Sunday, June 5, 2011

In Memoriam: "To One Shortly to Die"

What words do you say to the dying? I had watched my friend decline and knew that this was, perhaps, the last time we would meet together, the last time I would be able to comfort, perhaps, the man who had brought and opened up a new vista of consciousness and being to my awareness.

How to reassure a man who really needed no assurance save what each of us might want when a companion on the spiritual path meets with us one last time on what we know will be our death bed?

Socrates, before the poison took hold, told his friends: "The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways — I to die and you to live. Which is the better, only God knows." What was I to say?

We had walked a long way together on paths that had too briefly merged, and together we had explored what other wayfarers had said. And as he was no fabulist, but a realist, I chose the following poem by Walt Whitman, a spiritual kinsman, to reassure him and to ease him on his way:

From all the rest I single out you, having a message for you,
You are to die - let others tell you what they please, I cannot prevaricate.
I am exact and merciless, but I love you - there is no escape for you.

Softly I lay my right hand upon you, you feel it,
I do not argue, bend my head close and half envelop it,
I sit quietly by, I remain faithful,
I am more than nurse, more than parent or neighbor,
I absolve you from all except yourself spiritual bodily, that is eternal, you yourself will surely escape,
The corpse you will leave will be but excrementitious.

The sun bursts through in unlooked-for directions,
Strong thoughts fill you and confidence, you smile,
You forget you are sick, as I forget you are sick,
You do not see the medicines, you do not mind the weeping friends,
I am with you, I exclude others from you, there is nothing to be commiserated,
I do not commiserate, I congratulate you.
"Apart from the physical pain," I asked him, "is there any fear or suffering?" (For I'd asked this of an enlightened man upon his death bed, and he had laughed heartily at the proposition.)

"No, just confusion," he replied.

"What confuses you?," I asked.

"Why," he asked me, looking up, "do I struggle to hold on?"

I told him that there was no longer any reason for him to hold on, that he had learned all that he had come here to learn, and that he had taught scores of others (including me) what he had learned.

"I'll have to consider that," he said. And then he asked me to help him lay back down.

I laid him down, and he slipped off his oxygen mask. I told him that I loved him, kissed his cheek and took my leave. I am told that shortly thereafter he slipped into a coma, where he lingered for a day or so before departing.

The next evening, as I sat with my father waiting for a chorale to be performed, my thoughts turned back to my friend, for he had been a musician. "How much he would like this," I thought. And just at that time, I'm told, he revived for a moment, surrounded by others who loved him, and to whom he'd taught peace.

He lingered for a moment in silence, closed his eyes, and then breathed his last. It was in a silent and smiling acceptance, I'm told, that he slipped into his final deathless sleep. He had evolved.

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