I almost didn't recognize Earl--he had aged dramatically in the years since he had moved out of the neighborhood. His hair had gone completely grey, all his teeth were missing and he had decided to go without his false teeth, if he owned them at all.
He simply looked frail and small.
We spent some time catching up, asking after his family, but almost every statement he made ended with something like, "well, we can't all live forever...." and "we're all headed for something different, there's no denying that."
Earl is only 74, but he looked at least 10 years older. It was clear that he had his mind focused on finishing his life and said, "I've never been too bright up here," tapping his head playfully, "but I've always been physically able to get places. Now my legs just don't have any strength."
Maybe a little too solemnly, we nodded and listened.
"One doctor says I had a stroke, another doctor says I didn't. I won't tell you their names unless you ask," he laughed. His eyes twinkled mischievously. One thing Earl hadn't lost was his sense of humor, and that was heartening.
"But we're all facing the big change," he said quietly. "All of us."
We said our good byes and left. I wondered how he had gotten down to the dinner from his elder-care house, too far to walk, so maybe he was still driving. And since he was alone, we wondered about his wife....we recalled his sister and the beautiful little grandchild she used to babysit for, when she had more mobility. Now his sister barely goes anywhere, her back is so bad.
I've been consciously focusing on impermanence lately as a practice.
After a few annual test results, I've been prescribed a medication that will strengthen my bones and keep them them from further dissolving. In another time and place, I wouldn't have reached the age of 56. Thirty years ago, there wouldn't have been viable options to arrest osteoporosis, or the medical knowledge to even recognize the complications of the disease.
I am fortunate to have choices, to have knowledge and the ability to act.
Unconsciously, my mind works overtime, like a mill wheel forever turning in the stream.
I ask myself, if it must turn, what is grist for the mill?
A dream wakes me, and I recall a young man with a black dog on a leash, following me, until I've reached a point where I can not avoid him any longer. He's attractive and calm, kind.
He asks "Are you aware that time can be used to vanquish stress and anxiety, as an artist creates?"
I answer, "Do you mean, as people die, there will be more opportunity for me?"
He gives me an odd look and say, "No, that's not what I mean. Use time like an artist. I'll show you how."
And then I'm in some other location, a completely empty, neutral.
The young man is gone and I am holding a small manual about trees.
I know he has given me the book, but it didn't arrive through the mail, he didn't hand it to me, he simply made it appear simultaneously with his offer.
"Oh," I think, holding the book, "This is how it's done."
The cover says Time Traveler's Guide--Throw This Book Away When You Find A Teacher
I realize that there is an entire sub-culture of people who understand time in a way that most of us simply don't, and never will, and I want to understand this concept. I feel extremely lucky, even though I don't understand anything, I know virtually nothing, but I'm going on a discovery mission.
What a job we all have before us!
Could it be any more dramatic, important, all encompassing?
To understand our living and dying, to take responsibility for this process of awakening is daunting, if not terrifying!
But it seems clear, when we begin to contemplate the choices, that there is only one choice, that of attempting to go beyond that which appears so permanent, so independent.
The reminders of impermanence and interconnectedness are all around us, yet they remain invisible to us because visibility implies the utter truth of our fleeting existence, and that's a shaky, shaky place to rest!
Around all of this is revolutionary compassion, a deep well spring of compassion, as evidenced by Earl's sweet humor and the ability to still poke fun at one self and the way the body simply stops "working as good as it used to".
When he was our neighbor, I remember Earl used to smile and laugh a lot, just about life in general, and it was always easy to be around him. He made me feel as if everything was okay, just the way it was.
That's a gift Earl is still offering and I thank him for it.