Learning to Die

Becoming aware of my own intoxication always seems to come to the forefront of my cognition through the same path as a wonderful idea— light-bulb flickers on and, voila, your drunk-self has arrived.  And it usually happens at some point after I have mentally drifted away for a bit and then some random and peculiar thing grabs my attention, like for example, somebody calling my name.  And this is how my story begins.  I was at a party, of which I do not remember the why or how, but I only remember that it became much more grandiose than I expected and while colluding with my friends marijuana and bourbon, I was, as they say, three sheets from the wind.  I was sitting in a burnt orange suede chair, which felt erotically satisfying on my skin, or at least that is what I remember.  It is in that chair I began to space out and daze into the horizon of laughter and conversation.  All the other people at the party were just big blur of human energy that surrounded me with a constant state of volume.

My friend snapped me from my gaze by suddenly calling my name, “Yo! Patrick!”  At that moment the weight of all my decisions came crashing down upon me and I had a realization that was both satisfying and burdensome: Oh fuck, I am really drunk.  I acquiesced and turned my head and gaze towards my friend who was flush with pure excitement, like a child on christmas morning.  I was immediately drawn in by his sincerity, but then that annoying little voice known as reason kicked in and I knew that my friends intentions were most likely quite devious.  He expressed that we must leave immediately, because there was something we needed to do and it’s of the utmost importance that we left now.  After a deep sigh, a slow pan of the room and a realization of how truly loud the party was, I reluctantly melted out of my sensuous chair and followed my friends.  I cocked my head back and looked back to the erotically inviting chair and it gave me a wink and a goodbye: till we meet again friend.

I followed my friends as they weaved through the people at the party with random high fives, hugs and tequila shots — which made me dizzy and a little sick.  We exited through the front door and stepped over people sprawled out on the lawn and finally arrived at the car, in hindsight we should have had the: is anybody sober enough to drive question,   but we hastily glossed over that social script in favor of chasing the white rabbit —  personified as two girls in a VW Jetta.  I sat in the back seat squeezed between two boys who were sweaty, drunk and overtly encroaching on my personal space.  The two boys on either side of me and the one in the front passenger seat all seem to think that the objective of our journey was the ladies in the Jetta, however, the driver, Nick, seemed to be operating on a completely different plane— he was chasing down something much more grand.  We drove for nearly forty minutes and the conversations ranged from deep and philosophical to utterly stupid and barely discernible.

We followed the Jetta into a parking lot near the entrance of a wilderness preserve on the outskirts of town and after we turned off our lights, our entire world became blood red with brake lights— the boys bolted out like contestants on the Price is Right and at a pace that was both weary and cautious Nick and I exited the car.  Nick walked towards the Jetta and the girls both got out and followed him into the darkness of the wilderness.   After about four minutes, which seemed like 20, the girls walked back and got in their car and drove off.  Nick slowly walked back toward us and went to his trunk and pulled out a handful of blankets and a couple gallons of bottled water.  He shut his car door and locked/alarmed the car and gestured at us to follow.

The trio of boys seemed utterly confused and disconnected from reality— I was piqued and just leaned forward as my body floated behind Nick.   We arrived at an open grove that was adequately lit beneath the gloom of a full moon.  Nick laid out the various blankets with delicate attention and then sat down, we followed suit and all sat in a circle.  One of the boys cried out, “Nick! Dude, where’d the ladies go?  What the hell is this?”  Nick responded with simply a finger over his mouth.  He then reached into his coat breast pocket and pulled out a dime bag filled with five pills, he took one out and passed the bag to his right— the bag circled around and we all took a pill.  We all held the pill in our hand like it was a fragile newborn bird and then slowly our gaze was drawn to Nick— we starred intently, awaiting an explanation.  What were we about to do?

Nick was sitting cross-legged with his eyes closed, which was not out of character as he always seemed to have a flair for the dramatic.  He opened his eyes slowly, as if awakening from a deep meditative state.  Somebody asked what kind of pill this is and he responded by saying, “Its the pill that’s gonna change your life.”   We all dropped our gaze back down to the tiny little gelatin encased chemicals and wondered what life changing sat in our hands.  Nick explained, “I cant tell you where this pill is from or what it is made of, but I can tell you that its extremely hard to find and very expensive and you only need to take it once.  This tiny little pill will, in essence, kill you.  However, you will only be dead temporarily and then you will be re-born.  This pill simulates the physiological process of dying and when it wears off, you’ll simulate the process of being born— its known as the Death Pill.   And today, right now, on this blanket in the woods, we are all gonna experiment with dying.  How’s that sound?”  We seemed to all be starring at the pill in our hand as he explained what we were about to do, and it seemed amazing that something so small can do so much.

Nick grabbed the jug of water and with a salute, swallowed his pill and passed the jug to the right— we all mimicked his action without hesitation.  We all looked at each other like we expected that we would suddenly have the urge to grab our own necks as we chocked for breath and died, but nothing like that happened.  Actually, nothing happened.   We sat quietly in anticipation of something, and after twenty minutes of silence Nick finally spoke and asked— what if we were really about to die, what would you be thinking of or what would we be talking about?  We all went around the circle and spent substantial time talking about things we’d miss, or in essence the things in life that make life worth living— our family, favorite foods, significant others, dancing, singing, running, sleeping and many other things.  Our language, after a while, began to slur and our proclivity to speak with honesty and vulnerability increased.  We kept going around the circle talking about things worth living for and the longer the circle went around, the more we realized that the only moment worth living for was the present moment and everything else seemed distant and non-existent— a mere abstracted aberration of reality.   Sometime around this point everything seemed to become an utter blur and I do not remember much, except that the things we spoke about and the ideas we gave value to in our last moments were simple and pure— love, presence and bliss.  

The next moment I remembered was waking up, but it was much different than any regular awakening process.  I felt new and changed.  I had somehow vacated the blankets and was sprawled out in a patch of soft grass.  The sun was abnormally bright and straight overhead— it was midday.  I felt cramped and sore and I was very self-aware of my body and after my eyes slowly adapted to the blinding sun I looked around and saw chirping birds, beautifully towering trees waving in the wind and everything around me seemed to be very clear and vivid.  After a few moments I sat up and looked around and saw my friends scattered throughout the grove — all in blissful states.   My body and mind was driven to go for a walk and so I did.

I walked slowly and allowed myself to be guided by my whims and intuition.  I tried to recollect what had happen last night and in all honesty, I did not remember a thing.  I remembered the pill and I remembered  being dreadfully scared of what was going to happen— I imagined being choked and dying in a painful gasp of asphyxiation, but slowly my fear melted away.  I remember becoming open and indifferent to dying and I remember thinking and discussing the things in life that make life worth living.   And now I am here in the woods and I am swimming in a sea of wonderful scents, sounds and sights— completely surrounded by life and even more so, I am surround by life in the process of death and death in the process of life.  Being overwhelmed in thought I sat down on a rock with a chair-like-shape carved out of it— it was inviting me to sit.  I sat in this chair and thought about death and life and what they mean.  Was dying so bad?  I do not remember it being bad, in fact, I remember it being very releasing and enlightening.   Just like these plants, trees and bugs that flitter around me— dying was not some tragic end but only a continuation of a process I was already in.   All these plants and bugs that sit around me will one day die and then they will become something else — food for other plants and from them new life will spawn.  Death is not an end, but a process.   I suddenly was snapped out of my deep existential thought by Nick calling me, “Yo Patrick- where’d ya go?”  I did not respond back, but I stood up and slowly walked back to the grove and my friends were there and gathering into the car.   I slowly joined them and we all drove off.   Not a word was spoken as we all sat quietly with our eyes gazing out the window.   Nick dropped each of us off at our respective houses and I was dropped off last.

I moved to the front seat as we started to embark towards my home and Nick asked, “How did that go?”   I sat quietly, as I had no idea how to answer his question.  After nearly ten minutes of silence and starring out the window into the horizon everything that is became completely and utterly clear— and, from this moment of clarity I spoke:

My earliest childhood memory has always been the surreal pain of going to my grandmothers funeral, and death has always seemed like some abstract end, some end that I must prevent or work against.  My grandmother was there smiling and telling me the same stories over and over and then, suddenly, she was gone.   Dramatically and abruptly.  But after last night, it seems to me that life and death do not really exist — like, before I saw the idea of life as a straight line with a beginning point and an end point, but now I see it as just a circle and life and death are just arbitrarily placed along the circle and they are of no more significance than any other point.   In fact, the only point that matters is now.  The rate I travel in the circle does not matter, the direction does not matter and all future and past points do not matter— its all the same.   The present position of the circle holds all the value of the world.

Nick looked over at me and smiled and I smiled back.  I then realized we were parked outside my house and I had no idea how long we had been there.  Nick said, “well it sounds like last night was a life changing experience for you, perhaps you should rest today— its been a very intense day”

“That’s a great idea, thank you for all this,”  I exited the car and entered into a lifetime of new perspective.   Nick rolled down the window and spoke the words that resonated with me the rest of my life and became the foundation of my personal philosophy…

Remember Patrick:  there is no life, there is no death, there is no yesterday and there is no tomorrow.  The only thing that is, is Becoming.

Roughly sixty years later….

I am currently laying in a hospital bed at the young age of 82 years old and I know my time is limited.  Not a day has gone by that I have not thought of that night with Nick in the woods and I can honestly say that all the happiness I have experienced is rooted in that night— learning how to die taught me how to live.    Nick, my lifetime friend, died two years ago and the only thing he left me in his will was a large padded envelope with the hand written note that said “To Patrick, open when the time is right.”   I opened the letter while alone in my hospital bed and inside was a piece of the paper, with this written on it:

Dear Patrick,

The death pill was actually just a really strong sleeping pill— sorry for misleading you.  I have included four sleeping pills for you— one for each of your grandchildren and yourself.

I am sure you’ll know what to do.

Your friend,

I read the letter three times and the only thing I could do was laugh— that clever son-of-a-bitch!  After my sudden burst of laughter began to subside, all my grandchildren walked in carrying balloons, cards and melancholy expressions— which they shrouded with fake smiles and forced optimism.   I welcomed them and told them to hop on the bed with me, so I can tell them a story.  And for the first time in my life, I told the story of the day I learned to live.  After the long story I pulled out the bag of pills and poured them into my own hand and I told my three adolescent grandchildren that it was their turn to experiment with dying.   I grabbed a pill and the glass of water beside my bed and took the first one— they, very reluctantly, followed my lead.

We spent the next hour or so sprawled out in my bed laughing, smiling, cracking jokes and learning about life and each other.  They all, one by one, fell asleep and eventually I did too.  And roughly eight hours later, they all, one by one, woke up— I, however, did not awake.   The single greatest moment of my life, happen to be my last.

And like it is and always will be— from life to death to life again, flowers will continue to blossom and everything that is will continue to become and, so goes, the meaning of being.


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