in my training as a psychologist. No discussion of how death will change you when you reach out your hands, both of them, to touch it or give it water to drink. It's not so scary then, but peaceful, like flat water in a lake in mid-summer, fish breathing up small bubbles, the shimmer of a dragonfly going over the surface, just barely a fold, a shiver in the sky's reflection. Everything quite still.
"To what can we liken human life? Perhaps to a wild swan's footprints on mud or snow; before it flies off at random, east or west..." ~Hsin Ch'i-Ch'i, 1140-1207 AD
Briefly, I held his open hand, palm crossed with lines like faults, like the ground, fleshy with blood underneath. The fingers lax, not bent, carrying no tension in the joints. The hand resting, pulse beating at one point, half moon of nail setting lower, the blue veins tracking movement through the heart's cycle. As a child I once traced my hands. Running the pencil gingerly around the thumb, then the five fingers. I printed my name below the outline. Or more intimately, the whorl of finger lines at the fleshy tip faintly marking the distinctiveness of my own identity in the stamp pad's inky blueness. My hands grew. They left themselves to this memory. Where there was once my client is a space in the schedule, a garden full of weeds, daffodils and tulips. And my own hand, empty.
"There is a point of correspondency between two views which is called the pivot of the Tao. As soon as one finds this pivot, he stands in the center of the ring of thought where he can respond without end to the changing views; without end to those affirming, and without end to those denying." ~Chuang Tzu
A pivot– one part rotating, swinging around another. A weather vane moves in the direction of breath, of wind. First turning toward one place, then another, following the air. Even in the quiet, as the weather vane appears to stop, there is movement. Death and life are equally intertwined like flowers on the crown of a May girl's head, or the trees in fall– oranges, stark yellows, the crimson going down. All of this joy before endings. Things perhaps most beautiful, most in their own moments of glory and individuality as they let go– glide through the air and don't care about the landing. Storms may take them too early. Or brown and gripping, they wait till all the color is lost and they are only a brittle memory of what they were once grown to. So how can one live with death? Perhaps the question is, how can one live without it?
"Knowing that I am of the same nature as other natural things. I know that there is really no
separate self, no separate personality, no absolute death, and no absolute life." ~T'ien T'ung-Hsu, 8th Century AD
My client with progressive systemic sclerosis is starting to have more trouble with her hands. She gives me her water bottle to open. "It's the mundane you think about, not those weighty ideas you thought you'd be pondering," she says. She is having trouble swallowing sometimes now. Things are beginning to break down more quickly. Eventually I will travel to her home near the beach to see her. Eventually she will not be able to walk across the sand and sit by the ocean. Eventually she will die from her disease. We spend most of the first half of our lives trying to accumulate an identity, things; only to spend the second half letting go, until we are hanging onto the only things that matter. Clench harder, but it is not yourself you are holding onto. And not the other person either. Picture the sea near her house, swelling with parts of every life, the waters that have finally flowed into it, the rain, even the full moon breathing itself in deeply as the ocean sucks back and then over the sand with the tide. Waves wash things up: empty shells, stones rubbed down to grains, sand crabs with legs missing that fuel the sea birds dipping, rising along the horizon. This, over and over, is what is.