When I woke up this morning, a blanket of fog covered everything – a rarity at this time of year in Northern Thailand.
It is fitting. I am sick. My energy is very low and I feel weak. My favorite poet, Mary Oliver, has passed away at the ripe old age of 83. And yesterday, I found out that my friend Brian committed suicide.
He didn’t just leave a note, he left a website. In several chapters, he detailed his decline into mercury poisoning, his year and a half of agony, how doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong, how the mercury spread to his brain, how he gradually deteriorated until he couldn’t function anymore. His life became a nightmare. He could think of nothing else to do but to end it.
I didn’t know him very well. We met in Chiang Mai last year, and he expressed interest in coming to New Life. We exchanged messages a few times about it.
In September, he asked me if I would counsel him. I let him know it is discouraged to counsel friends. He asked if he could talk to me as a friend, then. “Of course,” I said. He said he would contact me when he came back to Chiang Mai after a trip back to the states to “recover from some health issues he was having.” He never came back, and he never called.
Uncannily, on the day of his death, a thought passed through my mind: “I wonder how Brian is doing?”
I didn’t text him to ask.
Thoughts of “I could have done something” have been passing through my mind. Could I have tried harder to convince him to come to New Life? If I had reached out to him in the time since September, would it have made a difference? If he received a message the day he did it, would he have changed his mind?
But some things we have no control or even influence over. He was sick. He was suffering and could see no other way out. He made a website. He had been thinking about this for a while.
You could say it is my job to relieve suffering. I help people shed the layers which are causing them heartache and develop resilience so they can strive towards health. If people develop mindful awareness, if they do the work, if they can rewrite their story, if they can see how they are adding to their suffering, if they can radically accept life in all its messiness, if they can process their trauma in a safe way, if they receive the help and love they need to heal, they can get better.
Sometimes. And sometimes senseless, insurmountable suffering can befall a person. I cannot imagine what it is like to be suffering so much, to feel yourself declining, to live each day in increasing agony, to read and research and try everything you can, only to finally realize that nothing can be done. To be suffering so much that ending it feels like the sanest decision. I cannot imagine the pain his family is feeling. I do not know what it is like to be in that position, but I see it. I can allow it into my heart. I feel it.
In order to do the work I do, and also to be a balanced, grounded human being, I must hold it all in my heart. Hope and heartache. Resilience and sorrow. Perseverance and letting go. We need it all if we are to see the world clearly. We need it all if we are to honor each other’s pain enough to help it heal and to have an understanding that sometimes, for reasons we cannot fully understand, fate has its own agenda.
Nearby, the roosters are pecking the grass for ants. The baby pineapples are slowly making their way to their 24-month maturity. The children in the village are laughing. The sun is scheduled to make an appearance this afternoon. And the birds keep on singing.
I am surrounded, everywhere, by life’s longing for itself and by proof that life continues. If I can find any meaning to this suffering and loss, it is that life and death go hand-in-hand, and losses such as this remind me of the value of life. Here is a poem by Mary Oliver called “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac” about how death gives purpose to life. May this be a reminder for all of us to keep admiring it, weeping over it, and belonging to it wholeheartedly.
In memory of both Brian and Mary.
Why should I have been surprised?
Hunters walk the forest
without a sound.
The hunter, strapped to his rifle,
the fox on his feet of silk,
the serpent on his empire of muscles—
all move in a stillness,
hungry, careful, intent.
entered the forest of my body,
without a sound.
The question is,
what will it be like
after the last day?
Will I float
into the sky
or will I fray
within the earth or a river—
How desperate I would be
if I couldn’t remember
the sun rising, if I couldn’t
remember trees, rivers; if I couldn’t
even remember, beloved,
your beloved name.
I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.
so why not get started immediately.
I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.
And to write music or poems about.
Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.
Late yesterday afternoon, in the heat,
all the fragile blue flowers in bloom
in the shrubs in the yard next door had
tumbled from the shrubs and lay
wrinkled and fading in the grass. But
this morning the shrubs were full of
the blue flowers again. There wasn’t
a single one on the grass.
wondered, did they roll back up to
the branches, that fiercely wanting,
as we all do, just a little more of
Please visit Brian’s website if you want to hear his story. http://www.brianbander.com/