Trust me when I say that no one, under any circumstances, wants to receive a message like that.
My throat tightened and my heart began to race.
What the hell's wrong with me? I immediately worried. Was it my liver? A couple years ago my liver enzymes were imbalanced--maybe it was that. What else could it be?
My mind raced through all of the worst possibilities--kidney failure, appendicitis, cirrhosis of the liver.
The menacing shadow of cancer loomed above me. Could they even identify cancer from a routine blood test?
Calm down, I told myself. It could be nothing.
Then again it could be everything. Suddenly I imagined my whole changing at this one moment. I would be on Oprah some day (don't ask me why, but I have these talk show fantasies) and an audience member would ask me, "So Andre, when did you first discover that you were dying of_____?"
And I would remember the email, the blank stare of the computer screen, the hum of the heat in the back of the classroom.
"Enough already," I snapped. "You're not dying yet." With that, I picked up the phone and called the doctor.
They had me on hold for at least ten minutes, all the while I had to fight back the temptation to scream. I was scared. Really scared.
Sure I've thought about death before. Honestly, I have no idea what happens once our heart stops beating and our brain functions cease. All I could imagine--or try to at least--was cold, silent oblivion.
While I waited for the nurse to pick up, I sat and investigated my bodily sensations--the tightness in the chest, the shallowness of my breathing, the sweat in my palms. My thoughts were surprisingly lucid; it was my nerves that were about the burst as I listened to the elevator music drone over the telephone speaker.
"Come on, come on!"
At some point, I don't know exactly when, I distinctly remember thinking: I don't want to die. There's so much I haven't done: I want to watch my kids grow up and get married, travel with my wife, to become a Zen priest.
Talk about clinging. It's no wonder why the Buddha said that clinging is what keeps the wheel of samsara spinning--clinging to life, to notions of self. That all became startlingly clear to me at that moment.
And then, out of nowhere I realized, that even if everything is fine today, some day--maybe not this year, or next, maybe not for ten or twenty years--I will one day get a phone call telling me that things are not fine. And if not about me, then about someone I love.
Some day I will die. At some point I am going to face the certainty of my own death. Not in an abstract, indifferent sense, like "Yeah, I know I'm going to die someday. Hurry up and pass the chips." But there will come a day--if I'm lucky--when I will realize, "This is it. I'm going to die today."
If not today, then some day.
Or maybe not. Maybe I'll die in my sleep or get run over by a reindeer. But the point is, I--all of us, in fact--have a death sentence on my head.
The visceralness of this understanding was terrfying in an existential sense.
But I won't hold you in suspense any longer. The nurse came on and said everything was fine; my blood work looked good.
But it isn't fine. I am still going to die someday, and I'd be lying if I said that isn't really freaking scary. This is what the Buddha meant when he said that "Life is dukkha."
Life--impermanent, conditioned, imperfect--cannot provide us with the certainty, the stability that we as humans so desperately seek.
That's why we practice.
Photo borrowed from Creatiev Commons flickr user: Leo Reynolds.