I have been profoundly aware of death, perhaps the greatest of all journeys, ever since I can remember. Indeed my entry into this world was precipitated by the death, to the day, of my Great Grandfather, after whom I am named.
I remember crying over a flyspray commercial when the fly finally died and was swept away into a rubbish bin. I also had recurring nightmares of my Grandparents falling into a deep hole in the ground and dying. I had the same dream about my parents but mainly my Grandparents who, at the ripe old age (to a 5 year old) of 40 seemed close to death. (I am 52 as I write this… imagine what my 5 year old self would think of me!) Some people I knew well had died when I was a child. The cantankerous old drunk next door neighbour whose husband had died in the war and who had romantic fantasies about Prince Phillip. Over time she had become good friends with my Grandmother. One afternoon after school my Grandmother with tears streaming down her face tells me Mrs L. had died. My Grandmother was always Helen to the old neighbour but the neighbour was always addressed as Mrs L. If only I was more politically aware when I was a kid.
Another neighbour, a young family, who had become very close with Mum and Dad had a little boy who died before he reached his 2nd year. Distant relatives, more neighbours. A lot of these deaths were a shock to me but nothing prepared me for the death of my beloved Grandmother.
It was a typical Monday morning. My Mum was getting ready to go to work. My Dad had already left. I was also getting ready to go to school but something guided me to go to my grandmothers bedroom. My Grandad had already got dressed and gone to do whatever he did after he retired. My grandmother complained of a stomach ache and asked my mum to make her some chamomile tea. Mum was complaining because if she did so she would miss her bus and be late to work but she made the tea and ran out the door.
I bought the tea to my grandma who took a few sips. She lay down and continued groaning in agony. My grandma was melodramatic but this was different, it felt different and it made me anxious. People walking past her bedroom window – we lived near a university so there was always a lot of foot traffic outside our ground floor apartment – would stop at hearing her howls of agony. After a while she asked me to hold her hand which I did. I was confused when she asked me to hold her hand again.
I said ‘I am holding your hand!’
She asked me to give her the icon of Our Lady which I did. She asked me again, and again I told her she was holding it.
She asked me to speak up as I was a faint whisper. I spoke at the top of my voice ‘Yiayia, I am here. Can you hear me?’
“Where are you?” She replied turn on the lights.
At this point Mum came bursting through the door upset she missed her bus. She started to scold my Grandma about keeping her back to make a cup of tea but stopped short.
She started to call out ‘Mum? Mum? Oh my God her lips are purple”
She called the ambulance but it was too late. What we thought was a stomach ache turned out to be a massive coronary.
The person that raised me, that was my surrogate mother, my whole world was dead. My life literally stopped. I was preparing for my year 10 finals which more or less determine how well you are likely to do in your year 12 exams leading to university. I was a straight A student. For the next 6-months leading to the exams I did not pick up a book or a pen. I went into the exams totally unprepared and of course did not do too well. Luckily my prior knowledge carried me far enough to get through with an average mark.
Although I was no athlete I did participate in a lot of team sport: Cricket, Rugby and Rowing. After my grandma’s death I stopped all sport, I slowly gained weight and I lost a lot of ‘friends’ who were angry with me because I had pulled out of the team. I remember one ignorant little grunt asking me why I was so effected by my Grandma’s death … ‘She’s only your Grandma!’
I became a lot closer to my family and at the same time I saw my family start to implode. My father and grandpa started fighting….My Mum and Dad were talking divorce… Once my Dad cuddled me, weeping as we fell asleep.
At this point I resolved to cure death. I set out to be doctor to heal people and conquer death. It was at this point I also wanted to more about death, in particular what happens after we die. The thing I knew the best was the Bible so I read it cover to cover – the whole thing – at the age of 15 – without any guidance. This is when I started to discover that things held in the highest regard are not always what they seem to be.
I started to notice logical inconsistencies, and sometimes contradictions. I asked awkward questions like if the God of the old testament, the Jewish God, and the God of the New Testament, the Christian God, are the same then why is Christianity different to Judaism? I was frustrated to discover that despite there being a lot of death in the Bible, it provided little insight into Death itself and what happened after death apart from the most superficial, Disney-like metaphors.
Reading the Bible lead me to read the Koran which proved to be no better in answering my questions. Only when I started to read about Buddhism did I start to quench my thirst for knowledge. Ever since, Buddhism has framed almost everything spiritual I’ve opened myself to.
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