Framing the Question

Posted on September 21st, 2009

Page 12, Living Nonduality:Enlightenment Teachings of Self-Realization
I arrive at the home of John L., whom I have been told by the Hospice staff is dying of cancer, and I go into his bedroom to meet him. As I shake his bony hand, he looks up at me from the dark wells of his eyes: “I’ve seen you before.” His voice is high-pitched and nasal, and he seems to be toothless.

“Very possible,” I say. “I’ve lived here for twenty years. How long have you been in the area?”

His eyes focus on his wife, who is standing by my side. “I can't remember. How long have we lived here?”

“Nine years.”

“Yes, it's very possible that we've met,” I repeat. He and I continue to scrutinize each other. Aside from the thin, long form under the quilt, all I can see is his head and one pale arm. Thin hair, sunken eyes, an aquiline nose, a bristly beard. No, he is not someone that I recall having seen before.

Over the next few days, in a couple of brief visits, I get to know him a little better. And on the third occasion, I am alone with him for a couple of hours while his wife catches up on some grocery shopping. I sit by his bed, hold his glass of Dr. Pepper so he can drink it through a straw, and let him know that I am there to listen to him if he wishes to talk. But he is mostly monosyllabic, and gruff in a covertly amiable way. Considering his physique, appearance, and mannerisms, I would cast him (if I were directing the play) as a crusty goldminer.

Prominently on the wall of his living room are displayed framed scale drawings of a Swedish-made sailboat with beautifully flowing lines; not just a photograph of it, mind you, but a scale drawing showing even its inward detail. Next to it is an expensive sheath knife with his name engraved on the blade, the kind of thing only a skipper could wear on his belt in earnest today.

“You sailed?” I ask.

“Every weekend.”

“I've never sailed. I have no idea what it's like.”

“Nearest thing to heaven you'll ever get, my boy!”

He dozes off. I make a cup of coffee in the microwave and wander around the living room. Toward a rear corner, on one wall, is a collection of about a dozen family snapshots which have been matted and framed. A few of the pictures are of his daughter at various ages, and his son. But there are about three pictures I find myself lingering over, returning again from one to another. They are pictures of him and his wife. The first one was taken at their wedding forty-one years ago; it was a second marriage for both, and she is wearing a corsage and he is in a suit; he looks like he is in his thirties, tall, lean, sensitive, like a businessman on his way up.

The latest picture is in color, and I recognize his wife, at his side, so instantly that I suspect this picture was taken only a few years ago. The man is much taller than his wife, wearing a sports shirt and an easy smile; he looks vigorous but relaxed. I can picture this man as the skipper of a sailboat, a casual hand on the rudder, squinting confidently into the sea breeze, the wind tousling his hair.

I can picture him inviting me into their comfortable dual-wide in this mobile-home retirement park, asking me if white wine is okay, and then sitting back cross-legged in the easy chair to tell me all the things I don't know about how finely the Germans craft steel blades, his voice deep but warm.
Later, while out for my evening walk, I am struck by the fact that if I had known that man as I sense him in the photograph, there is no connection I would have made with the man I know in the deathbed. They may be the same height but that is a different body in the deathbed; and my guess is that their personal ambiance is at least as different.

What became of the man in the photograph?: it is obvious to me that he is gone, has left this earth. We like to think in terms of continuity, that the other man somehow became this man. Could this man, even if he regained his health, ever again become the other man? No.

No, somewhere moment by moment the other man disappeared. The evidence we have that he existed is a photograph, a knife, a blueprint. The man in the bed, though still alive, has already let go—even if not consciously—of the man in the frame.

I think back to what I have known of myself. If there is any continuity, it is only in my memory. Can I let go—am I letting go—of the man who only exists in my own picture frames?


Posted in Living Nonduality, Dialogue, Monograph    Tagged with Death, Continuity, self


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