Recently the stomach flu that’s been making the rounds hit me. Being ill for three days gave me an opportunity to practice dying, (yes, you read that right), and to cultivate a more Buddha-like temperament.
On the first day, I am pinned to the bed, unable to lift my head. I have to surrender to what my body demands: total rest. Since I’m a healthy, productive woman living in the go-go-go, connect-connect-connect twenty-first century, it’s a complete change to be barely able to make the necessary phone calls and emails to cancel my day’s work schedule. But I’ve learned that the quickest path to feeling well again is to allow my body to do its natural - and miraculous - healing.
I usually take my body for granted, although I do occasionally have moments of appreciation. The pulse of its natural, unerring urge to life was demonstrated when my mother was dying of lymphoma. During her last few days, I watched her twitch and toss, under the influence of morphine, as her body slowly gave up its grip on life. The only thing she was able to say when conscious was “I know, I know”, which we took to mean she knew she was dying and she was alright with it. But her mind accepted before her body was willing. The need for surrender does not come easily to our physical vehicles, which cling to life with ferocity.
I think about my attachment to not just my physical existence, but all the things in my world which form my identity and which I rely on to bring me comfort and beauty. I consider what it’s like to say goodbye to my home, to the people I love. I wonder about the moment of death, will I be aware and step willingly into the mystery of it? These are thoughts I usually don’t ponder, and I touch the freedom - and fear - of letting go. Maybe death is like taking off a tight shoe, the soul sighing with relief.
Untethered from my daily routine, I become more present. I take in the view out the window, which I’ve seen a thousand times, with new eyes, eyes that don’t breeze over details. I notice the shape of the trees, the branch that was torn off in the last storm, the way the tops of the pines are loaded with tiny pine cones. And I tap into a well of gratitude for the world I inhabit. On the second day, I wake up with a little more strength. I stare at the blue walls of our bedroom. The blue paint - Windmill, it’s called, although I wonder if the windmills in the Netherlands are painted blue - appear alive to me, so alive I consume it through my eyes. It travels into my body like ephemeral nourishment. I experience the energy of color in a new way and I promise myself I won’t forget.
Later that day I feel able to step outside on the porch and sit in the sun, or rather lie in the sun on the long porch step, while I lazily toss a tennis ball for the grateful dog. I cover my eyes with my arm and allow the sun to warm me. It feels like a gift. The dog is happy, and I’m content with this simple moment. I’m not thinking about what I need to do next.
When I return to bed, which has become a cozy nest, with pillows surrounding me and the afghan my mother knit me while I was in college covering me, I am thankful. I finger my mother’s handiwork and wonder how many times she ripped out rows to achieve the perfect result which, four decades later, still warms me. Some of the fringe was braided by one of my college roommates, and here is her hand, too, which I now have time to remember. I recall something endearing about her, how she didn’t know how to finish her laugh. One evening we taught her how, practicing the tapering end of a good laugh. I wonder what her laugh sounds like now.
On the third day I venture into the yard. In the garden, last night’s rain is puddled in the umbrella-like leaves of the Lady’s Mantle, the rain drops nestled symmetrically in the leaves’ folds. I see the world anew, stop to examine the buds on the dwarf cherry tree, listen to the hum of the bumblebees, notice their number - hundreds - turning that tree into a hovering hub of activity. I experience the world with the sense of wonder and innocence of a three-year old and although I know it won’t last, that within a day or two the spell will wear off, I appreciate it and want to retain it. Decades ago my first meditation teacher counseled his students to let death be our counselor. He introduced us to the the idea that in welcoming as companions the impermanence of life and the unpredictable nature of death, we could become more awake, aware, and alive. Being temporarily sick can be an opportunity to step closer to death, and to life.