Part I: Moving On
“Hope is the feeling that the feeling you have isn't permanent.”
- Jean Kerr
If it’s true what Proust said about suffering, that we are healed of it “by only expressing it to the full,” then I’m well on my way to being healed through writing and sharing this account of my son’s bout with cancer. And I think the same can be said for gratitude: That we are only truly grateful, and can reap the benefits of it, when the depth and breadth of it is fully and openly expressed. In other words, it is found in the telling.
This is a partial account of the lessons we learned as we were transformed by his illness and recovery, how we reacted to a multitude of catastrophic crises, some of the things the ordeal revealed about each of us, and how we’re still recovering. It’s the telling of what it was like when a tornado had our house in the air spinning wildly, the blow to the head our boy took, the events lived as we traveled the Yellow Brick Road in our surreal personal “Oz” and finally, what we had to do before we could click our heels and go home again. It’s about a boy with more resilience, heart and courage than anyone I’ve ever met looking for his brain and helping those who knew him – and some who didn’t – find their hearts and courage. And, even more importantly, it’s about the fact that sharing it might actually be of service to someone else. I know that might sound arrogant, but I’m a teacher – and a father who was helped by friends and strangers to save his child – so that’s how I think: If I can’t possibly provide an object lesson that might be of service, what’s the point?
Lily Tomlin said, "Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” And I believe that. Yet how do we forgive cells that exist in all of us that decide to grow uncontrollably, arbitrarily, in our child to become cancer, a cancer rare enough to only strike two in a million people? How do we even begin to comprehend cancer’s choice to select my son, let alone forgive it? I’ve spent hours in meditation listening for the voice of forgiveness, and the only way I’ve heard healing will come is to surrender to “gratitude.” However, until I’m struck with permanent unconditional gratitude, which isn’t likely to happen, I have to be content moving in and out of it, knowing I’m fated to be utterly powerless over its many forms and its impermanence.
Like everyone whose life has been shattered by a cancer diagnosis, Seamus’ illness happened the way tornadoes strike before there was Doppler radar to detect them: Skies got dark, gusty wind, lots of dust, deafening sound like a train bearing down, just enough time to say, "What the fuck?” then BAM! Your house is razed and nothing will ever be the same.
It went like this: Seamus would have some recurrent headaches; he would grab the back of his head sometimes when he laughed, which was often. He’d had a slight neck injury from doing a headstand some weeks or months before - it’s foggy now - and we thought it was related. We took him in, his doctor said, “Kids get headaches.” I even took him to an osteopath for his neck, I remember now. His gate changed: He started walking more on his toes, heels up. His coordination on the baseball field decreased, he missed grounders he used to never miss, his throwing and batting stance changed, he would trip now and again when taking off from first base. He lost all interest in his tap dancing lessons. He loved to dance, he was a gifted and intuitive, had an unerring sense of rhythm and improvisational inventiveness. That’s gone now. In fact, he dreads dancing, can’t control his balance and rhythm. Though I vividly remember the first time he skipped down the sidewalk, about a year after his chemo had ended. He was ecstatic. Seeing him moving like that again, with such freedom and joy, was more amazing to me than anything Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly or Twyla Tharp ever did, more miraculous even than his first steps as a baby.
Looking back, of course, it was clear what was happening: His motor skills were being affected by the tumor. Now it seems idiotic that we thought he was - I don’t know what… changing with puberty? A child's body changes in response to itself in motion as it grows and the center of balance shifts? No one thinks, "Hmm, he's getting kind of clumsy. Must be a brain tumor.” One Sunday after his last baseball game of the season, we went for pizza. He told us he had trouble seeing the parking meter when Riad was putting quarters in it. He vomited the next morning, Riad called the ophthalmologist and the neurologist. Eye doctor saw pressure on his optic nerve, neurologist examined him that same day, checked his gait and sent us to get scanned, they saw a mass, scheduled an MRI, followed the next day by 9 hours of brain surgery. Four days from vision problem to surgery.
There are events in life about which this cannot be disputed: You are reborn by them. It’s more than just a shift in perspective or a re-framing of your existence. You die and are born again. You go through it, old ideas pass away, and new ones take their place. It’s more than merely epiphanous, nothing around you is the same, the whole world is new to you because of it. And yet, not really because of the event, but rather as a result of the questions raised about ourselves as it unfolds – things we may never really know intellectually, but what we were dealt somatically, physically, on a cellular level, that remain with us – those offerings that become us, comprise us, reconfigure and rewire us. And by experiencing it that deeply, we learn what we now need to be, what we’re now required to be, intuitively. To try to unravel or analyze that mystery, reveal those secrets that we are gifted with by talking or writing about them, is precious time wasted. I’m not talking about something spiritual here, that is something else for someone else to testify to and speculate on. This is tangible. So much so that even when we look back on it we ask each other and ourselves, “Who were those people who did that?” And you hear no answer because they’re gone, they’ve moved on.
Part II: Walking the Walk
"Courage is falling to the feet of the unknown willingly."
- Seamus, during his second year of chemotherapy.
It’s 300 steps, give or take, from the main entrance of Children’s Hospital L.A. to Seamus’ room on the 6th floor rehab unit. I can only approximate because I tried to count them a few times but have never finished. Counting one's steps and breathing in rhythm with them is a powerful meditation. It can focus thoughts away from distraction and bring peace, both of which I crave.
I’m not distracted by what I think – and lately I’ve been telling myself and living through to the end of some dark and frightening stories - but rather I'm distracted by what I see. Depending on what day it is, different outpatient kids are wheeled in and out by their parents for treatment or rehabilitation. Kids of all ages, sizes and severities of disease or congenital disorders are entering or leaving as I pass through the hallways on the way to my son. By the time I reach the elevator to go up to his floor, I’m exhausted often to the point of tears. By the time I pass several rooms on the way to ours – a boy of about 7 all alone, never anyone with him but nurses, one with a little girl of 5 who flew in from Hawaii, another medulloblastoma patient with a much more severe case of posterior fossa syndrome than Seamus has, her surgery was a week before his and she has yet to say a word, another boy who had brain surgery more recently for a cerebellar tumor and his case is so severe he can’t swallow – another who had a third of his brain removed because of seizures which ended up coming back and necessitated removal of even more of his brain - I’m grateful my boy is in the shape he’s in.
Any walk that ends in that kind of gratitude, on this kind of path, is a good walk no matter how many steps you take or tears you shed.
Night before last I dreamed that Seamus was floating down a stream in his hospital bed. A dolphin swam next to him, as if to guide his way and keep him safe. A mermaid swam behind the bed, holding the guide rails, steering him away from Riad and me, who stood watching from the doorway of an operating room. As they turned the corner, he was smiling, we saw him in profile, on his way to having dolphin dreams - or so he was promised by the anesthesiologist. She had been the dolphin swimming next to his bed and as she became a woman again, she reached down and pulled another smaller dolphin out of his bed. It was stuffed and wrapped with the purple Mala beads made for him by Jacqueline at the Center for Yoga and prayed over and blessed by many friends, students and fellow teachers. The doctor held it aloft and made it swim and dive alongside him as they took him to the OR to insert a semi-permanent IV port into his chest.
It was midnight. I woke him up to put his shoes on. He sat up and looked at me like I was a stranger. Or like he was a stranger and he’d always known me, I’m not sure. Either way, it was a strangely familiar moment for both of us. His eyes were swollen and red, half open, his bald head starting to show stubble. Eyebrows, growing back, were furrowed as though trying to place me. But I could place him: he was my father. I was staring into the face of my father. I’m taking care of him now, long after he’s gone, and he’s come back as an 10 year old boy going through chemotherapy.
My son missed 10 the way my father missed raising 4 of his 6 children due to his alcoholism. Seamus missed 10 and the fun of 5th grade like I missed most of my adolescence and 20’s due to my alcoholism. The task I’ve set for myself is to give him 10 back as easily as I was able to regain my self-respect and productivity and pursue my dreams in my 34 years of sobriety with every moment we have together.
In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous it says, “We are like men who have lost our legs, we never grow new ones.” I believe it’s the only thing they would amend, if they could, in the entire brilliantly crafted, life-saving guidebook. Because while I, too, lost my legs through the ravages of my disease, a disease I embraced and cultivated - even for a time, celebrated - I have grown new legs in my years of sobriety; more than twice as many years now as the length I drank and used drugs starting at 13. My new legs belong to a boy who missed his 10th year because of his disease, one he never did anything to deserve or cultivate or perfect or inflict on others. A disease whose cause cannot be attributed to anything but an insane DNA and that only strikes children. And I’ve watched him grow new legs, too. And a new voice, able to speak with newly discovered vocabulary about things no child should ever have to know anything about.
He sat there, wobbling half-asleep, searching for my face as me as I put his shoes on. We’re getting ready to go home after spending nearly 16 hours in Cedars Sinai Cancer Center for round 5 of 9 chemo treatments. We’re going home from the hospital, again, to watch something like a curtain being drawn across the spirit of our bright and shining boy. He won’t walk quite as well as he did yesterday, won’t be as quick-witted or as steady as he was getting to be. The shine will come off a little and the newly forming stubble will soon be gone. I’ll watch him even more closely than I usually do – which is close enough, even as inconspicuously as I try to do it, to elicit a “what?” from him as he reaches for a book on the table and starts to walk across the room.
“Nothing. I just love you with all my heart and soul.”
He smiles and continues on his way to sit and read. “I love you with my heart and soul, too.”
Everything I do and say when we’re together, with the exception of some conversations Riad and I have about “life” in the car as we all drive somewhere because that’s the only time I “forget” he’s with us (though I never ever really ever do) is for his benefit. Everything I say when he’s around is for the express purpose of drawing a laugh from him. He’s my best audience, yes, but I really only want him to laugh his way back to 11 from wherever, and whatever age, he is. We’re his guides.
At least that’s what I’m telling myself as I allow him to guide me.
Walking down the hallway of the Cedars Infusion Center, holding Seamus’ hand – he’s still walking like a drunken sailor trying to act sober – about to check in for a night long stay, when I hear:
And I look down to see him smiling the way he did when he was floating above us in speech therapy at Children’s Hospital, marveling at the way he couldn’t say the word, “home.” (More on that later) He was grinning the way he does when he’s about to toss a joke like a pipe bomb.
“I sure hope my son doesn’t have this because I don’t want to come here again.”
Direct hit. Shrapnel everywhere. Who’s the father, who’s the son?
I have to pass him off to Riad while I find a restroom. I try to avoid letting him see me cry, especially after one of his jokes.
He’s so in touch on so many levels with so many things we are not, even in the midst of hating his life at this point in it. When Krishnamurti said, “The observer is the observed,” he was talking about Seamus. The chemo brain fog should take care of that in about 6 hours.
One day Seamus asked if his “social ability had been damaged” by his surgery. Even without having had brain cancer, can an 11 year old with a damaged social ability be self-aware enough or care enough to ask that if it had been damaged?
It took this event to average him out. Like the Gods, all of them combined because it was such a monumental task, said, “He’s too perfect, let’s knock him down a notch or two.” And so they gave him a malignant brain tumor. As I predicted when we first heard the news he had a brain tumor, Seamus is here to help us reframe our existence, and not just in the context of cancer and how to face it. Mostly I think, in terms of perspective; what's important and what isn't. And what qualifies as a "problem" or "crisis" and how to face it. Since this happened, Riad and I always check in with each other when faced with something we perceive as being an obstacle or a problem, reminding each other that, “It’s not brain cancer.”
Part III: Movement Regained
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
In 2013, four years after his surgery, my family and I were in Monterey where we were spending the summer so Seamus could attend the Teen Conservation Leader Program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We were introduced to them while he was on chemo when, as his Make-A-Wish request, they made him a Marine Biologist for a week. He’d initially asked to be able to spend time with dolphins, his favorite animal, or to be “a marine biologist for a day,” but Make-A-Wish took it several notches higher and arranged for him to spend a week with the aquarium and their research institute, MBARI, as their special guest.
This particular day Riad and I were watching Seamus train with a physical therapist we’d found there. They were going through his regimen of exercises designed to coordinate and alternate the two hemispheres of the brain - and weight training to stimulate his nervous system and growth hormones. A young man we’d never met was watching along with us, and commented on what, he called, Seamus’ “vibe.”
“It’s very unique. He’s got such a great energy, an upbeat disposition when he’s working out, a really positive force. He’s just… glowing, he’s… He’s grinning like he really enjoys it!”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s his default response to being challenged. Like he’s outside his body, observing his participation and cool with it.” I’d seen this before under the direst circumstances imaginable.
When we were living at Children's Hospital Los Angeles immediately after his surgery, Seamus underwent intensive speech therapy to learn to form words and speak again. One day his speech therapist was trying to get him to say the word “home.” He was having particular trouble forming his mouth to make the “oh” sound, and no matter how hard he tried, even with the help of a mirror the therapist held up for him to see what his mouth was – or in this case, wasn’t – doing, it just wasn’t happening. At peak frustration, he looked at me and grinned, then broke into a giggle. I knew exactly what he was thinking: “Can you believe it? I can’t say HOME! How bizarre is this? That’s the place where I wish I was!” He’d left his body and was floating above us, watching himself unable to speak, and found it absurdly funny. Then, as now, I was in awe of him. While he wasn’t exactly cool with what was happening – or in this case, not happening – he was cool about it. And this is a kid who has never once given a thought to being cool. Which, the coolest of us know, makes him even cooler.
Back in the gym at Monterey, we watched him in silence as he continued his workout. He carried a 30 lb. kettle bell in each hand – at that time, over two-thirds of his bodyweight - the length of the gym, set them down and did a set of push ups, a set of dips and then a set of inverted rows, hanging from a ring. The slight smile seldom left his face. I knew he was out of his body, watching himself.
“There’s something about him that’s… I don’t know. He’s…” this stranger seemed either to give up trying to explain it, or was just unable to find words to describe what he felt about the energy of this boy he’d never met. As my friend and mentor, Ganga White, whose nickname for Seamus is Sea Muse because of his love for All-Things-Oceanic says, “The boy has some serious juju.”
Before I could stop myself, and without even thinking, I rose as though an invisible hand pulled me off the floor where I was sitting and walked over to him. “He’s got kind of an amazing story…” I started. Sure, I think so. Someone else might not. It doesn't matter, I launched into it. I can distill his journey down to about 100 words, from diagnosis of his brain tumor to any given moment, with codicils as needed for context, of course:
“In 2009, he was diagnosed with Medulloblastoma, a fast-growing, malignant brain tumor, just after his 10th birthday. It’s rare, only about 2 in a million people get it, yet it’s one of the most common pediatric brain tumors. The day after he was diagnosed, he underwent nine hours of surgery to remove the tumor, six weeks of radiation to his brain and spine and nearly two years of chemotherapy, all while regaining his ability to walk, talk and use his right hand, which he lost as a result of the surgery.”
There you go, 91 words. When I finished, I looked back out at Seamus doing push ups, and almost shouted, “And now look at him! He’s a fucking miracle!” But I stopped myself. I’m sure that’s one of the ways my PTSD manifests, my particular form of “gratitude psychosis.” It took me awhile to come to that.
“Wow,” was all he could muster, before looking back out to see Seamus starting his lunge squats across the floor. Anyone who has kids enjoys bragging about them. Whatever it is; sports, grades, manners, talent or accomplishments of any shape or kind. This is a widely known fact. But I’d never viewed that trait as a survival tactic. What I realized at that moment, though I had a sneaking suspicion already, is that I passionately enjoy bringing voice to how Seamus faced his cancer, treatment and recovery. It’s the only time, besides just being with him, that I feel there is any Magic to life or that I’m part of it. It keeps my head above the murky, churning water I find myself treading with cement boots since it happened and it purifies it, turns it sweet and crystal clear. It stops the rain, parts the clouds and brings the sun. My chains fall away, buzzards stop feeding on my liver, and it drowns the demonic screams of fear I hear in the dark, the ones that wake me at 3am and keep me awake until midnight or later. Telling Seamus’ story makes me forget myself and serve the person I’m with, whoever it is. I get such relief from being able to tell his story that I often invent opportunities to do it: I use it as an object lesson about what yoga is and can be and as a way to contextualize a practice when I teach; I sing songs about it, I use it as a benchmark for recovery and growth when I speak to those who are healing or struggling to overcome addiction or difficulty, or when I need to see someone else smile so I can smile back. Or when I simply need to be reminded that everything is OK so I can be reborn. I don’t even need a reason! It’s my yoga practice off the mat and sometimes even on the mat. Nothing I’ve ever experienced gives me more hope and inspiration. And nothing else matters: Not money, career, possessions or prestige, and certainly not what I see staring back at me in the mirror. In fact, I am the reflection of it, though it has nothing to do with me – I’m just a privileged witness, beneficiary and collaborator – and if one event in my life defines me and is both my engine and its fuel, this is it. Like all who’ve seen their children or loved ones injured, faced their loss, been traumatized by their illness, inspired and irreparably altered by adversity and triumphed over it or have been chosen to experience what some know as miracles, I’ve decided this one incident and its aftermath represents my life, to inspire me and give me, when I need it, a seismic shift in my perspective. It makes me more than I can be on my own, shows me that without unconditional love and service I don’t exist, and paints a portrait for me - of me - and of what I might possibly be capable of if, and when, I’m challenged similarly.
And just as he was fated to get the tumor, I know I’m fated to constantly relive it on a loop. I have accepted that it is the basis upon which I judge all things. I hope that means I’m closer to full acceptance, if such a thing exists. But probably not. It doesn’t matter. Like I said, it’s my yoga: My union of opposites.
In trying to figure out how to structure this account of our journey, it’s as if I’ve been trying to re-imagine an unimaginable dream in present time after having lived through it in my past. Some would say that’s exactly what a memoir is; but I feel as though I’ve been tasked with remaking a horror film that has already been scripted, cast, shot and released. Unless one is a glutton for punishment why would one subject oneself to that? Come to think of it, I’m an actor by trade, so there goes that theory: Being a glutton for punishment is in the job description.
One day, about two years after Seamus’ surgery, I was talking to my friend and teacher, yogi-poet Tracey Rich, about it and how I was navigating, sometimes drowning in, the marrow-deep nightmare-driven memory ocean of it, and I told her half-jokingly, “I think I have about 8 of the 10 symptoms of clinical depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. On good days even 9.” “Well, that may be true. Something is keeping you from seeing what a miracle your boy is.”
It was one of those things only the most true, most honest and most trusted friends are able to say to shake you awake from the recurrent bad dream that keeps you from healing. She gave me a mini-intervention. And she was right to do so. She saw what I needed and served it up. Something was stopping me from being fully grateful he’d survived it and we were finally moving on with our lives with some sense of glorious peace of mind and normalcy. I was still clinging to the past, the life we had before the cancer, the hit we took. I was still harboring resentment against everything I used to believe in: What some call “God” – or the cancer itself – for doing this to my boy or allowing it to be done. I wasn’t a victim of my son’s cancer, my wife certainly wasn’t. And as he’s shown us with grace, strength, humor and courage, he wasn’t either. Being victimized by cancer wasn’t what I focused on while we were in the middle of it either –not entirely anyway. I’ve never been more present, alive and burning with purpose and intention, even inspired by it.
Looking back, I also see that since we were lost, afraid and alone and knew we could not let Seamus know that’s how we felt, perhaps it would help me to let someone else know. And it will continue to help, I have no doubt, as we move on.
During our post-op stay in Cedars Sinai Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, where we lived for two weeks post-op, the first thing Riad did was hang a brown paper bag on the doorknob of our room on which was written: LEAVE YOUR FEARS HERE BEFORE ENTERING. She wanted to protect Seamus from our fears being projected onto him. We couldn’t protect him from the thing that might kill him, so we wanted to be able to control the message about it, our perception of it. That included the language used to discuss it, by doctors, nurses, everyone. That’s even beyond age-appropriate language, which, thankfully his school at the time, The Willows Community School, was so thoughtful about when talking about it to his 10 year-old classmates. Sometimes we were successful, sometimes not, but we always did our best to shield Seamus from them. Not that he would have noticed immediately post-op, really, what with steroids for the swelling, morphine for the pain, Tylenol, Motrin, antibiotics, Dilaudid, and Benedril for the itching caused by the Dilaudid. A case of beer, lid of weed, and some Jack Daniels and it sounds like what I used to consider a damn good Saturday night. One of the first few days after the surgery I walked our friend Mary Louise to the elevator after one of her visits. She and mutual friends Currie and his wife, Larissa, would sneak sushi and dessert into PICU for us when Seamus was immediately post-op and we were still in shock. Riad would leave his side for a second to say hello and thank you but usually sat by the boy’s bedside. The PICU nurses were beautifully lenient to allow it and we shared our sushi and cupcakes with them. Mary Louise gave Riad a set of mala beads blessed by the Dali Lama to keep as long as she needed them. They kept us distracted and feeling loved and that was enough, it always is. So as I said good-bye to Mary Louise, I hugged her and thanked her for being there with us. I told her she had no idea how much it helped. She seemed somewhat taken aback and replied, with about as much intensity as I’ve ever seen -
“You don’t understand; I have to do this.”
That simple yet heartfelt response taught me almost everything there is to know about why people do what they do to help each other in a crisis. Nothing more need be said to explain it. You either get it or you don’t. And, as I found out while our ordeal played out in the coming months, it served as a preview of what was to come from so many who helped us.
Seven years out from Seamus’ surgery and treatment, I’m finally able to see why finding other survivors and their families with the same diagnosis – so necessary to us then and now - is so difficult. While Medulloblastoma is the most common form of pediatric brain tumor, it is also the rarest, and even with the resources available now to find almost anybody anywhere, it’s very difficult to find survivors and their families to network and compare notes. The straightforwardness of it, like things most simple and true, eluded me:
They move on. Somehow they’re able to do that.
Part IV: Moving Still
"Everything changes once we identify with being the witness to the story, instead of the actor in it."
― Ram Dass
That’s the condensed brain cancer part of our story. This “afterward,” should be about how Seamus is doing now, 7 years out from his surgery. That’s the most important part. He’s graduating from high school this year, an Honors student in English, Spanish and History, with a 3.9 grade average, applying to colleges, wants to major in Creative Writing, study abroad in Cuba, where his Grandmother’s parents were from, and be a poet. And he will be. He can do anything. He’s fearless. Unstoppable. As Ganga said, “The boy has some serious juju.”
Seamus recently shared his story publicly for the first time. He was asked by a friend to be the keynote speaker at her Temple’s Shabbat Service. He wrote a ten-minute monologue about what happened, what it was like, and what it’s like now. The response encouraged him to write more, he even floated the idea of doing a Ted Talk about it someday. And I’m sure he will. Like others with Serious Juju before him, he’s going to wake people up by being woke.
I keep going back to why I needed to write this. I think the main reason is so something will be there for families like ours, and those who know them. We need to be there for each other. Until this happened to us, I wasn’t aware of how much. We need to teach our children to take care of themselves so they’re able to pick themselves up when they fall, yes, but we must also teach them how to pick their friends up if they fall – even people they don’t know, and what that will mean to the world and how it will change it. Or maybe I wrote it because I just want to express how grateful I am for being reborn. And that’s a good enough reason in itself.
It should be clear by now that I think of my boy as a Rinposeamus, an alien Shaman, a Bodhisattva, a silent film comedian who tap-danced off the screen and into our lives to sing to us in his beautiful child-soprano voice of what life should be like, of things we don’t know about the miracle of perspective and recognizing what is most important. So he can best tell you how he’s doing in his own words, and he will. I believe it’s why he was sent here and why he was allowed to be reborn.
My father wasn’t a font of wisdom, he was a simple man, not very worldly, an accountant who grew up during the depression, fathered six children, battled alcoholism, and had a fatal heart attack at 65, the year he planned to retire. He’d been sober for 21 years when he died. The only real piece of advice I remember him giving me was, “There’s just no telling, son.” Simple but true.
My dad was more of a Zen practitioner than I give him credit for. He was right, even though in the context of his life it was probably meant as justification for not knowing what to tell or how to tell it. That’s the harshest truth of all, that there’s no telling. And most freeing, I suppose, once we get it. Then again, there are those of us who know we have to try. We must try to tell, we have to insist there is telling. The telling – acting on that contradiction - will set us free. Especially when that freedom comes with the guarantee – if we allow it - of being able to listen closer, hold each other tighter, and be more grateful.
When we were in the hospital, we searched for something like this to read. Then again, in many ways we didn’t need it. As you now know, we had all the support anyone could hope for, and we stepped up, even though we now wonder who those people were. But in other ways – though we have found young adults who had it and are now in college and even older, living healthy, productive lives - we’re still looking and always will be, I expect. But then, I suppose all of us, no matter what we’ve been through, seek some kind of guarantee of a long, comfortable life, regardless of whether we’ve suffered a specific trauma or not. We’re all looking for even a sliver of hope, a reprieve from the feeling there is none.
Don’t misunderstand me, I still think trying to unravel or analyze that mystery, finding a way to unlock and reveal those secrets we are gifted with, is valuable living time wasted. Breathe, watch the light and shadows play when you walk, try to restore what you disturb. Eventually you’ll arrive. And when you do, share your journey with someone. As they say, “Keep it simple, stupid.”
Some would say simply showing up – like prayer - is overrated; that it’s the action we take after we get there that makes the difference. Those are the same ones who think smiling at a stranger, focusing on our breath, noticing how shadows fall across the floor, how sunlight through clouds changes the shapes of mountains, listening with every cell of our body, mind, heart and soul, or simply being aware of how much space there is between you and the person dancing next to you are overrated. By the same token, how will we be shown what we must do with our preparation – with the kindness rendered us - unless we arrive for others in return? And when we do, let’s greet those we’ve shown up for with willingness to see and listen to them with the part of our hearts we reserve for the things we treasure most. We both deserve no less than that. It’s the basic acknowledgement of what we’re put on this earth for, what every great philosophy and faith embodies at its core: being available for others, treating them as we would be treated, loving them as we love ourselves. I hope we try to move closer to it in everything we do. There is a voice that tells us, “No, keep your distance. Out of respect for privacy, maintain a distance” from those in peril, close to death, or threatened by illness. Or we mistake helping them with letting them fend for themselves to teach them be self-sufficient. I’m here to tell you, unequivocally, that is harmful in every way and never accomplished anything. It’s never been proven to work and is only an excuse for detachment and justification for inaction.
We’ll never find out how close we’re required to be unless we take the step to get closer. The voice will also tell us to be afraid of someone else’s illness or misfortune or grief, as if it may negatively affect our well-being. Conquering that fear, like telling, will set us free. As my friend Michael told me one day in the hallway of the hospital, when the walls were closing in on me, when I was being consumed by fear of the unknown, “Not knowing is the only way to be truly intimate with something.” And he’s right, there must be humility first before intimacy. It’s another way of saying, as my Zen Master father so wisely said, “There’s just no telling.” We cannot own this journey, it's ours only to learn from and be intimate with, and we certainly can’t control the outcome. It will bring us what it brings and we will be fulfilled if we're present to receive it. So what's there to fear? That is an irrefutable truth. I know this because those fearless ones saved my family and me. They gave us courage. And they surround us all ready to save us, no matter where we live or how many friends we have. When prayers are heard, it is they who hear and answer them.
Often, those in need will not, in their darkest hour, know what to ask for or how to ask for it. They must be shown. They must be told, “Here, this is the love you need, the care you need.” That is our job in the brief time we have here. We’ll become better people by doing it. And isn’t that the ultimate reward of a life well lived?
But first we must show up for it.
And leave our fears at the door before entering.