“What time is it?” he asks, forgetting:
shifts his pain in the chair.
I search, again, to answer; but sense
clock time isn’t what he really wants.
“I don’t know,” I murmur.
His bony feet in my hands.
The white ward wall, sun-splashed.
At thirty-three, he’s dying.
My hands are strong.
This morning: I breathed, stretched, enjoyed
the grass beneath my own – in a park.
Firmness of feet; earth supports.
Birdsong, a lyrical breath.
“It’s a very spiritual thing,
massaging someone’s feet,” he rasps.
“Scary, this… not knowing…”
We wonder. I begin to speak, but he’s saying:
“What’s going to happen, I mean…”
A sunlit curtain; a breeze.
And he asks again: “What time is it?”
The point, to me, of the poem in my last post is in those two words toward the end: “We wonder.” We wondered together. The young man was in a hospice. And, he was dying – of that, there was no doubt. Not long to go.
And yet, at any moment, it is still a matter of not knowing exactly when; and there is always the question of what it will be like. He couldn’t sleep at night for fear of it.
I was merely a few years older than he was; but, I knew his questions were mine, too – albeit less cogently. I was healthy, but I had begun to contemplate the inevitability of death. It wasn’t a matter of only one of us having the certainty of death, without knowing when.
What will it be like? Sometimes I’m plain curious, almost excited, like Mary Oliver says in her poem When Death Comes:
“I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?”
Now, decades years later, now that I’m old enough to die naturally, and after my cancer last year, I have been thinking more about what will death be like.
The practice of dissolution of the elements is a wonderful one, and I have no doubt at all about its helpfulness – not only because it nurtures a joyous, wakeful life; but because it goes a tiny, tiny bit of the way in meeting the unanswerable.
However, the event of one’s own will is intimate. I sense its breathy inscrutability. “What’s it going to be like?” This question is wake me up. I was healthy back then, but his question prodded at my conceit, called it into question, rousing me from the slumber that is there in the trance of youth, in the trance of health, and in the trance of one’s life appearing not to be threatened.
“There are, practitioners, these three kinds of intoxication. What three? Intoxication with youth, intoxication with health, and intoxication with life.” – The Buddha, quoted in the Anguttara Nikaya.
But, here’s the more impelling point: When I realise that death is not readable, I have no reason to believe it will be more readable when it comes. Why? I feel the presence of Nowness in my life as equally mysterious – equally unsayable. And each haiku-like perception is as immeasurable. No breath can be timed in clock-time. We are unable to measure our lives in ‘coffee spoons.’
The breeze in the curtain, the sun-splashed wall, these are not findable, not objects thrown over there.*
“Now” just as unfindable as death, while it’s intimately, radiantly ineluctable – the real doorway to the infinite. Death is this moment.
Every time he asked me what time it was, a perplexed clock stared at me – non-plussed, Dali-esque.
* My OED tells me that ‘object’ means literally: “thing thrown before or presented to (the mind or thought.”