Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘death’

12.17.2015

In Death, The Examined Life, Wisdom on December 17, 2015 at 7:45 pm

Consider the task at hand: purging…again. We moved to Maine six years ago, and in doing so left a 4500 square foot house and seventeen acres in Maryland, south of the Mason-Dixon. In Maine we gathered no acreage and settled into a condo weighing-in at around 1400 square feet. That was major purging, and it felt good. And now, as we prepare for a nomadic next year, we purge, again. And it feels good again. Come Spring (target date: May 1, 2016) we move into a two hundred (or so) square feet trailer and a truck. But that is not what I want to focus on right now. What I am involved in at this moment is, well, my legacy. You see, I am combing through every item I own, clothing, books, gear, and so forth, and asking: recycle, donate, shred, landfill, or keep? It is this business of “keep” that I want to talk about.

I recycle everything possible. I donate the other stuff, or sell stuff on Craig’s List, and so on. Papers out of date I shred. Leave no trace! But what do I keep, and why do I keep it? That is what I am thinking about. I am thinking about what will be left behind after I die. DIE. Yes, I am thinking about death tonight. Is there any other subject, really?

Consider the box on the floor I filled today. It is a Time Capsule, nothing less. It will go into storage and, probably, sit there for years, then perhaps get moved, unopened, to someplace else, until finally, after I’ve died, one of my children will remark, “Hey, what about that box dad left in storage? What’s in it?” And that, friends, is the state of my mind this evening. Do you ever go there? You will.

I turned sixty years old a couple of months ago and it is just now starting to settle on me. But let’s not get depressed. The fact is, the stuff in this box I’m not purging is good stuff, wonderful stuff. There you will find letters and cards from my children. Years of them! And notes from my bride, who calls me “lovey.” There you will find a few awards and medals from my youth. And pictures of my dogs, our dogs! You know how we love our dogs, Maggie, Lucy-Girl, and the rest.

You’ll also find a box of money. Don’t get excited, not MONEY!, just money. I got into the habit, during all those years of traveling, of bringing home foreign currency and collecting it in a cigar box. There you’ll find my travel resume, as is represented by country and continent. Yuan from China. Sterling from Britain, Pesos from Argentina. Whatever. It is nothing now, nothing but play money for my grandchildren, or perhaps great-grandchildren, the family historians.

I think the most pure existence is to be found in the most simple existence. There is elegance to that, like a beautiful equation, or a line perfectly drawn on rice paper. The alms bowl begging monk has his own challenging complexities: where will I find my next meal? And, conversely, the corporate CEO abruptly wakes one morning to realize that the things she has accumulated, the things she thought she owned, now own her, including the shareholders. Somewhere in the middle one finds the sweet spot.

And where is that, exactly, that sweet middle way? This box I’m filling, the one to be left behind, will it provide a clue? Perhaps, but for me alone. Everyone must find a personal balance, an individual middle way. Nature will bring us to a center, if we allow it, but that release is not easy. Now, I train for it, the middle way, the release–that longing clarity, Camus pined for. I am confident in this journey, a simple pilgrim.

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Don Bruns

In Death, Family, Life, Memoir on May 6, 2014 at 12:42 pm
Dad

Dad

 

My father, about whom I have written extensively here, died last week. He was 92. He died in his bed peacefully. No machines, no tubes, no wires. I was with him and was able to tell him one last time that I was proud of him and that I loved him. He went out like he lived, without drama, understated, quietly.

I wrote this essay about him 23 years ago. The Baltimore Sun picked it up and published it on Father’s Day. Dad and Mom came to our house for lunch that Sunday and I read the essay to him. He had not seen it and sat quietly as I read. It was my Father’s Day gift to him. I reprint it below as tribute to my father.

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My father cannot throw a baseball overhand. He has a bad shoulder. I recollect as a youngster him trying a couple of times, but he threw awkwardly, like a young child. He stood there, looking apologetic and rubbing his shoulder. “It’s been a problem all my life, this shoulder of mine. But I can throw pretty darn fast underhand,” he said. So we played catch a while, he throwing underhand, I on the look out for friends who might see us and tease me.

That was a long time ago. He still throws underhand. I see him with his grandchildren. I am suspicious of the problem of the bad shoulder. He has never otherwise complained of shoulder problems. I think he never learned to throw a ball properly and is too embarrassed to admit it. One is taught to throw a ball. My children are learning now: Plant one foot, elbow high, follow through. It does not come naturally to most mortals.

My father was born in 1922. His was the rugged life of a youngster in Indiana during the Depression. The only picture I ever saw of him as a child was a faded snapshot of him and his two brothers kneeling in a sandbox, all looking typically boyish. He wore a beret, tilted. It must have seemed exotic, a beret, not a cap. They seem to be squinting into the sun and their clothes are ragged.

From  what I know of his youth it did not have much room for ball playing with his dad. Like many of that era his father scraped for odd jobs here and there. He did not much comfort his family, my grandfather, but rather brought home the grief and struggle that was his experience. Once, my father told me, his dad hit him in the face with the back of his hand. It was at the dinner table. I think he told me to convey his own struggle, not only in growing up, but with fathering. Like ball playing, he was never shown properly how it is done.

I sense the struggle in my father not to be like his father. Each generation rejects the former generation in its individual way. He brought to fatherhood his best, a true heart and a deep character.

A man given to working with his hands, Dad was forever building me boxes and cars and toys in his workshop: building new things when properly he had other work to do. One of the first and best memories I have is sitting on the gray concrete slab of his workshop mixing water and sawdust in a cup with a long nail, while he worked away on something or other.

I inherited his engineering ingenuity. That is, I am pretty good at figuring a solution to a problem, but the skills are lacking. I tended to demean them in my youth. It was part of my statement of generational independence. The bookcase he recently built for me, now proudly displayed in my living room, is a monument not only to his ability but to my incredulity. How does one build something like this? When he gave it to me he ran his palm along the edge. I saw his knowledge and intelligence reflected in the grace of his hand over the wood, like a skater across ice. He built three houses in his time, two from the ground up, one essentially alone. How does one build a house? The answer is imponderable to me. He would have taught me his skill if I had let him.

My mother, whenever my father was doing something for me, would fondly advise: “Remember this when you have children.” She was, of course, referring to the devotion with which my father granted his time and skill. I think often of my mother’s statement. I have children of my own, and I am learning to appreciate what was my father’s gift to me: the best he could muster, even if it meant having to pitch underhand, and his time whenever I asked for it. One must be brave to be devoted so heartily to the next generation, and one must be loving and trusting of the future.

                                                                                                Originally Published in the Baltimore Sun, Father’s Dad, June 15, 1991

A Morning Visit

In Death, Family on May 3, 2013 at 6:00 am

I visit my father every morning. Two weeks ago I found him sitting in his desk chair, back to me, upright, but listing. I called, Good morning. I got no response. I approached and looked at his face. His eyes were open, though his lids heavy. He did not respond to my voice. I thought, fighting panic: This is how it should be. Dressed, at his desk, no effort, no struggle. Gone. But he was not gone. I detected his chest moving. I rested my hands on his shoulders. I called to him, softly. Still no response. I stroked his back, the bones now protruding, symbols of only hard things remaining. I activated the sensor he wears around his neck and as I waited I talked to him, telling him it was going to be okay, that I was with him. No response. Help arrived and as the four of us lifted him into his bed his eyes focused and he said, “To what do I owe this attention?” We laughed.

I spent the day with him, at his bedside, and a measure of me hoped that he would be spared further suffering. But as the day wore on, he recovered. I fed him. I read to him. I held his hand.  Late in the day, I left him sleeping. I told the receptionist that I was leaving. She said they would check on him. When I returned a few hours later, he was in his chair, dressed, and trying to figure out his TV remote. We watched a bit of Deadliest Catch together.

The body fails us when we most desire otherwise. And, conversely, it stubbornly marches on when we have perhaps arrived at exhaustion and long for rest. The final act of existence is the release of breath–just as the first act was the gasp for it. There is nothing within our control, but for the thoughts in our head and even those, most precious and of our own design, run wild through the caverns of consciousness.  We carry on together.

Fish and Chips and Beer

In Death, Life, The Examined Life on February 27, 2013 at 6:00 am

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I had fish and chips with a friend a few weeks ago. Fish and chips and beer, that’s what we do. Sadly, he is seriously ill, and I know fish and chips and beer together will end soon. Perhaps it has ceased already and I am yet to acquire that fraught knowledge. Too often things work that way.

He told me the story of a woman who lost her husband to a harbor riptide, a woman who stood helpless and wind-blown and watched as the man was pulled to sea and disappeared. Years later the woman took the linen dress shirts of her dead husband and made handkerchiefs of them and gave them to my friend. I found this a lovely, if dark, image.

My friend asked if I followed him as he told his stories. He likes digression, sharp turns of speech, and grace notes of imagination. Yes, I said, I follow. He rubbed his forehead and said in frustration only three people can follow him. With his illness and pending decline I am intent on following him. When my time comes nothing could be more important than someone might say, He listened.

A Little Recompense.

In Death, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on February 4, 2013 at 6:00 am

The loss of my friend Michael is proving difficult. I observe that I cannot fully discern the undercurrents of emotion in the immediate. The deepest current is revealed slowly, a bit at a time. To paraphrase Tolstoy, we are joyous in the collective, but can only realize sorrow alone.

I am reminded of a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, who upon learning of the death of one of his monk disciples, broke down and wept. His students were shocked, expecting that the Lama would be above such stark emotionalism. He was, after all, living a life of purposeful un-attachment. “But I miss him,” replied the tearful Lama with beautiful simplicity. Perhaps a part of us thinks that others more enlightened, more wise, have learned a fashion of dealing with grief that will guide us. But I don’t think so. We can seek and find comfort, certainly, however ultimately we sit as the Lama sat and can only say, “I miss him.”

The Stoics devised mind games and mental tricks to jog our thoughts out of grief, but acknowledged that, in the main, we are impotent in our efforts to control our emotions. This lack, they held, as well as the human tendency to ignore the present moment, is what thwarts consistent human happiness. A Stoic behaves like the strong man who tenses his stomach muscles and invites a punch. But grief sneaks up and throws a fist before we have a chance of bracing for it. Despite that, I like Seneca‘s approach to dealing with matters out of his control. He was asthmatic, and attacks brought him close to death on several occasions. But he learned to treat each attack philosophically. While gasping for breath, he would release himself into the attack, saying yes to it. He would think himself dying from it, giving himself up to it, almost willing it. And when it receded he enjoyed the strength of winning the battle. He had defeated fear. This, I acknowledge, is little recompense in the face of grief. But it is something.

Likewise, Montaigne, upon losing his dear friend, La Boétie, creatively embraced his grief, declaring that when “a painful notion takes hold of me; I find it quicker to change it than to subdue it.” Thus he spun the dross of grief into threads of gold. It is not an overstatement to say that his great literary contribution, The Essays, resulted directly from the loss of La Boétie. In his great essay, Of Friendship, Montaigne famously writes

If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.

And though history is grateful at the monumental effort that is The Essays, such a creative response did not assuage fully Montaigne’s grief. Indeed, eighteen years later, while traveling abroad, he wrote in his diary, “This same morning, writing to Monsier d’Ossat, I was overcome by such painful thoughts about Monsieur de La Boétie, and I was in this mood so long, without recovering, that it did me much harm.”

The difficulty of my philosophy is that I shall not choose when to be present and when to run. How can one fully realize what human existence holds, if when it deals you a blow, you turn away? When I sat down at breakfast with Michael two weeks ago, the first words out of his mouth were, “I’m leading the examined life!” It was in this fashion he declared himself a member of our tribe. He would, I know, be the first to reprimand me if I turned away.

Foxhole Stoicism

In Death, Family, Life, Philosophy on January 17, 2013 at 6:00 am
Dad (and me in mirror)

Dad (and me in mirror)

My father is ninety years old and has a cold. It is an annual event, his cold. The rest of the year he remains healthy, but for a bit of arthritis and type-two diabetes. My father is stoic, though he could not necessarily tell you what stoicism is. He will tell you, however, that the classroom for this life lesson was a fox hole in the Ardennes Forest in 1943. Why define a concept when your life exemplifies it?

He surprised me yesterday during our visit. “I’m not afraid of death,” he said. “It’s dying that worries me.” My father does not typically talk this way, again the stoicism. But over the recent years he’s said enough to let me know that it is a subject he now entertains. He looked at me keenly.

“It’s been said, dad, that you’re either afraid of death, or your afraid of dying.” I didn’t bother to elaborate on other insights of Julian Barnes. He nodded. “It’s the suffering,” he said, before changing the subject.

__________

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

“The act of dying is one of the acts of life,” said the great Stoic, Marcus Aurelius (121 AD – 180 AD). He also preached the comfort of ignorance that is the void of pre-existence, birth, with the existential ignorance that will be the void of post-existence, death. That is, you didn’t fret over your non-existence before you were born, why would you fret over your non-existence after your demise?

I subscribe to this way of thinking and find a modicum of comfort in it. But I’ve recently discovered that there is a third concern in dying, not summarized in Barnes’s observation, nor taken up by the Stoics. (For the record, on death, I am not Woody Allen. Concerns of my eventual extinction do not color my thoughts all day long. But, like my father, as my days advance, so does my thinking on the subject.)

The American philosopher, Mark Johnston, makes this observation (as related in the book I finished reading last night, Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt): “The prospect of one’s own most [sic] death is perplexing and terrifying because it reveals that we are not, as we supposed, the fountainhead of the reality we inhabit, the center of the world..” Truthfully, who can’t help but fall into this trap, the concept of being at the center of the reality we inhabit? We have no other way in which to experience the world. He then delivers the body-blow: “It turns out that I am not the sort of thing I was unconsciously tempted to think I was.” How deeply we have given into that temptation seems, to me, proportional to the degree of terrifying perplexity death elicits.

“Know thyself,” advised the Oracle at Delphi. I attempt to march to this admonition, but stumble over what this self actually might be. Johnston’s observation underscores my inkling that at the root of this conundrum is the concept of the self–a concept that gets in the way and ultimately trips us up. It is not surprising that Holt closes Why Does the World Exist?, with an observation by a Buddhist monk: “The world is like a dream, an illusion. But in our thinking, we transform its fluidity into something fixed and solid-seeming.” It was the Buddha, lest we forget, who observed the self as a false concept.

Thanks for reading,

d