Thursday, April 14, 2011

Of life and death

"Silence in the face of evil is itself evil...
Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act."
        - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and author

Late the other night I saw a Facebook post written by a cousin that was pretty clearly a suicide note, although it was not despondent or angry. It simply said that it was time for him to go, embellished with a few descriptive phrases.

I posted a brief comment saying that it sounded very final, with a question mark, and eventually went to sleep saying prayers for him. 

He was on my mind when I got up, and when I logged on to the computer, I searched for the post but it was gone. So I sent him a brief message expressing concern and included my phone number. 

 I hesitated only a moment before I first contacted him, knowing I would be drawn into a conversation that no one wants to have and probably result in  an extended family crisis of sorts, knowing that I don't know him or who he really is, and yet I was unable to accept NOT responding compassionately to such a very public statement. What if my response could make a difference in how he feels? And what happens if no one responds to his post? How sad.

He called yesterday afternoon and we talked for several hours -- more, honestly, than I've spoken with him in decades.  Note: While I have many cousins on this side of my family tree, I am not close to any of them either geographically or emotionally. I know a few  a bit better than others, and we connect several times during the year usually through e-mail, but only rarely face-to-face or by phone. There is a family connection that I do honor, however.

Today's Daily Om speaks precisely to family and our connections with each other, and it struck me with its spot-on timeliness.  It explains the connection I felt when I read the post and why it is important to who I am.

This cousin is not a spring chicken: he is plenty old enough to know what he wants, has done some remarkable things and has, he told me, answered all his spiritual questions. He is tired of living, is facing some very difficult issues, and said that he doesn't have a plan for moving forward, can't see a future for himself. He also told me he had 'pulled the trigger' the night he posted his note, but it "didn't work." He did not elaborate.

Others who live in his area have now become aware and  involved. But I do not think, nor do they, following their own conversations with him, that anything we do or say will make a difference. Only he has control of his own destiny -- which, actually, is as it ought to be, since we cannot save any lives but our own.

Ultimately nothing was 'resolved' in our conversation. There are no magic words that will make a difference in how he perceives his situation, nothing I or anyone else can say that will deter him if he is determined to end his life.  But I cared enough to reach out to him, and that touched him. I acted out of compassion and from the shared experience of family heritage. I'm glad that I did. I'm sorry it took such an act for us to connect, even if briefly.

It also has made me consider where our moral obligation begins and ends as far as the taking of one's own life is concerned. He asked if I would try to stop him if he had a terminal disease, for instance. While I don't know for sure what I would do for myself should I be in that circumstance, I believe I would want to have the choice, especially when confronted with such debilitating illnesses as Alzheimers or Lou Gehrig's disease, for instance. (May that never be so...)

I believe he has the right  to end his life if he chooses. Both I and at least one other reminded him of the devastation his death would bring to his family, reminded him that change is the only constant and that all things do change,  and made sure he knew where to find help should he reconsider. He knows the drill; he knows all the talk. He'll do as he chooses. His is not a heat-of-the moment decision.

Were he a teenager or 20-something, I'd have responded differently.  But he isn't. He has thought this through and while I don't agree with his assessment of his future, I don't live in it either. And so I honor his right to make that choice for himself, and I told him that I would bear witness to what he told me -- and he encouraged me to use any part of our conversation to help others better understand what he is feeling.

Whatever the outcome, this will stay with me for the rest of my life. It has reinforced for me the knowledge that I am not ready to leave this world, not even if the next offers second chances and new beginnings as my cousin believes it does. This world, this life, has offered me plenty of both, and I am certainly not done with them yet. 

 "The Summer Day"  by Mary Oliver asks in its final line, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" I want to cherish that wild and precious gift, every single day. 

I want to smell the newly mown grass and the heavily-laden, heaven-scented lilac bushes this spring. I want to sit out under the Milky Way and watch the meteor showers this year. I want to taste the still-sun-warm strawberries from the field down the road, and the first ripe tomato from my own garden. I want to read about another gazillion books, and go to the ocean this summer to cool my toes in the Pacific sand and marvel at its constancy. I want to pet more kitties and gaze into their all-knowing eyes and see that they, at least, have figured out the mysteries of the universe. I want to wrap my brother in my arms at least once this year and tell him how glad I am he is my brother and how much I love him. I want to go out to lunch with my daughters and buy them each something pretty and giggle at silly things with them, forgetting for a little while their problems and issues, and just celebrating our connection. I want to go to sleep every night in my husband's arms and wake up every morning to his loving brown eyes looking at my sleepy green ones. I want long conversations with him over good, strong coffee and hot breakfasts, and over fresh lunches, and over nutritious dinners. I want to cry when I see pictures or read stories that touch my heart or remind me of my parents and how much I miss them, even though I talk to them in my heart every day. I want to write long letters to my best friend and read hers that tell me all about her remodeling and gardening efforts, and her recovery from cancer, and I want to say thank you to the Universe, to the Mother and Father God, about a million times a day for every day that I have left on this beautiful earth.

For in spite of bickering and threats on the political front, pig-headed, stubborn zealots of all religions and political parties, in spite of the devastating effects of nature, in spite of an economy that is struggling to revive with valiant stories of renewal and rebirth -- and yes, second chances and new beginnings -- this is a beautiful earth. This is a beautiful life. I have lessons left to learn, and, I think, things still to teach. There will be pain and some suffering involved, I'm pretty sure, since growth doesn't happen without it. But I am not ready to leave it all behind. In fact, I'm ready for more total immersion: I want to make the very most of the days and years I have still to live.

I'm sad that my cousin can't see anything else for himself. But he has unwittingly given me a mirror to examine my own future and to see what I want. And for that, I am grateful beyond words. May my own life be a reflection of what I hope for others to see. And please say a prayer for him, and for those who will be so terribly lost without him. 

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