Before I die I want you to read the three books I have listed below.
I am, in fact, dying. You're about to look at me, and say, as everyone does, "We're all dying."
True --- but my death sentence is very close to me right now; is sitting in my shoulder, as I write this. I have emphysema, and I find it harder and harder to breathe. I tire. The activities I loved so much --- playing my little bamboo flutes, gardening, dancing --- are getting harder and harder to do. You'll look at me, and say, as everyone does, "But you look so well!"
True. And you and most people are fooled. There's a special name for people like me; they call us Pink Puffers.
I'm dying of tobacco. My addiction, with its awesome needs, clutched me for years and years --- maybe a half century. I say its need, because I've learned at first-hand that the nicotine molecule creates an unusual appetite in some people; it not only latches on to the nicotine receptor sites in the brain...it creates more nicotine receptor sites. So the more you smoke, the more you have to smoke. And the more you smoke, the more the cilia in your lungs are damaged. Unable to clear the toxins, the cilia in the lungs begin to atrophy.
I say, often and loudly, and most often around tobacco smokers,
If anyone who still smokes could live in my body for two minutes, they would never smoke again.
When I was a ten-year-old kid, dying with double pneumonia, it felt as though a heavy heavy stone was being pushed down on my chest. Up, up, one, two, three. Roll down. A true Sisyphus, using my little body to work out his human sentence, my body with the weight of the world killing me.
I didn't die, but I remember that time well. Sometimes now when I'm struggling to breathe, my chest won't expand. No oxygen. The stone again.
Or maybe it's like being inside an iron maiden, from the bottom of the rib cage to the shoulders. Poor shoulders. They're called into emergency action to act as muscles for the lungs. They weren't designed for that, so they get to ache from the tension.
§ § §
If you have my set of strange and unlikely ideas about life, you know that there is no past. Everything's happening at once. Here.
But despite that, I once went back into a past life. In this regression I became a sixteen-
year- old innocent girl, tied at the stake as a witch and inhaling the smoke --- dying of the smoke as the fire burned my feet.
Oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange takes place in tiny cells called alveoli. Oxygen fuels our cells; it sweeps through the nooks and crannies of our bodies, the secret places we rarely think about: the liver, the bone marrow, the bronchial tubes, the guts. All the cells, molecules, electrons, atoms, organs, protuberances and exquisite decision-making tools of the body, the brain.
Oxygen waves liberation to each cell, and each cell radiates energy to every other cell. The body is an inseparable whole --- something most medical practitioners have yet to learn.
In that radiation, the molecules deplete themselves and gather carbon dioxide. But here, in the alveoli down at the bottom of the lungs, it sweeps out the toxins and sends new air to feed the organs. Here we exhale poison and inhale fresh energy.
Ordinary people who don't have C.O.P.D. (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) don't have to think about it --- it works all by itself. Inhale life. Exhale toxins. No problem. No thought. Just an ordinary, every-
In those of us with C.O.P.D. the cilia, destroyed by tobacco, never function again. The cilia are those little wavy hairs that surround cells (in some amoebæ, they're the main form of transportation and transmutation). The cilia in the lungs escort the carbon monoxide out of the body. That's what exhaling is.
But when the toxins linger in those tiny cells, the alveoli, now paralyzed by poison can't release the poisons completely. Therefore, when we try to inhale the oxygen, there's no room for it, for the alveoli have burst, making large balloon-like spaces in the lungs.
And the more they burst, as I said before, the more they burst. C.O.P.D. is really a disease that makes exhaling more and more difficult. The need to inhale into cells that are already full becomes a death-trap.
Nobody --- not the shamans, or the healers, or the M.D.'s --- have found a way to repair those cells. Why? If I cut my hand, the cells heal themselves. The lungs never heal.
That's why I say my death sentence is sitting in my body now. It lets me know when I try to garden, to save a rose or plant lettuce. I gave up turning over the dirt a while back. Even tethered to my oxygen tank, I huff.
My death sings out to me, "Enjoy what you've got now..." As Ecclesiastes says, enjoy life "before the days shall come when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them."
§ § §
How does it feel to be dying like this?
Filled with anger.
Angry at myself for quitting smoking, and starting, and quitting again.
Angry at the tobacco industry. I was turned on to tobacco my first days in college by a man giving away packs of cigarettes. What did I know? I was sixteen.
Angry that what I have --- the third leading cause of death in the U.S. --- has so little money spent on its research. Perhaps it isn't sexy enough. Maybe those of us who are dying because we don't have any breath to catch are not as scary as people with cancer or AIDS?
Still, I have to tell you that I am, in some ways, grateful for this slow smothering. Is it possible to be grateful for what's happening to me?
Perhaps. It leaves me time to be with friends, watch the butterflies in the garden and listen to beautiful music and praise that Great Mystery, the Creation.
I'm no longer the woman who did yoga every morning for years or ran on the beach. I still go to an occasional reggae concert, but I can't dance anymore. Or ride my bicycle.
Something remains, though. Just as the candle turns to flame, something remains. The child who had pneumonia paved the way for the adult who does pursed-lip breathing just to get to the bathroom. And there is always the hope of a miracle.
But what about my life? What about me ... Elizabeth? Will there be a continuity of my experience ... of my consciousness?
I've thought for a long time that life is a series of photographic still-shots, with death and rebirth continuously regenerating between each shot.
Deep inside me where the heart and mind conjoin, there is a sadness at my physical situation and gratefulness at the amazing life I've led. I might have lived through this life without ever having taken LSD. I am grateful. I might never have known the joys of serving consciousness. Or simply of serving. I am grateful.
In the last few days, amazingly, somebody has offered to pay for 'me', or whatever remains after death to be frozen in cryonic suspension. It feels as though it's a mighty decision, but actually, of course it doesn't really matter. Decisions rarely do, they just feel Very Important on the way.
At this point, I haven't decided; either way it's ego wanting to hang out or ego wanting to choose another set of parents or ego waiting for a wipe-out; total release.
Is there life after death? Of course there is life after death! Life is eternal, and that's a long time. Through it all, perhaps Elizabeth flickers out completely, what a waste!
Or perhaps she remembers that I Am and opens her arms to the next adventure, whatever it is. Shits in her diapers another time and rides the space ship of the manifestation cuddled in the ever changing space suit we call a body.
One last request of those who are reading this.
Throw away your tobacco.
It isn't worth it.
I finally did.
But it was too late.
The Three Books
I Want You To Read
The Path is the Goal, A Basic Handbook of Buddhist Meditation by Chøgyam Trungpa. As always Trungpa cuts through the bullshit as he shows his students how to meditate --- watch the observer/ playwright/ actors/ set and setting of their, of our, melodramas. Shambhala 1995 (All of Trungpa's books are Highly Recommended.) The teacher should be a traveler too, someone who is traveling with you ... Rather than being stuck with enlightenment and unable to go beyond it.
Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism by Rebecca McClen Novick. Novick lays out the basic tenets of Tibetan Buddhism so elegantly and simply that while we can absorb them easily --- we don't feel cheated of accuracy and depth. Recommended for those unfamiliar with this highly evolved Buddhism, or wanting to re-engage in its basic principles. Crossing Press 1999.
Only when one's compassion is spontaneous can it be called "great compassion." Having generated such compassion, the Mahayana practitioner then makes it her/his personal goal to develop spiritually in order to help others overcome their suffering.
The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation (or The Method of Realizing Nirvana Through Knowing the Mind.) by W.Y. Evans-Wentz. (Commentary by C.G. Jung). This book was one of four illustrious works by Evans-Wentz. All four were of seminal importance during the great awakening of the Haight Ashbury's "Summer of Love." In this book the life and teachings of Padma Sambhava are the background for far-reaching information on the nature of reality. Oxford University Press 1954. (I don't know if this has been re-issued.) The yogin must come to realize that the world of human concepts is merely a product of the micro-cosmic mind even as the Cosmos is the product of the macro-cosmic mind.
Elizabeth Gips died a year after writing this essay.