Friday, October 29, 2010

On Death


It was Memorial Day 1998, and I had scheduled to conduct a wild food outing at Pasadena’s Hahamongna Watershed Park. Since it was Memorial Day, my topic for a short discussion at the end of the outing was “death.” Hahamongna Park -- formerly called Oak Grove Park -- is the site of one of the Gabrielino Indian villages along the Arroyo Seco.

It was a cool and overcast day as participants for the wild food outing gathered in the parking area of the park. Among the half-dozen participants who showed up for the outing was Martin Kruse, a bearded, burly bear of a man who looked like he’d be more at home in the 19th century. He introduced himself and told me that he’d long wanted to meet me, that we both wrote for many of the same publications and had many friends in common, such as Ron Hood. Martin and I chatted as the other outing participants listened, and he told me about his work with archery and primitive bow-making.

I was struggling with almost-a-cold and with a stiff back, and so I felt almost not there. I wanted to just keep walking and to breathe deeply of the fresh air of the overcast day, but we walked slowly as everyone asked me countless questions about wild flowers, weeds, flowers, mushrooms, ground squirrels, and poisonous plants.

When we encountered poison hemlock, one woman seemed particularly interested. It turned out her interest was more than academic. Before her father died a few years earlier, the medical establishment managed to keep his body painfully alive for a few weeks beyond when he normally would have died. She said she wished she had known of a way to bring about a quick and painless death. I made no value judgement on her commentary, only saying that I regard each moment of life as sweet, and that death comes all too quickly for most of us. I explained that I was wholly against the idea of suicide, that I wanted to find ways to live longer, not shorter. Then we talked about other things.

We walked down in the flat area of the large expanse of the park, where the wet mud had hardened, capturing countless animal tracks. Martin told us how to differentiate between coyote and dog tracks. He identified crow and other birds, showed us how to recognize the tracks of squirrel and rabbit. He’d obviously done a lot of tracking during his time hunting with a bow.

I later learned from Martin’s father that this was a favorite place of Martin’s when he was much younger. He’d come here and spend a week or two and study nature and tracks and practice with his bow. When we saw the deer tracks, Martin showed us how the deer’s hind foot had stepped into its own track just laid by its front foot. Martin said that only the female walks this way, that the male’s gait is different. He told us that the size of the hoof print meant it was a female deer about a year and a half old. I could tell that Martin enjoyed telling us all about the track.

We walked out to the middle of the flat area to see some old shelters I’d built with one of my classes a few years earlier, though the rains had washed them away. We headed back to the picnic area with the plan to continue identifying wild greens, and collecting enough for our wild food meal that is customary on all these walks. Then I’d share my brief Memorial Day commentary that I described on the printed schedule as “Considering Death.”

I led the way back to the oak trees. Within seconds, someone in the rear called out. Martin had fallen. I first thought it was a joke, and ran to him. It was no joke. His face already looked purple. The man who had been walking with him said he’d not tripped -- he just fell. You could tell by his hand position that he didn’t trip. I tried to rouse him, but it was quickly obvious that he was “out.”

Several of us moved Martin into what we assumed would be a more comfortable position, and that wasn’t easy! Martin was a big guy. And then -- since I was the only one who knew the area -- I ran to a phone to call 911. This was before the days of ubiquitous cell phones. Within 10 minutes, before I even got back to the group and Martin’s flat body -- paramedics from the City of Pasadena were on the scene, attempting to revive him. They all worked like a highly-coordinated team, speaking among themselves only briefly and in terms we didn’t understand. They were what we call a “well-oiled machine.” They carried him into the ambulance and took him away.

I could tell that the remainder of the outing participants were in varying degrees of shock. It had all been like a dream, and now Martin was gone. When one paramedic was asked what he thought about Martin’s chances of recovery, he only said “I can’t do that.” Still, we all knew it was serious. We recalled one paramedic yelling “full arrest” to another when they arrived at the scene.

So there we stood in the cool afternoon breeze, contemplating death in the most sobering manner possible. I explained to everyone my death lesson -- which hardly seemed appropriate now. I didn’t talk everyone through the intended exercise -- I just explained a process that I’d done many times on Memorial Day.

Write a list of all those close people in your life. Then, close your eyes, and imagine getting a phone call telling you that they have just died. For most people, there are tears and a feeling of regret that they never told that person something. You write down all those things you wanted to say to that person. Then, since these folks are still alive, you then go and call them or write them or see them in person and tell them. This is a very profound exercise, and in many ways can be called “healing.”

But we didn’t actually go through this exercise. We were in no mood for an “exercise.” Someone had just died in our midst. We had to deal with it. We talked about how important it is to live each moment with intent, with joy, with soberness.

We talked about the stages that one passes through in the after death state, and how Martin will experience peace, but will also experience a life-review, a state of purgation, a state of heaven, and eventually another embodiment. One guy muttered, “I don’t believe in reincarnation.” I knew with this last point that I was treading on ground that some categorize as “religious beliefs,” so I didn’t push the matter. I just suggested that anyone interested read about it in Harold Percival’s Thinking and Destiny and decide for themselves.

At that moment, none of us knew yet that Martin would not recover, that he had in fact died, and that he died in a place he loved. Nor had we known that Martin had a heart pacer, and an artery to his heart that was narrow. We were aware that he’d had surgery -- probably to the heart -- because we opened his shirt and saw the scar. I noted that Martin had been smoking his pipe during most of the outing. While that couldn’t have been good for his health, I considered the ceremonial ramifications of tobacco smoking. What had really brought Martin there on that day? I felt goose bumps at first, thinking that on some level he wanted to be there, enjoying the natural world, meeting as two souls in the place he loved, near the old Indian burial ground, on his final day.

A German woman who’d been on the outing, Walti, told me that we should not feel sad. “It was quick,” she told me later. “What better place to die.” I could not help but agree with her. In his final moments, he was surrounded with friends that he’d only met that day, trail compadres who shared a common love of the outdoors, all brought together at this time and this place to witness his passing.
Though I barely knew him, I felt closer to him in death.

Of course, I told Dolores about this when I got home. I was a bit shaken by the experience. It was Martin’s wife who later told me that Martin died doing what he loved doing, and that it was probably the best of all possible outcomes that he died in that manner. She also said that the family felt Martin was living on “borrowed time,” that they felt he should have died (according to what the doctors said) five years earlier.

Dolores seemed very thoughtful about all this, and said that possibly Martin’s Doer (his spiritual Self) knew that his body was going to die. Coming to my outdoor outing brought him into contact with my Doer, my spiritual Self, which could have been a final uplifting act, whether or not each of us realized it.

Dolores was never one who engaged in flattery, and she always kept me humble. She knew that we were not perfect and that we had a long way to go. Yet, we continued to work at and struggle on the Spiritual Path of perfection and evolution. It was always “fall down seven times, get up eight times.” In our perspective of a morally-bankrupt, and spiritually dark world, we did feel that we represented a light in the darkness. Yes, often a flickering, barely noticeable light, but a light nevertheless. It is to that Light that Dolores believed Martin was coming to, and it was with that desire that he took his final breath. And that was good for Martin.