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A Good Death

by Jessica Hildebrand


May all beings attain happiness.

Death in the time of pandemic. Of course. It is happening hourly in hospitals all over the world as humanity faces the Covid-19 virus, which seems to take people indiscriminate of gender, race, age or ethnicity. Doctors, nurses and caregivers work exhaustively and selflessly around the clock to save as many as they can. And, for the first time in human history the turbulence of politics and opinions has been stirred up into a global response, fracturing and magnifying the frantic efforts to find a cure and calm humanity’s collective fear of the unknown, to give a date for the end of this uncertainty.

The result has been the shutting down and quarantining of the planet’s population. The sudden halting of human activity and the demand that everyone stay home, work from home, not gather in groups outside their immediate families and stay away from the sick, the elderly and the susceptible, means every single person is now cut off from the daily, hourly, 24/7/365 connectivity that has come to define the human race. Where once we pushed into packed subways, dodged the masses on crowded streets, packed into elevators and worked in towering offices buildings filled with thousands of other people, the virus demands we cease all that frenetic contact and simply live in the smallest fields of human containment as possible, because talking and touching can spread this disease. It sounds so surreal, so strange and out of place in our times that we humans find it hard to believe the world has been stopped, involuntarily immobilized, by something we cannot see, we do not know.

May all beings be free from suffering

But for me, one death in particular brought me to my knees. Barely a month ago, in the early hours of Easter morning, my friend Sean died from stage four lung cancer at his home in Bethesda Maryland with only his wife and daughter by his side. A death that took him way too soon in a manner I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. A singular death, a peaceful death, a good death. Only 56, my same age, it seemed impossible that this man of indomitable spirit should have left us so soon. Leave us bereft of his presence, his passion, his spirit. He was a Renaissance Man. Good at everything he put his mind to, and an exceptional writer. His voice boomed with enthusiasm, and like Hemingway, he lived a full and extraordinary life.

May all beings never be separated from joy.

Prerequisites of this damned COVID-19 virus meant that these last two months, the toughest, would have to be spent alone with his small family, robbed of the wide circle of friends who loved him and wanted to see him one last time. His body slowly wound down, and he spoke of it feeling like a metronome swinging ever more slowly and deliberately, counting out heartbeats and breaths with every swing. He wrote furiously, leaving family histories for his daughter and love letters to his wife. He and I had last spoken in person when I drove out to see him this past December. A body, wasted and ravaged, met me at the door of his house, but the light, the fire was still in his eyes. We spent the afternoon drinking bourbon and reminiscing of our shared collegiate past at Marquette University, where the principles and teachings of the Jesuits imprinted on our lives leaving us both to take a path in life that assured we would care for the poor and fight against injustice wherever we found it.

Love was the constant theme of our musings, and poetry our reference points. He had found and married the most amazing woman. Strong and fierce, she worked in the background, around the edges of our conversation. It was almost Christmas, and she was wrapping presents and writing cards, making sure the mailman got his gift. The house was filled to the brim with love. I felt it the moment I entered. A domestic atmosphere with holiday decorations and music in the background; curious dogs at first barking then lying down at our feet to mind our friendly exchanges; a cat sauntering into the room batting at ribbons that had fallen to the floor. Time was marked only by a weak winter sun slanting into the room while tiny dust mites swirled and gently fell amidst our musings.

May all beings abide in equanimity.

This one death, from a cause other than pandemic, still happened at a time of great loss and uncertainty. The fact that it happened early in the first hour of Easter morning, the time of Christian resurrection, was not lost on me. We will all go to our deaths alone, but in the presence, if we are fortunate, of people who love us. We don’t remember the moment of our birth; we don’t have the words to explore that human experience unless we witness it with our own children. But at our death, if we are lucky, we can reflect back on our lives and hopefully take only what is good with us into the next world.

Peace in the time of pandemic. Of course. It occurs hourly and daily in the hearts of humans who look for it, make a place for it, and ask it to come in. Rest in peace. A good death is the acceptance that a life well lived must end. No one lived life better than my dearly departed friend Sean, who did not want to leave his life, his love, his family, his friends, but did so with courage and grace. And I am made better for having known him and lost him in this time of pandemic.

May all beings be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom for all.

~Lokah Samstah Sukhino Bhavantu~

About the writer—Jessica Hildebrand She is a past director of Women Who Write (2014-15) in Louisville, KY. Jessica received a BA in English from Marquette University and an M.A. in Literature from the University of California, San Diego. After the death of her brother in Malaysia in 2016, she discovered Buddhism and has practiced it ever since.

This personal essay references the Four Immeasurables of Buddhist Belief. These mantras dissolve the humanly constructed boundaries of our individual lives, reminding us we all experience love, joy, pain and loss. Jessica has used these to frame the recent loss of a dear friend during the early days of the pandemic, reminding us all that we are born, die, and live extraordinary lives in between. Comfort, purpose, and peace in our lives come from recognizing not the singularity and plurality of our existence, but the universality of our human condition.

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