How do we stay truly present to whatever is happening in our lives? How do we practice living from the deep gratitude that each of us has experienced in fleeting moments? How do we remember, with every breath, the miracle of simply existing, the miracle of this body that sustains us from the moment we come into human form until the moment we go out again—while remembering also that our true being is not confined by the body, did not begin with birth, and does not end at death?
Truthfully, for me at least, it’s hard to navigate daily life from this place of grateful remembrance. It’s hard not to get caught up in bills and deadlines, irritations and disagreements, until life begins to feel like a series of problems to be solved or tasks to be crossed off the to-do list. Sometimes it takes the shock of the unexpected to open us again to a truer sense of who and what we are.
A month ago, my Uncle James came down with what he thought was bronchitis. By Thanksgiving, he’d been given supplemental oxygen to cart around, but still no one knew what was going on. A week ago, with breathing an increasing struggle, he went to the hospital in hopes of finally getting an accurate diagnosis. After a series of biopsies and CAT scans, the news came back: idiopathic interstitial lung disease. There’s no known cause and no treatment. In fact, idiopathic means simply “arising spontaneously from an obscure or unknown cause.” I guess one could say the same about life itself.
Today, my uncle is headed home to enter hospice care. He’ll be surrounded by his sisters and brother, his nephews and nieces, grand-nephews and grand-nieces. His kindness and his humor remain intact even as his body fails. He’s not afraid, he says, of death—only of dying. I have been through this before, with my father. I know the strange stew of thankfulness, sorrow, love, regret, joy, loss and celebration that comes with the imminent loss of one you love. In times like this, it’s easier to be absolutely present, knowing it might be the last moment we spend with someone dear to us.
But every moment could be the last moment, and every breath along the way is cause for celebration. It’s an absolute miracle that we’re here at all; that there’s something rather than nothing. These bodies, these lives, these relationships we have with other beings—all of it is miraculous. That being pours itself unceasingly into existence to experience all this—as earth, sky, stars, wind, water; as you, as me, as my Uncle James—is miraculous. And when we can remember this, even in the midst of the most ordinary tasks, then we really live the miracle of our own being, and know how vast we are. Through all our losses, nothing is lost. Through all our changes, what we are is unharmed, unchanging, eternal. The great German modernist Rilke captures this sense beautifully in his poem “Autumn”:
We all are falling. Here, this hand falls.
And see—there goes another. It’s in us all.
And yet there’s One who’s gently holding hands
let this falling fall and never land.
Whatever life brings, may we not forget those gently holding hands.
Postscript: James Mitchell passed away on Friday, December 27, surrounded by family. He was 67 years old.