Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A brush with death

I had a scare on Monday. I checked my email during lunch and there was a message from my wife: "The doctor called. It sounded urgent."

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.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad to hear your news turned out good.

    I lost my father on the 10th, it's the first time I've lost someone really close to me. He was 77, and it was sudden, no warning, he died in his sleep. It really made me look at death and how I perceive it. Majority of my family are Christians, so they believe in an after life. I on the other hand believe that it was "his time", and his memory will continue on as long as those who knew him and the things he did for other people, remain in our memory.

    I honestly believe that the teachings of the Buddha on impermanence and clinging really helped me through this difficult time. I think people will sometimes get hung up on asking "why" instead of accepting it for what it is and letting themselves grieve and move on.

    You never really know how you truly feel about impermanence and clinging until it slaps you in the face.