So, about that whole Year in Yamas and Niyamas thing…
I got a little sidetracked. In all honesty (hey satya) I still am, and not in the right place to thoughtfully reflect on the past three months. February into March was a blur, and if I learned anything in all my yoga teacher training, it’s to fully process your own shit before talking / writing / sharing it with others, at least in a way that is objective and possibly of some service to your clients / readers / students. Clearly I don’t follow that rule to a tee, as I spill all my guts here, no matter who is following, but this is different. When life and death smack you in the face so hard you fall flat on your back, not knowing if you’ll ever walk again, or at least the same, it’s time to spend a little more time self-caring (hey ahimsa) and less story-sharing.
And yet, here I am.
The third yama — asteya, or non-stealing — was supposed to be my focus for the month of March. Like the two previous ethical restraints, asteya seems like a simple concept at first. Shoplifting is SO 1990’s, and basic human decency generally keeps us from stealing from our friends, neighbors, and strangers. But unlike the first yamas, asteya has no etymologically positive translation (ahimsa = kindness, satya = truthfulness). Non-stealing is not exactly giving. It just means refraining from taking that which is not yours, therefore allowing others to enjoy what is theirs as they wish. Sure, it’s easy when we talk about physical possessions, big and small. You leave my shit alone and I’ll do the same. But what about abstract stuff like energy, space, and especially time?
One month ago, my father surrendered his short and fierce battle with cancer. The illness, as it does, came out of nowhere, but he also came at it like a bull out of the gate. Armed with optimism, the overwhelming support of his family and friends, and a team of the best goddamned physicians in the Southeast, my father fought Stage 4 cancer with everything he had. But even the strongest men and women don’t stand a chance against the torturous and toxic treatments required to kill off rapidly growing tumors in one’s esophagus, liver, lungs, and lymph nodes. I mean, who can endure three weeks of daily radiation immediately followed by chemotherapy and come out the other side unscathed, or even able to walk, stand, eat, drink, or use the bathroom on their own? If I had one guess on January 1st (the day after he was diagnosed), I would have said my dad.
As a retired surgeon himself, he was glaringly aware of the reality of his situation, yet was determined to at least try and fight it. And try he did. But an overlapping roster of complications and setbacks were just too much (for anyone) to take. One month after he began treatment I could hardly recognize my father, not only because of his substantial weight loss, but the shrinking of his previously palpable and infectious spirit. The man who was once the life of the party withered into a shadow of his former self before the eyes of his wife, children and step children, long time friends, and former colleagues. The revolving door of visitors during his final two weeks in the hospital was overwhelming (sometimes in touching sentiments they brought, other times it was simply too much for my father’s energy to handle). But, being the attentive social butterfly he was, he never turned anyone away, even if he could hardly open his eyes to see their teary faces.
That was him. Always putting others first, asking questions about what was going on in their lives, and taking unwavering interest in the wellbeing of his patients, friends, and of course his family. For his entire adult life, my dad graciously gave his attention, care, and way too much time to everyone but himself. Pager beeps interrupted family dinners and emergency phone calls came at all hours of the night. Yet even at his most frustrated, he washed up with a sigh and dutifully showed up with a smile for the strangers who required his service. His friends also knew him him to drop everything for anyone in need, no matter how big or small the favor — some off-the-books medical advice or a DUI rescue. He offered his precious time without hesitation or expectation to everyone he knew, most of all his family.
And we took it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we stole it, but I know that I, for one, could never return or match the ridiculous amount of support and time my dad devoted to me. No one could. How do you reciprocate love so immense that the very thought of it simultaneously makes your heart ache and head explode? After a while, the words “Thank you, Dad” or “I love you too” just aren’t enough, and by the end their repetition seemed to have voided their meaning. Of course I loved and appreciated my father beyond measure and made sure he knew that. I am insanely grateful for everything he did not just for us, but for the compassion and generosity he shared with (t)his world. But even now — especially now — the impossibility of repaying someone for a lifetime, and then some, of love, care, and security is crushingly apparent to me.
Eight weeks is a brutal, yet merciful, amount of time to live with cancer. In reality, my dad lived with cancer for six weeks and died from repercussions of the treatment for two. Those two weeks were the worst of my life, but also the most special. I drove an hour and a half every day to visit him in the hospital, even if he wasn’t awake. The moments I spent reading beside him while he slept, quietly watching TV together, or feeding him tiny slices of banana (a short-lived glimmer of hope) were priceless. I don’t share this to martyr myself, but just to say how sad and dehumanizing dying can be. That small man hooked up to a half dozen IV bags and machines was not my father, or at least how he should be remembered.
So he said, “enough,” and decided it was time. Time to stop fighting, time to let go, and (most difficultly) time for us to let go. He had given all he had, not only for two months, but for his short 72 years, and we had taken enough. The only way we would ever stop stealing his time and affection was for him to stop offering it, at least in this world. And so, just before midnight on March 1st, 2019, we took our last moments with my father as he quietly took his last breaths. Yes, it’s a stretch and an admittedly selfish perspective to think that his death somehow serves an example of practicing asteya. But it’s one of the only thoughts helping me find some peace and semi-justification for the painfully unfair way in which he left us. Perhaps my dad’s ultimate final gesture of generosity was to grant us this lesson in non-stealing, non-attachment, and (someday) acceptance. What a gift.