Face to Face With Death

Having a face-to-face encounter with a dying person is really heart-breaking. 

Two days after my phone conversation with my aunt who informed me that my other aunt was dying, I traveled almost seven hours on a bus to visit my dying aunt. 

Upon arrival, I rushed immediately to the ICU. As I was walking through the dark entrance, I remembered that the last time I saw her was almost a year ago. And so our last conversation. What happened? Why was I disconnected for so long?

At our first eye contact, my lovely aunt greeted me with a smile. Her face lighted up a bit. I could see the joy in her eyes somewhat overpowered the suffering that couldn't be hidden in her face. Joy and suffering seemed to come hand-in-hand in that moment as if they were best of friends — inseparable. I didn't know how to respond. I didn't know how to react. Should I cry? Should I smile? Would it be okay to show my pain?  Should I be happy? Should I ask, "How are you?" I Didn't know.

For a few seconds, I was stunned, literally unable to move. She was less than one arm away from me, but I didn't reach for her. With all my communication skill, I couldn't speak. Tears wanted so badly to escape my eyes, but didn't flow. Then she took the first move. She reached for me.

Unexpectedly, my dying aunt, still smiling, lying helplessly on her ICU bed, gently lifted her right arm and rendered me a military salute. That, I never anticipated.

In military practice, you cannot lower your arm when saluting an officer until that officer lowers his arm after acknowledging your salute. Only then, you can lower your arm and carry on.

Adding to my surprise, my dearest aunt — with all those hoses attached to her nose and throat, and with all those other medical gadgets wrapped to her wrist and clipped to her index finger — didn't lower her saluting arm. she waited for me to respond…militarily.

At that moment, my other aunt, the one who called me two days earlier, jerked me back to reality by saying, "Hey Arnold, she's saluting you! Respond! Salute back!" Then instantly I returned to myself. At last I was able to salute her back as an acknowledgement. After lowering my arm, she lowered hers, all according to how it must be done in the military.

I stayed with her in almost an hour, feeling helpless, inadequate, stupid, hopeless, and most of all feeling the pain — all the pain and suffering— she's going through. 

What I saw in there was a very strong and capable sharp mind trapped in a very weak, incapable, permanently damaged body. In my assessment, I could say that despite her condition, she still had the sharpest mind among us all in that room at the moment. She knew the time. She can even count hours and minutes. She remembers, for she knew I had a military background, she even insisted to follow the correct protocol in saluting. I was amazed! 

After the saluting moment, she opened her mouth which was already half open because of the tube attached to it. Without audible sound, she uttered a word I instantly recognized by reading her lips. She said, "your mama?" She was asking me where's my mom. She knew that my mom (her eldest sister) lives in Thailand, and she was asking me  through gesture if my mom is coming home. I quickly and enthusiastically answered that part. With confidence, I said, "Yes. She's coming today. She will arrive at the airport in six hours time, and I will get her there and bring her to you here." 

Then she lifted her right hand again and gestured the thumb's up sign. She smiled again while nodding.

I didn't expect either what happened next. She turned her head to my other aunt, and signaled that she needed a paper and a pen. Then she looked at me as if instructing me to pay attention to what she's going to write. I did not dare to resist or contradict. As she stroked the first letter, I fixed my eyes to the paper. I saw "W" and then "e" and then "l"

With all her remaining strength, in a very slow motion, she completed her message. It read:

Sister, Welcome back to the Philippines! I love you!

Then she attached her signature, looked at me and threw me a very sweet smile. That smile melted me instantly. My tears began to flow.

For me, it was a very humbling experience. I felt stupid and lousy. I couldn't respond appropriately on the first few seconds of our encounter, I didn't know what words to say, I didn't know what emotion to feel and how to express it. Or whether I should express it or not. I didn't know how to move or act. Everything for me was awkward, confusing, hurting!

Watching my dearest aunt on her face-to-face encounter with death made me think how short life is and how much and how far we divert from the most important matters in life. On her last moments, everything that mattered to my aunt was her precious relationships. All her academic achievements, previous prestige, her titles and other possessions faded in thin air as if they were not important at all. Everything that's important on her dying hours were her precious relationships — her family, her best friends.

After that encounter, I went outside the hospital to grasp for fresh air, I went to the nearby mall to buy some food I could stock. I watched people around me — those people at the streets, at the mall, at the stores, even those people at the hospital. I asked myself, what am I busy right now in my life? Do these things that preoccupy my heart and mind right now will still preoccupy me on my death bed when my time comes? Or like my dear aunt, will they vanish in thin air too, like a non-important item ready to be dislodged in the trash anytime?

I sensed a misalignment — a very profound one. Many people I worked with, and that includes me, live their lives (our lives) accumulating things and experiences that I think wouldn't even matter when the time comes. Many of us preoccupy our daily life with activities that will not make sense on our deathbed.

My dear aunt, on her last days, didn't even remember she was a beauty queen during her time. She didn't mention any of her possessions, or how much money she left on the bank. She did not boast about her brilliant ideas and her incoming projects. No, during those days, her last days, her focus was her loved ones, she wrote repeatedly the names of her family, one by one on papers. She wrote repeatedly the words "I love you!" both in English and in our local dialect.

I didn't sense a feeling of regret from her. I didn't see bitterness either. The nurse even told me, "I admire your aunt! She's very patient — very slow to complain and that she never got angry when in pain. Unlike many patients who complain non-stop about their pain and become angry to the nurses, to the doctors, even to God."

Fast forwarding my life to that moment, to my last days, I ask myself, will I ever feel regret? Will I look back on the years that passed and say, "I should not have lived my life that way." 

All her life, she has been a great inspiration to me…yes up to the very last days of her consciousness. I think her face-to-face moment with death awakened in me the spirit of renewal, the desire to filter life on a daily basis, removing non-essentials, focusing only on what matters most in life, forgetting those things that will not make sense on my death bed when my time comes. She left me an impact that will last until my last breath. For as long as I live, she lives in my heart too.

Looking For God?

A fifteen-year-old boy asked me a straightforward theological question that is difficult to answer, “I’ve been looking for God. Where is He…?”

His phrase, “I’ve been looking for…” reminded me of an experience:

When I misplaced my favorite sign pen, I searched for it in my bedroom and in my office. I searched in my tables, drawers, the pockets of my pants and polo. I searched in places where I think I can find my sign pen, but I never searched the ceiling, nor my toolbox, nor the toilet. Why? Because I knew I would never find my sign pen there. I would have to look for my pen in the right places.

When I’m looking for something important, I don’t look in the wrong places. So when somebody tells me that he’s looking for something, my first instinct is to think whether that person is looking at the right places. Otherwise, I would feel that he won’t find what he’s looking for.

God, however, is not like my sign pen that when misplaced, cannot be found in the wrong places. Yet, like everything else, when we start looking for Him, our own perspective plays a very powerful and definitive role. Somehow, He allows himself to be subjected to our assumptions.

In academic research, we start with basic assumptions. In search of an invisible God, we do the same. Aren’t our attitudes serve as our assumptions when we are looking for God? They are the lenses we put in our eyes. Can’t we recall all the happy moments, all the blessings, and joy and then ask ourselves whether God has nothing to do with those favors?

Or do we look through our pains and hurts, through calamities, wars, famines, and other human suffering, and then tauntingly declare that God is nowhere to find? Where are we looking at? What lens are we using?

The Power of Perspective

If I want to see something far, I would use a telescope. If I want to see objects so tiny that naked eyes can’t see, I would use a microscope.

I remember the first time I bought a pair of polarized sunglasses. The sales lady asked me to look at an image without wearing any glasses. She asked me what I saw. I said, “I see trees beside the sea, and then skies above.” Then she had me put the polarized sunglasses and look again at the same image she showed me earlier. I was amazed, suddenly I saw the dolphins. From that experience I learned that there are images that we can see through polarized glasses that we can’t with ordinary glasses.

Our basic paradigm is our lens. We see things through it. Yet its powerful enough to see the not easily seen images. The state of our heart in the moment of our search for God, whether we are happy, bitter, afraid, troubled, or angry, our predominant attitude at play when we are looking for God are powerful—very powerful.

Lenses are powerful enough to deceive us. When I was young, I always laugh at my grandmother when she was looking for her reading glasses and couldn’t find it, only to realize after few minutes of search that the reading glasses were on her eyes—she’s wearing it. She couldn’t see it. But she saw everything through it.

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I didn’t give the boy an all-knowing wise answer; I don’t have one. Instead I asked him more questions, “Are you looking for God? Where?” What do you expect to find? What lens are you using in looking for Him, the lens of pain, bitterness, anger, resentment…or the lens of happiness, contentment, peace, and blessings? If in case you found Him, are you ready to face Him?

Not by Argument

When I first read the saying, “PEOPLE ARE CONVINCED NOT BY ARGUMENTS BUT BY OBSERVATION,” I pondered deeply about it.

For someone who is so interested in logical inferences, I was a little bit skeptical. For many years I believed that arguments are the best tool for convincing people. Set the right premises, and express clearly the conclusion, and that’s it, if you are good enough, your arguments will be irrefutable. People will be convinced.

I was wrong.

Gradually I have observed and learned that verbal argument actually sometimes is the last part in the process of changing minds. After we have observed enough actions, our mind becomes open to the arguments behind that action. If in case, arguments come first, we tend to wait for compelling actions before we are convinced. Then again, after we have carefully observed the action, the arguments just naturally follows.

If a person wants me to believe that he’s trustworthy, no amount of argument will convince me; I need to observe his actions.

If in case a person shows me trustworthiness in her action, even without explaining, I will be convinced that I can trust her.

Virtue is Knowledge; Wickedness is Ignorance

Challenged
My tranquility was once again disturbed by a friend. One day she called me to help her out in her assignment. Being a close friend, I quickly answered yes. But when I started reading the seven different dicta of seven ancient philosophers, I also started to panic. I love the subject, yes…Philosophy for me contains the most exciting but also the most exhausting things to ponder about. How can I simply establish rational reaction to these philosophers’ words of wisdom without given enough time to ponder deeply? My ungenerous friend did not give me the luxury of time: she wanted me to deliver my quick reaction in two days. So I attempted.

Of those ‘Words of Wisdom” from different philosophers, one struck me like no other: According to Socrates,

“All vice is the result of ignorance, and that no person is willingly bad; correspondingly, virtue is knowledge, and those who know the right will act rightly.”

My quick reaction was to disagree, of course. I began my argument with the assumption that knowing is separate from acting. Meaning, our knowledge can be used for both good and bad. It is the choice of the person who possesses the knowledge where he’s going to use it.

Let’s look at the obvious. Many people who know too much use their knowledge in wickedness. Therefore, Socrates was wrong. Or was he?

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