To hold the hands of a dying man

Death and impermanence have seemed very frightening to me. On an intellectual level I grasp and understand something of them – I see them in the changing of seasons and the movements of my mind. But I couldn’t grasp the full extent of death until I held the hands of a dying man.

Buddhism teaches us about the three marks of existence, of which the first is impermanence. My non-practicing friends sometimes say they think Buddhism is a depressing religion. “Everything is about impermanence and suffering; how do you get out of bed in the morning?” It also teaches us the four reminders, of which the second is: “But death is real, comes without warning. This body will be a corpse.” And in Shambhala Buddhism we talk about the dignity of the tiger which deals with the contentment that comes from realizing that life is in fact impermanent, and death inevitable. This is perhaps the hardest pill to swallow.

The thought that all of my friends and family will die, the thought that I will die, depresses me like nothing else. I was reminded of that simple truth while watching the final episode of How I Met Your Mother and I stayed in bed for two days because I honestly couldn’t take it. While working with the dignity of the tiger in my practice I always feel a wall coming up. I cry because of the people who have died, I cry because of the people who will die, but the idea that I too one day will be gone somehow feels ludicrous.

What makes me, me?

The first of many question I have asked myself is: who am I? What makes me Ri, and what makes me different from other people? I know that my moods change, my appearance changes, but regardless of this I feel like I’m pretty solid.

It wasn’t until two weeks ago, when I rushed over to see my granddad for the last time, that it became much clearer to me. I had been looking at pictures of him when he was young, and I could see how changed he was. In the last couple of years his mind started to leave him and he got physically weaker, but nothing changed about who I saw: my granddad. He was still the same bundle of elements. His body, his voice, my memories with him, his role in my life, his energy, his jokes, his love, and so many other things. The components of that bundle might have changed and shifted over the years but that didn’t change anything about the way I saw him.

But there we were. He’d been non-responsive for a day. His breathing got slower, his hands got colder and, as a small group of us sat next to him, holding him, he took his last breath.
Then I saw that the only difference between being dead and alive is one breath, one heartbeat, that’s it. One second you’re there, the next you’re not. You’re body just stops working, and the one thing keeping that bundle of elements together turns into an empty shell. Over the following hours that body stopped being my granddad.

It will happen

 I don’t believe I’ve ever cried as hard and long as I did in the week following my grandfather’s death. Yet according to the Buddhist teachings, contemplating death is where you find contentment. I had always been scared of death, of the idea that this life will end at some point. But as I sat there watching, all my fear fell away. My granddad had that strong, kind and wise presence, completely content and accepting, which held us as he passed. That’s when I realized it will happen to all of us, and it is nothing to be scared off. Some of us go surrounded by spouses, children and grandchildren, some might die after getting hit on the head by a coconut on Maui, and other’s spend years in a state of terminal illness. As soon as we are born we start dying. As soon as we start breathing we are one breath away from death. We don’t know when, we don’t know how, but it will happen.

The fruit

The Buddha used to tell a story about a man who met a tiger in the jungle. The man started running for his life and while he was running found himself at the edge of a cliff. He had nowhere to go so he climbed over the edge of the cliff and grabbed hold of the root of a tree. He saw one tiger patrolling the edge of the cliff and another one way down at the bottom of the cliff. Then he noticed two rats slowly eating the root of the tree and he knew his end was near. Then he looked up and saw a ripe fruit growing on the tree. It looked colorful and smelled amazing. He plucked it and took a bite and felt like it was the sweetest thing he ever had.
I’ve heard this story about a thousand times, but again, didn’t quite understand it. Not experientially. Now I think back to every bike ride me and my granddad went on, every time we laughed and cuddled, every time he told me he loved me and said I loved him too. Even sitting next to each other, holding each other’s hands when we had nothing more to say.

Every second

It all has a sweetness, a sweetness we fail to acknowledge when we are too busy pretending we live an eternal life. We don’t. This second, this moment is all we have. We have no certainty we will still be here tomorrow. That means that every second matters, every moment of your life holds utter sweetness. The wind in your face, a hug from a friend, a good conversation, a painful conversation are all gold. Life is so precious, every second is so darn precious and it’s not meant to be wasted on the wrong people, or decisions based on ‘should’ instead of your own wishes and intuition.

I’m pretty sure that if I’m lucky enough to die when I’m 85, surrounded by family, I’ll think about the wonderful things, my amazing loved ones, and the fact that the sun shines. I’ll potentially think about wanting some water. However, I doubt I will think about that day, back when I was 24 years old, that I felt really shitty about a problem I created in my head over nothing. I doubt I will still be upset for not being able to live up to my own unreasonably high standards.

Life is so precious, so beautiful, and you are so lucky to be human. Please don’t waste it.

Photos and text by Rianne

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