Looking back I wince at the memory of reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead to my dying grandfather. The arrogance of imposing those terrifying descriptions of the final deterioration on the faltering impulses of an old Jewish man born in Odessa and dying in Brooklyn! My brother, having arrived from California expectedly, found me transmitting the eerie incantations through a plastic straw that went directly into his ear. Michael had grabbed the book, looked at the title, and thrown it across the room, screaming, “Are you crazy?”
What I knew even then was that it violated the universe itself—call it God or grace or not—to disturb the dying with discord. Now, twenty years later I am nursing my mother and I want to get it right this time, this wondrous responsibility of bidding the dying farewell.
Yet my brother has arrived again, and is so filled with enthusiasm for euthanasia that he argues in her hospital room as if the bed is empty.
In the corridor I say, “It is not her suffering you want relieved but your own.” And I hear my righteous refusal to muster any sympathy for him. Insistently, he explains, once more, that the comatose victim of stroke cannot hear.
Locked into rivalry as old as the hills, I attribute his motives to nothing but self-interest—and passionately urge postponement, but with far less conviction than I let on. Does my mother now really have the same possibilities for awakening that I have? Or that Michael has? It is the only question. Do not speak to me of finance and other inconveniences. Just to know with certainty that her chances for clarity no longer hinge on a heartbeat. Only this capacity for realization is what separates us from dogs and for no other reason do the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas celebrate each precious human birth. Yet if euthanasia—like all other phenomena—is essentially empty of content, then what intention do I bring to it? And what of the prayers I intend to do day after day? Don’t they count for anything?
Under the glare of the corridor fluorescents, Michael looks shabby, his clothes ill-fitting, his graying moustache in need of a trim. Even his glasses seem to fall away from his face.
“Don’t talk to me of money,” I warn him again, even as I see his body shrunken by sadness.
“Try to explain it to me,” he says, softly. “Your resistance to facilitating, it has something to do with … your Buddhism?”
“Your” Buddhism. Even his language, which makes me cringe, is sincere. And God knows, I never tried to include him in it.
I think of the idiot child and hesitantly begin: “There is a story about Buddha, that one day, he was resting in a shaded grove. A retarded child wandered in from the nearby village. Seeing the shaven-headed monks with their saffron robes, he too wanted to be enlightened. The Buddha saw that he had great heart. Great faith. And sincerity. And so he said to the child: imagine a large square. Then go and stand in each corner of the square. And I will throw you a ball. And if you catch the ball each time, you will be completely enlightened. So the child went to each corner. And the Buddha threw him a ball. And each time, the child caught it.”
When I stopped talking Michael leaned forward, as if to listen even more intently to the absence of words. The he asked, “What happened?”
“The little moron got completely enlightened.” I watched Michael struggle to get it. Finally he said, “Maybe you just don’t want her to die.”
“But we don’t even know the capacities of our own minds, let alone hers. We don’t even know who it is that dies.”
He looked as alarmed as he had been when he found me whispering to my grandfather.
“If you’re afraid of dying and I’m afraid of dying,” I said, “how can we know what is right for her?”
Visiting hours had come to a close. Michael went in to kiss her good-bye. I waited my turn, just like when we were kids and migraines confined her to bed. Before I left her room, I brought the chair back to the wall and turned off the light. Michael would leave for California in the morning. With enough time, he could buy his kids T-shirts again from the airport gift shop. Like he had last month. And maybe next.
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