When is my Number Up?
This is a short excerpt from Death and Dying in Buddhism, a publication from Off the Dock, an imprint of Canadian Outdoor Press.
It should be clear as mountain air that no one, no human being, nor animal nor plant nor smallest microbe manages to escape death. It’s the ultimate end of everyone now living or that ever will live. There is no “cure” for it and no avoiding it. Your religion, spiritual practice, health regime, fit body, medication and wealth will not alter the ultimate outcome. As sure as the sun rises it’s coming for each and every one of us, in one way or another, in its own good time.
The reason we die isn’t because we’re bad or underserving of life. It’s not because God is out to get us. It’s not because we believe or do not believe in a god. It’s not about religion or creed or ethnicity at all. It is beyond all of that. It’s about being alive and the simple truth that life is death. Birth is death. It’s how the universe works. It’s not personal. Ho house escapes and no family is immune.
I’m reminded of a poem I read, not long ago, by William Collins, titled My Number
Is Death miles away from this house,
reaching for a widow in Cincinnati
or breathing down the neck of a lost hiker
in British Columbia?
Is he too busy making arrangements,
tampering with air brakes,
scattering cancer cells like seeds,
loosening the wooden beams of roller coasters
to bother with my hidden cottage
that visitors find so hard to find?
Or is he stepping from a black car
parked at the dark end of the lane,
shaking open the familiar cloak,
its hood raised like the head of a crow,
and removing the scythe from the trunk?
Did you have any trouble with the directions?
I will ask, as I start talking my way out of this.
We read how Death takes on human attributes by tampering, loosening, scattering and arranging. We see Collins giving human qualities to the impersonal and inanimate nature of Death, as if giving a human face will allow us to talk our way out of it. Is Death too busy to bother with us? We hope so, but in the end Death has an infinite amount of time on it’s hands. Death is patient. Death sits quietly nearby scattering bread crumbs for us to nibble at and waits for the right moment.
A number of years ago, my daughter and I went to visit her great grandmother in a nursing home, Park Lodge, in Leaside as I recall. It was a nice facility with beautifully landscaped gardens, well maintained apartment units, friendly, qualified staff. We had to sign in at the desk and make our way to the third floor where her great grandmother’s suite was located.
We enjoyed a cup of tea as we sat on the balcony, overlooking the gardens, the leafy Don Valley in the distance, and we caught up on what happened since our last visit. “Well, that nice Mrs Baker down the hall at 314, you know the apartment you’ve been to see her, well any way she passed away this week, God bless her. She didn’t come down for dinner on Thursday and when they went to check on her she was on the sofa with a book in her lap. Her husband is here too, but he’s on the second floor. You know the second floor where they have to keep the doors locked so people don’t wander away? I don’t think he even realizes she’s dead.” We went on like this for a while.
I finally got our conversation around to other topics like how my daughter was doing in school and that she learned how to ride a bike this week, our trip down to the AGO to see a particular exhibit and our visiting St. Jacobs and various purchases from the Mennonite stores there.
At one point, I had to excuse myself to stretch my legs and wandered out into the common area of the sun room for the 3rd floor residents. There were a few tenants sitting around talking, some watching TV and others reading.
One woman, in a wheelchair, beckoned me with a crooked finger. I assumed that she wanted some help getting back to her suite, but when I bent to speak with her she gently put her hand on my arm and said she knew she was going to die soon. “I’m sure that’s not true,” I replied, trying to put a pleasant tone to the topic, but she’d have none of it. She knew what awaited her. She went on a bit about having things undone, things left unsaid to friends and family, regrets and fear of one sort or another.
She had been a newspaper columnist (or maybe a journalist) for three decades, but never finished her novel. She had never had any children. She never made peace with her sister, etc. All revealed with a palpable sadness. Apparently she had never had anyone close to her pass away and she was somewhat apprehensive about what was to become of her.
I made some assurances about how she seemed to have lived a good life, a purposeful life and leaving behind a legacy. I didn’t really know what to say, I mostly listened and nodded. We chatted for a few moments before I made my excuses about having to get back to Evelyn’s suite, but her sense of regret and the fear she expressed didn’t leave me for quite some time.
While death itself is something we may want to avoid, rally against and try to get away from, it seems the main concern for most of us is the fear aspect. We don’t know what to expect. We don’t know when death is coming or how. It might be today, tomorrow, a month, year or decade or more away. We just don’t know.
We fear losing everything as well. We will lose everything we’ve ever worked for or ever had. We fear the loss of our identity as we slip away towards death. We fear the unknown and what will become of us when we die. Fear, like greed, is one of our great weakness and, like all emotions, it lives only in our mind, but that doesn't make the fear any less real.
I’ve seen some people facing death with fear, misery and pain before departing this world and that has turned my mind to the possibility of embracing death. Embracing it not in a morbid way, but in a way that makes sense once we recognize it’s just another, natural part of our existence. As natural as growing older and leaving behind roles we took on earlier in our lives. As natural a children leaving home, or our taking up a new career or celebrating an anniversary.
The critical question then becomes how do we get there? How do we come to grips, and learn to fear less, our ultimate demise in a culture that embraces and celebrates life with such energy? How do we get out from under the pall of gloom and doom that our culture has laid over such a natural process? How do we learn to accept the ageing process in a world where youth and beauty are so prized?
To learn more about how to cope with death and the dying process from a Buddhist perspective, download a copy of Death and Dying in Buddhism.
Other books about Buddhism from Off the Dock,
an imprint from Canadian Outdoor Press
Pain and Suffering in Buddhism