Denver, January 6, 2021
Dearest Shraddha and Dinesh,
I started to write this letter about the turning of the year and the end of a decade 5 days ago. It was to be an end-of-the-year soul searching exercise. However, having distracted myself from writing it for several valid reasons, I take the letter up again at a very compelling moment. Yesterday morning I received a call from my father’s caregiver that he wasn’t responding to her when she tried to wake him. He wasn’t breathing, so she called 911 and started to give him CPR. When the ambulance arrived, she told me they tried to resuscitate my father for 20 minutes, with no success. He passed at the age of 96 in his own home in his sleep.
I am, quite frankly, ambivalent about how I feel. Of course, I am deeply saddened at the loss of another parent (my mom passed in March, 2020). Losing both parents less than 10 months apart is a very sobering experience. Although you expect it (they were both in their 90s), it doesn’t make it easier, by any means, when you are faced with the stark reality of death. As I said, my father died peacefully – no suffering, no pain. For that I am grateful. I am also grateful that he has passed. This is where my ambivalence makes its appearance. You see, he really didn’t have a quality of life. He was old, fragile, and only partially lucid. His cognitive functions were beginning to decline more rapidly. Yes, he knew who I was when I called him every other day, but he couldn’t carry on a basic conversation. The phone calls lasted typically 1 – 2 minutes and we would hang up. I would slowly shake my head vowing to myself not to allow the indignity to myself and to those around me of becoming a withered brain within a withered body.
Yes, I miss my father and my mother with profound grief. Yet I also know that impermanence is the signature of all living things. As Dogen observed:
The world? Moonlit drops
Shaken from the crane’s bill.
I am feeling peaceful in believing my parents’ energy is, perhaps, animating a sunflower in a large field in the Umbrian countryside. Or it is illuminating a hive of honey bees in the Redwood forest of northern California. Or it is pulsing joyfully through the body of a 6 year old child playing in a dusty alley in Istanbul.
As I watched in silent awe the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21st, I thought to myself: “All the people around the world, including me, looking up at the sky and witnessing this rare event will be long gone from this life when this event repeats itself 800 years from now. Everyone. But just as Jupiter and Saturn will obey the cycle of eternal return, so do we return (hopefully without an 800 year lag.) Perhaps my mother and father are engaged in a waltz on Jupiter right now? Or holding hands on Hyperion or Callisto watching the rings of Saturn slowly turn in their own cycle.
There has been so much sickness and death in 2020. I believe we all have had to be more soberly realistic about our own mortality more frequently lately as we put on our masks to take a walk or pick up groceries. But I also realized that once I start to focus on death, I cease to live my fullest. Of course, that does not mean I throw caution to the wind and ignore all safety measures to prevent infection. On the contrary, I wear my mask everywhere I go (which is very limited) and seriously respect others’ health as well as my own. But I do not fill my day with fear and anxiety about death. I remember something that I read by the great American poet Walt Whitman in Song of Myself about death when my favorite grandfather, Umberto DiTomassi died:
“What do you think has become of the young and old men? And what do you think has become of the women and children? They are alive and well somewhere, The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it, And ceas’d the moment life appear’d. All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”
So, I have arrived at a place of both profound grief as well as sublime hope. As the eternal cycle of life perpetuates around us, Shraddha and Dinesh, I find myself at the still point of a turning world. Neither sad, nor joyful. Neither grieving, nor celebrating. Neither alive, nor dead. Just here in the middle of 2 eternities for now.
I also know I am not alone here. I am in very good company with you both.
Much unconditional love for 2021 to you both…