My father used to love this joke:
A priest, a minister, and a rabbi were discussing when life begins. The priest said, "I believe that life begins at the moment of conception, because therein lies the potential for life." The minister said, "I believe life begins when the fetus becomes viable." The rabbi looked at them and said, "I have to disagree with you both. I believe life begins when the kids goes to college and the dog dies."
When my dad first told this joke, I was young and college-bound. Today, as I reflect on this joke, a joke I've shared many times (it's one of the few jokes to which I can actually remember the punch line) my father has been dead nearly two years, I finished college over three decades ago, my kids have long since left home, and the dog has died.
Now, I've been a seeker all my life and while granted, sometimes it was for my car keys, a fair amount of the time it was for spiritual wisdom. My quest took me to Nepal, where at Boudhanath Stupa I spun prayer wheels and chanted the Tibetan Manta of compassion--Om Mani Padme Hum, and experienced the silent weight of the Himalayas as I hiked toward Mount Everest. I visited monasteries in Bhutan, and meditated at Bodh Gaya in India, the sacred place where the Buddha attained enlightenment. I've prayed in synagogues and in churches and participated in a 7-day silent meditation retreat where I stayed silent for a full week, but haven't stopped talking about it since.
And while I learned much from these peak experiences, the biggest lesson I'm learning is that the greatest teacher is the present moment, what is right in front of us in real time, right now, wherever we may be.
When our daughter was 12, she begged for a dog. I could think of tons of reasons why we shouldn't get a dog, but those reasons were logical, and the heart's yearning to want what it wants is anything but logical. So we got a puppy, an adorable Coton De Tulear, and we named her Karma. Every now and then we had to say "bad Karma" but mostly-at least nine times out of ten, she was our "good Karma."
Our daughter, long gone from our house, turns 26 years old tomorrow, and our 23-year-old son, home for a visit, just flew back this morning to the Midwest, where he now lives. Karma, who was diagnosed with congestive heart failure eleven months ago and just celebrated her 14th birthday, died this past Saturday.
The day was tender for us, and we found ourselves watching home movies that we hadn't seen in over twenty years. There was our daughter and son taking their first steps, blowing out their birthday candles, picking out pumpkins from the apple orchard. There was my younger self, and my husband's younger self. "How were we parents?" we wondered. We looked like we were twelve years old. "And how were our parents so young?" we both questioned. We watched my dad jumping up and out of a chair with such ease, my mother on the floor playing with the kids, the two of them frolicking on the beach with their grandchildren, and I realized that at that time, they were only a few years older than my husband and I are now. I also saw, in my younger face, that I was so often waiting and looking ahead. Waiting for the kids to sleep through the night, to begin school, to get to the point where they were old enough to eat at a restaurant that didn't have chicken fingers on the menu, to get to an age where I could leave them safely at home alone during the day to run just one quick errand.
What I learned in watching those home movies (besides the fact that the 1990s was not a great fashion decade for most of us) is that the future will be here soon enough. The question is, are we participating and living in our present and can we see the preciousness in that moment? Can we witness the mischievous smile of a toddler who doesn't want to say goodnight and go to because he'd rather jump into the arms of his doting grandparents? What one night feels like a chore--how can I get this child into bed--twenty years later becomes a most poignant memory that can never unfold again.
I remember the older people in my life that used to say, "It all goes by so quickly." I would tell them that I understood what they were saying, but if it all goes by so quickly, how can the days so often feel endless? Now I have lived it; I understand.
When my son and I came downstairs on the morning that Karma would die, she greeted us with her tail wagging and attempts to cuddle against us before the coughing and gasping overtook her. Karma, our good Karma, was teaching us about living in the present with love even amidst suffering.
My own path has led me to my work as a bereavement counselor at Care Dimensions, a non-profit hospice organization in the Boston area. Every day I see the importance of showing up to our own lives and to our own deaths, and the beauty of showing up in the lives and deaths of others with whom we are bound. We are a link in the chain of the universal energy, and our job is to wake up and know what time it is in our lives.
These past few days, I have been feeling the fleeting nature of life, and my heart has felt tender. A rabbi and I are in the process of co-authoring a book called Spark Seekers: Mourning with Meaning, Living with Light, and I decided to spend some time going over the recent round of edits our editor sent us in at attempt to meet our deadline. And I realized again that you can travel across the world seeking wisdom, but you can also find it wherever you are when you open yourself fully to the present moment. The manuscript was in a Word Document using the Track Changes feature. Hour after hour, as I went through the edits, I was repeatedly asked to make the same decision--would I hit the Accept Changes key? A Word document has now become one of my gurus, asking me a profound question: Will you accept changes?
Because really, what else in a skillfully lived life can you do? Change is inevitable, so savor the present, for one day this present will become a distant memory for which you will yearn. Be ready to greet others with love and an open heart until the day you die, and even on that day, wag your tail and, like our beloved dog (god spelled backwards), spread your good Karma.
I still love that joke, but I'll have to disagree with the priest, the minister and the rabbi, too. I think life begins when we open our eyes and wake up to the preciousness of this very moment.