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Lions Roar : July 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2006 31 I AM WRITING just a few weeks after the death of my longtime, close friend Martha Ley. Martha was, for many years, the first reader and editor of everything that I wrote, and so she is in my thoughts particularly at this moment. Her death was not unexpected. Nevertheless, I am aware of how the landscape of the world changes when someone you care about is missing from it, and how that loss takes time to accommodate. I miss her. There is a Zen story about a revered teacher whose young son dies. The teacher’s students gather at his home and sit by quietly, respectfully, as the teacher—unable to speak—weeps. Af- ter a long while, one student says, “You taught us that the Buddha’s last words were, ‘Transient are all conditioned things.’ You said that he meant to remind the grieving monks gathered around him that everything changes and that death is normal. Isn’t that true?” “Everything I taught you is true,” the teacher responds. “And I am very sad.” That Zen story and the story of the Buddha’s last words are a comfort to me, whether or not they are literally true. Both sto- ries teach that insight into the inevitability of change, although it may keep the mind from being frightened or embittered by loss, does not erase sadness. They also remind me of the Buddha’s words to Shariputra, “Noble friends are the whole of the holy life.” In sad times, we keep each other company. Martha was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two years ago. She, her longtime partner, Joelle, and all their friends had hoped that the available therapies for slowing the disease would keep her alive until a cure was found. After every chemotherapy ses- sion, Joelle would send a group email that began, “Dear Angels,” and ended with thanks for the support of prayers and for the knowledge that people cared. Twenty months later, Martha’s doctors said that there was nothing more to be done; they also said that she was one of only three percent of people who had survived that long with the disease. Martha said, “Being in the one percent would have been better. I get that I am dying, but I wish it wasn’t yet.” Martha and I spoke almost every day for those twenty months, sometimes in person, but mostly by phone. We shared a quirky, somewhat irreverent sense of humor, and whatever the cur- rent news of her situation—some days hopeful, some days dis- couraging—we would talk until one of us said something that Being with Dying When death approaches someone dear to us, Buddhism’s hard truths can be cold comfort. There’s no practice for that time, says SYLVIA BOORSTEIN, except to be present with an open, human heart. tickled the other’s mind. And then we would laugh together. There would be some moment of irony or a ridiculous juxtaposition of life and death with the completely mundane that would strike us as funny. We both knew that the mo- ments of laughter were “free” moments, breaks in the cloud of sadness that was the larger awareness of her illness. Once, after her pain had escalated past being controlled by her medica- tion, she said, “I don’t see how I can be very Buddhist about this—all that busi- ness about accommodating gracefully to the truth of a situation? The truth is that this is a terrible situation and I don’t like it at all.” “It is a terrible situation,” I said, “and you’re not supposed to like it. I think you’re just not supposed to be mad at it, and not be mad at your- self if you are mad.” “Well, sometimes I am mad,” Martha said. “I think to myself, ‘Why me?’” She paused, watching me to see if I anticipated what was coming next, and added, “And then after a while, I think, ‘Why not me?’” The last conversation I had with Martha before she slipped into her final coma was a rambling one. In the middle of a sen- tence, she realized she had forgotten what she was going to say. “I think I am confused,” she said. “You are,” I said. “But it’s okay.” “I am afraid I am being boring.” “Sweetheart, I promise you,” I said, in a firm voice, “in your entire life, you have never been boring.” I suppose the thought of worrying about being boring in the middle of dying struck us both as funny. We laughed. Martha looked at me and said, “I set that up for you, you know?” “I do know,” I replied. I’m grateful for that moment of playfulness. I think it was Martha’s gift to me, a way of saying, “It’s all right, Syl, this busi- ness of dying.” Martha died at home, peacefully, ministered to by Joelle, who was backed up by friends, day and night, lending support how- ever they could. There was not a moment in the last week of Martha’s life when someone was not holding her hand. ♦ SYLVIA BOORSTEIN has a Ph.D. in psychology and is a founding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. Her most recent book is Pay Attention for Goodness’ Sake. ILLUSTRATIONBYMISSYCHIMOVITZ