The Dance of Death

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Daddy had chopped the tail off the Doberman pincher. The poor puppy was crying and shaking. “What have you done to Princess?” The garage was dark with cobwebs hanging in the corners. I stared at the blood where the crime had been committed. I guess he didn’t feel the need to answer a seven-year-old girl. Later I learned that it was some kind of style to cut the tail of a Doberman. That knowledge did not bring any understanding to the cruelty I witnessed that afternoon.

Yet, Daddy wasn’t a cruel man. There were no sweet words or conversations from which I gained this knowing of him. I did not know how to speak his native Creole tongue, a language from the earth where he was raised in Opelousas, Louisiana. Therefore, my experience with my father was a silent one. However, as it turned out, silent or not, my father was one of the most precious of men in my life. And this man, I would never get to know through his ideology or opinions. I learned to watch his face as a way of knowing what was on his mind. He would clasp his hands when contemplating. He would grunt when he needed something or someone. He would smile just before he had a story to tell. The words he knew in English would be gobbled up into the thick accent that rested on his tongue. The sounds he uttered had the beauty of the French language and the clip of Africa. And when the words sailed out it was difficult to understand him. So, I studied the way he walked, the way he dressed, how stared at things. This was the silent language between us.

The garage was where we spent time together, sawing wood and hammering in nails. We made shelves and things to use around the house or at my mother’s preschool that she owned. I stood next to his six-foot, muscular stature, learning how to make gumbo, learning what parts of the shrimp to keep and what parts to toss. Every time his huge green Buick pulled out the driveway I was sitting right alongside him. I could smell the woodsy tobacco from his pipe as we journeyed the crowded streets of Los Angeles. Sometimes he would stop and buy me something sweet like a huge round peppermint stick. And few times he brought a tall stalk of sugar cane, cut it into pieces and shared it with me. We ate sitting on a bench sucking the sweetness as if we were lounging on the very plantation where his family were sharecroppers. His wavy hair, dark skin, and wide nostrils made him look like the African men I had seen in National Geographic. I stared at him a lot seeing the African in my own face because of his.

When Daddy was sad, his head dropped and stayed there for a long time, weeping inside. And that is exactly what he did when his leg was amputated. I was a young adult when I came to visit him at the hospital. I walked through the doors trying to avoid all the illness. I was susceptible to taking others’ sickness on as my own. I discovered this great ability through much pain only to find out that most of the pain and illness I experienced belong to other people. I needed protection, talisman or juju, as I later found that my mother secretly wore.

When I arrived to Lawrence Manuel, Jr.’s hospital room my dark African warrior was lying in bed. The man who owned a rifle and hunted animals as boy, who took a bath on Saturdays only because his family of twenty children never had enough water, was immobilized.

This was a man who could pull off wearing a powder blue suit. He tipped his Stetson hat as he was taught through conscious southern rearing. And he had three pairs of winged-tipped shoes that were polished by hand on Saturday afternoons while watching cowboy movies. These movies reminded him of the dark earth, open land and horses that filled his childhood. And yet the man of my life was lying in bed breathing through his tragedy. It seemed as though his silence had been silenced.

I stared at him remembering Princess, my Doberman pincher, had lost his tail in much the same way. Except Daddy’s amputation was not as brutal. In his eyes there may have been no difference. His arteries had hardened and the circulation of blood had ceased in his left leg. He had already had two grand maul seizures and a few strokes.   His veins had tightened in the same way his tongue did because he could not fully express himself in English. “Marselean (his mother’s name and my middle name) move my leg it hurts,” he said to me.

I loved that he called me by his mother’s name (correctly spelled Marceline), instead of Earthlyn. The name is both Creole and Haitian. His mother was a child slave making me second generation from the experience of slavery. My father, her son, had never been bought and sold, but he knew about loss of life and limb. I pulled back the covers seeing one leg and a bandaged stump hidden under a thin unmanly gown. I moved his stump pretending his whole leg was there. I rubbed my hand over the wide landscape of his forehead. Just like mine I thought. I looked on the wall at the painting of a pathway during the fall season. All the brown and yellow leaves had fallen from the branches. Losing his leg meant to me that I was going to loose all of him one day. Death was coming.

Holding his muscle-filled hands, it came to me like a message coming through his fingertips. I finally got the reason my father was silent. It wasn’t so much the language as it was that he had too much to say. How would he tell his little girls about the loss of home, all the lynchings, the starvation, the disease, the fear and the inevitable neglect as human beings living off the earth in the south? How could he express what it was like to be a foreigner all his life living in a country where he was born? Folks would shout at him as if he couldn’t hear. They didn’t have any idea that a black man could be born in the States and not speak English. Their ignorance that he had a second language kept them from seeing the man I knew.

At the same time he didn’t need to talk. He had learned the ways of many Creoles in which you can transmit your thoughts to another person without talking. You simple look at the person around the third eye and speak to that spot the message that needed to be conveyed. It’s a talent, a gift and some would say it’s the medicine used to survive the horrors of the world. If you spoke or protest about the injustice you might be murdered.

The breathing machine of the patient next to Dad was pumping. The nurses were running back and forth. This doctor and that doctor were being called on the intercom. The smell of disinfectant and fever made me nauseous.

One year went by and the doctors said they needed to amputate the other leg. Sitting in his wheelchair my father declined such a remedy to his condition. It was already too much for his manhood to be pushed around in the wheelchair. The doctor went further to say, “I think that’s best that you not have any more amputations because you would have to eventually cut off one arm and then another.” My father’s head dropped in despair. He had come to the end of his journey and I couldn’t save him.   “Can’t you help me, Marselean?” He asked, “Didn’t you go to school here?” He was referring to UCLA, which I did attend but in the graduate school of Architecture and Urban Planning. “No, Daddy,” I said with a smile, “I didn’t go to medical school.” Disappointment covered his eyes. Tears filled mine.

He was more than a father; he was a need. Without him I would not have my connection to his/our homeland, which was the deep south. He was my guide to the earth. He kept my feet on the ground no manner how many ideas filled my head from the schooling he never would experience. He was an earth child, raised with mud between his toes. He hunted animals for food and grew all of the vegetables he ate. He taught me that we are all from the dirt we walk on everyday. In his yearning to go back to Louisiana he taught me that the earth of one’s birthplace keeps you connected to your ancestors. He wanted to go back because that is where the bones of his family were settled.

Two years later the silent giant of a man passed away, alone in the hospital. When we arrived he was stretched out on the bed, naked in a black plastic body bag, with his hands crossed over his private parts. I wailed at the sight of him lying their alone, an aloneness he had endured as long as I knew him. It made sense that he had gone on before we would arrive. He didn’t want us crying over him. He hated sentiment.

His last teaching, “Don’t be afraid to die.” I felt my father for a year or so after his death. And then there was nothing. I imagined he had gone deep into the earth he loved.

Meanwhile, I have encountered the death of loved ones and at this very writing my Sensei, my Zen teacher, Zenkei Blanche Hartman, is taking in some of her last breaths. She always spoke of how much she loved life. When she would say such I would be afraid that she might not be able to die well. But as she always has demonstrated as a teacher, she meets everything whether she likes it or not. She accepted life, so she is accepting death. She held my hand long and then kissed me on my jaw at least six times. I dare not cry, so not to interrupt the receiving of her blessings. Later, the tears came.

Fortunately, I have come to see that one of the widest gates of liberation is the experience of death. I have come to see that despite everything appearing the same as yesterday, death changes everything and everyone. It opens the mouth of the river of life. I have come to see that the great matter of birth and death is not great because it’s overwhelming and uncontrollable but because it is profound in its immense capacity to arouse a loving nature in us, bring attentiveness to living, and most importantly to seal an interrelationship between all that is born and will die. When we hear of a death we are reminded, like nothing else in life, that we are interdependent upon one another. In death it is customary to stop, become aware of the loss of life, notice the loss of ourselves in relationship to the death and dying. In many churches and temples around the world bells rang out signaling a death. For my teacher upon her last breath they will relay to the Zen Center to begin the ringing of 108 bells. This is done for everyone who dies in the community (sangha). I have often thought if they rang a bell at each death that occurred because of the violence in the city of Oakland, California, where I live, the bell would be ringing constantly, reminding us of what each life. So, I have begun ringing the bell on my deck each day. Surely, not enough.

I am becoming less afraid of death by seeing it as a continuum of movement without beginning or end. Someday, I will let go of this act of breathing in and out. This doesn’t mean that I do not be afraid. It doesn’t mean that my stomach will not tie up in knots when I began my leaving. Rather when I have experienced dying it has not been like how my mind thinks of it. It has been far more celebratory, the tears healing, and life renewed. I find myself looking at those who have passed and saying, “Wow, you did it.”

The awesome nature of dying can be mesmerizing. In essence, the tremendous light of death and dying sheds upon our lives is indescribable. Can we not see ourselves and each other so much better?

As I stand in the light of my teacher’s dying, I leave you with this famous, ancient, poetic teacher from Khalil Gibran:

 

The River of Silence

Then Almitra spoke, saying, We would ask now of Death.

And he said:

You would know the secret of death.

But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?

The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.

If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.

For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.

In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;

And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.

Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.

Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honour.

Is the shepherd not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king?

Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?

For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?

And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.

And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.

And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

—-heading to the dance always, Zenju

Suggested book for both caregivers and the dying: Being With Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death by Joan Halifax

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