Preparing for Life's Last Moment
Dealing with serious disease is trial enough, but when transition is imminent, a different and often unexpected trend of events starts to unfold
By Sonia Sweet Kumar
In 1987, at age 42, my father, Suneil Kumar Gurwara, was diagnosed with brain cancer. In the years that followed, he had four surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy and was permanently on anti-seizure medication. He retired within a few years of his diagnosis due to his disabilities, which included aphasia, fatigue, nausea, double vision and imbalance. All through those years, his days were filled with hospital stays, MRIs, doctor visits, constant adjustments to his medication and managing the effects of all his medication and brain injury.
Finally, in 2005, he was diagnosed as terminal and given four to six weeks to live. From that time until his death, we endured an exhausting run of care at home, minimal privacy in our home with our supportive extended family staying with us, hospice care-workers, visitors and phone calls, while neglecting our regular duties. Amidst all this frenzy was the desire to freeze or go back in time to better days. Very quickly it was clear that a chronically ill dad had been far more acceptable than a dad who was dying.
And Yet UnpreparedDespite death's inevitability hanging so closely over us for so many years, my mother and I were still unprepared and caught off guard when my father's final diagnosis was given. Due to the effort to help him stay healthy over the years, we should have been emotionally prepared, and not surprised, when the end became imminent. And despite the years that his body had sustained the disease, his health unraveled relatively quickly at the end, much more quickly than we had expected.
An old story helps illustrate the incongruity between helping a loved one overcome a life-threatening disease or situation yet still being unprepared emotionally and not accepting the end when it arrives. One day, a young father returned home after being away at work. His wife sadly greeted him and asked, "If I had borrowed a piece of beautiful jewelry from a friend and that friend came to claim it back, would you tell me to keep it?" "Of course not," her husband replied. "It doesn't belong to us. You must return it." "Then you must think the same of your child," his wife responded, referring to their dear son, who just succumbed to an injury from an accident.
The father's perspective based on his reply to his wife in this story is logical--we cannot keep what is not ours and should not be attached to it. But most of us slip out of this perspective when a loved one is involved and the unalterable, final decree has been handed to us. We cling and protest that there was not enough time. We feel lonely and left behind. We forget the wisdom behind the traditional Hindi expression used to communicate that someone has died, "Poore ho gayein." "The person has become complete."
Krishna's AdviceSwami Brahmarupananda of the Vedanta Center of Greater Washington DC, emphasises having an "exit strategy" in life and points to the Bhagavad Gita for instruction. In Chapter Eight, in the final two lines of verse two, Arjuna asks Lord Krishna,"How are you to be known at the time of departure?" Krishna replies, "If a person remembers Me, he will reach Me."
If we practice constant recollection of God and perform all our duties as an offering to God, there is a high probability we will remember God at the time of our death. In other words, Swami Bhramarupananda explains, we are working to ensure a bright future.
My father received his final diagnosis in the hospital and was discharged to receive hospice care at home. While he was highly symptomatic of his disease, his essential self and most of his mental faculties were still intact for the first couple weeks. He remained polite and kind to all the caregivers who helped him, did not decline anybody the opportunity to meet him for a final time and graciously accepted help and care from family members. At our request, a spiritual guide came to our home to provide my father some guidance and the opportunity to share. She asked him, "Suneilji, do you have any fears about the future?" My gurdwara-raised father responded simply, "Satnam sri whaeguru," which my mother translates as, "Hail to the all-pervading Supreme Reality whose true name eliminates spiritual darkness." Though my father was saying goodbye to so many, and his body was rapidly deteriorating, he was striving constantly to keep his mind focused where it needed to be.
Accepting the InevitableWhen a person is in his final weeks, days and hours, how can his family maintain an atmosphere that supports his efforts to keep his energy focused on the Divine?
When the neurologist straightforwardly but compassionately told my father, mother and me that the brain cancer had become uncontrollable, my father appeared to understand and accept. "Final stop," he said. Importantly for my father, my mother and I also accepted that diagnosis. We did not try to beat it or convince him to try one more option or see another doctor. We knew we must accept that it was time to move to the next stage. We strived for equanimity, to be comfortable and at peace.
My father's extended illness had given us many, many opportunities to reflect and work toward that mind set. When the time to prepare is short, achieving such equanimity can be much harder. One may still try to fight the illness or injury or get a third, fourth or fifth diagnosis. Some even become angry at the patient and at the disease: "How could you let this happen?"or "We'll fight this thing and bring you out on top."
However, in order to open the door and walk through to the next stage, the patient requires spiritual support. Making it known that you are there to help him through that door and not pull him back will make his preparations and transition more peaceful.
In an article titled, "Why Doctors Die Differently," Dr. Ken Murray points out that, unlike the patients they treat, doctors tend to refuse life extending measures for themselves, despite their extensive knowledge of treatment options. Their careers have taught them the limits of treatment and the essential futility of many modern life-extending measures. Their career is, in effect, a life-long meditation on such issues. They understand and accept the need to plan for the end. Denial of the inevitable is not a line of thinking for doctors, says Murray, so most opt for a graceful exit.
It is a critical time, when a terminal diagnosis has been given. If unable to let go, both the patient and accompanying family members become volatile and angry if encouraged to stop treatment and concentrate on a comfortable departure. Patient and family must be able to cut through the distractions of pinpointing causes and grasping at options. Of course, that mind set evolves over time and from within. Doctors are reminded daily of death's certainty. We, too, should reflect on the inevitable outcome of life and achieve equanimity about it now.
Visits from Friends and FamilyFamily from out of town came to stay with us and provide support and help, physically and emotionally. Friends also came to visit and say goodbye to my father. On some days we had many visitors, which we soon found could dramatically detract from the peaceful environment we were trying to cultivate.
Jacqueline Krock, a hospice nurse in Naperville, Illinois, recalls a patient who made a list of all the people with whom she wanted to visit before she died. Mrs. Krock wryly points out, "If you weren't on her list, too bad. She didn't have the time." Many people, Mrs. Krock says, desire to visit with a dying person for an essentially selfish purpose. They may want a connection, they may want to alleviate guilt, or they may simply feel obliged and want to avoid feeling neglectful. Mrs. Krock suggests having a "gatekeeper" who is not emotionally attached to the patient to manage traffic and politely keep certain visitors away, guiding them to help in other ways, such as doing an errand or chore for the family.
After the EndIn the months following the transition, my family and I gradually established a new normalcy. Caring for a dying patient and going through the last rites is a time of high activity, distracting everyone from what is often the more difficult stage called "after," the large vacuum that used to be filled with giving care.
Swami Brahmarupananda states that Vedanta prepares us for this inevitable journey as no other knowledge does. Just as you work to help your loved one prepare for a bright future, ensure the same for yourself by remembering Krishna's instructions: as much as possible, practice constant, unbroken recollection of the Divine and do your duties as an offering to the Divine. The mother in the story reminded her husband that their son was like a jewel borrowed from the Divine. We can keep this in mind when preparing for a loved one's end of life and in continuing on with our own remaining time.
(Sonia Sweet Kumar (soniasweetkumar _@_ gmail.com) lives in Naperville, Illinois, with her husband, Brendan Fitzpatrick, and their three children, Rajkumar, Simran and Avinash. She has a master's degree in communication from DePaul University.)
A Village Teacher Brings Kabir's Songs to Life
Prahlad Singh Tipanya is captivated by the mystic music of a 15th-century saint
By Rashmi Sahi
Fortunately for English speakers, the famed poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) translated all of Kabir's work into English (www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sok/). Tagore rendered this verse as: "Have you not heard the tune which the unstruck music is playing? In the midst of the chamber the harp of joy is gently and sweetly played; and where is the need of going without to hear it?"
Meet Padmashree Prahlad Singh Tipanya, the inspired bhajan singer who has dedicated himself to spreading the universal message of oneness given us by Kabirdas, the fifteenth-century poet-saint of North India.
Tipanya never expected to become an artist, much less an internationally respected folk singer. Employed as a government school teacher in a tiny, remote village in Madhya Pradesh, he was perfectly content with teaching science and math to his young students. But life had other plans for him.
One day in 1978, while visiting a neighboring village for the Purnima festival music gathering, he heard somebody playing tambura. Fascinated, he stayed back that evening to talk to the artist and expressed his desire to learn tambura. The artist immediately offered to teach him, advising him also to learn to sing. Overcoming his initial doubts about his voice, soon his nights were dedicated to the passion of learning tambura and singing. Joyfully he would cross the river to visit his teacher, two kilometers from his village. His mornings were free for mundane responsibilities, and he continued teaching in the village school.
In those days, playing the tambura was not considered a respectable profession, but nothing deterred Tipanya. He believed the tambura had a deeper meaning in Kabir's teachings. Kabir said its beautiful sounds can be heard within oneself; he saw it as a symbol for something mystically profound, writing, "O friend! This body is His lyre." In the same spirit, Tipanya declared, "Nothing can be accomplished without passion!"
Living and studying apart from his family, in a small room with his college-going brother, Tipanya made quick progress. Soon he was performing in nearby villages; his singing was well received. In his free time, he avidly analyzed Kabir's teachings, while mindful of the poet's stern rebuke, "Mindless reading of religious scriptures doesn't help. Listen, gentlemen, this will only keep you stuck in the life-and-birth cycle."
One verse in particular intrigued him: "Koi Sunta hai guru gyani gagan main, aawaz hoye jhina, jhina." Tagore translates, "Is there any wise man who will listen to that solemn music which arises in the sky? For He, the Source of all music, makes all vessels full fraught and rests in fullness Himself. He who is in the body is ever athirst, for he pursues that which is in part; but ever there wells forth deeper and deeper the sound [aawaz] 'He is this--this is He;' fusing love and renunciation into one." Purushottam Baba, a wisened musician, also engaged in the Kabir singing groups, encouraged Tipanya to find that sacred sound, "aawaz."
A student of science, Tipanya was skeptical about anything not personally experienced. He took to meditating, and after long practice personally found that deep, inner sound that echos, "He is this--this is He." Since that breakthrough, Tipanya has been undeterred on the path of Kabir; and he has inspired his two sons to follow in his footsteps. One son is a second vocal and plays manjira; the other plays dholak.
Pursuing this inner calling for three decades, Tipanya is now a familiar name in the oral tradition of Kabir in Central India's Malwa region. His renown has also taken him abroad to the US, UK and other countries, where he has been warmly received by a wide variety of audiences. Search for "Prahlad Tipanya" on YouTube and you will find dozens of videos of his concerts.
The contribution of this modern bard has not gone unnoticed. In 2008, he received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award, and in 2011, the Padmashree, a prestigious honor bestowed by the Government of India, for his contribution to folk art.
Tipanya's love of Kabir's teachings has led him to collaborate with Dr. Linda Hess in the Kabir Project, started in 2003 by Shabnam Virmani to better understand and propagate Kabir's simple but profound messages. Virmani was then artist-in-residence at the Shrishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore; Hess is a professor of religious studies at Stanford University and a noted exponent of Kabir.
Fame has not jaded the humble villager. His renditions of Kabir's songs are those of a pure soul and hence touch the inner being of the listener. In a personal interview, he made this appeal to one and all: "Kabir's music is everyone's music; it is universal. Kabir's love is of devotion; and if we understand this very simple message of Kabir, then all the differences in the world will come to an end." His plea echoed Kabir's sentiments: "It is needless to ask of a saint the caste to which he belongs; for the priest, the warrior, the tradesman and all the thirty-six castes alike are seeking for God." PIpi
(Rashmi Sahi (rashmi.sahi _@_ gmail.com) is a Hong Kong-based Indian writer with a Ph.D in English literature. She loves books and culture. )
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