“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”
~ Mae West
My only uncle has passed away today, some 5,000 miles away. I learned about it from my mom, who has been keeping me informed over the phone and Skype about the progression of his demise over the last few weeks. We shared long conversations about my uncle, her brother, our thoughts, her memories, and our hopes and fears. She had been periodically calling the ambulance to get a shot of the drug that calms down her arrhythmia; she had been staying awake for several nights at a time. We had been examining complex interrelationships between and among various members of the family, including her. She had been analyzing her own actions and responses. She had been agonizing. So we talked a lot, and if I haven’t heard from her for a day, I’d trace her to check on what was happening.
When she sent me the message today, it only stated, “I’m home. Uncle M. has died.” I received the message, as I was driving a van to pick up children from a summer camp, where I volunteered, and to take them swimming at a YWCA. I could not call her right then, and besides, I needed to sit with the sad news anyway; luckily, I had a few minutes of privacy to get a grip on myself before I arrived at the camp. The news was not a surprise, but there was the heavy realization of the finality, followed by a quick inventory of my own emotions and perspectives in light of the news.
We live in a culture with an unhealthy relationship with death; a culture that either desperately avoids examining its implications or portrays it in grotesquely tragical and/or terrifying ways. Death is viewed as the antithesis of life, when instead it should be viewed as the antithesis of birth; but even this view is probably incomplete. Perhaps, death should be viewed as something similar to birth, as that which only seems to be the opposite of it because we view it from a very limited field. In addition to our already naturally-selected self-preservation instincts, from the early age we are taught by our immediate social surrounding to fear death and that it is basically “bad.”
It appears that how we view ourselves ontologically is shaped by the realization of how all these concepts, such as life and death, are sometimes nothing but elaborate constructs that we have inherited with our culture and then built ourselves upon, ultimately meaningless. The emotions of grief, the tears, the quiet sadness, and the expressed, or not expressed, sense of loss should be understood and accepted, but not required to ascertain the measure of one’s loss. One could choose to view this reality with the Buddhist “detachment,” in the sense of an awareness of the individually and communally constructed realities that are at hand; the acceptance of not having the ultimate knowledge; and the resulting peace, compassion, and love toward others that come with acceptance.
A death in a family, besides the obvious hardships associated with it, can force the family individually and collectively to re-examine their attitudes and relationships in light of the presently glaring reminder of the brevity of life and the finality of death, and possibly to make corrections in their own lives and relationships, because nothing can as authentically capture and expose identities, even our own to ourselves, as a death of a loved one.
What we do know with all certainty is that one day, somehow, somewhere, we will die ourselves, whatever that means. But when we reorient ourselves in spite of the noise of our own fears, then stumble past the difficult notion of our own end — at first perhaps fearfully, but then with increasing courage, and finally, with a quiet acceptance — when we are face to face with our humanity, and our mortality, then we have the potential to become peace and love for others: we become aware of the need to fill the present moment with what matters most while we are still alive.