"In my early teens I used to cycle to school with a girl who lived quite near our house.
Jessie was a little older than me. She had gorgeous, healthy, long blond hair that always seemed to fall in perfect folds around her face. She was not beautiful but she was certainly attractive. Neither was she one of my closest friends, or a confidante, but I enjoyed her company on the long cycle rides to and from our college and over the years we had developed an easy going and pleasant friendship.
Every day we had to traverse many miles of road. We often found ourselves pushing into a strong head wind which made the journey seem that much harder and longer. Cycling together, Jessie and I would chat and joke about all sorts of things and the trip felt less tiring. Near the end while on our way home, we would push our heavy cycles together up the indomitably steep, ‘Tamaki Street’ which stretched up the hillside on the last leg of our journey. Alone, this last climb seemed interminable, but when there were two of us it didn’t feel quite so bad.
We made these trips two times a day and five days a week, month after month over a period of several years and because we shared this routine so regularly I seldom thought anything of it.
Then suddenly one day she was gone. I got the news from my sister, who heard it from a friend of hers. Jessie had been instantly killed when a motorbike, on which she was a pillion passenger, somehow missed a bridge, flew off the side of the road and crashed into a dry riverbed far below. It had happened two nights before word had reached my ears.
I was utterly stunned. Then, as the numbness began to wear off, a gradual and painful sensation of having been betrayed swept over me. I thought of all the days that we had cycled to and from school together. I thought of all the hours that we had spent in our respective classrooms, yet I could not think of anything that she or I had done in these past years that could have in any way prepared us for this!
I could think of nothing in my school or home life that came even near to addressing the fact of ‘death.’
The things which I had spent all my time doing up until that point suddenly appeared superficial and irrelevant. It felt as though the past years of my life had all been a dream.
All the days, months and years that we spent in our college, doing our lessons and then all the hours spent after school doing homework, suddenly all of that seemed like some kind of bad joke.
Despite my previous experiences, nothing I had done up until this point had ever really come close to addressing the issue of death. There quite simply had been no apparent place for it in the routine and predictable life that I had been living. But Jessie’s sudden demise completely shattered that illusion.
Suddenly everything felt empty and meaningless. There was something about this ‘death’ that made everything else appear unreal.
That life could be snatched away suddenly was something I had brushed against much earlier, but ‘I’ had gone on, life had gone on and once the old routines recommenced I had been lulled back into that shadow land which engrosses all of our energy and attention with things that we are somehow made to think are important.
That someone I had seen and shared time with almost every day for several years had now simply ceased to be; this was something quite new, strange and inconceivable. Of course I had heard about people dying but that was something outside my own personal experience.
With Jessie, it was different. I had walked and talked with her only days before. She had been so alive and so vital. Somehow to grasp that she had gone and that there was nothing that anybody could do to bring her back pushed through a barrier in my mind and challenged me to look beyond it.
I felt the presence of a ‘mystery’ which was simply unnameable.
That very day I made the cycle ride to school alone. It was a cold Monday morning. Never will I forget walking into the classroom and having to endure the silent stares of the entire class. No one knew what to say, no one knew what to do. Something unspeakably ‘mysterious’ had happened right in our midst and yet we all just sat there doing our lessons hour upon hour without even alluding to it.
In those days there was no pupil counselling to help students through any kind of crisis, there was no support at all.
One was simply expected to get on with it; with the same useless, meaningless grind, as though nothing at all had happened.
When Jessie died, everything felt different in a new way. I had reached an age when my mind was beginning to question and inquire. In earlier years I had simply accepted whatever came along, but now I felt no longer able to do that.
Her death left a completely unexpected, gaping hole in a day to day ritual that we had shared for several years. I found it impossible to accept that she had simply ‘ceased to be.’ The sense of absolute mystery about her disappearance from the world threw me into a sombre mood. I found no comfort in the words I heard in church.
I urgently needed to know what it actually means to ‘die.’ I did not want to hear some secondhand stuff that had been pulled from a book. I wanted more than that.
During that time, I discovered one thing that could bring a sense of relief and perspective to my life. I took to sitting outside at night and gazing up at the sky.
When I did this I could feel the ‘mystery’ and the ‘something’ which is so unfathomable about our existence. To look out and see countless stars and universes helped me to bypass my questioning mind and feel directly something which I could not name. When I looked into the vastness of infinity I could feel at once that there is so much more to our existence than the petty day to day concerns that ate up all our time and energy. This helped me to cope with my grief and frustration.
I suppose that is when I began to understand that the society I was growing up in would not be able to satisfy the deeper, inner questionings that this event triggered.
The intense and actual mystery of so-called ‘death’ loomed up before me as a huge and solemn unknown.
How was it possible to continue on with petty, boring daily life knowing that we all faced this huge ‘thing’ and that one day we too would die? Surely there was something more which we needed to know, something which needed to do to address it. This all welled up inside me with a great sense of urgency.
Western societies are not known for prolonging their mourning. In fact, the feeling one gets is that as soon as the loved one is buried or cremated, as the case may be, it is expected that there should be a sense of closure or, at least, the expectation of closure and everyone then goes on with whatever it was they were doing before.
To me, at that time, that felt like a travesty.
Why was it that no one seemed to wonder where she went or what actually happened to her? Why was it that people were able to believe, so unquestioningly, what they had merely been told? I knew that could never work for me.
It takes some unravelling to get to the bottom of the complex feelings that can accompany the loss of someone who has touched our lives. Most of the time, these feelings are glossed over, ignored, or buried beneath a load of distraction. There are endless ways of not confronting the reality of loss and death directly.
We avoid the confrontation by filling our time with self-centered and artificial distractions. Very often we are preoccupied with all manner of things that are not in the least bit vital and this is primarily how the days, months and years of our lives are filled. All the while, we know very well, that the ‘clock is ticking,’ that our time is running out, yet we are no closer to understanding what its all about.
Inherently we are so much more than we are led to believe. There is a mystery in that. A mystery far beyond the confines of what our day to day ‘thinking mind’ is willing or even able to comprehend. We can get a striking sense of that even very early in life.
Surely death is the greatest of teachers.
The fact is that we cannot escape ‘ourselves’, where ever we go, whatever we do. The inescapable fact of our existence is bound to confront us, sooner or later and ‘death’ is one of the most powerful ways to bring this before our attention.
This is why it is vital to look more closely now in the midst of so-called ordinary life, with all its cares and distractions, because the ‘now’ is itself filled with immensity and holds the key to the deep, disclosing recognition of who and what we really are.
The now is all that we really have!
Jessie’s life came to an early and abrupt end and she did not know herself beyond the body and mind and the routine day to day needs and preoccupations of worldly life. But it can be different for us. We have the chance to look inward and discern beyond what appears to be true to what actually is true.
Life gives us a push and in some instances a sharp and hard slap, forcing us to look further and more deeply. We are not bound to believe all that others would have us believe, we must discover the truth for ourselves and the signposts that rise up on our individual journeys are often uniquely and perfectly tailored to help us do just that and thereby, wake up.
May the inward journey for each of us begin now; fresh and renewed with each passing moment!"
This excerpt is taken from my latest book;
Who Lives? Who Dies?
What We Need to Know Before We Go