Tuesday, November 15, 2011

death approaches

An old friend and twice-housemate of mine, JD, who has been gravely ill with cancer all year, is finally down to his last days (possibly hours), in 24/7 hospice care at home. On Sunday, while he was still in the hospital, I helped move furniture around so a hospital bed and other gear could come in, and me and his wife and another friend were talking about funeral home and other arrangements. I'm part of the funeral-planning committee, though Anna and I got sick again as soon as we got home, so I haven't done anything yet except to suggest that a post-funeral reception is going to be many hundreds of people and therefore it's not practical to have at someone's house.

I've been watching my own reactions and impulses, along with everyone else's. I've been thinking it would be nice and interesting if I could see him one last time, but he very graciously had some folks over for my bachelor party a few weeks ago, so we had a solid hug then, and I don't feel like there's anything unsaid between us. Some people have a need to go see him, but he's exhausted and ready to die, and doesn't want visitors.

That last part there is exactly why we say things like "Don't wait until the end to say what you want to say." In addition to death sometimes coming on suddenly, even if there's some lingering, you don't know that you'll be able to see them. "Don't wait" isn't some philosophical point. It actually means "don't wait." It's not something to think about, it's something to do.

People get cranky with Buddhism, and especially Zen, for constantly harping on death: the teacher Dainin Katagiri famously started a fundraising talk with "You are all going to die someday." I've never had much patience with the American religion of positivity, or the idea that everything happens for a reason. Saying that everything happens for a reason, without actually knowing the reason, is a measured dose of comforting predestination, often invoked by people who would otherwise strenuously insist that we live from free will.

If we can't figure out the reason why a 37-year old is struck down by a vicious cancer that doesn't normally strike any of his demographic groups, maybe that's because there isn't a reason. Does that mean his life didn't have meaning? He did work and created communities that still flourish, touching thousands and thousands of people. He's dying because people die. The choices he made, the relationships he had, are what matters.

JD was a phenomenal downtempo DJ, and this was a favorite song.

Don't wait.

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