I’m Dying (Part II)

(Continued from prior post.) I dread the thought of other people dying because I know how much I’ll miss them. And that my universe will have a giant hole in it that will never be filled.

Vera, I can’t imagine living without your grandmother. We started dating in 11th grade, when I was a mere 16. She was older, a fact you’ll likely hear me mention more than once in the years ahead. Despite my relative youth, the odds are, I’ll go first (years of Type A stress, you know). But nothing is certain. I’m pulling for the odds to play out in my favor, though. I have no desire to be the surviving spouse.

Moreover, as is the case with almost any parent, I loath the possibility of outliving any of my progeny or issue (fancy words for one’s children, their children and down the line) A parent’s nightmare is to have to bury a child or grandchild. I know of people, including my grandparents and some aunts and uncles, who have lived this nightmare. Some never get over it.

But if you live long enough, it’s inevitable you’ll feel the sting of death, even the death of some people you didn’t personally know. I’ll never forget the assignation and death of President Kennedy. Or the death of the one and only hero I’ve ever had: Roberto Clemente, who’s in the baseball hall of fame. Roberto died young, on his way to deliver relief goods to people in need. Pittsburgh Pirates fans called him “The Great One.” That’s because he was.

I used to think about my own death from time to time. Some time back I shared ideas for my funeral with your grandmother. I’ve since made it clear she should ignore those earlier instructions. I don’t even want a funeral service. Cremate my remains and bury or sprinkle them in some glorious mountain spot. That works for me. But if that’s too much bother, no worries. Do as you please — within limits, of course. I’d rather not see any of my body parts appear on a spike on the city wall (or on one of those renowned Loveland sculptures in Benson Park). But I guess I won’t be seeing anything, so whatever.

It’s odd that my interest in death has wained as I’ve gotten older. I’d have thought it would have been the other way around. But I’ve found that, as I’ve entered this later stage of life, I’ve become more concerned with the act of living, which brings me to one of the points I wanted to make today (everything else, despite the length, being mere prelude).

It’s simple: each of us has a life to live and, while we don’t have total control of it, we do have a significant say in the matter. Perhaps it’s a freak of evolution. Perhaps it’s a gift from a benevolent creator. I like to believe it’s the latter. But I don’t know. Either way, it’s a life. And it’s ours to live.

As for my life, I’ve got a story and I’m sticking to it. It rings true. And makes me feel good about myself and the world. Moreover, it has some corroborating evidence, albeit nothing conclusive. And it’s certainly susceptible to all the biases, indoctrination and longings baked into my psyche at a young age (which basically means it might not be true).

Nevertheless, the story is this: the breath of God resides in each of us. It’s what allows us to love. And be loved. It’s what allows us to imagine and create. And plan for the future. And to take delight in each other and in that which we call nature. And to stare at rainbows. And marvel at vibrant sunsets. And to be nourished by the act of giving and, indeed, by sacrifice.

These are the things, in my experience, that don’t require belief or myths, because their truth is manifestly obvious. And experienced. And as real as the sunrise. It’s as if the word becomes flesh.

The story also tells me that, once it is given (the breath, that is), it is ours and ours alone. No other person has a claim on it, although many will try.

I think it’s one of the reasons meditation can be so nourishing. Alone with nothing but the awareness of our own breath. No thoughts. No chatter. No nothing. Except for an awareness of our own breath. And perhaps its Source.

But I don’t want to get hung up on theology or unverifiable beliefs, for if my life is merely a product of evolution without being rooted in a living source, that’s fine, too. The outcome is the same for me. It is still my breath. It is still my life to live.

Vera, many will try to entice you, in both overt and subtle ways, to live your life one way or another. Often it’s a matter of trying to get you to buy something, that is, to make money off of you. Sometimes it’s a matter of trying to get you to think or behave a certain way. Or perhaps it will be as simple as not embarrassing them. Or avoiding making them feel like a failure.

There will be immense pressure to conform. There is nothing wrong with getting along. But there isn’t necessarily anything right or good with rebellion or nonconformity either. There may be, however, something very wrong with conformity for conformity’s sake. The price you pay may be your dreams and aspirations — your uniqueness, your life.

Be mindful that it’s your breath and your unique life to live. Surprisingly, it’s not such an easy thing to claim. It can be hard to turn away from the temptations, the implicit threats and perceived rewards and pressures that are hurled in our direction, especially if they come from well-intended people. The power of conformity should not be underestimated. It has even embedded itself in our education systems and schools. And in our very definition of success.

That’s not to say the path it reveals might not be the best one for you; rather, it’s to say it’s possible it might not be. It’s possible that conformity, and other forces and interests, are interested in their lives and interests far more than yours. Indeed, culture and status quo are jealous; they don’t relinquish allegiances readily.

It is important, therefore, for you to strive to be mindful and intentional in your choices. It is important that you not fail to claim the path that allows your breath to sing for joy.

Also be mindful that your breath is a reservoir that eventually will be depleted (to the best of our knowledge). It’s easy to think, especially when you’re young, that it will never run dry. But it will. Perhaps sooner than anyone expects.

But do not allow that reality to usher sadness into your life. That end, that thing we call death, is nothing to fear. To the contrary, because of it, spring always follows winter. Babies replace worn out men and women. Seeds germinate. Flowers bloom. New ideas arise. Vibrancy and creativity are allowed to do their work. Earth does not become one big, cranky old-folks home.

The cycle is a glorious thing. Ends make beginnings possible. And middles interesting and worth living. Without endings, none of it may be possible.

So fear not. As you are dying, remember to live your life. Spend time alone with your breath. Listen to it and to the teacher within. Discern what nourishes you. What brings you joy. And peace. What makes you eager for the sun to rise each day.

As I grow into adulthood (the latter stage to be precise), I am not obsessed with endings; rather, I am focused on learning and new experiences — beginnings and living. I hope you do the same as you progress through life.

And as you do, I hope you’ll not settle for the American dream, which, undoubtedly, you’ll hear much about, as if it is life’s grand purpose. Be mindful, however, that it’s a mere enticement — one to get you to live your life as others would have you live it. It’s a lure with an implicit concept of success that may or may not be yours.

Try to resist the enticements and dreams of others. Instead, try to live Vera’s dream. (Just be sure it isn’t a fantasy!)

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