When I heard the news, I lost my voice. I was glad to see it go.
It’s a surreal experience, standing in a room with the body of someone you saw living a few hours ago. Family gathered around her bed as the city lights stretched themselves thin toward the horizon.
There was only this, no other place or time. No other me but the empty cup pouring out the moment even as it was filled. I stood with their words and feelings; stood with the loss and unflinching silence. They asked me to speak, but I had nothing of my own. “I have no words.”
The silence took on a different shade.
They needed something, anything, a little light hope. Moments passed like a dripping sink at 3 am. Turning, I ripped a phrase from the void: “I guess, I can only say that she loved you all very much, and that if there’s one thing that never passes away, it’s love.”
The words fell in their minds, some comforted and some beyond comfort. As an empath, one fact you learn to live with is that you can’t carry another’s burden for them. To try is to only clone it and dim the light a little more. So you learn to watch from that spaciousness without picking up or setting down a thing.
So I stood without feet, smiling and frowning without a face. There wasn’t much weeping. Everyone kept the tacit Western agreement to breakdown in private. I was beyond grief by this point. The year had given and taken so much, flailing around like a rabid stallion. It was only fitting that it would end with a death.
As 11 pm limped toward a gray sunrise, we held a vigil in her room and wandered the halls. The fortress hospital was nearly empty, and all the seasoned staff were home for the holidays. If you need something looked at by a doctor, please—for your family—don’t wait until Christmas.
In the cafeteria, I kept my silence but collected their plates. I stole some fake flowers from another table and brought them over. Trying to do whatever I could to speak kindly without opening my mouth.
Buddha once said, “We are our actions.” When the lips and mind are silent, it’s easier to do what the moment demands. A busy mind races from one possibility to another, paralyzed by choices. To a silent mind, there’s only one question, “Is this kind and/or essential?” and one verdict, “Yes or no.”
I’ve wasted oceans of words over the years, and troubled my heart with unnecessary thoughts. Unsettled, each interaction was a toe-stepping dance. That’s because I was talking over the music and too wrapped up in people’s fleeting faces to see the rest of them.
In the room, her sister said, “She’s getting cold.” A flurry of unease scurried around the room. “Why would she say that?” one person thought. “I can’t do this, I can’t do this,” another. I just watched. Ghosts of judgment fluttered through the space, like a flock of traveling geese searching for a pond.
Someone once said, “How you handle tragedy defines who you are.” I would say how we fill the silence with defines who we are.
We all run from that quiet—that open space. We all try to fill that hole with people, things, ideas, and experiences; with jokes, and media, and booze; with knowledge and spirituality. Some of us would rather feel pain than sit with the void.
But running from emptiness makes life feel empty. The things we used to fill it with no longer seem adequate. Zen asks us to do the one thing we’ve been avoiding our entire lives: face our fears and sit still with the stillness. It isn’t as menacing as we think; it shines. It’s the light in everyone’s eyes.
But just as we can’t run from emptiness, we can’t run to it either. Chasing it is another way of evading it. Mindful of the coming and going of appearances, at ease in the absence of attachment and aversion, and trusting that there’s a mystery at the heart of each moment, it comes to you in its own time and rests in your arms like an only child.
On the drive back, the wind tried to shake us off the road. December rain was beating against the windshield. Weary bones and skeletal memories followed us all the way home. The quiet held, even as time swayed like smoke across a mirror.
Tragedy is opportunity to grow.
In the interruption to daily life, there’s a moment where we can see things clearly. Standing there, with that void, it’s time to cast aside trivial things and focus on what matters—love. What else is there? For all its pains and disappointments, I’d never trade a single second of it for nibbana.
Anshi (安狮) is the pen name for a certain Chan Buddhist. He calls his introspective, autobiographical writing, “Dharma Noir.” All names are changed to protect the privacy of those involved. If you know who Anshi is, please refrain from telling anyone.
Editor: Dana Gornall
Were you touched by this post? Others you may enjoy reading: