There is a well-known, recommended daily reflection attributed to the Buddha: “Only the fact that I shall die is certain in my life, and the time and circumstances of my death are uncertain. What shall I do?” This is not a reflection meant to cause despair or anxiety, but instead one which, when well considered, uproots these negative emotions and gives rise to samvega, the energy and motivation for practicing mindfulness and compassion and for living a kind, fully engaged life right here in this very moment.
There have been two recent deaths of people who, though not currently active in our VIMS Sangha, were involved in creating the community and in shaping our direction in earlier years: John Fabian and Margo Krasnoff. Both were vibrantly alive human beings, who stepped wholeheartedly into life. Both died in the fullness of their lives in a sudden, untimely, and unexpected way.
Margo was a wise, interested member of the Tuesday night Dhamma study group, which morphed into the Monday night meditation group. She was an energetic, mountain-climbing, bike-riding physician, a bright and engaged medical practitioner who offered excellent care––locally through a general medicine practice with a strong focus on the elderly and hospice care, and internationally through volunteer work in Central America. She was a wise and compassionate resource for her patients and other physicians, as well as for her own mother. She was involved in a strong and nurturing relationship and had a number of close, loving friendships, including important ones with members of our Sangha. She lived fully; and she died suddenly, quickly, totally unexpectedly, of head injuries resulting from a fall backwards, down a steep and narrow staircase in her own home.
John Fabian was a helpful, active member of an early VIMS steering committee as it began to move tentatively towards incorporation as the nonprofit religious group it now is. Over subsequent years he maintained ties with several of us in the Sangha. John was a longtime manager for the Upper Valley Hostel, a home away from home for cancer patients receiving care at DHMC. He was also an intrepid world traveler. He was a gifted photographer, computer geek, fund-raiser, and entrepreneur who worked hard at a job for a while and then took off for a long journey, often by motorbike. In December of 2014, he left the Upper Valley for an open-ended trip through New Zealand. He kept a blog. In his last entry (see below), he described what was probably a heart attack. Two days later, he was dead. The blog entry is remarkable in its steady mindfulness. John’s curiosity and honest investigation reveals an amazing equanimity in the face of great pain. I found myself grateful that he had had the opportunity to, in a sense, practice death before it actually happened. It feels like an important experience to share.
December 25, 2014; Auckland, New Zealand
After viewing boats I went into a downtown department store, the Warehouse (think Walmart on steroids). Some boys were playing delightful Christmas music on a guitar and stand-up base while staring intently at sheet music. Santa strolled around with good wishes and candy. It was 80 degrees and no air circulation. I became sick.
The pain was so bad I thought I might die. At first that frightened me. Then as it became more intense I felt there would be no more suffering and that buoyed me. The ironic situation, in its dull haze, confused and delighted me. Here in abject agony, possibly on the verge of death, I was balancing the event with the Dharma, the Buddha’s teaching. Who said the end of suffering was going to be easy? Breathe.
I made it back to the hostel where I drank fluids and rested. I had pain in my chest and a very tight abdomen. About 10:30 at night I had a massive bowel movement. That changed things. I started to feel normal, but just.
I canceled my meditation retreat. I’m resting. Merry Christmas. Ho Ho Ho.
Two days later John was dead. A dear and loyal friend of his in the Upper Valley was notified and made arrangements with local authorities to cremate John’s body and spread the ashes.
The third sentence in the reflection at the top of this essay is important: “What shall I do?” It is the same question Mary Oliver asks at the end of a famous poem: “What is it you plan to do with this one wild and precious life?” Another poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, helps us to know that this might be one of those questions not meant to be solved, but rather to be lived, until perhaps one day we find ourselves “living into the answer.” I think Margo and John lived into their authentic answers to life’s question; each of them, in their own beautiful and unique way, made life a little brighter, safer, and happier for those of us with whom they shared the world, and they had fun doing it. May they rest in peace now, surrounded by all kindness.
“[Life] It’s like the water of a river. It naturally flows downhill; it never flows uphill. That’s its nature. If a person were to go and stand on the riverbank and want the water to flow back uphill, he would be foolish. Wherever he went his foolish thinking would allow him no peace of mind.” –– Ajahn Chah