I have a friend who passed away last night. He’s been fading for weeks under hospice care, after two years of cancer and treatment, gradually losing mobility and some awareness, but never his sense of humor. I never went to visit him in the hospital, but he’s never been far from my awareness over the last few months. Here are a couple of photos to give you an idea of who this man was.
Dan led a full-contact life, a linebacker-poet if I ever met one. A conundrum, perhaps the most literate meth-addict/felon/recovery case I’ve ever met, with a lengthy police record and equally-long service record. He was widely known to the law enforcement agencies of several counties when I met him, ruling his rough block in Antioch with a baseball bat from his mother’s garage. He was always up for a fight, and his scarred mug and crooked teeth were frightening even before he glared or barked at you. Coaching him was like a gym workout with too much weight, I and others would come away from our interactions shaking. Yet he strove for self-awareness and self-mastery with great intention, and became more receptive with each month and year of consciousness work. After some months, helping him assemble a working computer in his garage one day, I became aware of how literate he was, how much he loved reading, which was a closely-guarded vulnerability. Over the years, I and others started to see his poetry, his heart, and his thoughtfulness more and more. Now I can honestly say, I love his writing, his body art, his crude directness, and his tenderness. We’ve created ritual together, coached consciousness workshops together, and supported each other in odd ways. I helped him with his computer problems, and he taught me how little there was to fear his big crude energy. He would poke at me in some way, then laugh. He was a guest in my home and a drinking buddy on more than one occasion. I miss him, even as I’m relieved that his suffering has ended.
Our common community rallied around Dan lovingly, creating ritual, sitting with him for weeks around the clock as he lost awareness, writing many emails a day with updates, commentary, feelings and requests for assistance. Oddly, there was little email as Nancy was in critical condition for 56 days, relatively few visited, and almost no discussion after she passed, while people traveled hundreds and even thousands of miles to see Dan. I wonder about what was different, even as I marvel at and delight in the outpouring of support he’s received. One big difference is that I wrote updates ever day for the 160 folks who wanted to know what was happening. Another is that we had to limit visitation towards the end, as she was exhausted by too much contact. I held Nancy’s hospitalization with some optimism, even though she was quadriplegic for the whole time. Dan, well, we’ve known this was serious for months, and I think the acceptance of the end of this incarnation for him is more evident. Nancy was also in an ICU, harder to visit, and I imagine it was harder to come see someone who could not talk, kept alive by a half-dozen machines.
Perhaps it’s the nature of the connection our community has had with them. Perhaps it’s the timing. Perhaps Nancy was the first one to go, and no one knew what to do, or how to be. Whatever, it’s a puzzle.
But I am having a reaction that has nothing to do with any of this. I’m weary of loss. It’s not just Dan, or Nancy.
I’ve been the guardian and trustee for my mother for more than six years, as she has faded away thanks to Alzheimer’s disease. She hasn’t recognized me in years, and I accept that. But others go away too. The cascade started in mid-February, when a man in the prime of his life died of the flu, shockingly right after his wedding. I have two good friends who knew him. February 24th, Mark Ketchum, a world-renown bridge architect and fellow BMW motorcyclist in Berkeley passed away after a year of cancer. Then within a few weeks, another close friend lost both his parents, and his partner lost her father. Jenifer lost a coworker suddenly last week. A member of the sangha is critically ill, and so is my next-door neighbor. Several people in my larger circle have been widowed, which strikes close to my heart indeed.
I don’t know where to go with this. I’m not depressed, I just feel weary and open, and perhaps a little numb.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m halfway through my preliminary buddhist practices, and studying some deeper Tibetan writings on “buddha nature” (Tathagatagharba Sutra) and the nature of emptiness, enlightenment and enlightened activity (Nagarjuna’s teachings). Every day begins with a reminder of how fragile our lives are, and this outer experience of loss, over and over, is perhaps cracking some layers of protection away. In the stillness something is forming, I don’t know what.