Tuesday, February 14th 2017
Reflections on Death
With the death of my father in recent weeks I would like to speak a little about death and if you can indulge me I would like to begin with a favourite story of mine.
A very old man lay dying in his bed. In death's doorway, he suddenly smelled the aroma of his favourite Anzac Biscuits wafting up the stairs. He gathered his remaining strength and lifted himself from the bed. Leaning against the wall, he slowly made his way out of the bedroom, and with even greater effort forced himself down the stairs, gripping the railing with both hands.
With laboured breath, he leaned against the door frame, gazing into the kitchen. Were it not for death's agony, he would have thought himself already in heaven. There, spread out on greaseproof paper on the kitchen table were literally hundreds of his favourite Anzac Biscuits.
Was it heaven? Or was it one final act of heroic love from his devoted wife, seeing to it that he left this world a happy man? Mustering one great final effort, he threw himself toward the table. The aged and withered hand, shaking, made its way to a Biscuit at the edge of the table, when he was suddenly smacked with a spatula by his wife.
"Stay out of those," she said. "They're for the funeral.
We had a few Anzac Biscuits at Dads funeral which was in Toowoomba last Monday. Thank you for all your prayers and kind words over the last month or so, they have been very much appreciated.
On the second last day of Dad’s life, while under the wonderful care of the beautiful people of the Toowoomba hospice a Magpie Lark seemingly came to sing to Dad in the small garden setting just outside his door. Somehow the bird had managed to get into this garden and drink the water which was in short supply due to the severe heat conditions experienced in eastern Australia at the present moment. The water had been left for Mum and Dad’s dog Corey who had visited Dad several days previously. After drinking the water the Magpie Lark perched on the chair and faced Dad and began his song. In many Indigenous cultures a bird will often come to sing the dying person home. The bird will herald that all is well and it safe to make the journey home.
On the day Dad died, February one, the date whose significance I was unaware of until I read the small booklet describing the creation of the Toowoomba Hospice where Dad died. The Hospice was the brainchild and dream of Sister Francis Flint, a Brigidine Sister. Her inspiration was derived from mediaeval times, when monks and nuns cared for the sick and dying in parts of their monasteries and abbeys called Hospices. Here they could provide hospitality, dignity and quality care to the person dying and their families.
Being a Brigidine Sister she placed the Hospice under the patronage of the great Irish saint St Bridget whose feast day was celebrated on February one, the day Dad died. St Bridget’s famous cross adorns the stain glass windows of the chapel in the Hospice along with the old stain glass windows of the decommissioned parish church which we grew up in, St Theresas. A coming home for Dad and for us.
On the morning Dad died someone from the Hospice had placed a favourite Irish CD of dads, it played all of Dad’s favourite Irish Tunes. They played over and over until he died peacefully surrounded by family later that morning. I would like to think that somehow those Irish ancestors, along with the Magpie Lark were calling Dad home.
Life and Death is very mysterious. I have had a chance to reflect about it over the last few months since Dad was diagnosed with his terminal cancer.
We are raised in a culture that fears death and hides it from us. Eg unwritten law that no one is to see a dead body unless he/she is a close relative. Nevertheless, we experience it all the time. We experience it in the form of disappointment, in the form of things not working out. We experience it in the form of things always being in a process of change. When the day ends, when the second ends, when we breathe out, that’s death in everyday life.
Pema Chondron is a Buddhist nun and author writes, “death in everyday life could also be defined as experiencing all the things that we don’t want. Our marriage isn’t working, our job isn’t coming together. Having a relationship with death in everyday life means that we begin to be able to wait, to relax with insecurity, with panic, with embarrassment, with things not working out.
She goes on “We’re always trying to deny that it’s a natural occurrence that things change, that the sand is slipping through our fingers. Time is passing. It’s as natural as the seasons changing and day turning into night. But getting old, getting sick, losing what was love- we don’t see those events as natural occurrences.
We want to ward off that sense of death, no matter what. The invitation always is to relax with the present moment, relaxing with death, not resisting the fact that things have no lasting substance that everything is changing all the time- that is the basis message.”
Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said” Life is like getting into a boat that’s just about to sail out to sea and Sink.” Sounds a bit depressing, but the reality is that the moment you take on birth, you also sign up for your death.
Pema maintains that the first step on the path is to be willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, when we do we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation. The need to have some reliable, comfortable ground under our feet.
In Tibet there is an interesting word ‘ye tang che’.The 'ye' part means ‘totally, completely’ and the rest of it means ‘exhausted’. Altogether, ‘ye tang che’ means totally tired out. We might say ‘totally fed up’. It describes an experience of complete hopelessness, of completely giving up hope. This is an important point. This is the beginning of the beginning. Without giving up hope- that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be- we will never relax with where we are or who we are.
Pema goes on, ‘when we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship, one that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death.’
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi writes” When something dies is the greatest teaching. Death of any form is an opportunity to surrender to the vast expanse of Beingness in which there is no beginning and no end.”
That vast expanse of Beingness in which there is no beginning or no end is the Great Silence I speak of when I have been inviting you to listen in stillness while I ring the Bell three times.
As we listen to the Bell we realise that form comes into existence and as it does it is already passing, fading back into the vast expanse of Beingness from which it emerged and we emerged. We enjoy the form, but we enjoy it more when we realise it is passing and we let it go.
Can I invite you to enjoy listening to the Bell three times and in the silence between the ringing to merge and let go into the vast expanse of Beingness in which there is no beginning and no end.