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Silence Not Equal to Death

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3 days of silence. 2 times a year.

Silence allows me to see myself, separate from my agendas.

For the last 15 years, I have spent 3 days, twice a year, on a silent retreat at a monastery 50 miles north of Boston. It has taught me how to listen to myself and, in doing so, I hear others better.

Between a stress-filled job and the full-time home care of my elderly parents for the last 5 years, silence has become a luxury. The monastery allows me to drop my agendas at the door and slow my mind and body down. Learning to drop my agendas did not come easily. But once I did, it opened up the door to really seeing the leaves on the tress, the markings of falling snow, the remains of a bird I heard being attacked the night before. Just the claws and leg were on the ground, and in the claws was an unbroken egg. Along with the amazing opportunity to see and hear the mundane and the unusual around me, silence moves me back to discernment as a way of being. The singing of hymns 4 times a day and eating meals together in silence with total strangers is liberating and communing in fundamental ways. Most of all I get the very best sleep when I am at the monastery. Sad, that good sleep and the ability to hear a bird's sound or my own voice is a luxury in our world today. For a dose of stillness, I go to a monastery 2 times a year.

8 deaths. 2 more to go.

Death still remains a mystery but I am no longer afraid of it.

I was 25 and less than 3 years in the US when I buried, from AIDS, my first lover in 1985. John was 54. I was deep in the closet. At 30, my next partner Bob, 60, who ran 5 miles 3 times a week, died of a heart attack in my arms as I gave him CPR. I had just learned it 2 weeks prior, but it did not work. Then there was Lucho, my AIDS Action buddy, who was the ultimate practitioner of detachment as the means to a peaceful end. He kept his mother and family away so he could die without emotions interfering with "the process of dying." Then Tom, my current 81-year-old partner James's nephew, both of AIDS in 1992. Lloyd and Francis and Joe. Oh yes. Walter. Walter, who was a recluse who had no relatives or friends, lived in our basement with all his windows boarded up. I mean no family and no daylight. None! He told me I needed to slow down and not move so fast. He had no possessions but had stored 20 years of New York Times crossword puzzles he had done in ink. No mistakes. Would not see a doctor and would only allow me to take care of his oozing, gangrened leg. I cleaned and bandaged it for a year. Bought him his $5 worth of groceries and $5 of cigarettes each week for 2 years. And James and I gave him morphine at the end. He said he wanted to be put out with the trash. We were the only two people at his funeral.

Fast forward. I just buried my father a year ago. Ah! What a satisfying experience. He lived a full life. He and I butted heads when I was young and he became my close friend at the end. He kept telling me in his last year how sad that I was all alone. I still am not sure what he meant. I took care of him and he cared for me. He told me I needed to be more gentle with him. He died at home at 92. He got up from his bed and walked to bed and he died. Br. Curtis from the monastery did the funeral service. And now there is my once super-active mother in a wheelchair at 89, showing early signs dementia and still finding meaning in her diminished state knitting blankets for a children's hospital. She is looking forward to meeting up with my father. And she tells me he comes and visits her often. Sometimes with a gentle hand on her shoulder. She hates what has become of her life, confined to a wheelchair with her mind and body failing her by the day. This week she asked me if there was "mercy killing" in this country. I just checked out a small hospice nearby.

Silence has allowed me to be present to death. Allowing death to be present in my life, gives me the perspective to be mindful of the present.