Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Reflections on death

April  26, 2011

Everyone of us reading this, and every person we know are all going to die, and we don’t know when.  This is a simple truth, but not something we bring to our attention very often.  I have been considering death recently as we watched our beloved Himalayan cat fall into a death spiral.  After a week of tests, x-rays and attempting to revive his body and spirit it became clear that Bodhi was dying.  Forcing food and water finally did not work and our efforts to help finally seemed an indignity. He would accept no water, food or touch.  And he constantly sought a cave to lie down in.  It was time to let him go. 

The young Siddhartha wandering out of his palace was struck by the omnipresence of disease, old age and death.  It must have been everywhere he looked in the poverty around him.  These days death is not on our radar very often.  And, it is likely you have not ever even been in the presence of a dead human body.  .  .  . or one that was not embalmed and presented peacefully. 

As I was reflecting on all this I came upon a letter written nearly twenty years ago by a close friend who was a Buddhist and a psychotherapist.  He was in the last year of a life that was being dismantled by the HIV virus.  As I was hanging out with him and being a support, I invited him to “consider his purpose” during these last months.  In response to my question he wrote this letter: 

January 28, 1993

Thanks to Patricia

Thanks to Patricia, I’m finally sitting down, writing.  In particular, I want to record several key ideas that have somehow been distilled in the course of the years that I’ve been dealing with HIV.

For me, one of the most difficult and challenging aspects of this journey has been each confrontation with treatment decisions.  AZT?  PCP? Prophylaxis?  Antibiotics to treat skin problems?  Slowly, I’ve come to realize that THERE IS NO OTHER PATH than the one I am now on.  There is no alternate life out in space in which I took AZT and increased my energy and my life span.  Or sabotaged my own health and died early.  Further, NO ONE KNOWS what the outcome of my decisions will be.  This seems especially true to me now, as all of the men with HIV who were sure of what I should do are now dead.  Seeing this reality clearly, that there is only the life I am living, is sometimes comforting, especially when I am facing another confrontation with a physician and her ideas of what I should do.  More consistently, though, it gives me a solid foundation of reality on which I might build with my day-to-day actions.  

This writing all sounds so dry, in sharp contrast with the moment of panic, despair and rage in which I struggle with decisions of which way to go next.  Of course, I understand all of this as a quite natural expression of my desire to prolong my life and relative health, and my fear of pain and death.  So, if no one really knows which decisions will lead to longer life, on what basis can I make my decisions?  Slowly, and only in retrospect, I am coming to see that the course of treatment I am following are quite consistent with my values, and that the options I have rejected run contrary to them.  More specifically, I see clearly the immense and perhaps irreparable damage that has been done on this earth by the human use of poisons to solve an immediate problem with little or no attention given to the wider consequences.  Many of the standard treatment options that have been urged on me seem so similar.  Take AZT and slow the replication of the virus—but what about the bone marrow?  Use antibiotics to prevent pneumonia from finding a home—but what about all of the helpful flora in my digestive system and the rest of my body?  I see now that the ways I am dealing with HIV are very close to the ways I treat my yard and garden.  I can not say that would never use any toxic substances there, but that is my general guideline.   Further, it would take a lot of talk and research to convince me to do otherwise.  I’ll do the same with my body.  If I treat my body in a way that is consistent with my life and values, in a way I have already “won.”  If I make my treatment decisions only in an attempt to stay alive, I will eventually ‘lose.”

One final bit of clarity that has come my way.  In the last decade, as the pace of the epidemic has increased, I have had my share of opportunities to see the horrors and suffering that can come with the loss of the immune system.  Far too many of my darker dreams and fantasies play themselves out in my own private horror show.  In cognitive moments it sometimes helps me to realize that all of that is not happening now, and that whatever comes it will certainly be a “fresh” Gregory who will do what needs to e done.  Though I know this to be true, it has only occasional power to cut through the delusion of WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN.  Moreover, this delusion is also a product of the natural mind, leading me to prepare in the ways that I can for increasing debility and eventual death.  In its darkest aspects, it reminds me that from a realistic perspective, like many people faced with the final wasting of this disease, there may come a moment when suicide is what needs to be done.  Still at THIS MOMENT the sky is a remarkable blue, diarrhea has finally passed, and I am able to receive these thoughts and haltingly record them on the Mac which dear Leonard has kindly let me use.  Yes, it is ever so useful to be here now!  I have found it useful to finally come to a simple statement of my purpose, that I will do what I can to live well and long until I get very sick.  This statement—so ridiculously simple—has been very helpful to me in rallying my resources to what needs doing now. Future action can be taken in future moments. 

My sincere thanks to Patricia Ryan Madson and Gregg Krech, without whose kind urging and nagging these words might never have come to paper.

Gregory Willms  (photo above)
Gregory Willms died of complications resulting from AIDS in the early hours of June 2, 1994 just as the morning star appeared in the dark sky.  His Buddhist name, given to him at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, meant “Morning Star.”

When we allow ourselves to actually meditate on the reality of death . . . our own deaths and those of our loved ones . . . it is possible to find a clearer view.  The miracle of life begins to overshadow any petty problems or issues we face. 

I invite us all to consider death.  The purpose is not to become morbid, but rather to look with deeper realism and purpose into our daily life. 

Patricia Ryan Madson
April  26, 2011

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