October 15, 2017
Story by John Flack
It was a glorious September morning, sunny, with blue skies and cool; somewhat muted, however, by the anxiety and grief in the air inside the car as we sped north to attend Henry’s funeral ceremony at the Buddhist monastery in Carmel that he had so faithfully served. Catalina, in the front passenger seat, quietly wept a few times; sometimes silently, sometimes while talking about him, while I listened and drove as fast as I could while trying not to trigger her sense of danger about my driving. We had left home later than planned and were worried we would arrive disrespectfully late for the day’s first ceremony, a memorial service, being held in the monastery’s temple.
Luckily, we had no mishaps and arrived at the entrance with some time to spare. As we slowly drove up the driveway we realized the grounds, which were wooded, were extensive and were beginning to wonder if we had missed a turn, when finally, around a bend, there appeared a Chinese architecture style temple and other similarly styled buildings in a large clearing in the woods.
While walking from the parking lot up a stone-paved path, bordered by statues of men who were no doubt important to Buddhists, but who had no meaning to me, much of what Catalina had told me about him during the ride was rolling around inside my head. It was a reasonably long walk to the temple, where Catalina would later eulogize him as part of the ceremony, so there was plenty of time to ruminate. Henry, a committed Buddhist since his teens, had died from lung cancer a week before. The cancer was diagnosed in April and only five months later he was dead. Catalina had long been fond of him and spoke wistfully during the ride about the chats they would often have after work. It seems they covered a myriad of topics beyond those that were work related. A favorite memory of hers was Henry writing Chinese characters on a white board to illustrate how the written characters changed over time due to events occurring over Chinese history. She was especially upset by the suddenness of his death, having persuaded herself that Henry’s positive outlook would enable him to successfully stave off the attack of the cancerous cells that were tirelessly working to kill him. Apparently, as well, Henry never let on to others that he was losing this fight and so his death came as a surprise to many and Catalina was still finding it hard to believe. Henry, it seems, wrote upbeat research reports on various aspects of his treatment as it went along, which he shared with others via email. I wondered if he knew he wouldn’t be recovering, when he did know, or if he just wouldn’t allow such thoughts to interfere with his efforts to get well. I also wondered how this might have tested his Buddhist faith.
I can hardly guess because I barely knew him. I only met him one time, at Catalina’s IBM retirement dinner in February. I knew he was special to Catalina so I observed him and talked with him as well. I could see he was engaged in the conversations around the table and seemed like a good guy. His English, a second language after Chinese, was hard at times for me to understand, but for the others it didn’t seem to be a problem. He was small in stature, but very animated, seemingly full of energy with a sense of humor he frequently expressed. In retrospect, it’s likely the cancer was well established by then as he was diagnosed only a couple of months later. How awful that seems; to be fighting for your life without even knowing you’re being attacked by your own cells is a sneak attack I do not wish to experience, but realize I am likely to do so, given the history of cancer in my family. I honestly don’t know if I could handle it as well as Henry seemingly did.
During the service, held in the high-ceilinged, gymnasium-sized main room of the temple, I was struck by something done by the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, head priest, while he was presenting his homage to Henry. He pivoted to look directly at the large, blown-up photo of Henry on the wall in front of the rows of chairs where the mourners sat, and spoke to it in a manner that convinced me he had no doubt that he was here in the room with us. He urged Henry to look inward, focus his mind and let go of this world. There was an urgency in his tone that struck me. He pointed out that with all the merits Henry had accumulated from his good deeds during his life in this world he was now free to choose which of the Buddhist afterworlds he would inhabit next. He clearly hoped Henry would choose to be with Buddha, but, for sure, desired him to let go of the world where he was now, apparently, on the verge of having to choose to leave or stay. I don’t know what this was about or what would happen to Henry if he didn’t leave. Stuck between worlds in some kind of limbo? Wandering the earth, like Dickens’ Marley, but without the chains? I don’t know and didn’t find out later. I can only hope he took the advice to leave and move onto the next world as being a ghost roaming the earth doesn’t sound very appealing to me.
While the head priest was concluding his homage, nuns passed small, palm-size, lit candles down each of the rows of seats, which were handed from person to person until everyone present had one to carry up to the front to place on a table in front of Henry’s photo prior to offering their condolences to his wife, grown son and his two brothers arrayed in a line to the left of the table. Before and after placing my flickering candle among many others, I was anxiously trying to decide what to do or say when it was my turn to approach his family, so taking the path of least action, I extended my hand and nodded. Thankfully, each was most gracious in accepting my gesture. While moving from one to the other, stuck in my head was the image of Henry and his wife as they appeared in a black and white photo in their youth in Taiwan when they were first married. They were smiling appealingly with a joy and confidence that seemed to bode well for their life together. Sadly, I thought, she will now have to live on without him.
The receiving line marked the end of the first of the day’s farewell ceremonies.
The next ceremony, in a funeral home in an old Victorian house, was a scenic, half hour drive along a back road from the monastery. The timeframe for getting there was short, and when we seated ourselves inside we realized many were arriving after us. The room was very dark in contrast to the brilliant sunshine outside. The ceremony began when the priests and nuns, both sexes with closely cropped hair and humble robes, suddenly began chanting: “Namo A-Mi-To-Fo”, “Namo A-Mi-To-Fo” over and over again. Although standing in the front of the room by the casket when they began chanting, they soon began slowly walking. Person by person, a long line began growing behind them as one individual after the other, beginning with the immediate family in the row closest to the casket, stood up and, guided into place by a nun, began walking and chanting the same words. I arose when my turn came and began chanting too while holding my hands clasped as in prayer in front of me, mimicking the actions of those I followed. After a while, I noticed that others did not cross their thumbs as I was doing out of Christian habit, so I uncrossed them. At first I felt self-conscious behaving this way, but the longer I chanted and walked, the more engrossed and calmer I became. We weaved in and out of rows of chairs, around the coffin, out into and down the hallway to re-enter the back end of the dimly lit viewing area in the funeral home. Voicing the mantra-like chant, walking to the pace of the bell gonging and wooden drum beating rhythmically, looking at Henry’s frozen embalmed visage as we passed, observing the serious faces of the Buddhist faithful as they performed their meaningful rite of passage to the worlds beyond ours, seeing silent tears in women’s eyes and cheeks, affected me more and more emotionally. A feeling of tranquility grew, though, as the repetitious chanting drew me in deeper and deeper. I began comparing this farewell to death to that of my experience and realized I preferred this. I was more engaged, and surprisingly happy, feeling that Henry truly was moving on to another, better world. I felt I was learning to view death in a more favorable light. I began accepting that there are many paths to God and enough rooms in God’s house for all of us regardless of how different our religions may be. I suspect that Henry’s belief was far stronger than my own religious belief and that even my religion’s God would accept him for the strength of his conviction, even though his religion’s structure and beliefs were vastly different from what I had been told as a child was the only true path to heaven. Three times the long line meandered its way past the open coffin before ending with each of us standing in front of our chairs again. The head priest slowly bowed three times and we, the somber gathering, followed his lead.
Thus, the second farewell ceremony, formally ended.
The coffin lid was closed and it was wheeled away out of the room and down the hall on its way to the hearse in the parking lot, which would carry it to the crematorium in Connecticut where the immediate family would be joined by the priests and nuns in viewing the incineration of his body. The coffin was followed by the robed Buddhists who once again began chanting “Namo A-Mi-To-Fo”. The family, and then other mourners, trailed behind down the long hallway. I ended up in the rear, nearly two rooms removed from the front end of the procession. The Buddhists’ chanting being muted by the distance, struck me as having a pronounced other-worldly tone, which touched me in a tantalizing, haunting way. I didn’t want it to stop. I wanted to be more immersed, desiring the feeling to continue to build and bloom into a wonderful understanding that seemed so near, but suddenly, I was outside and the feeling, against my wishes, dissipated. I wanted to know what the words we had been chanting meant, so I asked Jun Ng, Catalina’s second line manager at IBM, who was standing next to me. “They are not Chinese, they are nonsense syllables to me”, she said, to my disappointment.
In the parking lot, while the hearse and cortege readied for the trip, many people, although mostly from IBM, began spontaneously gathering to tearfully, but joyously reminisce. Apparently, many had a need to talk about Henry and his positive impact on their lives, especially those, like Catalina, who were now more in touch with their appreciation. I learned a lot about his life and how it helped shape, for the better, the attitudes of his colleagues to whom I listened during this informal, unplanned farewell.
Amazingly to many there, including me, was the sharing of the story of how, near the end, when he laid in intensive care and could no longer talk, he still smiled and gave a thumbs up to his family. From those who knew him well that explained Henry. Among other, oft repeated traits I heard coming from Catalina and others were: he was always smiling, never angry, expressed no negative opinions of others, was calm under pressure, wide-ranging and daring in thinking and was always finding the positive even in the most negative of outcomes. The more I heard and experienced that day the more I became convinced that to Henry death was not a bad thing to be feared. I believe, he believed, he would be entering a wondrous afterlife. I wished I had had the opportunity to better know this special person and his spiritual side, in particular, which had imbued such hope in others as was evident in the tone and words spoken about him.
Memories of this day and its farewell ceremonies honoring an exemplary life are still working their way around my brain as I try to incorporate the feelings and insights into my worldview. I know I have grown more comfortable with my mortality, for instance. I also know I would like to be more like him in how I live the rest of my life. It has also occurred to me that many of Henry’s traits mentioned by his colleagues, which are highly valued by Buddhists, are similar to those advocated in my religion as Christ-like – hence the many rooms in God’s house for all of us to occupy. So my and Henry’s religions, and we as believers, share common virtues to which we aspire. Should there actually be a heaven, and if I happen to make it there, I expect to see Henry again in whatever form people take after death – smiling, of course.