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writing, something about Susan. He is inviting this as part of a memorial service for Susan on May 26th at IMS in Barre Massachusetts. Until the other day, I thought I have nothing suitable to share. Now the day before the event, I do my best to share what is true for me. That's all I know how to do. There were a lot of complicated and overlapping reasons why I never visited my sister Susan during the year she was sick and dying of pancreatic cancer. Some were personal limits of my own, like my strong urge never to leave my neighborhood in Hawaii, and some where byproducts of my inability to wisely choose to enter the dysfunctional dynamic of my dying sister and our crazy family. And some was my self-protecting urge not to intimately witness the ugly spectacle of someone I had known all my life being tortured to death from the inside out. Amidst these and many more competing factors was deep uncertainty as to who my sister Susan was and of what significance my lifelong relationship to her. I remember various snippets from growing up in the same gigantic suburban house with the same gigantic upwardly mobile Jewish parents. Unfortunately, those memories are utterly without emotional context or connotations for me. This is because I chose not to feel any emotions during my childhood and early adolescents. It worked pretty well as a strategy for a long time. And I got over it later in life. But I am sorry to confess I can remember no fond memories of my family during my childhood, except sitting alone in my room doodling and looking out the window when I should have been doing my homework. I remember Susan not as any kind of an ally but as a strange alien competitor struggling against each other and separately to exist with least aggravation in the land of the crazy giant parents. Next thing I know, Susan dropped out of high-school and joined a crazy religious cult. My parents freaked out non-stop for years. I vaguely admired her good luck at find a perfect spiritual master to extract her, but in actual effect she abandoned me as well as the rest of the family while I was just hitting adolescence and could probably have used an older cooler sibling. Eventually Susan and I became friends as adults. We lived together, along with Ted, and sometimes Carol, in the early 80s. We went to a dismantling racism workshop together once, for the first time doing something not as two children of Sylvia and Dick, but as two friends who happened to be siblings. Later, Susan and Ted started coming around during my decade in residence at the Insight Meditation Society. It was a strange intertwining of paths, given that Susan had left behind some of her eastern spiritual books when she ran off to join the lunatics, as my dearly deceased dad used to say. So through her influence, even in her absence, I read Zen Mind, Beginner’s
Mind, Autobiography of a Yogi, and Siddhartha, all of which greatly opened my mind and heart to infinite possibilities that lay far east of suburban Marblehead, even further east than the Middle East where my parent tried in vain to anchor my spiritual allegiances. Susan retired from her life of spiritual excess after a few years, while I followed my own twisted trajectory spiraling out and beyond the boundaries of normal social orbit. Meanwhile Susan and Ted returned to the suburbs, completed postponed degrees, developed careers, bought houses and Volvos, figured out how to make a baby the hard way. How to make a living the hard way, even while keeping their creativity and consciousness alive as well as possible against the avalanche of worldly stress and responsibility. From that world, not far down the road literally or figuratively from where we grew up, Susan started coming to visit me at IMS, where they offer a style of spiritual teaching only semi-jokingly referred to as the Upper Middle Way. At this later period of their lives, this mellow yuppie dharma suited Susan and Ted much better than the crazy hippie satsang of their youth. And it was such nice karma that the seeds of spiritual books Susan had ditched on her way to the Ashram had flowered in my mind, had blown my mind away, had blossomed my hard heart to smithereens, had blown me like dandelion fluff back and forth across the cosmos and the country, until I took seed in the weeds behind IMS, in time to share new dharma fruits with she who had planted the seeds initially. That was the nice part between me and Susan. That was the special part. She turned me on to the dharma initially, and I turned her back on to it later. And when I was suicidally depressed hardly able to get out of bed let alone do anything or care about anything, Susan called me up every day to talk. Plenty times she gave me advice how to fix my messed up life, but I didn’t pay much attention to that. As far as I’ve always been concerned, my life is perfectly fucked up just the way it is. But lots of times, we just chatted about any little thing and it was just nice to have someone who cared enough to make time to exist in my tiny world on a regular basis. And when Susan was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I called her every day for the first six months. I wasn’t doing it because she was my sister, to tell you the truth. I was doing it to repay her because she had done it for me first. Funny thing was we never talked about her problems; she always kept the focus on fixing me. We could talk science facts about cancer, but we couldn’t talk about the spiritual challenge of dying. She wasn’t interested in going there. Eventually, as she slowly got sicker, I started giving her a little advice. I used to encourage her if possible to find the place where dying of cancer was OK. Not to worry, though, even if she could find a place where dying of cancer was OK, it would not magically eclipse the level where dying of cancer totally
sucks. That’s too much to hope for, I wouldn’t expect her to trust anyone who dared to offer so much. I just felt it would be really nice to know a little place to go where everything was OK, even while it was horrible beyond measure everywhere else. It was just what little advice I had to give to my dying sister. I don’t know if it was any help to her at all. I kind of hope so, but I have no idea. One other fun thing we did is for a while Susan, Ted, and I practice laughing extensively without specific comic provocation. Susan had read somewhere about the cancer healing power of laughter, and I pointed out it is possible to force one’s self to laugh genuinely and unreservedly in great torrents, especially if you have friends helping to build off of one another’s laughter. To prove this, Susan, Ted, and I would laugh and laugh and laugh on the phone together. I’m not joking: there was no joke told. We would just start laughing until we couldn’t stop, until we were exhausted and had to stop. It’s not so hard to do. You should stop reading right now and try it with me for a minute or two. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!!!!!!!!!!!! ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!!!!!!!!!!! ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Till the end, I wrestled with leaving my nest in Hawaii to help take care of dying Susan in hometown Massachusetts. My friends most all grew tired of hearing me struggle with the same issue for week after month. Twice I made it to the Honolulu airport all packed and ticket only to be turned home due to insurmountable aversion or intervention from homeland security. Mostly, I kept waiting for Susan to really need me. Not to babysit, do errands, tag along in search of farfetched cures that had no mathematical chance of success. I kept waiting for the part I felt I was good at, the part where I had special knack, unique knack enough to roll the gelatinous inertial mass of my current life all the way across one very big ocean and one very big continent to the town of my childhood’s beginnings and my sister’s end. My only special gift was the message that dying is OK, relax and enjoy it. I kept waiting for that stage to kick in: the one where everyone gives up and you have to relax and be OK, because there absolutely nothing left else to do or be. I kept waiting for that stage until one day Susan was dead. Rumor has it, it never came. Or maybe it came and went so quickly there was no time for me to respond from so far away.
All I know now is Susan was an OK friend as an adult. Not the best, but certainly worth having and knowing. Sometimes still I think of something I want to share with her until I remember she’s forever gone. I feel the loss of a friend, the loss of a role that only she knew how to play. I’m sad for a moment, then I yield to inevitability and let go. Oh ya, I am reminded. Susan has died. One more in a growing corpse of evidence that everyone dies sooner and sooner everyday. Everyone dies: me, you, and everyone we know. And everyone we don’t know. And everything at all all dies. And that’s OK. That’s all I know. Much love in the meantime, David
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