I witnessed a death at the Guest House on Saturday morning. It was the second death I’ve seen in my life. This man had lived 94 years and left behind a large, very loving family. I handled his lifeless body as the nursing assistant and I tenderly cleaned and dressed him. It’s astonishing what time and illness does to the human body. His gnarled and withered frame, swollen in some places, emaciated in others, was a real testament to a life lived. In this culture of excessive youth-is-beauty worship, I found his body to be reassuringly honest and real, and a powerful, even beautiful, expression of long life. His limbs were already cold and yet when we rolled him to his side, I could feel the remnants of his body’s warmth on his back. This body warmth was quite literally the last of his life’s energy and it was profound to feel it. I am still relating to my hands in a different way after feeling that.
With his family and other Zen Hospice workers, I participated in the ritual bathing offered there. One by one we gently cleansed his face, hands and feet with small cloths dipped in Yerba Santa tea. His family cried and laughed and told stories about him. Witnessing their love and grief, I found myself having trouble not bawling loudly, feeling my own experiences of love, grief and loss. And I stayed with myself and with them, bowing to this man’s body, and to his family, and to the mystery and mundanity of life and death. All things emerge new and unique, and then fall away never to return. I work to embrace and be at ease with the constant change, the impermanence of life, which this practice of being with those at the end of life so directly imparts.