The email was sprung on me, an unexpected, unpleasant surprise. It was from my brother. His ex-boss, whom he considered also a friend – good man, devoted to his family, always upbeat and in good spirits – had died in a scuba accident. He had retired 11 weeks ago.
I sat back in my chair, my heart hurting, tears coming.
My reaction surprised me. Yes, the death was tragic. And yes, it was clearly sudden. And yes, my brother had ended his email by saying the news was affecting him more than he thought it would, and he asked for prayers.
But why was I sobbing. Why did I get up from my computer and start wandering through my house, wiping my hands across my face, massaging my forehead with my fingertips?
I heard myself speaking aloud, asking a question: What are we doing? We being Eddie and me. What we are doing being delaying his retirement. What if that happened to him?
I could hear the faint voice of my Buddhist training. We live in the eternal present. The length of time is irrelevant. Every now moment is infinite, boundless. 11 minutes, 11 weeks, 11 years, 11 decades—it makes no difference in the eternal present.
I believe this.
And yet I feel grief-stricken.
What if Eddie’s eternal present never gets to retirement? What if mine doesn’t?
What if I spend my life preparing, lining things up, fulfilling requirements that I made up in my mind and then took to be existentially true?
Ah, this is an old argument. In “Advice to My Son,” poet Peter Meinke says the trick is to live each day as if it is your last and yet plan for the future. Plant flowers—and vegetables. Serve bread with the wine. But, he ends:
“… son, / always serve wine.” (li 22, 23)
Every so often, I must be reminded of the fiction of long life. So I can practice—in Buddhist terminology—as if my hair were on fire.
Serving the wine. And drinking it. And maybe sometimes pouring it on my head. And grieving.
Meinke, Peter. “Advice to My Son.” Literature: The Human Experience. 9th ed. Eds. Peter Abcarian and Marvin Klotz. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins. 2006. 174-75.