This quote can be attributed to some Zen master, sadly I can't remember which one. The first time I read it, it didn't make sense to me immediately. But as I sat with it a picture of Rob came to mind. He was standing with his back to the lake in Central Park. He is looking up, not exactly skyward but up and he has a smile on his face that I don't recall ever seeing before. It could best be described as beatific which is defined as "imparting holy bliss". The fact that he never had this smile during his life was significant. Rob was someone who took the work of being a good human very seriously, which is odd because he was a deeply funny man. But he carried the weight of responsibility squarely on his shoulders through out his life. And he was a worrier. On his death bed he regretted that he had spent so much of life worrying. So how did he get to be the guy with a beatific smile on his face, seemingly without a care in the world even though it was the last month of his life?
I think the answer lies in the belief that when we know we are dying and time is short there comes an opportunity for deep transformation. It is important to note that it is an opportunity it does not happen automatically. Rob chose to live in the present and be consumed with gratitude for what he had been given in life. He did not want to die but he was able to accept it. The palliative care doctor B J Miller put it another way when he was describing his time in a burn unit after a horrific accident where he was electrocuted. One of the nurses smuggled in a snowball for him, he says, "I cannot tell you the rapture I felt holding the snowball in my hand. The coldness dripping onto my skin, the miracle of it all, the fascination as I watched it melt and turn into water. In that moment just being on any part of this planet in this universe mattered more to me than whether I lived or died. That little snowball packed all the inspiration I needed to both try to live and be OK if I did not. It was a moment of sensuous, asthetic gratification where I was rewarded for just being." I think this is the ground in which a beatific smile can sprout. He goes on to say "There are mountains of sorrow and one way or another we will all kneel there. But so much of living in that shadow comes down to loving our time by way of the senses, by way of the body, the very thing doing the living and dying."
I am a trained end-of-life doula. I provide guidance and support for individuals and families during the end-of-life process.