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Nobody Gets Out of This Alive

Some do not understand
that we must die,
But those who do realize this
settle their quarrels.

(Dhammapada verse 6)

“Nobody gets out of this alive.” This is what my father said when faced with his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. It was not his original saying, but it fit the situation and his personality. I have to think that, when faced with his mortality, Dad must have had some complicated and conflicting thoughts. But with us he was always steady. Always the stoic New Englander. He wanted to make sure that we understood that he was dying. Not in any dramatic, morbid sense. He just wanted to know that we were in tune with reality. If he could not live, he was going to try to help us face his death. And with his strength, his faith, and his compassion for us, he helped us prepare for his death.

There was only one time when he indulged in a little bit of cynicism. And even that made sense. We had always shared a similar sense of humor. We loved puns, we enjoyed a dry wit, and once in a while a hint of sarcasm. So, when one of the nurses at the oncology center was reviewing his medications with him and asked him what they did for him, for just a brief moment, Dad looked at me, cracked a wry smile, and said so quietly that I think only I could hear him, “Apparently nothing.” Truer words were never spoken. The blood pressure medication and the cholesterol medication did nothing to ward off the lung cancer.

Those who have come to be,
those who will be:    
will go,
leaving the body behind.
The skillful person,
realizing the loss of all,
should live the holy life ardently.

(Ud 5.2)

In facing his death, my father relied upon his faith. He was a devout Catholic. It was his community that helped him remain mentally strong as his time drew near. He never forced his beliefs on me. He would occasionally discuss how his faith was helping him, as a way of letting me know that he was not afraid to die.

Aside from saying, “Nobody gets out of this alive,” Dad would also say, “I never ask why me—really, the question is why not me?”

Where his Catholicism helped him, Buddhism helped me. Developing an understanding of kamma, impermanence, and death led me to a similar place. I would never ask, “Why does Dad have to die?” I knew that he, like all of us, was subject to old age, illness, and death.

For before long, how sad! This body will lie upon the ground, cast aside, devoid of consciousness, like a useless charred log.

(Dhammapada verse 41)

As part of his treatment, Dad received radiation. Not because it was going to cure his cancer, but because it could minimize a painful tumor on his back. We made a family outing of his first visit to the oncology center.

The staff at the center were warm and loving. They were happy to see family members in attendance. In fact, they wanted to see family members participating in the treatment process.

The technician for the TrueBeam radiation machine was happy to invite us in and give us a tour. He showed us how the device worked, and how the beam rotated around the body. He let us stay while he worked to position Dad. He was happy to share his work and glad to see a family involved. But he also understood the reality of Dad’s cancer, and he knew that he was helping to alleviate pain, not curing cancer. We left the room when it was time for the actual treatment to begin. I was trying to be cheerful and nonchalant, tugging on Dad’s toes as I walked past him, but I was fighting back my tears, and so was the technician.

Those radiation treatments did shrink the tumor and did quite a bit to reduce Dad’s pain. One day, during a visit after his radiation treatments ended, Dad sat me down at his computer and asked me to show him how to create a decorative certificate using Word. I was a bit surprised because in the past he had made fun and silly certificates and sent them to me. “Best Daughter to Watch Godzilla With” was one of my favorites. I was his only daughter, but I took the win!

Later, I would realize that the point was to create the certificate together. To spend time on an activity that was part of his cancer, but not in a negative way. He wanted us to have a special and fun memory from this experience. Together we created a certificate for “Trudy,” the name that he gave to the TrueBeam radiation machine. He gave one copy to me, and one to the team and the technician at the oncology center. They loved it. After he died, one of them approached me to let me know that they kept the certificate in the radiation room. It made everybody smile.

Nobody gets out of this alive, but we can live as fully as possible and benefit the lives of others until our final day draws near.

See more

Margaret Meloni: Death Dhamma
The Death Dhamma Podcast (Margaret Meloni)

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