Nick was going to die. He told me about his terminal illness some time ago while we were walking back from our local grocers. We had lived in the same road for many years and had the occasional conversations. Not that they had ever been superficial. I am a psychotherapist and people tend to be more at ease to dive into subjects they would not do otherwise. But this time it was different. For both of us it became obvious that this was a moment we would start a journey together. Not any journey. It was the beginning of the most important journey we both would ever do in our life.
From now on we met once a week in our local cafe and talked for an hour or so. Our talks felt urgent, to the point and absolute open and honest. Time could not be wasted. It appeared limited - and indeed was - and therefore more pressures. Nick was not holding back in his need to talk about death and dying. And he demanded from me the same openness and engagement.
It was at times philosophical and psychological, increasingly became real and more of a direct experience. He obviously was getting weaker and his concerns about what was lying ahead for him and his dearest were growing. I could not be a bystander - even if I wanted to. The fact that he was dying and I am not - at least not yet - became irrelevant. We both were inquiring and investigating the most pressing issue there is.
January the following year, abruptly, the times we were meeting in the cafe ended with his increasing fragility. He could not leave his bed anymore and a bit later he had to move to the local hospice. Our weekly meetings turned into daily ones. Talking to each other, however, and sharing our thoughts became less important. We were hanging out with each other. The TV was bringing 24 hour news continuously as a kind of background noise. We were watching from time to time, making comments or just smiling about how all these unfolding dramas were becoming so unreal and irrelevant to us in this room.
There was more stillness, a peacefulness that became the highlight of my day. I could not wait to see him. My mind had slowed down. There was nothing anymore I could contribute. Just being together felt more than enough. Time became more a concept rather than something we really would experience. Often we both fell asleep for a moment and smiled at each other when we woke up together.
One afternoon, while I was with him, he asked his doctor, what she thinks would now happen. She told him that he will sleep more and more, and then, at one point, would never wake up again. She suggested it would be less than five weeks - quite accurately - and he should say good bye to everybody and watch the movies he always wanted to watch. We both were left in a state of shock. The doctor had confronted us with the apparent reality of time and with that unleashed intense emotions.
However, it took us just about a day to find our footing again. Together we had reached a stage where the idea of "never" and "saying good bye" and "watching movies he always wanted to watch" felt so utterly unreal and insignificant.
For a short period these words activated our emotions and our minds, but ultimately could not touch the timelessness and peacefulness we were experiencing. We were not only letting go of the irrelevance of the news, but now also of concepts like "time", "never", "good bye". We were letting go of mind and emotions. It did not feel like pushing them away. They just slipped away - like the body functions did: Nick had to let go of feeding himself, even raising his arms became impossible. One day he got a bit upset, that he could not be helped to go to the toilet anymore - even that was something Nick had to let go of and quickly accepted.
Then I had to go abroad for a weekend. I told him not "to piss off" while I was gone. He reassured me that he would wait and then said: "Don't worry, Jochen. I will take you with me anyway. Promise!" This was the moment I felt he had moved miles ahead and I was struggling to catch up with him. I was deeply touched - and also - I had to confess - slightly scared. How scared I was I became aware when the flight the following day was hit by turbulences I have never experienced before. Nick was pulling me with him more than I had bargained for.
When I came back from the weekend away he had softened even more and the peace felt even deeper. On Thursday he was deeply asleep when I arrived. I stayed for an hour watching him. Moments I felt he just has taken his last breath, but then again he inhaled. Shortly before I had to leave I woke him up. I did not want to go without telling him. When he opened his eyes he obviously was returning from a place so very far away. He glared at me with the most loving and kindest look I have ever been looked at: "Ah, there you are Jochen".... as if saying "good, we both can go now". For a few moments he remained awake and then slipped back again into his deep sleep.
Where he went I could not follow with my mind, words could not reach him anymore. Neither could I share my emotions with him, nor could he feel the touch of my hands. However, suddenly it dawned on me - and that slowly grew and turned into the most life changing revelation I will ever have: Nick has not gone anywhere, he has not left nor passed away, has not fallen into a deep sleep, has not "died". I was witnessing not an event.
Death I could not possibly see anymore as an occurrence in time and dying as something that happens to us. Nick could not possibly leave me, not for a moment and especially not forever. He has not gone to a place I cannot go to. It is me, who leaves him when I go back into mind and emotions and identify the body as the essence of being. I leave him, when I get pulled into my dramas, my thoughts, my feelings - when I lose my inner stillness. When I don't I am exactly there where Nick is.
Death is not something that can happen to us. Words cannot describe it. My emotions would merely prevent me to experience this. The need for physical closeness just evaporates with the stillness and love that remains when everything else goes.
Nick's promise to take me with him remained between us as an expression of his love, until it became a promise he intended to fully keep. We both saw how first our intense discussions disappeared, how our minds became less engaged and the words we produced less relevant, then our emotions were increasingly experienced as a distraction, then the body's fragility was accepted - until there was nothing left to hang on to. But instead of Nick becoming less and less, he became more and more. Instead of me feeling left behind I joined him in his stillness and peace.
© JOCHEN ENCKE 2018 – DESIGNED BY SIMON BEER