Living and Dying
We are always living and dying. Our deaths are not final, but there are certainly those days you would rather forget about, and start over. I was possibly in need of someone shaking me out of my dull, mind-numbing days that I started reading, the Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche based on the text written in the 14th century known in the west as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. These writings were originally found hidden in Mount Gampodar, Tibet by Karma Lingpa. Sogyal Rinpoche’s book grasps the foundation of the old text and brings it to a newer generation.
Now it’s sitting on my lap as people with discontent faces pour in and out of the morning trains, pushing each other. I see no empathy. Maybe I am seeing myself written on their faces. Life feels eternal and doomed during rush hour, and it doesn’t help that the trains are crowded and not working in the summer. The sweat trickles down our necks before noon.
Reading about our incomplete understanding of death makes me want to live. The more you age, the closer you are to dying. Thinking about this makes me appreciate life. Difficulties no matter how much you hate it are not final. They are not permanent. They are interconnected to an array of small possibilities.
Fear of Death
Ever since I could remember anyone talking to me about death it was seeped in fear. There are some traditional idioms that I’m sure many Latinos are familiar with: You never know when it’s your time or when one dies young, it means you were a good person, and when one dies old you were probably evil.
Fear is reasonable since death means we won’t be able to do the things we love and be with the people we love. Doesn’t everyone want to be immortal?
When someone dies not by natural death but rather by the action of another, disease, or an accident, we know the person was unable to fully complete their life, especially if they are young. It’s a truly sad moment knowing the person dies missing something integral to their fulfillment. To die with happiness and in peace sounds unrealistic in today’s world with all the depressing news we hear. But we all want the same thing to find happiness and fulfillment. Living is a preparation for that final moment. The final moment is a culmination of your entire life.
I thought about this while on the train. Everyone is searching for essentially the same thing, and one day we won’t be here.
In this fast pace culture we hardly get a moment to analyze the scope of our life. Rather than having a mindful approach to living, statues and money is how measure our value. Youth is the essence of life, so we have to retain it. We regard old age as something negative since it reminds us of impending death, contradictory to our happening lives. There’s something to be said for growing older. Few look at this part of life with curiosity when in actuality it’s a time of great accumulation: wisdom and a calm sense of self.
People tend to avoid the topic of death even when it’s staring at them in the face, because they don’t want to accept it, so they cover it up. I remember sitting in front of my friend’s mom who’s in her 60s. She began talking about a cousin around her age that recently passed away. “Before you know it that will be me in a coffin,” she said with a side smile, looking down at the table.
“Don’t say that mom,” one of her sons said. “Why would you say that?”
I thought, was it really the ugliest thing to say?
The other son joined in. “Here we are having a nice conversation, and you have to ruin it.”
The mood turned sour, and no one wanted to talk. Suddenly reality was out of the table for everyone to think about but no one wanted to. You can’t blame people for not wanting to confront a dying parent. But it’s also sad to note that we cannot speak honestly about dying, and that we have to keep everything sterile so we don’t get hurt. The way we cope with ageing parents in this country is by taking them to a nursing home, and abandoning them to strangers.
It’s only when you acknowledge death that you can start living. Every minute counts.
And when you think it’s unlikely. There’s life after death. It only makes sense that you find yourself drowning in the deep sea only to find a way to the surface.
Even if I wanted to hide from dying, there are small reminders asking to be acknowledged. From aging friends, neighbors, parents, and the dilapidation of a school building—time recedes.
Once in Bryant Park during the hot days of June, I saw a group of high school students holding hands in a circle. Their faces were calm but serious. They let go and quietly clapped their hands. They released three white balloons as if not wanting to. Names on the balloons, I saw, and it went up to the sun. Somewhere there’s a person they love—and is now being remembered through words, tears and hugs. A moment on dying sent small ripples to those watching.
Another day I was laying on a grassy lawn reading Four hundred mourners, by Stanley Plumly when a baby crawled to me. I was beginning to get teary then I saw the smiling baby, and my sadness mixed with happiness. When we honor the dead we are honoring the lives they’ve left behind, and as they say, “the memories live on.”
A month ago I was in New Orleans, known for it’s historic cemeteries. While going on a bike ride to the Garden district I bumped into a cemetery. This one had mostly white marble tombstone with elaborate decorations, mostly well-preserved. The trees stood tall above the decorated tombstones. The grass was green, and little lizards popped from the corner every so often, hiding under leaves from the sun. It was so hot, and barely any place for shade. You could get lost here in the maze of tombstones and possibly time travel to the 1800s. There was a calm sense of being among the ruins. You know you do not belong here; it’s sacred, but there’s something that draws you in. Here I felt the sun and the breeze, and there was life in middle of this place.