Since leaving my full-time position in 2011, I’ve made my living doing something which my mother (my mother!) once told me I was incapable: being spontaneous. So, I’d been working a rather long string of part-time, temporary positions. In a bid to enter the full-time workforce once again, I recently decided to reassess my skills, seek training where needed, and revise my resume. Several weeks ago, just one day after applying for a position, I received a phone call inviting me to interview for a full-time position (I interviewed the next day, got the job, and that is why I took a little time off from this blog). While preparing my interview outfit, I suddenly felt compelled to add my “Little Red Dress” pin, the symbol for the Go Red For Women.org campaign. This campaign is near and dear to my heart because unbeknownst to many, heart disease is the number one killer of women, and this campaign is dedicated to making sure that everyone knows it.
For women, the symptoms of heart disease are much subtler than for men. As a result, a women can be in the midst of a heart attack and have no idea. Often, by the time a woman decides to seek medical attention, it can be too late. Admittedly, though I was not sure how appropriate such a piece of jewelry was for a job interview; I placed the pin on my lapel, trusting that it was the right thing to do. Interestingly enough, it would be only a matter of hours before I discovered that it was, indeed, the right thing to have done.
After what seemed like a successful interview, I decided to celebrate by going to Starbuck’s and purchasing an Oprah Chai Tea Latte, which unlike Oprah, I could then ill-afford. And I further justified this splurging by reminding myself that every Oprah drink purchased provides a donation to the cause of education – and we all know how much Buddhists loves causes – and effects…
Now, this is where things got truly interesting. The line at Starbuck’s was so long, I nearly left the store, twice. And despite being in the part of the line that was inside the store, it would be over half an hour before I got my drink. So, I decided to engage with the woman standing next to me, but she was going through her handbag, and didn’t seem disposed to speaking at that moment. I instead decided to speak to the woman in front of me and said, “You must really need some coffee to go through this!” She laughed and said, “Yes, only true Starbuck’s aficionados need apply!” About ten minutes later, I again leaned forward and whispered in quick succession, “Dunkin’ Donuts! Dunkin’ Donuts! Dunkin’ Donuts!” Again, we shared a quick giggle, and she said it was a tempting thought. About two minutes later, I felt someone lightly tap my arm. I turned around, looked down, and it was the woman behind me who’d previously been busy going through her handbag. She was in her eighties; barely over five feet tall; and had one of the most beautiful, soulful faces I’d ever seen. With a wistful expression, she said, “I, too, have that pin” (referring to my Little Red Dress pin). And a bond was forged.
I mentioned how sad and shocking it was that so few people were aware of the danger of heart disease to women. She nodded and said, “I just lost my son, two months ago, to heart disease. He was 50. He literally just dropped dead.” After a brief second of initial shock, I told her how sorry I was for her loss and we just stood there, looking into each other’s faces for a few moments. After that silence, I again expressed my condolences and said I couldn’t imagine how she must feel. She thanked me and told me I was very kind. We continued to chat, but about other things – especially the slow-moving line. Eventually, I told her to stand in front of me, joking that though it didn’t get her much farther, she’d be that much closer to getting her drink. After she finally got to the front of the line, ordered her drink, and prepared to pay for it, I placed some money in the cashier’s hand saying I’d take care of it. My new acquaintance insisted that it wasn’t necessary, but I insisted that it was. I, myself, totally exhausted after my interview and from standing in line so long, had decided to forget about Oprah and, instead, get a drink with two shots of espresso just to give me the strength to walk out of the store. I couldn’t imagine how someone her age must have felt, standing for so long. She thanked me, saying “You didn’t have to do that!” I said, “You touched my heart.” She said, “You touched my heart, too!” and much to my surprise, reached up and asked for a hug. I hugged her as best I could while holding my handbag, briefcase, and a bag of recently purchased items.
Despite being so deeply moved by what this woman shared with me, the thing that impacted me most was the depth of her sadness – so raw, and so recent, and her obvious state of shock. I lost my father two years ago and still tear up whenever I think of him; so, I did understand, to a certain extent, the depth of her loss, but this was her child, not a parent. Truly, no normal mother expects or wants to outlive her children. And this was a woman who had obviously raised a son of whom she could be proud, and who felt that she could die a happy woman knowing that someone she loved, so deeply, was living a happy, productive life. Now, he was gone, literally in the blink of an eye, and it was she who was left behind, her own heart, though still beating, seemingly broken beyond repair. Yes, heart disease is the number one killer of women.
This, for me, was just one more reminder that life and death, so inextricably intertwined, must always be in our thoughts because strangely enough, it is death, alone, which makes us comprehend the value of life. Among ancient Buddhist practices, it was not uncommon for monks to sit on the roadside for days, observing the decomposition of the corpse of some unfortunate creature, as a form of meditation on the nature of death (impermancence). In fact, to this day, though much, much less common as I understand it, it is still possible to find malas (rosaries) made of bone, tailored for such meditations. There is probably no better reminder that in the end, our bodies, our vehicles in this life, are merely fertilizer.
According to the Buddha, to fear death is to be dead, already; yet, not to consider death, at all, leaves us just as lacking. Many of us live our lives as though endless tomorrows are promised; but nothing is promised. Nothing is forever. The only thing that never changes is change, itself. And whether we are “good” or “bad,” rich or poor, death will find us, and our loved ones, as well. This is why I strive to live each day as if it were my last (sometimes failing miserably). I want to consider the nature of my speech, my actions, and my thoughts. I actually like to keep in mind a verse from the Christian Bible, Phillipians 2:12, which says:
“…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
This reminds me both that I am solely responsible for my own actions and their effects in my life, as well as that I need to make a serious effort in this regard. Hopefully, my “fear and trembling” will not paralyze me, but instead, energize and motivate me. Thus loss, death being, perhaps, its greatest manifestation, is simply a part of life; and unlike most gifts, is something for which we all have to ‘pay.’ Part of ‘paying’ is understanding that the Universe taketh, and the Universe taketh away. It’s nothing personal, just the nature of life. We need to conscientiously contemplate this and make friends with the idea so we can stop pretending it just isn’t so. In the words of the Buddha: “Everything is changeable, everything appears and disappears; there is no blissful peace until one passes beyond the agony of life and death.”
Buddha’s Last Words (Mahaparinibbana Sutta) from Somewhere in Dhamma… (blog) Note: I found this post, dealing with the death of a parent, relevant to the discussion because of how beautifully it deals with ‘unexpected’ death from a Buddhist perspective.
Go Red for Women.org from American Heart Association (Website)