musings on the ordinary from a retired drama professor
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Reflections by John Tarrant on Gregory Willms death
Reflections by John Tarrant on Gregory Willms death
CASE 55 OF THE BLUE CLIFF RECORD
Sesshin Teisho by John Tarrant RoshiJune 26, 1994 Day OneCamp Meeker, California
A few weeks ago we were here in sesshin and it seems to me that we're still in sesshin. So this is a very favorable time to go deep; to take another step in the Way. A few weeks ago Al Einhorn's ashes were on the altar during sesshin and since then I've been to two more funerals. So I thought I should talk about death today.
Death is something that's like birth and taxes; it's always with us. Until you can be at ease with death, you are not at ease with life. Often it's thought that the measure of a person's meditation is whether or not they are at ease with their owndeath. If, when you're dying, you can say, "Yes," then that is a good thing. Since you're going to do it anyway, it's not much use saying, "No." I don't know whether this is a quote of his or whether he made it up, but at the beginning of one of Robert Haas' books of poems, he says, "What shall we do with a beast so enormous, so intractable, so difficult to deal with?" And the answer is, "We shall praise it." That is our life, we must praise it.
The two funerals I've been to recently were for Gregory Willms and Anne Aitken. Both of them knew they were going to die fairly soon and did it well, so it wasn't really a shock. Let me talk about those two deaths a little.
I realized that Gregory was going to die soon when he arrived at my place with some paintings and stuff that I knew he liked and he started distributing his goods, distributing the objects of his life. He was kind of into objects, so that was significant for him. During his last months he spent a lot of time setting things in order, giving little things away to people. In a way s of unpacking his life. We spend all this time collecting things and now he was dispensing with them. While most of us knew he was going to die in a few months, he didn't know he wasgoing to die at that time, but because he had this attitude towards death, that it was his last journey in this life, then he really didn't make too much of a fuss about it. When the nurse called Gregory's partner, Leonard Gabriel, and said, "We'relosing him. You better come into the hospital really quickly." Leonard jumped into his car and came in. The nurse and the physician were trying to stabilize him so that Leonard could arrive and he had been stabilized by the time Leonard arrived.Leonard said, "They tell me that you're dying." Gregory said, "I don't know. It's okay." So they spent the night talking and when the dawn came on he would drift in and out and his speech would get very soft. When the dawn came on, he roused a little and saw the stars fade and heard the birds and then stoppedbreathing. When I heard I figured probably everyone was still at the hospital, the body was still at the hospital, so I jumped into my car because I had agreed with my friend that I would chant for him. So I went round and chanted and some other people came around, Roberta. It was quite a party in the hospital room. Because it's a new hospital and the AIDS wing, they left us alone to do our thing, I guess. We were in there for hours and chanting. It was very interesting because it was very easy. There was this very easy serene feeling in the room. It was veryplain that clinical death does not mean entire death. You can really feel somebody's consciousness around in the room before it's gone out further. I began to understand how the Tibetans wrote their manuals of dying which was just by being with a lot of dying people and watching what they experienced and what they noticed.
What I noticed was that Gregory was quite comfortable being there with his friends and seemed to have no impetus to leave. There was a sense of this benign, amiable presence in the room. But as we chanted, then something would release and he'd be moving on and moving through. So one has that sense of chanting somebody through and that the chanting is a very, very powerful thing to do at such a time because it goes so deep into my heart and everybody's heart. And that was very easy with him. When Roberta's dad died a few months ago, she arrived in the hospital room not long after he was clinically dead. He had struggled; he had fought very hard for the last two days. They took him off code, which means that if he died they wouldn't revive him, and he knew he didn't have enough heart muscle left to survive, but he kept himself going. He started his own heart quite a number of times when it stopped. Through those two days he struggled while his family was gathering. He bought some time that way so that he could say goodby to people. Roberta said that struggle was very much in the room. As she chanted him through and she didn't have a lot of help because everyone else was not familiar with this concept. She's sitting there alone with her dad with her meditation beads chanting, talking to him, while the nurse came in to check on her every now and again to see if she was okay. It was kind of sweet. She said that the room was much thicker, much more turbulent with her dad, but as she chanted, then everything smoothed out. His mouth closed, his face smoothed out and he went on. She could feel him moving away as she kept chanting. Rather quickly, actually. Until by the time she left after he was completely cold, he was gone.
We feel the differences in the kinds of deaths people have. We feel the truth that we shall face this ourselves one day and that those we love will face it. I think that the great poignancy of human life is that if you don't love, you're the walking dead,and if you do love, it's a contract that either you'll be at that person's death bed or they'll be at yours. So it's good to become at ease with it and be able to expand the heart around this kind of transition. This kind of coming and going that we do so busily.