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my dance with death

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Renewal by Charles Csuri

 

I have felt death dance around the edges of my life.  Its dance has circled closer and closer to my awareness; each experience touching me in powerful and subtle ways.  Through these experiences I have been both conscious and unconscious of deaths affect on me.  I sense a pattern.  Somehow part of me has been shaped by my dance with death.  What is this dance?  How has it shaped me?

Thinking about my own death, I have both fearful and hopeful visions.  I believe the roots of these visions lie in my accumulated experiences with death and dying.  These experiences are a tapestry of personal emotion laced with family, religious and cultural patterns.  My fear is to die with great pain and suffering.  My hope is to die a peaceful conscious death. 

Will my body be destroyed by cancer or AIDS or another bodily disease?  Will my mind go mad?  Or will I just lie down, close my eyes and leave my body? 

I hope by looking closely at my dance with death I will enter the fears and face them, revealing the roots of my perceptions and feelings.  I feel fear and uncertainty as I approach this process.  Yet something moves me forward. 

And so the dance begins . . .

At the age of three my grandfather (my mother's father) had a stroke in Florida and came to live with us in our home in Chicago.  He lay in the back bedroom for six years.  He could not talk or walk.  I would stand by the side of his mechanical hospital bed and watch him sleep, drooling and making strange gasping sounds. 

At times he'd open his eyes and stare at me with an intensity I had never known before.  He'd grab me with his twisted hand and shake me while making strange sounds.  I would freeze in panic.  Finally I'd pull away and run out of the room.

Toward the end, the family put Grandpa in a home, where he died late one night.  Two days later we lowered a box into the earth and said goodbye.  I didn't see him die.  I didn't see his dead body.  Everyone was sad yet relieved that Grandpa's suffering was finally over.  What I most remember is those moments when he tried to speak to me with those piercing dark eyes.  To this day I wonder what he was trying to tell me.

When I was thirteen years old I took a summer job working for my father's best friend Hank.  I worked in his cable warehouse.  One day at five o'clock Hank came in and helped me wrap up stuff.  He told me some jokes and tried to share some of his knowledge with me.  We locked up, he waved goodbye and said "see you tomorrow."  That night the phone rang.  My parents were out somewhere.  The voice on the other end of the phone said Hank was dead.  He had a massive coronary playing handball.  I hung up the phone in shock.  I couldn't believe he was gone.

At the funeral I was still in shock.  As they lowered the casket into the earth Hank's wife burst into tears and leaped onto the descending casket screaming:  "Don't leave me, you bastard!"  People pulled her off the casket and eventually calmed her down.  I just stood there.  My feet digging deep into the perfectly manicured lawn.  I could not name or understand the feelings that twisted inside me.  And in my family we did not talk about our feelings, so eventually we went back to our normal everyday lives.   

When I was eighteen years old I left home to go to college in Los Angeles.  I was anxious to leave home and be on my own.  My new life was exiting but the feelings of loss slowly surfaced through the years I was away.  I kept these feelings buried the best I could.

When I was twenty-one years old we got the news that Mom might have something called Alzheimer's.  She had trouble writing and was tripping a lot.  At the time I really didn't understand the impact this information had on my life.  I wondered if my leaving home contributed to her illness.  I pushed back these thoughts and just went on as normal, as we all did.  Yet looking back I see the beginnings of my grieving that lasted till her death in April of 1993 and continue through this moment.

  When I was twenty-five I visited my parents at their winter home in Florida.  Mom's illness was progressing very slowly and the changes in her were still very subtle.  Of coarse we all acted as if nothing was wrong.  I ate a plate of bad shrimp and got very sick.  Back in L.A. a parasite made its way through my body, causing fever, ear infections, circulation problems and a host of other symptoms.  It lasted for months, till finally I fainted on a film set and was taken home.  I had a fever of 105 and lost consciousness again.  My friend, who brought me home, called the doctor.  He told her not to move me and wash me down with alcohol.  I left my body and floated up to the ceiling.  Looking down I could see my whole apartment.  It seemed as though I could see the walls yet could also see through them.  I saw my friend in the bathroom looking for the alcohol.  She couldn't find it and started to leave the room.  I had a thought of where the alcohol was.  She stopped, turned around and went right to it. I felt a gentle loving presence behind me.  All the worries and concerns of my life fell away like shattered glass.  I sensed who I was without my body.  I was peaceful and full.  It seemed as though the presence behind me had its hand on my shoulder.  I felt safe and deeply loved.     I had the thought that this could be my death.  Somehow I surrendered into it, thinking that either way would be okay.  The next moment, I could feel the tingling of my skin.  My friend was rubbing the alcohol on my body.  I returned to my body and opened my eyes.  The world seemed so fresh and new and alive.  Within a few days I found my way to Yoga, vitamin therapy and a healing diet. 

I returned home to Chicago to work on my healing process and to write my graduate film, a personal journey through the life of a stutterer (me).  While my life seemed to have more purpose, I was also more aware of the frailty of the body.  As I look back on this period of my life I see how I denied my mother's illness while my own body constantly reminded me of life's precarious existence.  It seems that during the years of her slow movement toward death, my own life was laced with ill health, mood swings and a subtle undercurrent of meaninglessness.

I returned to L.A. to start my graduate film project.  In the middle of editing my film, a year and a half after my near-death experience, I got sharp ripping pains in my groin.  The doctor said I had a hernia.  He gave me a harness to wear and scheduled surgery.  During this process news came that my grandmother (my father's mother) passed away.  I flew home and stood at her funeral with my groin strapped into a harness.  My feelings were so mixed.  Here was the woman who took care of me, when I was three years old, while my parents went to get my mother's father after his stroke.  Grandma took away my bottle and told me if I didn't stop crying my parents would never return.  She called herself the "Bella Busta" which in Yiddish means the boss or the ball buster.  And there I was with my balls busted, standing over her descending coffin.  Though my physical pain was great, emotionally I went numb.  

I returned to L.A. and had my surgery.  As they wheeled me down the long corridor toward the operating room, I stared at the pulsing fluorescent lights passing above me.  I remembered my near-death experience and felt peaceful.  After the surgery I laid in my hospital bed laughing and singing in a drug induced euphoric state. A few months later I went to see a Psychic.  He told me that I was a black slave in a past life and that I was beaten to death when I was seventeen years old.  Something inside me twisted and trembled.  I walked home in a daze.  Opening an old photo album I saw a picture of me at a costume party when I was seventeen.  I had made myself up as a famous black man.  In the photo I was hunched over and looked like a slave.  I walked around for days in an altered state, my sense of time shattered.

Around that time I heard that my anthropology teacher from undergraduate school had died of cancer.  She had inspired me and instilled in me a thirst for knowledge.  I wished I had talked to her more and kept in touch.  A year later I premiered my graduate film to packed houses.  It was a great moment.  The process of making the  film was a profoundly painful and beautiful experience.  A woman stutterer who saw my film flew 3,000 miles to a film festival to tell me that my film stopped her from committing suicide.  Inside I just freaked out, not knowing what to do with this information.  As I went to meetings with Hollywood moguls and accepted awards in front of applauding crowds, I felt empty and alone.  After several months I put everything I owned in storage and went off to Europe.

That summer I found myself in Paris, walking through the stone paths of Pere-Lachaise Cemetery.  Standing before the graves of Balzac, Chopin, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, the winds of death caressed my soul.  I felt the presence of spirit all around me.  As I sat before the sculpture of a wall with faces of ghosts pushing through its surface, the world around me receded into the distance.  I lost all sense of time and sat there for hours.  In the south of France I met a woman who introduced me to "A Course in Miracles."  Several other people mentioned this book to me.  Walking through the crunching fallen leaves on the streets of Vienna, a deep sorrow coursed through my veins.  On the island of Capri I met an old Italian fisherman.  He told me to remember that the last shirt has no pockets.  With each phone call home I could hear the fear and longing in my mother's voice.  Her thoughts seemed more fragmented. 

When I returned to the states I spent some time with her and my father at their home in Florida.  I could see the change in her.  We talked about her illness now, but only in the technical sense:  What did the doctors say?  What sort of tests had they taken?  How long will it take?  Do they know for sure?  But our emotions were still unspoken and unexpressed.  In Los Angeles, I found "A Course in Miracles" and started to study it.  It's been my daily companion to this day.  Being back in the Hollywood film world was hard for me.  I just couldn't get passionate about any film work.  Old friends drifted away from me and I from them. 

One day I found out a friend of mine had died.  He had helped me on my graduate film and was a close friend.  Slowly we had seen less of each other as our paths went separate ways.  At the news of his death I regretted not spending more time with him.  I also felt a loss of not saying good-bye or being at his funeral.  I wanted to help his wife and child.  I called and offered my help, but never followed up.  Somehow I buried my feelings and went on with life.

The following year, my film teacher from graduate school became very ill.  I sent him prayers and a get-well card.  He died a few weeks later.  At his memorial service, my emotions welled up inside me.  My love for him overwhelmed me.  He had taught me so much and constantly supported me.  I went to the bathroom and cried.  I felt guilty for not spending more time with him.  I also had fears that I had not lived up to his faith in me.

Again I put my possessions in storage.  I returned home to heal my relationship with my mother, say what I needed to say before it was too late, and to help my family.  I told Mom I loved her.  I meditated and prayed for her healing.  And I spent time with my whole family.  Being there to help her open doors and patiently listen to her broken sentences was deeply painful and yet rewarding.  Alone at night, tears welled up in my tired eyes.  I took long walks and drives, wading through the stream of thoughts and feelings moving inside me.

That winter we all went to Florida.  I met Sarah, the woman who would become my wife.  Mom was happy that I found someone.  She told me I should move on with my life.  I could see it was hard for her to be taken care of by her baby boy.  And it was hard for me to be between my parents life long pattern of arguing with each other.  I bought a Volkswagen Camper and drove back to California with Sarah.

A year later Sarah and I married.  Mom cried tears of joy at our wedding.  The next year news came that my parents were selling our home in Chicago.  This was the home I was born in.  Feelings of loss and sadness cut through me.  The following summer my sister Mardi called to tell me Dad couldn't handle Mom anymore and was going to put her in a nursing home.  I immediately flew home.  My family was in a panic.  They refused to consider alternatives or even to inform Mom's family of their decision.  I disagreed with what was happening and told them so.  They didn't listen to me.  I backed off and silently went along with them.  Dad insisted on not telling Mom where we were taking her. 

On the drive to the nursing home Mom was happy and fairly coherent.  I kept hoping Dad would change his mind.  As we pulled up to the home Mom freaked out.  She clutched my arms and cried for me to save her.  My insides ripped to pieces as I cried with her.  I begged my father not to do it.  He said he had reached his end.  They finally put her in the home.  That night I laid in bed with tears streaming down my face.  Something felt broken inside me, my whole body felt heavier and strangely different.  During the next few days I watched her deteriorate more rapidly.

When I returned to Los Angeles my nerves were shot.  Any form of stress exhausted me.  My family informed me that Mom was getting worse.  My mother was moved to Phoenix were she had a stroke.  She could no longer talk, walk or eat.  They put her on a feeding tube.  Sarah and I visited her a few times.  Each visit was more painful than the last one. I felt burnt out in the film business and the life I was living.  At the same time, my spiritual path had shifted my consciousness toward seeking a livelihood of direct service to others.  I decided to change careers and go back to school.  I applied to the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology and was accepted.  Without support from my family and unable to afford the move to ITP, I decided to postpone school for one year. 

I took a film job in New York with the hope of saving up for school.  While working on the film I felt sad about not being able to go to ITP.  The film's producer and director were fighting and I was in the middle.  During all this my ego boundaries were dissolving through my spiritual practice with "A Course in Miracles." 

One night while in bed in the production company's apartment in Hell's Kitchen something inside me snapped.  The fumes of fresh paint toxins, the rattling of the radiator, and the sight of giant black cockroaches crawling up the walls surrounded me.  Below my window crack dealers and prostitutes were hanging out on the street.  Across the way, the many windows of another tenement house revealed other lonely lost souls in isolation.  Suddenly, the whole world was sadness.  The walls were sad.  The chair was sad.  The sorrow that filled me felt like the sorrow of the whole world.  My mood shifted constantly, my eyesight blurred, my body was fatigued and my equilibrium was out of whack.  I felt that I was in the midst of a nervous breakdown/spiritual crisis. 

Returning to the West Coast I went to Esalen for healing.  While I was meditating with a small group of people I had a vision.  As we chanted "Om Nava shivaya" my body became hot with fever and I felt myself pulled toward the floor.  I saw dark skinned hands reaching up from the earth trying to pull me in.  Voices said this is the place I am to die.  Then I saw a tribe of Indians run toward me out of the dark forest.  I was an Esalen Shaman watching a neighboring tribe attack my people.  Half my tribe was killed.  I performed a ceremony and we buried them in the cliff beneath the meditation house.  We buried them with bodies hunched in a ball with their heads facing the ocean.  I climbed the cliff and carved the face and body of one of my dead brothers into the rock wall.   Before the meditation was over I left the room.  Standing outside, looking up at the star filled sky, I tried to calm down.  The next morning I walked to the cliffs and was shocked to see the carving from my vision in the rocks below the meditation house.  A chill went up my spine.  I had never seen it there before. 

When I returned to Los Angeles, I was diagnosed with panic disorder and chronic fatigue.  I found an Oriental Medical Doctor who treated me with herbs and acupuncture.  My father cut off all financial help for us and we declared bankruptcy.  I started to feel more distant from my Dad.  The next year Sarah and I moved up to Palo Alto so I could finally attend the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology.  During most of my first year at ITP I did not speak to my father or anyone else in my family.  Talking to them had became highly stressful.  They didn't want me to go back to school and my sister's were demanding that my father pull the plug on my mother.  I felt torn and the stress was making me sick. 

In the winter quarter I took a class in Tibetan Buddhism and learned the Phowa practice for death and dying.  Then in the spring I took Angeles Arrien's class in spiritual dimensions of human behavior.  She spoke about an old tribal wisdom which says that you cannot reach enlightenment if you do not first honor and respect (re-examine) your family, religion and culture of origin.  Angie's words rang in my ears.  I started to re-examine my religion of origin (Judaism).  Thoughts of my family haunted me. 

One Sunday, I called Dad.  He told me that they just made the decision to take Mom off life support.  I told him I'd like to come and say good-bye to her.  The next week Sarah and I flew to Phoenix.  We entered the Hospice and walked down the corridor past the chapel.  There was a mural of Jesus on the wall.  With each footstep I prayed.  Entering the room, my mother's twisted and shriveled body lay in the hospital bed before me.  They had just taken out the tubes that were keeping her alive.  The doctors said it might take two weeks for her to starve to death, but they would ease her pain with drugs.  Her large dark brown eyes stared at the window though her vision had darkened months before. 

I wanted to speak to her.  I held her hand and told her I would be okay and she could move on.  I prayed and meditated and read her poems and psalms.  My father, my wife, my sister and my brother-in-law and my self took turns at her side.  Sometimes all of us were there, sometimes just a few and sometimes one of us alone.  I remember the extreme sorrow I felt sitting by her side even though I believed in God and a life beyond this one.  Her physical presence was drifting away and leaving me.  After awhile I had to take a break and would go outside and sit on the hospice patio. 

The April Phoenix sun was warm and bright.  The desert flowers were in bloom and the warm dry air gently danced across my skin.  Strange, as I sat outside on that patio, I was overwhelmed by the beauty around me.  Each moment was crisp and sharp and so deeply alive.  I found my self walking between deep sorrow and profound beauty and every second filled me with its worth.  I was walking through a sacred landscape.

I performed the Phowa practice repeatedly in my mind.  Often as I pictured Jesus over Mom's bed she would look up as if she could see him.  The last night I saw her I told her of my near death experience.  I said I knew the other side was real and she didn't need to be afraid.  I told her I loved her and that I forgave her for everything and asked for her to forgive me.  I said good-bye with tears in my eyes.  She squeezed my hand and whispered: "Bye Mark." 

Sarah and I returned to California.  Two nights later I had a dream.  Mom, Sarah and I were climbing a rope ladder up into a helicopter.  As the helicopter took off I noticed Mom wasn't afraid.  She was happy and light-hearted.  I remembered how most of her life was spent in fear.  She seemed so different now.  We landed in a restaurant and sat at a round table.  Mom ordered food without care or concern, which was again so unlike her.  She smiled and left the table.  I woke up.  It was three in the morning.  Sarah opened her eyes.  She said she had a dream . . . it was the same dream as mine.  The next morning my sister called to tell us Mom had died at three that morning.  A shiver moved through me.  I was deeply sad yet profoundly touched by her spirit.  One day later we were on a plane for Chicago for the funeral.  I was reading about the Jewish grieving process and still performing Phowa.  I looked up and saw the American eagle emblem on the seat back in front of me.  Here I was on American Airlines going to honor my family while studying Jewish spiritual practices.  It struck me that I was honoring and respecting my family, religion and culture (American) of origin.

At the funeral there was tension between my family and my mother's family.  I refused to see any separation and hugged members of both families.  I felt Mom's spirit around the coffin.  My tears were of a sweat sorrow.  The Rabbi handed my father a bag of soil from the Holy Land.  Each member of my immediate family sprinkled some of this Holy soil into Mom's grave.  I was the last one to receive the soil.  There was a lot left.  My father and the Rabbi told me to pour it all in.  I looked over and saw my mother's sister and brothers in tears.  I poured a small portion of the soil into the grave and motioned to my mom's family to take part.  I felt a great strength move through me as I handed the soil to my aunt Sarah.  After the funeral we sat Shivah for only one night, even though the tradition is seven days.  My family ate and talked about everyday stuff.  I became uncomfortably aware of the pattern of avoiding emotions that was woven into the generations of my family assembled in that room. 

The next day everyone was ready to go on with their lives.  I was able to honor where my family was at while honoring how I felt.  Sarah and I flew back home where I spent the next week sitting my own Shivah.  I committed to the Jewish prayers and grieving rituals for the next year.  The rituals and prayers have truly helped me through this process.  I saw a grief counselor every week and took a class in "Losing a Parent." 

Around that time a classmate informed me that a mutual friend had died of cancer.  This man had been kind and generous to Sarah and I during our first few months of school.  He let us park our van behind his office and camp out while we searched for a home.  He had been sick for a long time but never told us.  I felt bad that we didn't know and weren't able to be there for him.  I wish I had the chance to return his kindness.

Two months after Mom's death my father announced he was marrying his first cousin Bertha.  This tore my family apart.  The way my father handled everything made me wonder who he was.  My sisters told me that Dad and Bertha had been having an affair for thirty years.  It felt as though I had also lost my father.  Indeed, I lost the image of who I thought my father was. 

A couple months later the phone rang.  I was told that my aunt Adele (my father's sister) had a stroke.  She was traveling to Reno and had the stroke while changing planes in Oakland.  Sarah and I drove to the hospital.  My uncle was there with my cousins and my father was flying in.  Aunt Adele was my second mother.  While I was going to college in L.A. she cooked for me on holidays and made sure I was okay.  Seeing her lying in the hospital bed, unconscious and connected to machines, was a shock.  I tried to do similar prayers and rituals that helped me with my mom's death.  But this was different.  I had to let go of the past and just feel the pain. 

In the morning they let her go.  I was in the room when her heart stopped beating.  I realized that this was the first time I had seen the moment of death.  Everyone left the room.  The nurses were filling out forms and asking questions.  I just sat there, trying to feel her spirit and help it along through prayer.  It seemed as though I was in a fog.  The voices and sounds around me were distant.  My heart felt heavy.  Seeing her body without life in it was strange and haunting. After her funeral in L.A. the family seemed to go crazy, lashing out at each other with words of thinly veiled anger.  By the end of the week I felt deeply hurt and exhausted.

Upon returning to school I was informed that a fellow classmate, Nabuko, had HIV.  She came to a few classes then stopped coming.  People said she had progressed into AIDS.  Nabuko had been kind and generous to me yet we also had some strange awkward moments.  We had grown distant and now I did not know how to be with her.  I just couldn't bring myself to call her or see her.  I meditated and felt that where I was at was okay.  Each morning she is in my prayers and I do Phowa for her.  This is my way of being there for her and it feels good.

A few months ago I had a hypnosis session in which I uncovered another past life memory.  I was an old man in ancient Rome.  There were children playing in the street where I was sitting.  A chariot was speeding toward them.  I tried to call out to them but I could not speak cause my tongue had been cut out.  I was a Christian who was beaten and punished.  They had cut my throat leaving a scare in the shape of a cross.  I tried to move toward the children but was too slow.  The chariot driver ran over them with a sadistic smile on his face.  I cried over their limp and lifeless bodies.

Now I sit in front of the words on this page.  Japanese flute music and wind chimes caress my ears.  I feel like I need to eat, even though I am not physically hungry.  I am sad and tired.  I have a sense of areas I am still withholding.  I feel a difference between the person who started this process and the one who sits here now.  What this difference is I cannot articulate.  I have cried.  I have paced the room.  And now I take a breath and sigh. 

My feet are tired from my dance with death.  My body feels heavy and yet transparent.  There is a sweet sadness in my heart.  My step seems a touch less hesitant.  And I know that this dance will continue.  It is said in the Jewish tradition that remembering those who have died is a gift to their spirits, our selves and all God's creation . . .  

"Exalted, compassionate God, 
grant perfect peace
among the holy and the pure, 
in Your sheltering Presence,
to the souls of all our beloved
who have gone to their eternal home. 
May their memory 
endure as inspiration
for deeds of charity and goodness in our lives. 
May their souls thus be bound up 
in the bond of life. 
May they rest in peace."

 


 

 

With these words I give thanks 

to those who have danced this dance with me:

 

Sam Dainas

Hank Singer

Florence Kaplan

Barbara Myerhoff

Barin Bhattacharya

Antonio Vellani

Libby Kaplan

Adele Branner

Dr. Herman Murcia

Nabuko Saeki

and

GOD

 


 
Death and Dying Self-Reflection Paper
 
Institute of Transpersonal Psychology
 
Winter 1994

 

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