April 17 2014

Recently I almost died. My esophagus tore open when I was cycling the Alpine Dam/Seven Sisters loop, just north of San Francisco.

My chest blew up like a balloon. I went to the hospital that evening. They said I had about a 60% shot at making it more than a day or two.

I was alone in the hospital all night. My extended family lives far away, and my wife couldn't leave work.

That night I realized I'd never confronted what it meant to die.

I'm a young guy, early 30s. At an intellectual level I know I won't live forever. And out of vanity and ego, I've always told myself that I'll die without fear and without regrets.

It turns out that looming death makes that kind of knowledge cold comfort, and reveals the flimsiness of those self-perceptions. I was afraid I'd die alone and I regretted that I hadn't done more with my life.

And most of all, I realized I didn't know how to die well. If I had gone that night, I would have gone out gasping and terrified, not with grace, love, and simplicity. 

In the end I lived (clearly!). But the question remained: how does one confront death honestly?  

Here's the best answer I've found so far. Apologies to Thich Nhat Hanh, for so roughly approximating his thoughts on the matter. Here goes.

The ocean is full of waves that go up and go down. Some are towering and immensely powerful, others small and gentle. They start far out at sea, and then they crash on the beach and are gone. At the same time, a wave is the water. And the water is the wave. You can't separate the two. When the wave crashes, it becomes water again...which it always was.

The beginning and end of a wave are like a person’s birth and death. We are ourselves, and we are also made up of everything else: other people, the earth, plants, sun, the sky, and all the elements. We are and have always been inseparable. And we begin, and ultimately, we die. And when we die we become what we have always been: everything else.

And while we celebrate the birth of a wave (so exciting to see one coming!), we don't mourn its death. Because we know that wave is the water, and the water still lives, and will live for longer than we can imagine.  

We're like the waves. We’re born and we die, and at the same time we're not born and we don't die.

That’s it. Reach out anytime! Always happy to meet fellow "waves" on this trip across the ocean. Especially if those waves like road biking, craft beer, and video games. :)

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San Francisco, CA

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