Monday, March 08, 2010

In Memory of a Life, Five Years after Death

Note: Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of my father-in-law's passing (3-7-2005). On 3/8/2005, I wrote a blog entry to pay my (virtual) respects to the man (Death is the Opposite of Time). So, five years later, I repost that entire entry as a tribute to the man who raised my wife.

We give death metaphors. We cloak it in meaning and make up stories about what will happen to us, but we don't really know. When a person dies, we cannot see beyond the corpse. We speculate on reincarnation or talk in terms of eternity. But death is opaque to us, a mystery. In its realm, time ceases to have meaning. All laws of physics become irrelevant. Death is the opposite of time.

What dies? Is anything actually destroyed? Certainly not the body, which falls into its constituent parts of water and chemicals. That is mere transformation, not destruction. What of the mind? Does it cease to function, or does it make a transition to another existence? We don't know for sure, and few can come up with anything conclusive.

What dies? Nothing of the person dies in the sense that the constituent parts are totally blasted from all existence. What dies is merely the identity, the identification of a collection of parts that we call a person. Each one of us is a role, like some shaman wearing layers of robes with innumerable fetishes of meaning. Only the clothes and decoration fall. What dies is only our human meaning. There is still someone naked underneath. Once we understand who that someone is, death no longer bothers us. Nor does time.

-- Deng Ming-Dao (from 365 Tao: Daily Meditations)

"Death is the opposite of time." I came across Ming-Dao's words as my weekend meditation, just a day or two after I posted Metamorphose and Ego Death (A Beginning). I originally wanted to post the entire passage -- as well as my own commentary -- as a continuation of the thoughts I started in that February 15 post. And maybe I will do that on another day, a different day. Today, however, I post them simply because my wife just phoned to tell me that death has touched our family. Her father died last night, at 11:35pm. My wife drove to Bethlehem late last night. Mom had previously called to let us know that Dad had been taken to the hospital because of complications and intense pain. This was something of a surprise because he had been doing pretty well with his treatments. Within a matter of a few hours, Mom called again and told us that Dad was going "into the Intensive Care Unit and would be on life support." This call came at about 11pm last night. My wife packed, phoned her sister in CA to update her, and on the road to the hospital within 40-odd minutes. That means he was already gone before she even left our house. But she kind of had a feeling that this would be the case. Dad had cancer; diagnosed last year. There was a long process (too long in my opinion) to arrive at this conclusion, but it was not wholly unexpected. About seven years ago, he had had surgery to remove a small tumor (prostate? colon? memory is fuzzy right now). That surgery was successful -- well, he had some leg pain as a result of the procedures -- but as far as we knew, he was cancer-free. As far as anyone knew at that time, he was cancer free. And I say "at that time" not because I want to cast doubt on his doctor's handiwork, but because we really don't know how or when the "new" cancer started. Maybe his current condition resulted from some residual presence of that first tumor. Or perhaps he was simply primed because his body had already been compromised. Like I said, it's all speculation. But this time around, the diagnosis of last year, it was sarcoma. A tumor had developed in his abdomen, and had even grown some kind of "shield" of tissue around itself. And this tumor was fairly well advanced: it was into the blood vessels that ran down his right leg, and it had all but destroyed his right kidney's ureter. But even in the midst of this, there was also cause for hopefulness. Doctors know more about cancer now than they did a decade ago, and are learning more all the time. And there are more procedures, or combinations of therapies available. I won't go into the whole thing, but my father-in-law eventually was able to get scheduled for chemo treatments. And he seemed to be doing well. Of course, some days were better than others. And he was often fatigued as a result of the cancer and his treatments. But he was not confined to the hospital, or even his home. He came to our house to see the new concrete steps and walkway. We visited him -- in his house -- for a Superbowl party. And he was going out with his family every now and then. He even went to a basketball game this past weekend! My wife believes that he knew his time was coming. It's the little things that seem to confirm this. His desire to go out and see that Lehigh basketball game. His insistence that my mother-in-law access the lock-box, to be certain she had the will. The fact that his next chemo had not yet been scheduled. It's strange to think that he is no longer here. He was not a young man, but he was still vibrant in his own way. He had an immense curiosity about and interest in the world around him. Although he had a severe hearing problem, he was still a keen observer of human behavior, no doubt something he had honed as a psychologist and counselor. And he was my wife's financial advisor, taking a very active role in setting up and helping her maintain her retirement funds -- so much so that she has much more money socked away than I do, and my salary has always outpaced hers. The only closing I can think to write borrows from a message I penned in memory of a theater member who passed away over the weekend. It seems weird to be writing these messages so closely together, but I guess that is the way things go. And I don't think either man would mind the bit of shared material. I would like to think that if they met, they would get along famously. So here goes... My father-in-law has left this world and its cares behind. And while we do rejoice that he is free from the ravages of cancer, we acknowledge that his departure marks a time of sadness for those left behind. The tears we shed are shed for us alone, shed for those who loved the man and will miss him. The tears are not for him because this is not the end of his life. Death is the opposite of time, as I've already quoted Ming-Dao, and it is also the opposite of birth. But it is not the opposite of life. Birth and Death bookend a life as we know it here on earth. So his journey may have transitioned to a new stage, but it is only at the beginning of that stage. John Lennon once said, more or less, "I imagine that death is like getting out of one car and getting into another." Well, I hope there are many miles and plenty of great sights in my father-in-law's next vehicle. May we meet again someday and exchange stories of our adventures. Goodbye for now Dad ... I love you.

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