Although everything we love, can, and likely will be taken from us, the radiant vestiges those loves leave in the soul are permanently ours, and the only permanence we’ll ever know. — Maria Popova
Maria’s words ring in my mind as I sit by my father’s bedside at the hospital after returning from California where I spent Christmas and New Year’s with my daughters. It was on the eve of the new year that I jotted down the first lessons from the stars.
Dad broke his neck before I left, and now lies helpless, fed through a tube, and breathing through an oozing hole in his trachea. Not the way he wanted his story to end… his life force sputtering in a sterile room flooded with ghostly light, the stench of urine, and the bedeviling sound of monitors displaying the flattening line-graphs of his vitals.
I am glad the Universe foiled my early plan to move to Mexico, and, instead, cast me to his side where I have been for two years. Glad, because such twist of fate allowed me to know my father deeply, and prompted me to capture a vivid snapshot of his unconventional life in the amber of my Memoir. In ancient Egypt, to be forgotten was one of the worst fates the soul of the deceased could suffer.
Like a town-crier, Dad has been predicting his death for longer than a decade. From the marks of agony and despair furrowing his countenance right now, I am certain there will be no escape this time.
A few years ago, in response to yet another email predicting his near demise and raging at the prospect, I told him to: “Rage, rage for sure, but not about your dying light. Rage against it not blazing as does a star during the final spasms of its annihilation, its self-devouring. Rouse that inner energy to exit the stage in one radiant burst… a luminous climax. Like a Supernova, there are surely some elements you can scatter as you implode.”
In Part One of this Series, I talk about the gifts bestowed by giant stars when they die in a Supernova explosion. All the elements in your body, the billions of neurons in your brain firing your thoughts and imagination, all the life-beats of your heart, were shaped by the atoms scattered during a giant star’s final act.
Our aims in life, the intensity of our desires, the might of our struggles, and the impact we have on those we encounter on our path will determine whether we blaze like a Supernova, shine like the Sun, or end up like a brown dwarf — halfway between a planet and a star — whose mass, or life-force, is insufficient to spark thermonuclear fusion.
“Death should not concern us,” said Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. “Death is concerned only with our self and not with this world. The world never loses an atom; it is our self which suffers. Men wish for permanence and not perfection. They forget that the true meaning of living is outliving; it is ever growing out of itself.”
Play it safe, snug in your cocoon, and your life will follow the path of a brown dwarf. Dare to risk everything to fulfill your unique destiny and you’ll shine like a star, a giant one perhaps, even if you fail.
Man’s worth lies not in victory but in the struggle for victory. His worth lies in that he live and die bravely, without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and manly courage. God makes us grubs, and we, by our own efforts, must become butterflies. Like the flying fish, leap out of safe secure waters and enter a more ethereal atmosphere that is filled with madness. Defy the First Cause to overdraw you like a bow without caring if it breaks! — Nikos Kazantzakis
With a nauseating gurgle, a nurse draws brown gunk from my father’s trachea as I keep replaying his life which blazed like a candle lit at both ends until the age I am now, but with a dimmer spirit thereafter. What caused such diminishment… such ebbing of the flame? I wonder.
Rather than defying the First Cause, it’s as if he had made a pact with it to stop overdrawing his bow for fear it would break. Perhaps the frenzy of his early years swirling in the chaos of manic-depression had exhausted him and made him seek solace, ensconced for three decades in the quietude surrounding his property tucked in a Northeast swath of wilderness, there to live the remainder of his life undisturbed, released from the messy and often distressing entanglements to which a human life is subject.
While I willingly accept the inevitable price paid with the currency of anxiety, stress, heartache, and ultimate loss for remaining entwined with the world and the people I love, I have no problem with anyone wanting to live a quiet, simple life. In fact, I am on this path myself, seeking that sweet spot between being in this world, but sufficiently removed from it to avoid being drowned by the currents of its meaningless agitation. In other words, in this world, but not of it.
Ancient Chinese culture revered the yinshi, the recluse, who chose to leave the world behind to live more simply. “The tradition,” says philosopher Alain de Botton, “began in the 4th century AD, when a high-ranking government official named Tao Yuanming surrendered his position at court and moved to the countryside to farm the land, make wine, and write.”
Yuanming explains why:
It was in my nature to love the hills and mountains.
Mindlessly I was caught in the dust-filled trap.
Waking up, thirty years had gone.
The caged bird wants the old trees and air.
Fish in their pool miss the ancient stream.
I plough the earth at the edge of South Moor.
Keeping life simple, return to my plot and garden…
Too long a prisoner, captive in a cage,
Now I can get back again to Nature.
Like a flying fish, Tao Yuanming leapt out of safe waters and entered a more ethereal atmosphere. Yet, despite living the life of a recluse, he left behind his poems, gifting us with a renewed sense of wonder and enchantment with the natural world.
Most of us will never be Superstars like Yuanming, or Christ or Buddha; giants whose bursts of creative and purifying light still shine on us today. But I see no reason why we can’t emulate our neighboring star, the Sun, choosing a smaller arena on which to pour the gifts of our unique talents; bending our bow to the breaking point for a cause in which we believe, and shedding joy, warmth, light and love to the living beings in our immediate orbit. It does not have to be something spectacular to be meaningful; a poem, a mended heart, or restored patch of Earth will do.
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain. — Emily Dickinson
As I see Dad’s haunted and fearful glance fixed on the white wall of his hospital room, Dickinson’s poem reminds me of the time I visited him in New England as he and his wife scouted the area for their permanent move. He had booked two rooms at a shabby roadside motel, and on one of those early, cold winter mornings, I heard a knock on my door. At its threshold, Dad balanced a pink cardboard box on one hand and held a steaming cup on the other. “I brought you donuts and coffee,” he said, as he walked in.
Years later, I came upon a poem by Robert Hayden whose last stanza echoes in my mind every time I recall the tender memory:
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
To most, my father’s donut-and-coffee gesture might not sound extraordinary, but given his austere nature and meager displays of affection, the light and warmth he brought into my room that morning touched me to the core and still brings tears to my eyes when recalled. He became the Sun, and his offering will remain like those radiant vestiges Maria speaks about; permanently mine, never forgotten.
Equally touched were the lives of his grandchildren, leaving behind these indelible soulprints evoked by memory and rendered in their voices:
“You’re the only grandpa I ever had in my life but the only one I ever needed. You taught me how to fish and possess the coolest man cave I have ever come across.”
“Catching my first fish together which we later skinned and cooked, spending countless hours mesmerized by all the trinkets in your dungeon, the walks with you, whether on a late winter afternoon or summer day…such memories only ever remain so perfectly clear when they have meant something truly special to your life.”
“You fostered my intellectual curiosity and love of a good yarn. I can’t tell you where I’d be without these two qualities, but I know my life would be much smaller.”
“I like to think I get my sense of adventure from you.”
“I think back to the stories you told me about being in the army and how you used to eat light bulbs and put soap under your feet to make yourself pass out.
To me, you are and always will be Indiana Jones, Dirty Harry, John Wayne, Han Solo, and every other action hero, adventurer, and explorer.”
“It is difficult to place into words the impact you have had on me. Through good and bad there has always been an adventure! Adventure of pretending to trek through the jungle or explore the deserts of New Mexico. For any kid, it would have been just another day, but it was you and your imagination that helped transport me to some of the most cherished memories I have.”
“You taught me to spot birds, about forests and streams, knives, and kindling fire with nothing but flint. Your stories made my imagination whirl, from carving ‘Pinocchio’ with broken glass shards, to catching monkeys with coconut shells down in Panama. In my boyish mind, you were the embodiment of a dream boyhood. Part pirate, part cowboy, part rock-star, part soldier, part grandfather. You were tough as nails, dressed the part, and encouraged an unquenchable curiosity (if not a bit of rebellion) which made my heart and imagination soar.”
Alex Haley was right in saying grandparents sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children.
I place a cold, wet cloth on Dad’s forehead, slide the thin covers of his hospital bed up to his shoulders, hold his hand, and watch him fall asleep.
Once his light is out, I’ll be next in line.
“Just as a book is bounded by its covers, by beginning and end, so our lives are bounded by birth and death,” wrote philosopher Stephen Cave. “You can only know the moments in between; the moments that make up your life. It makes no sense for you to fear what is outside of those covers, whether before your birth or after your death. And you needn’t worry how long the book is, or whether it’s a comic strip or an epic. The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story.”
We are on this Earth but briefly, I mumble, as I turn off the overhead light and walk out. There really is no time for anything but meaningful acts if we live with death as our eternal companion.