My uncle remarked that the good thing about being in hospice care was that he no longer had to take the pills that he had been taking to stay alive. It was a relief, he said: the side effects were unpleasant. One might wonder at the sensibility of such a man, a man who could cheerly seek the silver lining behind the clouds, even under such conditions. It was also no longer necessary for him to force himself to eat. He was dying of esophageal cancer. Swallowing was painful. His appetite was gone. He, a big man who had enjoyed food, finally set aside the chore that eating had become. While he occasionally reminisced wishfully about tacos and fresh peaches, he let go of eating and pill taking. He retained only his pain pills.
My uncle’s final purchase was a large, flat screen TV. A luxury he never would have allowed himself during the bulk of his life, he splurged now. He was able to watch a few football games on that TV. The big, shiny screen added a modern touch to his clean, traditional living room. Gorgeous colored images on the moving screen flashed with eerie brilliance, drawing the eye from the clean room with white carpet. It was wonderful to see his smile and the heartiness of his enjoyment. His laugh echoed my grandfather’s. Tickled by new technology, with the farmer’s love of tools, my uncle clicked through channels with his remote. The game was really all that he was interested in, but he couldn’t get enough of the miraculous gadget. Commanding the screen from the ease of his big chair, Jon seemed to have complete ease using his final days of life in ordinary activities. Perhaps the ordinary was no longer ordinary to him.
Sometimes the mystics speak of life as a kind of play. The play of good and bad, wrestling and dancing throughout eternity, joyful only to the unattached. Yin and yang, perhaps the most beautiful circular symbol every created, illustrates the mysterious play of opposites. And sometimes, on the occasion of deep insight, a belly laugh rises up from the void and shakes the body of the meditator. Could my uncle’s full belly enjoyment of the football game, a game witnessed after he accepted his death, carry the unattached joy of the one who has let go? I like to think that it did. There was a peace in his face during those last days, and a full smile beaming love.
“The good thing is that I don’t have to take those pills anymore.” His words circulated through my awareness. I returned to them periodically, wonderingly. He really seemed to mean it. No more medicine was a good thing: a burden off his back. He was strangely relaxed, like all the troubles had been lifted from his shoulders. What must it have been like to let go the tense energy in his body: let go the struggle to continue? No more pills. No more fighting to live. No more arguments with his wife or son, or long, soft-voiced talks with the two troubled daughters who loved him so dearly. No more feeding the hungry, or feeling unimportant. No more vacuuming, shaving, or shopping for clothes.
When he said good bye to each of us, individually, he told us in his simple, but completely sincere way, how much he loved us. He assured us that he would be watching us from heaven. He was so literal that some of us were sending messages of love to our grandparents through him. He would be waiting for us, he said.
No more pills. The Buddhist teacher, Hakuin, advised his students to die before they died. What would it mean to relax away one’s worries? No more trying to be good: no more trying to be perfect. No more need to be angry or need not to be angry. No more wanting to win and hating to loose. What is it to die before you die? Was the freedom that my uncle seemed to feel a suggestion of the Buddhist master’s attainment?
There is such a hustle and bustle to life. It all seems imbued with such importance. What is it that is so important? Sometimes it seems hard to remember. In the early morning, before that first cup of coffee, there is a reluctance to get engaged with it all again. Is it just a dream? Sleepily, we pull on the mantle of ourselves and shove our feet onto the familiar paths. Hating or loving each step in turn, we might long to stop, stop like Robert Frost who lamented that he “has miles to go before he sleeps.”
Frost’s poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening has been interpreted as reflections of a death wish. But what if it’s not? What if it’s a life wish? Isn’t true life the life of freedom from attachment? Isn’t the weariness of life really the weariness of repetition? If we were released from the repetitiveness in our life would all our days be fresh and new?
Each person longs to live his life the way he wants without the negative associated with that life. Who doesn’t want to have things go his way without the accompanying trouble implicit to his choices? No more pills. Could one refuse? Could one awaken one morning and not push one’s feet into misshapen shoes worn by weary patterns? Refuse the medicine that allows for repetition? Refuse to survive with only the shreds of happiness we seem allotted, and instead make our bid for freedom?
Perhaps only the immediacy of our impending death can shake loose our usual attitudes sufficiently to spawn letting go. Even in the heart of despair freedom can be born. Don’t give up, but strive continuously for liberation. Perhaps, in facing despair, you will be released from attachment.