Embracing death

On trying to enjoy each remaining moment on Earth

The author is a former editor-in-chief of the CN&R.

In one of her delightful and enlightening essays, the late Zen Buddhist teacher Charlotte Joko Beck passes along an old tale about a group of thieves who broke into the home of a Zen master and told him they were going to murder him. “Please wait until morning,” he said. “I have some work to complete.”

So he spent the night doing his work, drinking tea and enjoying himself. He also wrote a poem comparing death to a spring breeze and gave it to the thieves as a present when they returned.

Beck doesn’t say whether the old monk survived. That’s not the point, after all. What mattered was his attitude toward his impending death.

I think about this story often these days. I’m old enough to be eligible for Medicare, which means I’ve used up most of my allotted time on Earth. More and more of my friends are no longer among us. The most recent to go was my brother-in-law, Tom Quinn, a strong and intelligent man who was the love of my sister Catherine’s life.

My wife and I spent a lot of time with them as he got closer to the end. In his own way he was much like that Zen master: never complaining and enjoying each remaining day—indeed, each moment—as deeply as he could. He’d been a combat medic in Vietnam, so he well knew what death looked like. He wasn’t afraid.

“Everything must change, nothing remains the same,” sang Nina Simone on her great Baltimore album. Death sweeps out the old and beckons in the new. We who enjoy life and dread saying goodbye to our loved ones must learn to accept reality: Everything changes. All existence is impermanent.

This is something I’m learning as death comes closer. Like so many people my age, now that I am aware of death’s looming presence, I appreciate life more than ever. I’m taking my cues from that old Zen master, trying not to be afraid and to enjoy each moment—each breath—as if the next one might be my last.