Sunday, July 17, 2011
DEATH IS A BRIDGE WE ALL MUST CROSS
E. Ethelbert Millers asks, "How has your life been changed by the deaths of family members and friends over the years? How does a Buddhist deal with actual loss and not simply the philosophical understanding of it?"
The first and most important thing to say is that the Buddhist experience is simply the human experience. So there is nothing "special" that differentiates it from everyday living. It is ordinary life, right here, right now, lived mindfully. (And why, pray, isn't the "philosophical understanding" of something adequate for "dealing" with it? Do I detect a bit of anti-intellectual bias here?)
Let me consider the question in terms of my personal experience.
Travel back to late summer, 1981. (Shift to present tense.) I'm sitting in a conference room at WGBH/Boston with actor Glynn Turman and my two friends, film-makers Fred Barzyk and Olivia Tappan with whom I worked on the 1978 docu-drama "Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree" (That was Olivia's title for the movie, which I always disliked, but we voted on titles and she won) We're there to discuss a new script I agreed to write for Glynn and his (at the time) wife Aretha Franklin, a version of the "Frankie and Johnny Story."I'm on my first sabbatical from the University of Washington. This is the summer when I lived for half a year alone in a small studio unit at John Muir Apartments in Daley City, and took BART every day to KQED, where I worked as one of two writer/producers for the second season of the black family drama, "Up and Coming." The other writer/producer was my buddy Art Washington. Back in Seattle, my wife Joan is pregnant with our daughter, and when I'm not doing teleplays I'm training in the evening at the Choy Li Fut school of grandmaster Doc Fai Wong and immersing myself in the theory and practice of meditation. This will be a year full of transitions: birth, death, several screen-writing gigs, and day and night spiritual practice.
We've just begun discussing the "Frankie and Johnny" project when the phone rings. Fred Barzyk picks it up. He looks at me, a bit surprised, and says, "It's for you." The room becomes silent. Everyone's eyes focus on me. I take the phone and discover it's my best friend on the other end. My wife. I hear her say, Your mother died this morning. I close my eyes. I nod. This news is not entirely unexpected. My mother had gone into the hospital for a surgery (which she would not survive). I'd been by her bed side in Evanston Hospital just a few weeks earlier. Slowly and softly, I thank my wife for telling me. I say, "I'm leaving right now." I hand the phone back to Fred, feeling a bit dazed, even disembodied. Two or three seconds pass before I can speak, and everyone is wondering what is going on. I say, "My mother... died...this morning." As soon as the last syllable leaves my lips, Glynn Turman is flying across the conference room---so fast it's like he teleported himself---throwing his arms around me in a tight hug. He knows what I'm feeling.
(Shift now to past tense.) Barzyk and Tappan wasted no time in arranging my flight from Logan airport to O'Hare. I was back in Evanston that evening, the flight feeling as if it had taken place in a dream. Using a telephone in the kitchen that night, my father fielded an unbroken stream of calls, explaining to my mother's friends and our relatives in the Midwest and South all the details of her death. Over and over he did that. Then, during the ninth or tenth call, as he recounted his experience of her last hours for the umpteenth time, his voice shattered. He turned his head away and held the phone toward me. "Chuck," he said, "you finish this." My father hurried from the kitchen. It was the first time I had ever seen this strong man in tears. I took a deep breath and completed the phone call for him. My mother's death would only deepen our bond as father and son.
Black Americans raised in the South in the 1920s, like my father, aunts and uncles, know how to deal with death. They are always prepared to send off the deceased with dignity. The bereaved don't have to do much because one's kinfolk know every detail required for the ritual of transitions such as this one. And don't let me forget to mention all that food people bring by the house after the funeral, that way we have of affirming life for those still among the living. My father's house was packed with family and friends (and food), all sharing memories of my mother, and doing for both of us whatever they could do. Two women told me how I didn't have to worry about my Dad, because they would "take care" of him. I knew exactly what they meant. During all his years of marriage, my father was never unfaithful. Not once. Even though a few women (according to my Mom) expressed their willingness. But now, with Mom gone, he was in their eyes...available.
Standing at the pulpit during my mother's funeral, I read a tribute for her, one I knew all my adult life I would some day have to deliver (one of those dreaded duties a colleague of mine once said was the part of being a grown-up that's not much fun), detailing with every skill I'd learned as a literary writer and could muster at that moment how it was her artistic and intellectual interests that became my own when I was a child---and were responsible for my being a writer and someone congenitally curious about all aspects of the world, East and West, that enveloped us. How she was a bibliophile with the soul of an actress, a woman who was wonderfully ironic, occasionally cynical, and capable of devastating scorn for whatever she saw as hypocritical or phony. (Those literary skills, I daresay, were honed not just to serve book publishers and readers I would never meet, but more importantly for this long-anticipated moment when my mother deserved a praise song that would capture the essence of her days on this earth.) When I sat down again next to my father, always a man of few words, he said, "Chuck, that was beautiful." I patted his hand. I promised him that, of course, when his time came, I would be there to do the same for him. He could count on that.
What I'm saying, I guess, is that we deal with "loss"---especially the loss of a parent or loved one---by meticulously and mindfully doing the filial duties required to honor them and celebrate their lives one last time. Love lives in every little detail we bring to the time-honored rituals used to send them on their way. (All my life, I tried to be a good Confucian son so I knew what I had to do.) There is simply no time to dwell on oneself. Or to give in to grief. That comes later.
And so it did, two weeks after my mother was buried and I went back to work on "Up and Coming." (My buddy Art covered for me---had my back, as we say---during my time away from KQED; I never returned to the "Frankie and Johnny" project.) One night I went to the supermarket a couple of miles from John Muir Apartments. I found myself walking back to my lonely studio unit filled with works of philosophy, grocery bags in my arms, on a long stretch of road where all of a sudden there were no cars. Or people. Or streetlights. For a few minutes I was alone in darkness for as far ahead and behind as I could see, the clack of my boot heels on concrete the only sound in my ears. Almost involuntarily I stopped walking and stood motionless. My wife and Evanston kinfolk were far, far away. The enormity of the night sky overwhelmed me, its indifference to the hopes, cares, and suffering of those living on our little speck of light in the Milky Way galaxy. Right then, right there on that shadow-swept California street, my mother's voice, a flicker flash vision of her, filled my mind---as did a flood of thirty-three years of remembered experiences we shared---and for the first time in my life I felt (or believed I felt) what it was like to be orphaned. (August Wilson nodded with recognition when I described it that way to him one evening.) To know in my bones there would never be another person in this world who would give me a mother's unconditional, selfless love. No one who would ever care for me in quite the way this black woman did. The world, I felt, was poorer for her passing. And I was poorer, too. Alone in the darkness, I fully surrendered to that wrenching feeling of abandonment, let it be in all its prismatic shades and hues and emotionally variegated colors---I neither rejected nor ran from it---and cried until I felt cleansed. Emptied. It was a moment of pain that deserved to be experienced in all its singular, exquisite fullness. And then, miraculously, the pain transformed into thanksgiving. Into a profound gratitude for all she had given to me. Then, taking a deep breath, picking up my bags of groceries, I "let go" of that experience; and let her go, too, so that she might continue on her journey.
And I walked on.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 11:01 AM