I inadvertently landed on two books about death in a short time frame. The first one, which I have already mentioned, was The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, by Frank Ostaseki. He was cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project and he writes of his experiences of being with the dying. I borrowed this book from the library for my Kindle. I like it so much that I've since ordered a hardback copy of the book.
Two of his stories in the book brought tears to my eyes (I do not really consider that crying!). One was about a couple whose young son had died in their home. They wanted to stay for a bit with the body, and the author wrote the most touching recollection of the couple washing the son's body. One of the hard things when my own son died out of state was the waiting for his body to be brought to us. I know he was gone from his body, but I kept thinking about how he was traveling all alone with no one to be with him. And I wondered about how his body was handled by the various people who came into contact with it on his journey home.
The other story was about a female doctor who had grown disenchanted with her work, with the part of it that involved her telling people she did not know (in the ER) that their loved one had died. I can't remember the story well but the gist of it was that the author advised her to find a way to approach the task with intentional awareness. Her father and grandfather had been doctors. She brought her grandfather's doctor bag and her father's stethoscope to her work. When she went to inform someone of a death, she gathered up those two things to carry with her. She needed the reminder of her ancestors to help her make her way. She paused at the doorway, holding the things, taking a deep breath, and walked in to tell the family of the death. She no longer took the task for granted. She was no longer hardened to the task. She was aware and present. I don't know why that story made me tear up, but it did. It was probably something about the possessions of the ancestors she intentionally gathered to help her. I often feel very keenly the presence of my own ancestors. We talk about them and we tell their stories. In this way, they are still with us.
Now I am reminded of Dumbledore telling Harry Potter, "Of course it's happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?" I loved that quote.
The second book on death was When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi. This one is about a young neurosurgeon who is diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer just as he is finishing his final year of his training. He was in a relatively unique position of being doctor and seriously ill patient. His writing about his diagnosis and his thoughts on his death hit close to home for me (and caused tears to flow). . .
"I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn't know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn't know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn't really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live."
I don't consider myself as having a terminal illness (no more than I consider any of the rest of us having a terminal illness, but there is that quote about life being fatal). But the possibility of that does occasionally loom quite heavily over me. As he said in the book, "Even when the cancer was in retreat, it cast long shadows." So I have this shadow, and in this way, my own diagnosis is a gift, having awakened me to my own mortality and my own desire to live as well as I can (which honestly, quite often, I do not feel like I am doing). I also have the gift of a relatively good prognosis. I do not want to waste it.
I'll also say here at the end, that it's hard work, distilling your life and days down to the values that are most important to you. It's hard to kick the Shoulds to the curb. It's hard to accept (and forgive) your failure to meet up to your own idealized standards. I keep trying. I keep failing. I keep getting up. And dammitall, I know I'll keep on trying.
"Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, I will try again tomorrow." Mary Anne Radmacher.
(Look at me, giving myself a pep talk!)