.... when I die. I can't remember where I read these words recently, but they have deep resonance for me.
I was not present when my father died. Ellie and I were on one of our regular New York visits when I received the call from my sister to say that he was dying, and we took the first flight back to London and drove across country to the small town in Wales where he lay dying in the local hospital. As soon as we arrived, my father perked up, sat up in bed, demanded food, and instead of dying, as he was supposed to, survived for the entire week of our visit. He did not want to die.
The memory of that occasion came back to me this morning as I sat in meditation, bringing my attention to my answer to the question, Why am I doing this? I do not want to die. I wish I had made the effort to know my father better. I wish I had been able to love him rather than to fear him. As soon as I was old enough to escape his influence, I left him and his faith behind. I went away to the other end of the world and returned to visit only rarely.
That last week of his life (he died shortly after I left) I did my best to speak to him as I had never been able to do when we were both younger, but it was a last-ditch effort and my father was never fully present. I recall his hollow eyes as he listened to me, unsure if he heard. I wanted him to know of the love we had never been able to share; of my loss of faith; of the unacknowledged pain. I recall watching him as he refused to die, fighting death with every last ounce of his energy. It seemed to me that some inner fear and anger stood between him and the threshold he had come to at the end of his natural life. Where was the faith with which I knew he had struggled, as a Christian minister of the Church of England? Where was the belief in an afterlife, in the arms of the God in whom he had taught others to believe? He did not want to die.
So it came to me this morning: having watched my father's final struggle and witnessed the fearful refusal of a man who had believed, I bring some memory of that experience to the predicament I was describing in my last two entries in The Buddha Diaries. As I understand it, the true Buddhist wants to reach the moment of his death prepared with a life well lived and a quiet mind, in order to transition peacefully to a propitious future life. That next life, indeed, is determined by the quality of the mind at the moment of transition. Which makes no less sense to me than the Christian belief in a life eternal in the pastures of the Lord. Or in the fires of hell.
So... may I be alive when I die. I do not want to be my father, who struggled so mightily and so fearfully with death. Whose belief seemed to desert him at the hour it was most needed. Is this, I ask myself, connected in some deep part of my being with my disinclination to surrender to belief? My rejection of the whole idea of faith? There's more work to be done! Always, more work!