There is a well-known Sufi saying which goes ” die before you die.”
How to make sense of this? I believe when we die, we leave behind only what we no longer need. We let go of this narrow earthly reality and go on to live in the wider truth of the spiritual world. So too in life, if we can die to all that keeps us small and caged, die to our clever distractions keeping us from living purposefully, we might live the broader life our hearts and souls most long for.
I write this in tribute to my courageous 26 year old nephew who left us 3 days ago after a 5 year long struggle with bone cancer, surviving numerous operations, gruelling chemotherapy and radiation treatment, an amputation of his shoulder and arm earlier this year, as well as a lifetime of profound deafness.
Despite tremendous discomfort, pain and ultimately a ravaged body, he met his life and what it brought him without flinching or self-pity, only open-eyed acceptance and steadfast clarity. He was an extraordinary beautiful young man who was able to discern and set aside immediately all that was irrelevant and be guided only by where love took him, squeezing every drop of joyous juice he could out of his life to its fullest until his very last moment.
And then he flew.
When someone close is gravely ill or dying, something inside us softens and we’re able to say and do things we might shy away from otherwise. How much more inclined we are to be gentle with one another, to say thank you, I’m sorry, forgive me and I love you when we have a dying loved one in our midst. We can more easily admit: I’m in pain. I’m in a difficult place. This is not easy. Please help me. even as the dying have no other option but to be undeniably honest about what is happening in their lives.
As we draw together, our hearts rise to the surface of our lives instead of being walled away and armoured and for a short time we can tell the truth about ourselves. Suddenly certain things no longer matter as much, things we felt strongly about before – our dignity perhaps, our pride, being right or nursing our grievances. Our priorities change and everything unimportant falls away. Being there and present for the dying person becomes paramount and we value above all else what we can now be least certain of: the life of the beloved person who is leaving us.
This is the gift of death and dying. It strips us bare and brings us to our truth in a way little else can. Grief makes us honest.
Some weeks ago I wrote my nephew a letter which I am grateful he was able to receive in full consciousness. It may give a brief glimpse into the man he was and always will be as he lives on in my memory.
Dearest Keagan, I can’t imagine what you’re going through, facing what your life is now. Nor do I have any idea if you’re about to leave this world or not.
Miracles are always possibilities we haven’t yet believed in until they happen.
What I do know is that when you go, you will do so whole. When I think of you, it’s as if your physical body fades and I see the essence of you. It is one of the many qualities I have always noticed and been drawn to in you, the way your spirit shines through, never more so than lately.
I guess it’s usual to think of your deafness as a handicap, a barrier to communications in the normal world. But I think deafness can also remove a barrier between you and others. You aren’t distracted by how people present themselves through the words they wear. Instead you see people as they are being. I believe this is the gift you give to people around you – you see them truly. You aren’t deflected by the stories they tell about themselves, you just see them in a very pure way. That’s a powerfully attractive quality to have and why you are loved by so many. While others get caught up in each other’s speeches, you touch people with a generosity of feeling in a way not possible with words. That’s been my experience of you.
I’m not wanting to diminish the tremendous difficulties you struggle with. I know these are real too.
When you were with us some years ago, I wrote a short poem about you and your mother. Actually, it’s not so much a poem as a direct quote of your words which you sent her via text. It’s called WHAT MATTERS, because it seemed to me then already that you had caught on to what’s important about life, both in the large awe-inspiring seriousness of it as well as the small wonder of it. Here it is:
Finally she had to leave him for the night.
She left him in the hospital with
And he sent back a message
You see, in choosing to savour that one small precious moment in the face of so much else, you showed yourself able to live fully in the vast and splendid mystery of life. I love that about you. The truth is we’re all on the same journey you’re on Keagan. You bring our awareness to it so that we might learn to live as truly as you do now, to find out what matters.
It is the work of heartbreak to soften our edges, break us open. We need only allow our hearts to be broken. There is true purpose in that.