The literary web-world has been abuzz about the death of writer Derek K. Miller. Why? Miller was a formidable writer in general, there’s no doubt. But it was the work of his final days, and the unflinching way in which he documented them — leaving us to ponder our own — that has struck the loudest chord. If you value honest, fearless writing, you’ll want to know who Derek K. Miller was.
And Miller, it can be said, loved honestly, too. You’ve got to admire that, as well.
What really has people talking, and reading, is Miller’s last blog post, appropriately titled “The Last Post.” In it, Miller writes, as it were, from “beyond the grave,” providing a posthumous summary of how the cancer that took his life changed it, how he gained perspective on the people around him, and about the mysteries that will survive him: how will the lives of his wife and daughters go on now that his own no longer can?
Why am I talking about this here? No, Miller’s now-famous Last Post wasn’t a post about Buddhism, or about culture, or about meditation — but it was about life, and by extension, as the meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg puts it, “living in the light of death.” That’s by no means an exclusively Buddhist idea or ideal, of course. But it’s something that you’ll find Buddhism does, again and again, concern itself with. And Buddhism, it has been said by many teachers now, is really about appreciating your life.
In his Last Post, Miller shared an appreciation of his life whose eloquence and beauty makes me both smile and cry and feel a whole bunch of love every time I read a paragraph or two. It’s powerful writing if ever there was powerful writing, and so in that regard, I’m pleased to be able to point you to it.
But that is, of course, far more bitter than it is sweet; I’d rather have known about Derek before he’d gone. So if you hold a favorite fearless writing or teaching about death in your heart and mind, I hope you’ll share word of it in the comments here. When it comes to truly appreciating our lives, as Miller knew, every word helps.
Carol Kinne says
My son passed at 28 and with his passing a chuck of my heart went with him. I grieve everyday, but I am just beginning to see (and it NOT stab me in the heart) the beauty he brought to everyone's lives. To be remembered by the way he lit up a room with his smile, how he could talk to anyone of any age……he definitely came to be my teacher. I knew that at his birth, with his wise little eyes and I think he is continuing to teach everyday.
Rod Meade Sperry says
That's beautiful, Carol. Thank you for sharing this here. Keep learning!
Pancho Verdes says
This brings to mind the day I was hospitalized here in Philly for non-existent stroke/heart attack and lying in my bed I heard a medevac chopper come in and land on the roof with its urgent dramatic whock-whock-whock and then take off again a few moments later, making room for the same routine from another chopper. And then another.
I'd been under surveillance for two days by that time, having passed out at a dinner party. Talk about taking over the conversation! There's nothing like this maneuver. So I came to to see people standing around staring at me as though I were a specimen. Come to think of it, I guess I was. An ambulance came along, its gravely impassive attendants loaded me, and I went to the hospital.
While they shlepped me on a gurney I looked over the V of my feet at the swirling blank hallways and had an epiphany: “Woo-hoo! It’s my Six Feet Under moment!” Things only got sillier: then my cell phone rang and my son in LA asked, “Where are you?” “On my way to getting a CAT scan,” I replied. “WHAT? Why are you getting a CAT scan?” Oh, they think maybe I had a stroke or something cause I passed out a little while ago.” “Where’s mom?” “She’s in the waiting room until I’m done with this.”
Her cell phone rings. She looks and tells our friends waiting with her “It’s Ben. I can’t tell him what’s going on.” And she picks up and the first thing he says is “Why is Dad getting a CAT scan?” “What!? He’s getting a CAT scan?” And everybody there, including the security guy, cracks up.
I felt completely joyous. Everything was funny; I laughed the whole time I was there. “Hysteria,” you’ll say, but it wasn’t. I could stop when I needed to, to answer questions or do a conversation. My wife got quite stern with me, telling me it was “inappropriate,” until I got her laughing too.
They kept me for the weekend, for observation, as I mentioned. Late the first evening a nurse comes into my room, and, seeing I was awake, starts a conversation. I had spent a few years previous studying religious stuff and writing about it, a thing she couldn’t have known but just the same she tells me she’s a Zoroastrian. I knew a bit about that belief, arguably the world’s first monotheism that keeps an “eternal” flame alight in its temples, a sign of God’s presence. It’s an extremely small and exclusive group: You can’t become a Zoroastrian. Turns out the nurse’s uncle is the equivalent of their Pope, based in India since Islam rooted them out of their native Iran.
She told me stories of how evangelical Christians kidnapped her in college, aiming to convert her. They failed.
So after the last chopper goes, I reflect on that hysterical and very expensive life-saving drama, and the tale I heard about the old Buddhist monk, lame and quite ill, who one afternoon decides he’s had enough and struggles to his feet, leaning on his cane. He hobbles out on to the path and goes to local sky cemetery (a field where corpses are laid until buzzards finish eating them; Tibet has precious few places where the soil’s deep enough for our style of burial). He gets there. He lies down and dies.
I gotta say- I'm an RN. Oncology and everything else. And health care IS funny. I have held the dying hand of so many that it far outnumbers my "civilian" peers in their late 30s who have seen death. And I feel virtually any time is a good time to laugh, especially in death and dying. I will sit with a family as they watch their loved one pass and we reflect on their life. There is always an anecdotal reflection of joy and humor. The families will say, "this is terrible, but… (insert funny comment here)." I say, it's NOT terrible. It is so endlessly joyful that you got a chance to share your life with a person who could make you laugh- even if it was only one time when he/she was on their deathbed!! And how lucky am I??!! To get to share that experience as an outsider on the inside is unforgettable. Life is grand!! Everyday is funny, even if it is just for one second.
It is highly unfortunate that efforts of reminding people how short life is only seem to work when they come from a dead or dying person.
my mum paased away suddenly almost a year ago of cancer within 5 weeks of diagnosis. Miss her every minute of the day. She was a light for many people whose world id no longer the same.
She lived by her motto "In life one should plant flowers not thorns, that way when you are gone your fragrance will remain"