The Last Breath

I thought tonight about Greg Scharf. He was my favourite teacher at the Insight Meditation Society, a Buddhist centre in Massachusetts. I enjoyed many silent retreats there.

Greg was a great storyteller. One night he told us about an old monk who was declining physically. A week or so before he died, he looked out at a circle of sad devotees and said something like this: “You know, in a matter of days or weeks, I’m not going to be here anymore. I’ll be dead!” The venerable one then burst out laughing, bent over with a bellyful of mirth. And the joy kept rolling off him.

I can only imagine how shocked his audience was. I’m still shocked, and Greg’s story was five years ago. How astonishing to see the end as the best joke in the world, rather than the slow plod of a hearse.


Will I have the same grace to see the lightness of it all when my finale approaches? In the intervening time, how will I be with inevitable losses? Friends dying, perhaps memory deserting, disease intruding, no longer being able to drive my car, needing someone to shave me.

Seventeen years ago, I ruptured a tendon in my foot and underwent tendon transfer surgery (thank you Dr. Willits!) I was on crutches for 17 weeks, and was just starting a new teaching job in a high school. My office was on the third floor and the principal made sure I had an elevator key. That first day, I looked down the stairs and realized that what was so ordinary was now impossible. The gulp of frailty is still within my mind.

And a smile is on my face. How strange that there’s no fear here, just a leaning forward into whatever’s next. It’s a wonder. Whether the end is one year away or twenty, may the smile not desert me. Why not chuckle at the silliness of it all?


For those of you who read my post yesterday, you’ll be pleased to know that my new printer is working fine, fully aligned with my laptop and cell phone. And I had a lovely conversation last night with my friend. Finishing is fun.

Day Forty-One … Leaving and Laughing

The day before I left Longview, Nona, Lance and I sat down with bins of jewelry, dishes and crystal.  These were items that Jody had bequeathed to the family.  Especially hard were my dear wife’s necklaces, bracelets and rings.  We all gulped and sighed in our sadness, but also smiled to see Jody’s love of bling, of funky shapes and colours.  That’s my wife.  I love you, Jodiette.

Yesterday morning, I hugged all six of my family members and told them that I loved them, starting with Ember outside in the yard.  The doggie was bouncing around, her nose to the wind, but then came over and sat beside me for a short petting.  We’re friends.

Jaxon, Jagger and Jace had located in my car, which was a trick since it’s so full of stuff.  It looked like I was going to have to take them all home with me.  Finally to have kids.  Jace’s hug was very long and sweet.  The boys sat on the lawn and said silly things as I backed Scarlet out of the driveway.  Then they raced after me on the street as we left Highwood Drive.  Such sadness on the leaving but I will be with them all again.

It would be a 9-hour drive to my friends Henry and Louise in Weyburn, Saskatchewan.  Around lunch time (How convenient!) I rolled into Eleanor and Cam’s place east of Lethbridge.  They’re Jody’s aunt and cousin.  I sat on their deck a month ago and enjoyed a Mike’s Pink Hard Lemonade.  A few days ago, I had talked to Cam on the phone and discreetly requested another one of those cool coolers.  And Cam came through for me.  Plus I got to have a delicious home-cooked meal of chicken and corn-on-the-cob.  Gosh, I’ve been treated royally on this trip.

The three of us sure laughed a lot.  Cam started talking about my alleged Buddhist powers.  Apparently I can levitate and travel vast distances in no time at all.  News to me.  In ten days, I’m taking the Greyhound to Massachusetts.  But I went with it, my ego floating high on the possibilities of specialness.  Except the Buddha would say just be ordinary and realize that within each of us resides the extraordinary.

Eleanor told us that she’d seen the Dalai Lama interviewed on TV:

Q:  How is it, sir, that you’ve gained so much knowledge about leading a life?

A:  It’s all bullshit!  (Giggling and bouncing up and down)

To which the three of us collapsed in spasms of mirth.

The road was long but I like driving.  Near Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, I drove by a pond whose surface was partially encrusted with white.  And the shoreline was often piled with white.  My mind said “salt” but truly I don’t know.  Driving by that spot was like much of my life:  Normal … Normal … Normal … What the heck is that? … Normal … Normal …

It was about an hour-and-a-half from Moose Jaw to Weyburn.  Two lane road.  Dark.  Tired.  Semi-trailers approaching.  I was some scared but also felt a strange confidence.  I know that Jodiette is always with me.  “I shelter you, Bruce.  I protect you.”  Thank you, my dear.

I got lost in Weyburn but actually that’s one thing I really enjoy in life.  It often means that I get to talk to new people but last night I meanderingly figured it out myself.

Henry plied me with rum drinks and Louise with little cheese and spinach ooverdoovers as we talked about everything and nothing.  Henry brought out a small bottle of liqueur, in the shape of a naked woman.  I was encouraged to rub all the appropriate body parts (knees, elbows …) but naturally I demurred.  But I sure like the feel of smooth glass!  I wasn’t drunk but I was certainly well lubricated.  Henry and I sang “Home On The Range” and I favoured my friends with animal sounds, especially the rooster and chicken.  Oh my, we tittered and gorped.

Henry and Louise are such fine people.  They love each other quadruple oodles and laugh together easily.  It’s another home for me.

Two extremely long days to home.  Tonight I’m in a motel in Eau Claire, Wisconsin – a 12-hour drive from here, plus an hour for the time zone change.  Sounds like a midnight arrival.  Oh well.  More fun.  I’ll see you tomorrow morning

Laughing with Kabir

Kabir was a mystic poet in India during the 1400s.  He rejected the rigidities of Hinduism and Islam, and wrote ecstatic poetry about experiencing union with God.  He also chuckled a lot, sometimes enjoying the presence of others, and sometimes gently mocking the world’s foibles.  Here are a few choice quotes:

The caller calls in a loud voice to the Holy One at dusk
Why?  Surely the Holy One is not deaf
He hears the delicate anklets that ring on the feet of an insect as it walks

Why should I flail about with words
When love has made the space inside me full of light?

I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty
You don’t grasp the fact that what is most alive of all is inside your own house
And so you walk from one holy city to the next with a confused look!

Do you have a body?  Don’t sit on the porch!  Go out and walk in the rain!

It is time to put up a love-swing!
Tie the body and tie the mind
So that they swing between the arms of the Secret One you love

The Sacred Books of the East are nothing but words
I looked through their covers one day sideways
What Kabir talks of is only what he has lived through
If you have not lived through something, it is not true

Don’t go outside your house to see flowers
My friend, don’t bother with that excursion
Inside your body there are flowers
One flower has a thousand petals
That will do for a place to sit

Suppose you scrub your ethical skin until it shines but inside there is no music
Then what?
Mohammed’s son pores over words and points out this and that
But if his chest is not soaked dark with love
Then what?

Then what, indeed.  Not what this life is intended to be.  I have so many spiritual books but they only touch me if I in turn breathe life into them. Along with Kabir, “if you have not lived through something, it is not true.” Each day, then, I listen inside for the sweet ring of “yes”.  If the package I hold in my hands sings to me, then I place it gently on my shelf so that I may enjoy it another day as well.

And as for the lightness of life, where do I find people who laugh and laugh and then laugh some more?  Who open and open and open some more?  I bet Kabir would say …

Oh, we ain’t got a barrel of money
Maybe we’re ragged and funny
But we travel along
Singing a song, side by side

Oh, we don’t know what’s coming tomorrow
Maybe it’s trouble and sorrow
But we’ll travel the road
Sharing our load, side by side