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The cause of death is birth

I’ve been honestly stumped in recent months on what I want to say about the double health whammy in my present life. Cancer showed up last winter, then I embarked on a long, dreary battle with chemo, through which I was mostly able to keep my chin up. But when the Covid-19 pandemic overtook us all like a global tsunami this spring, my spirits sagged. I’ve been on a psychic see-saw ever since.

On emotional and practical levels, Covid merely amplified cancer for me. Just one more health scare to try to stay calm about. Just more reason not to go anywhere or live a thriving life. Just one more hoop to jump through to get to the clinic. (Let’s not even talk about the West Seattle Bridge, suddenly in imminent danger of collapse and closed just as Covid hit us.)

This epic coronavirus will, I hope, be relegated to the back burners of the world’s health consciousness once a vaccine is widely available, though without doubt the economic fallout will reverberate for years. We’re all pinning our hopes for normalcy on the hope that everyone, everywhere, will be able to get immunized, relatively soon. I’m trying not to think about the long political fight that I expect over ballooning government spending and the unintended economic consequences we’re not yet imagining. And I’m hoping—optimist that I am—that our governments have learned their lesson and will be ready for the next killer virus. Then we can go back to polluting our planet and fighting over who gets what. I did say I’m an optimistic realist, didn’t I?

But at this moment, I’m still wiping cancer out of my system, although the cure is more like blunt force trauma sometimes.

What I haven’t given much thought to is dying. People, especially those of us in the west, try to avoid the subject of death. I’ve avidly avoided it myself, even as I’ve grown older, focusing on my good health and vitality, deciding I have lots of time later to think about dying. Or thinking it’s all an intellectual exercise; I could be hit by a bus and BAM—nothing to think about! More recently, I’m just keeping my eye on the specific threats that can more immediately hurt me.

But why do we have this great thirst to live, anyway? Parents tell us that smoking is dangerous; junk food is dangerous; drinking and driving is dangerous. But Buddhism says, just being born is dangerous.

Buddha said, “We begin to die from the moment we are born, for birth is the cause of death. The nature of decay is inherent in youth, the nature of sickness is inherent in health, in the midst of life we are verily in death.”

The nature of sickness is inherent in health. Meaning, sickness and health are complementary and reciprocal? Two sides of the same coin? Two ends of the same continuum? Or, interdependent states of being?

But if I understand death, I will no longer exist. Even if I have a soul that lives on in some way, the 'me' of myself ceases to be. Death isn’t a state of being at all. Death is a state of not being.

Even as I’ve battled armies of abnormal cells, dividing uncontrollably to take over and destroy my normal tissue—even then, I think of myself (delude myself) as mostly healthy. My energy for life has been fairly steady, considering the chemical assault, the sharpened knives, the radioactive raygun: all the weapons in the onco-arsenal. To make me healthy, they try not to kill me while trying to kill what's inside me.

Yet, it went without saying after my diagnosis that, even not knowing how I’d tolerate cancer treatment, not knowing the unintended consequences, I’d undertake it. Don’t most of us naturally gravitate toward life, unless, or until, something out of our control intervenes?

I’m asking a lot of questions here, without necessarily trying to answer them. I think the answers may be all but unknowable. On the rare occasions I do ponder death, what it means to die, this is about as far as I get: I was born, and therefore I’ll die. But in between, I have many reasons to live, and no reason not to fight for them. Not yet anyway.

Words to live by.

© 2020 Susan Cummings. All rights reserved. Originally published on [How to grow, while growing older]

Image by Benjamin Balazs from Pixabay. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


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