Flat Lake’s autumn water
Merges with the winter sky
The ancient trees are rimmed
The falling leaves are red
The stone path and the footbridge
Are free of human tracks
A single hut is locked away
Deep inside the clouds.
~ Han-shan Te-ch’ing (1546-1623)
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His Fourth Death (Accompanied by a Little Blue Guitar)
It was the fourth. Not that he was counting. But he thought about it later. There was her. He’d sat in quarter lotus for the better part of an hour, on a cushion beside her bed at hospice, deep into the night. It was several hours before dawn, before she went. Surrounded by us all. Not an easy thing to watch, this death. ‘Keep yourself in the room,’ some oracle of wise practice — was it the Zen Hospice Project? — had said. So, for this fourth death, he’d brought his little blue guitar. Since, having seen how far away the dying go, well down the path in those fading-away hours, eyes clenched or turned inward, doped on powerful sedatives to ease the pain, the fear, the fear in the room of the pain, of the dying and the death … Well, you needed everything at your disposal to do it. Stay in the room, he means.
Because after all when we attend to the dying we are studying our own day to come, our Day of the Dead, and that is what keeps the young, the fearful, the anxious, the freaked out family members from coming to the bedside, laying a hand upon the clammy forehead, the cold papery skin of the soon-to-be-dead.
He arrives several hours into the vigil at this, his fourth death. Not so many, he thinks. Thinking, were this two centuries ago he’d be very good at death — children, grandparents, animals, enemies, neighbors, dying all around you, in the rooms where you slept and ate, shat and drank and there they are. Another body. Death is a stranger or the occasional distant relative who drops by rarely, if with pomp and circumstance, and mottled skin and bad breath, in these, our modern times. We don’t like death, did we ever? But we knew its face better before.
Now, he stares into the dying man’s face, sees the coming rictus. The twitches of pain as they have not calibrated the medication finely enough, to comfort both he and the people in the hospice room. The kids keep their distance — death is quite new to them, quite the terrible unusual uncomfortable thing. But he has three deaths under his belt, has even taken a retreat on death. He considers himself one of those people who arrive who keep their wits about them, who attempt usefulness as death’s black robes swirl around the room. Or are its robes white? Since certainly this man, huddled foetally in his dying bed, is ready for his release and so death has come like a white knight. Yet, he takes his time. Death, I mean. It is not easy getting into this life, even less easy getting out.
Hence, a blue guitar. Since after all, a dying person is still a person, cells still vibrating packets of energy, if fading, fading … And a rhythm in the room, voices in unison, can still communicate into that density of a dying man no matter how far down he is on the long path out of life. Mute, he may be, but looking back over his shoulder at the receding lights of his departing life, he hears a faint melody. And that would be us, singing in his hospice chamber, ‘Amazing Grace,’ and ‘Hallelujah’ and other things that come out of a small blue guitar at such a time.
And the breath is bad from the bed, a gnarled tobacco-brown tooth visible in the laboring mouth, thinking of the handsome blonde-haired soldier so long ago, pushing behind German lines, a hero, a man doing the dangerous work he’d been assigned. Now, here, a blue guitar playing at the end. He shifts in his seat a bit to evade the smell, this fetid breath of death in progress. Yet what can be evaded at the last? For awhile, he lays his hands upon the forehead, cool and dry like sand. The music — is it an illusion? — seems to yield some calm from the twitching. Or maybe the new pain meds are taking hold. We sing on until we stop. Sometime, in the cold wet hours before another day’s dawn, he casts off. Still, at last, like the blue guitar, idle now in its black case upon the floor beside the bed.