Nothing prepares you to watch your best friend die.
While we may be able to embrace the idea of impermanence on the mat, off the mat we run headlong into the brick wall of loss and grief.
Most days I make the trek from my house down the hill to see my dear friend, Gordon. Gordon is in his late 60’s, and has been the consummate health and fitness buff for decades.
Eighteen months ago he practiced Bikram yoga 7 days a week, rode his fixed gear bike up the steep hills to our neighborhood, and wind surfed and mountain biked like a madman. Now he spends his days propped in a chair, gasping into an oxygen mask, waiting to die.
Gordon has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This progressive neurodegenerative disorder destroys the motor neurons, and renders the muscles that they innervate paralyzed.
After witnessing its progression, it is fair to say that ALS is an insidious, pernicious blight. Most days it feels as though the forces of darkness conspired to create the most heinous, degenerative crime against the human form – and they succeeded.
My friend’s symptoms began as weakness in his right hand, difficulty lifting his right ankle and toes (also known as foot drop), and a barely noticeable change in his speech. Now his muscular frame has atrophied nearly beyond recognition, and he has lost almost one third of his body weight.
He can no longer speak, and his lungs are rapidly shutting down. Yet, he is still alert and present in spite of the fact that his body is failing him.
I can’t help but reflect on life while witnessing the ravages of death. Gordon’s journey is a poignant reminder of the frailty and impermanence of these bodies that house our inner light.
I am reminded of the lyrics in Leonard Cohen’s Anthem, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” That is also how the light gets out.
In spite of his ravaged form, there are windows when his eyes twinkle and he smiles that remind me of the years of laughter and tears that we’ve shared. The physical is transient, but the spirit is enduring. What matters isn’t how we look, but the quality of our relationships.
As I watch Gordon move beyond his physical body I am reminded of how attached our culture is to appearance and form. We see the physical as the manifestation of the person, and not the other way around. Even on the yoga mat, we attend to form as if the posture is what defines the practice, often to the neglect of appreciating the union of breath and movement.
We focus on the physical outcome, less often attending to the spaces in between.
When nailing a pose becomes the litmus test of our experience, we become entrapped in striving for perfection. We lose sense of the reality that, like life, each breath and posture have a beginning and an end. Birth and death dance with each other over, and over again.
Instead of death being the natural outcome of birth, we struggle and suffer, clinging to the illusion of an image that never changes. But change is inevitable. That could never be more poignant lesson for me as I’ve watched my friend’s body tangle into an incoherent mass of muscle and bone.
As I make my way down his driveway each day, I never know what the visit will bring. Last week his chest began to heave continuously in an effort to breathe. This week his hands have morphed into clawed fists, making it nearly impossible for him to write on his lap sized white board or send text messages. Those have been his only means of communication for months.
Even in silence, we find ways to relate. His twisted frame cannot obscure the light within him.
Swami Satchidananda, yogi and sage, eloquently addressed the issue of clinging to life in his interpretation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (II.9).
“What is it that dies? A log of wood dies to become a few planks. The planks die to become a chair. The chair dies to become a piece of firewood, and the firewood dies to become ash. You give different names to the different shapes the wood takes, but the basic substance is there always. If we could always remember this, we would never worry about the loss of anything. We never lose anything; we never gain anything. By such discrimination we put an end to unhappiness.”
While we may be able to embrace the idea of impermanence on the mat, off the mat we run headlong into the brick wall of loss and grief. The collision is inevitable when we lose a friend, loved one, relationship, or cherished animal companion.
I’ve been grieving Gordon’s impermanence for months. I miss the sound of his voice, and the assurance of knowing that he’d rush over with his toolbox when the plumbing backed up or a door wouldn’t close. I’m grateful for the good times, and I miss them.
As Anthony Hopkins eloquently remarks in the movie Shadowlands, “The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”
My grief is the echo of the laughter that preceded it.
Just as the cracks are what allow the light to enter and to leave, loss and grief make way for gratitude and grace. We are called upon to embrace each breath, posture, and relationship wholeheartedly, and to surrender to its ending.
We are reminded of the gratitude that comes with the joy of connection, and the grace required to let go. It is in that letting go that we make space to give birth to something new.
In these final days of Gordon’s life I am reminded to peek through the windows of his physical form to catch his brilliant spirit very much alive and ready to move on. Those beams of light are the essence of my dear friend, laughing, joking, and riding his bike like a 10 year-old without a care in the world.
That is how I choose to remember him. Today his body is a cage. Soon he will be set free.
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Ed: Dana Gornall