Facing Death

Being with Death

“The day my mother died I wrote in my journal, “A serious misfortune of my life has arrived.” I suffered for more than one year after the passing away of my mother. But one night, in the highlands of Vietnam, I was sleeping in the hut in my hermitage. I dreamed of my mother. I saw myself sitting with her, and we were having a wonderful talk. She looked young and beautiful, her hair flowing down. It was so pleasant to sit there and talk to her as if she had never died. When I woke up it was about two in the morning, and I felt very strongly that I had never lost my mother. The impression that my mother was still with me was very clear. I understood then that the idea of having lost my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother is always alive in me.

I opened the door and went outside. The entire hillside was bathed in moonlight. It was a hill covered with tea plants, and my hut was set behind the temple halfway up. Walking slowly in the moonlight through the rows of tea plants, I noticed my mother was still with me. She was the moonlight caressing me as she had done so often, very tender, very sweet… wonderful! Each time my feet touched the earth I knew my mother was there with me. I knew this body was not mine but a living continuation of my mother and my father and my grandparents and great-grandparents. Of all my ancestors. Those feet that I saw as “my” feet were actually “our” feet. Together my mother and I were leaving footprints in the damp soil.

From that moment on, the idea that I had lost my mother no longer existed. All I had to do was look at the palm of my hand, feel the breeze on my face or the earth under my feet to remember that my mother is always with me, available at any time.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh

When I went to treatment to get sober, I didn’t have a deep conscious desire to make a life change. I went because of some nudges from family and a judge. On my third day in treatment, I met Jack Rosenbaum. I certainly didn’t love him at first. As a 19 year old only three days into recovery, I wasn’t super excited about a man in his late 70’s trying to teach me how to recover. Jack grew on me, and I ended up asking him to sponsor me and take me through the twelve steps. With over 30 years sober, I truly believe he was the best person for me to work with. A smart-ass who told me what I needed to hear, Jack taught me how to live as a sober adult in this world.

When I completed treatment, I moved into a spare bedroom in Jack’s house in Santa Monica. With a few other sober people living in the house, I began to experience the “real world” sober for the first time. Jack introduced me to Hospitals and Institutions, the organization that helps bring recovery meetings into jails, hospitals, and to those that cannot get out to meetings. Every month we went down to Gladys Park in Skid Row and led an AA meeting. Jack introduced me to inspiring people, connected me with resources, helped me help others through service, and stuck by my side always.

The year I got sober, my sister graduated from college. I wanted to go, but didn’t want to travel to the area of the graduation with only a couple months sober by myself. At 8o years old, Jack drove me five hours to the graduation, hung out, and drove me home. I had legal troubles still when newly sober, and Jack showed up to every single court date with me. When I stopped going to twelve-step meetings, Jack supported me in my investigation of meditation, even though he was a hardcore “book-thumper” in AA.

I lived with Jack for about 9 months before moving in with a friend. A year or so down the road, I was in a tough space and without a place to live, and Jack took me in once again. I know it is impossible to say with any certainty where my life would be if Jack were not in it, but I do believe the reason I stayed sober is due largely to his direction. We all need something different at times, and Jack had what I needed. He was direct, wasn’t afraid to tell me the harsh truths, and always responded with a nonjudgemental kindness. The longest I’ve gone without talking to Jack since the day I met him was 30 days while on retreat.

Two weeks ago I was sitting at an old theater in Petaluma waiting for one of my favorite bands, Steel Pulse, to come on. I received a text message that Jack had passed. He just celebrated his 85th birthday on December 31st with over 34 years of continuous sobriety. His health hasn’t been wonderful for the past few years, so his passing was not intellectually a huge surprise. As we live in Northern California, I haven’t seen him recently. The last time I saw him was six months ago at our wedding. I spoke to him just a week or so before his death.

I have had the experience of grandparents, friends, sponsees, and roommates dying. I’ve really never had somebody this close to me pass, and I must say the feeling is quite unpleasant. It sucks. Perhaps sometime in the future I can be more eloquent, but right now I don’t need words to describe the experience. I knew he didn’t have much time left, but no amount of mental preparation can really match the emotions present. I know that all is impermanent, that he had a full life, and that he truly made the world a better place with his life dedicated to service. Perhaps knowing this helps, but it doesn’t change the experience of mourning.

The last couple weeks have been an intimate investigation of emotion. I miss Jack, I feel gratitude for him, I wish I could talk to him, and I just have intense moments of sadness. Elizabeth and I just talked in an episode of Dharma Talk about being with experience with trust, which was inspired by the experience I’m having. The mind wants to understand, to think my way out of pain, and to figure it all out. I’ve found that engaging with the mind isn’t very useful to me in this moment. Instead, I’ve been really making the effort to tune into the experience of pain, allow it to be present, and let myself express how I am feeling.

It’s funny how easy it is to be mindful and kind when everything is neutral or going well. When this amount of pain arises, it can be a challenge for practice. To remain present with the experience without averting takes some dedicated effort, but it allows me to process. I think about the Thich Nhat Hanh story at the top of this post, and know that Jack lives through me in the wisdom he left me. He taught me more with his own behavior than he ever did with his instruction or direction. A true example of service and love, he never hesitated to step up and help somebody.

I wrote this post a month or so ago, and never posted it. It was through encouragement from a friend at Always Memorial, a website that offers products and services for funerals, to share this. I know this story isn’t necessarily unique or the best-written piece on somebody passing, but it’s my hope that anyone else experiencing these emotions can learn from something I wrote, and perhaps investigate it for themselves. You’re always welcome to reach out to me at [email protected] if you need someone to talk to!

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