“Dokyo wrote his last words while seated in the upright
Zen position. Then he put down his brush, hummed ‘an ancient song’
to himself, suddenly laughed out loud, and died.”
The Death of Dokyo Etan, a Zen Monk, taken from the book,
Japanese Death Poems
Lately, I’ve been thinking about death. A plethora of books and religions have been written on the matters of living and dying, though the overwhelming scholarship dedicates itself to the functions of life. That being stated, it should be of little surprise that even the matter of death is mostly treated as the annoying, younger sibling of life, (e.g., how to live after losing a loved one; the stages of death grief). What is to be said about our own deaths? What advice can be passed along about how to face, (if we are fortunate to recognize it), that brave transition? Death is inevitable, so we are told; or, at the very least, the physical death is inevitable. There is no escaping, my friends, we are condemned to die. All the religions of the world cannot save us from this savagery.
I think about my own demise. How will it approach me? What veil and costume will it choose to cloak its misshapen appearance? Will I know her when she arrives? Believe it or not, I don’t pray to avoid death; I think I want to embrace her when the time comes. When Dokyo Etan died it seems he released his spirit. He laughed out loud and then died. What an eerie, yet amusing, event. What a presence he had about him to choose his final breath. He consciously released his spirit. He wasn’t the first to do this, (Jesus Christ, among others, did likewise: while on the cross, he bowed his head then he died), and he wasn’t the last, but certainly one can applaud with much appreciation the manner in which Dokyo Etan succumbed to the inevitable. He died laughing! What a joy; an ultimate victory: to leave this life laughing.
What of my own death? Recently, in an x-ray, it was discovered that I have several, abnormally large nodules surrounding the Hilar region, (chest and lung area of the body), along with some that have found themselves under my armpits. So today, March 6, 2009, the day before my 38th birthday, I will go in to the hospital to have a biopsy taken from the area of my lungs. The doctor believes that it may be a disease called sarcoidosis. Sarcoidosis is an inflammatory disease, potentially fatal in some carriers, though most people live with the disease unbeknownst to them. I am asymptomatic. I would not have discovered these nodules if it weren’t for an emergency room visit I had concerning a pulled muscle in my lower back. When they x-rayed my body they found nothing concerning my initial complaint, but they found these nodules. It was unrelated to the reason for my hospital visit, but once it was discovered, I followed up, (at the recommendation of the hospital), with a CT scan. I admit I was alarmed at first. When you get an x-ray result that states: you have a prominent silhouette of the hilar region – it fails to bring comfort. I think that my response was something along the lines of: “What the hell does that mean?” And then I felt panic. The CT scan confirmed the initial findings of the x-ray: I have enlarged nodules. I was still at a loss. What did it mean? The panic subsided when I took the follow-up steps of visiting my doctor and then scheduling an appointment with a thoracic surgeon. For me, serenity has often been obtained by having more knowledge and less obscurity. It was after my visits with the doctors that things became clearer. I have sarcoidosis or lymphoma.
Lymphoma is another affair. Briefly stated, lymphoma is cancer, cancer of the lymph nodes. This disease, unlike sarcoidosis, is not just an inflammatory disease. It is The Disease. The Great C. The Beast. The Unknown. The rapist of the body. Death personified. Surprisingly, I have not been overly anxious by this possibility. Technically, I was not meant to discover these nodules at this present time. I hold on to this mystical, yet vaporous, comfort. And with this mixture of tossing emotions, I face today. The biopsy will clear up some questions.
What do I feel? I suppose the overriding emotion that exists is a sense of peace. At the moment, I feel no fear by what may lie ahead. I hesitate to say this because I know that many of my friends rush to bring me hope, albeit, unsecure as it is, these friends seek to alleviate what they perceive would be a natural reaction on my part: panic. They want to bring comfort by telling me that all will be well; that it will not be cancer; that cancer does not happen to someone like me. Their intentions are positive. They want to raze the fear they feel for me or their approaching mortality. What they achieve, however, is more problematic. I shut down, and then I raise an emotional barrier. I feel sadness, not fear. I need no false hope, no cold comfort. Quis ero ero: what will be, will be. If it is sarcoidosis or cancer, I will take the necessary treatment steps to deal with it.
I am not trying to put on a brave face. I will be fairly expressive about all my emotions along the process. I’ve never been adept at forgoing public announcements concerning my private life. I just don’t think denial of any possibility is my best comrade. I will suffice it to say that I don’t believe that this current process is how I will die, though it is a test of how I choose to live. Please do not misconstrue what I am saying. I hope that it is sarcoidosis over cancer, but I have no fallacies concerning my mortality. I will one day depart this life. It may be soon or it may be years from now, but I shall drink the same poison found in apples, within foreign gardens, of long ago. It is heartbreaking that I will not be a part of the carnival ride forever.
But what of my sadness; from where does it spring? My sadness is the byproduct of the sadness my death will create for others, primarily that of my daughter. What if my time is now? My daughter, Saskia, not yet five, is hooked to me, as I am to her. I shudder when I envision the turbulence from which her young life would quake with such a loss. And I am stuck with this enigma: I am ready for my own death, but I am not ready to die now.
Life is queer. We are here but for the moment, moving towards our death the moment we are born. We fall in love, establish friendships, and fret over our pets; we hate one another, inserting our vitality into the hips of greed and disparagement. We are immortal spirits trapped inside mortal vessels. Oh, how beautiful and terrible is this gift of life, this commonality of death. I am thinking about all these things today. My death is tracking me; she is timing her approach. If my time is not now, make no mistake, death has already begun to hum my tune. I hope to laugh when she sings her song, bowing my head, delivering a final joke, and then taking her hand.