I have always been afraid of death. It first hit me when I was thirteen. I was on my way to India with my family, and we’d stopped off in Paris, a city my father loves. My sister and I were sharing a room. Usually, I sleep quickly and deeply. But not those nights in Paris. I would lie down to rest and an image would come, part dreamlike, part real: my body drifting in a sea of black, away from the earth, from my mother and father and sister and everyone else I loved, floating away unstoppably, and I was filled with knowing that I would never see the familiar people and places I loved and knew. If I managed to get to sleep, I’d dream of my father, dying in a fiery crash. I would wake up screaming. My sister would go get my parents and they would try to console me. I tried explaining to them how I didn’t want to die, how I didn’t want to be separated from everything I loved about life on earth. It overwhelmed me: that one day I would no longer be a part of the stories that were everything to me.
When we arrived at Meherabad, my father suggested I go talk to Eruch about my fear. I didn’t like the idea of taking up his time and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to explain the feelings that were haunting me. Nonetheless, my father asked Eruch if he would talk to me, and so, one early morning, my father and I got in a rickshaw and bumped our way to Meherazad. I remember arriving at Meherazad before any other pilgrims were there and going to Eruch’s room. We went inside and I sat at the foot of Eruch’s bed while he sat at the head. “What is it?” Eruch asked me. I felt shy and wished I had something important to say. “I’m afraid to die,” I told Eruch. He sat there silently for several minutes with one hand on his chest.
Then he told me the story of his own father’s death. How he drove to the service with Meher Baba by his side, and ran to pay his respects so as not to leave Baba alone for too long in the car. When he returned, Baba faced him and explained that as food is to the body, the body is to the soul. When the body is through digesting the nourishment of the food, it shits out the waste and when it shits out the waste, it says ‘whew, it feels good to be rid of that shit.’ Similarly, when the soul is done digesting the nourishment of the body, it goes, ‘whew.’ The soul drops the body and it feels, ‘I am glad to be rid of that shit.’ The soul feels relief. “Shirley,” he said, a name he had called me since I first visited India at age seven and he had decided, with all my curls, that I looked like Shirley Temple, “I can’t wait to die.”
At the time, I could not fathom why someone would want to die. The story seemed beyond my reach, meant for a soul much closer to the reality of things than I could imagine. But the nightmares never returned.
Now, death still seems unfathomable. Partly, I want to hang on because I’ve got a pretty good deal this time around: I am healthy and comfortable, I’ve known what it is to love and be loved, I’ve visited Meher Baba’s home and get to say His name as many times as I can remember each day. Though all our lives bring us closer to Him, I know there is suffering on that road and I have little faith that the next life or the next will be as blessed as this one.
Lately, this fear has come clear in a deeper way: death is a form of surrender and it is surrendering that I really must face and embrace. When I feel afraid of death, it is partly my desire to hold on to what I think I have. The challenge to let go is not only about dying, it is about how we live. Death forces us to acknowledge how precious the present is, how fragile. That even the things closest to us don’t belong to us at all. When I practice surrendering to how life is moment to moment, when I stop trying to correct my experience or muscle it in another direction by the will of my personality, I become less attached to myself and to being around to see and influence how it all turns out. At the same time, I feel more present, more connected to the dance of the world around me, more grateful. That death accompanies us through life suddenly seems like a reminder to not hold too tightly to who we think we are or how we think life should be.
Surrender is after all one of the instructions we have from Him. Meher Baba says, “If you attend to each daily activity with a spirit of detachment, leaving the results entirely to God, you are really loving Him.” That does not mean the spirit retreats or grows dull. In fact, Baba explains, “For spontaneous surrender, the heart must, so to speak, be worn on one’s sleeve.” So goes the game we are here to play: to put our heart into all we do but to surrender the results of that vulnerability to Him. To be ready for anything but want nothing. To be in love with life and to know it can be gone in an instant.
Just today, I was walking home from work on a tree-lined street erupting with blooms. The wind picked up, shaking the trees’ branches. A storm of white petals showered down on the sidewalk and on all of us busily walking on our way. As the trees shed their blooms, all I could think is, “How beautiful–both the blooming and the letting go.”