How to Die Like a Tree

During a walk with a friend this week, we saw a huge, dead tree lying on the ground, all in one piece with its base exposed. It looked as if it had toppled over gently at the end of a full life. My friend said he had heard that if you eat organic food, you die simply, easily, and all in a moment, like the tree. I said, “That’s what I’m aiming for.”

Then the meaning of my words echoed in my mind, and I was surprised that they didn’t completely freak me out. I have been thinking more about this whole death thing, perhaps because my parents are getting older, perhaps because I am.

I have another friend who I’m sure is going to leave this life exactly as that tree did—peacefully. He’s in his late eighties, recently had a stroke, and quickly made a full recovery. In an email he wrote afterward he said, “Mortality is real.”

I wonder how to live with a daily awareness of this fact. I don’t mean I want to cash in my retirement fund and travel to Iceland because tomorrow could be my last day, but rather how does one move in the world in a way that holds an awareness of our own transitory nature?

It might have something to do with not holding on so hard. To whatever—the way things are, the way we want them to be, the happy things, the sad things, the terrible, the wonderful. Not because they don’t matter but because they are passing.

Perhaps living with that awareness is like Buddhist monks building a mandala. They place each grain of sand with intent, attention, presence, and love until they’ve constructed an intricate, gorgeous piece of art and worship. They never hurry. Then they sweep it all away and pour the sand into a creek to be carried to the ocean.

The reason to construct the mandala is not the mandala’s future form because, ultimately, it doesn’t have one. The reason to construct the mandala is the act of constructing it. So the way to live today, given that one day we won’t be here, is with intent, attention, presence, and love toward what is happening today.

Gee, if it’s that simple, I should have it down by noon.

Eulogies

I’d like to give a shout out to two fine souls, Mickey and Rob, who passed out of this life last week.

Mickey likely knew of me most of my life—so it goes in a town of 7000. I didn’t know her until I joined the local writing group in my early twenties.

She had an incredible humility and sense of humor about herself that I always admired. She lived a unique life with a great deal of courage and spunk, but she’d never quite believe a compliment.

Her prose resembled her personality—down-to-earth, straightforward, funny, and profound. She could spin out a scene so that you knew exactly where those clueless characters were heading and couldn’t wait to see how they made a mess of things because it was going to be funny.

You also knew everything would come out OK in the end, if only because at least one of her characters, like her, knew better than to get riled up about things.

When Mickey was amused by some outlandish suggestion I’d made, she’d always say, “Well now, Rachel, I don’t know about that” with a big smile on her face. She said it with a certain timbre and cadence that in a less resolute woman might have been wavering. But there was nothing wavering about Mickey.

Rob I knew for about eight years. His wife and I started a writing group together, and they would take me out for breakfast sometimes after mass.

He was a doctor and worked at the state hospital—an all-male, maximum-security psychiatric facility—well into his seventies. Given the difficulty of finding people willing to work there, he gave the patients and staff a tremendous gift.

He had this wonderful habit of talking about everything in exactly the same way. He’d be rattling off medical facts or expressing a deep cynicism about the current political climate, and in the next breath, without a beat or change of tone, he’d describe a mystical experience he’d had. Those sudden turns never failed to surprise me

When something tickled him, his usually serious face lit up in the most marvelous way. He became half elf, half six-year-old, delight beaming out of him.

I’ll never hear them laugh again, but if to live well is to always continue growing into yourself, they both made an excellent go of this turning ’round.

Mickey and Rob, I will treasure you always. God speed.

My friend Mary Ann may be dying. It’s hard to tell because she is still so filled with joy (see Just Marvelous).

When my grandmother was dying, I found it difficult to be in her physical presence because the changes in her body so clearly spoke of death. On the way to visit Mary Ann, I worried that I’d have the same reaction.

magnolia treeMary Ann wears a wig, which I had never before seen her without. Her natural hair is short, sparse, and gray. She sat amid multiple afghans in a partially-raised recliner, and her legs had some bruises. I prepared to grit my teeth and be uncomfortable, but then she saw us and lit up.

This astonishing burst of Mary Ann-ness came pouring out of her. She was delighted to see my mom and me even though she may not have known who we were. Even in ill health and loopy on pain meds, she still manifested an incredible optimism and enthusiasm for life.

She almost immediately said, “God is good.” This is not always my favorite phrase, but when uttered not as a saccharin-sweet coating but with all sincerity by a ninety-year-old with a broken pelvis, it’s hard to argue with.

Mary Ann wasn’t slipping away as I’d feared; she was distilled down to the radiant heart of her being. It made me wonder what my essence is, what I would emit in a similar situation.

Shortly after finding out Mary Ann had taken a turn for the worse, while standing in front of a magnolia tree with only two pink blossoms left, I felt this surge of joy, and I thought, if I’m going to send Mary Ann anything, it should be this feeling. She sent it right back.