I have always been acutely aware of the passing of time. Every morning when I wake up the first thought that creeps into my mind is how old I am. How many years do I still have ahead of me? As the first noble truth in Buddhism, death is intimately part of life. It is also unavoidable.
I lost in sequence my dog, my best friend, my dad, and then my other dog. All in under two years. The mourning was deep and throbbing. Particularly when Zoomie, my faithful loving dachshund of 16 years, died in my arms just shy of my dad's first anniversary of having passed away. That winter was bleak, gray, and my days were tirelessly tinted with the thick veil of sadness. Death was constantly on my mind.
Now, I am slowly learning to accept death as the unavoidable path to living a more beautiful and generous life. I think they both go hand in hand. Let me explain...
I think the process started way back when my dad first got diagnosed with stage three colorectal cancer. We were blessed with the wonderful opportunity to talk about so many topics. About the distinct possibility of him dying sooner than later for over two years before we actually said our final farewell.
At one point I called him one night, panic-stricken, asking what I was going to do without him and he calmly said: "But sweetheart, if death was such a huge problem, don't you think we would have found a solution already?" And there I was, laughing and crying at the same time at his immense wisdom and soothing words to quell my fears. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a wise monk man from Tibet who brought Buddhism to the West in the '70s, once said that the epitome of being human is the ability to laugh and cry at the same time. Think about it. All the wealth that is encompassed in that one small tear...
No. My dad wasn't a Buddhist or affiliated with any religion of any kind. In fact, he was an absolute agnostic and atheist. And so proud of it, too! But that didn't stop him from being a deeply spiritual person as well.
I know, it sounds mutually exclusive. But it's not.
Being spiritual means to be humbled by something bigger than you are, living in harmony with the elements and seeing the beauty of the universe in all its myriad of facets.
Religion is about social rules. The root of the English word religion actually comes from ligare, "to bind, connect." So there he was, giving me a teaching on how not to get too caught up with the fear of death, when he himself was less than a month away from his last breath.
I think seeing my father die also helped me understand how non-tragic death actually is. Of course, we were fortunate in that he had a very peaceful exit. He was not in pain or plugged into multiple machines. His mother had been there for him when he was born, and I was there to tell him how much I loved him all night before his heart stopped beating.
It was natural. This is the cycle of life.
As much as I was frightened of death before my dad encountered it, when he exhaled for the very last time it felt completely natural and peaceful. I have no other way to describe it. I was honoured and, yes, blessed, to be there for him. Despite this devastating loss, I somehow was able to set aside my own pain and completely be present for him. And simply because of this, I feel my life is a complete success. I am hugely rich in so many multiple facets.
A few moments after he died, the nurses and I dressed him with a beautiful kimono he had bought but never worn -- by the way, keeping things for "special occasions" is the best way to deprive yourself of something that elates you and makes you happy. What? You think you're not worth it? Think again! So I tied a blessed cord with a crystal heart around his wrist. Then lit some incense and put on a CD with his favorite music. I stayed for over an hour, stroking his face, his hair, telling him how beautiful he looked and sending beautiful thoughts to his soul.
But things took a turn for the worse when I got home. I broke down in the hall and spent the whole day shattered, torn and crying desperately. I felt completely and utterly alone in the world. That feeling stayed with me for well over a year. Then I began obsessing about my own mortality. How and when would I go? Would it be painful? How will I go through with this unavoidable voyage? Death is inevitable. But death is also part of life. It's a natural process that has gone on forever. Even the sun will go dark one day. The pain slowly gave way to peace...
So now, instead of cowering in fear from this ultimate truth, I keep death close to my heart to live every second to its fullest, maximum enlightened beauty. The colours are more vibrant and display a superb sequence of many more subtle hues. The chirping of the birds sounds like a full-blown whimsical symphony, and the flavour of a freshly-picked tomato tastes like sparkling sunshine on my tongue.
Life is short, live in beauty!