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SPOTLIGHT
[var top_story_head]

Carpe apple, swallow the seeds

Published on -5/13/2013, 9:46 AM

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Do not surround me with wreaths of flowers

Nor place upon my body the signs of a fetish

Nor crescent, cross, phallus or sun

But bury me in an apple orchard

That I may touch your lips again

Smell of me in the scent of a cool apple flower

Feel of me in the breeze flowing over your fingers

Taste of me when you taste of the froth foaming out of the apple meat

"Burial Waltz," Kupferberg

The NFL playoffs were under way on the tiny TV tucked up in the corner where walls met ceiling. Dad normally would've enjoyed watching Roger Craig and Tom Rathman, the ex-Cornhusker duo providing a running game for Joe Montana.

But not now. A few days ago, Dad had his second coronary artery bypass operation, and things hadn't been going well. Bleeding from needle sites, profound swelling from fluid accumulation, poked and prodded endlessly, painful to breathe.

He was on fluid restriction, but someone had thoughtfully left an apple for him, just out of his reach on a bedside table.

Propped up enough to manage, he gestured for the apple, and I gave it to him. He regarded it gratefully, examined the shiny red skin, then took a bite. He chewed it slowly, blissfully, savoring the sweet-tangy juice and crunchy texture. Finally he ate the whole core, seeds and all, and he relished that too.

Did he know it would be his last apple? Maybe. But I think that for a moment, free of distractions from nurses and needles, bills and obligations, he just enjoyed it for what it was, not for what it might symbolize.

While Mom sat at the foot of his bed in the coronary care unit, I lightly massaged his scalp through his thin white flat-top.

Suddenly the monitor alarm sounded, and a nurse scurried in. I looked up at the screen to see a rapid-fire heartbeat, atrial flutter. His tired, injured heart couldn't tolerate much of that.

He summoned a feeble grin, normally reserved for lame jokes. Then, strength and consciousness waning, he raised two fingers. To his generation, it meant "V for Victory."

To mine, it meant "peace."

More staff arrived, and we were sent to the waiting room. The intercom chatter made it clear he'd arrested.

The doctor said "we lost him."

* * *

"By the time knowledge becomes a frightening affair the man also realizes that death is the irreplaceable partner that sits next to him on the mat," the Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan Matus told his apprentice. "Every bit of knowledge that becomes power has death as its central force. Death lends the ultimate touch, and whatever is touched by death indeed becomes power.

"Thus to be a warrior a man has to be, first of all, and rightfully so, keenly aware of his own death. But to be concerned with death would force any one of us to focus on the self and that would be debilitating. So the next thing one needs to be a warrior is detachment. The idea of imminent death, instead of becoming an obsession, becomes an indifference."

* * *

The shipwrecked man dragged himself onto the island's barren rocky shore. The narrow strip of beach abutted a high steep cliff, atop which patches of jungle green protruded.

Draining his last reserves of determination, he slowly and painfully clambered up the cliff, until at last he staggered a couple steps from the cliff edge and collapsed upon the undergrowth, wet with dew, exhausted and despairing.

Whereupon a small black bird flew up to land on a nearby branch. "Awrk!" awrked the mynah. "Pay attention!"

And he did. For the moment he was safe. He had water. And he was still alive. Somewhere in the vicinity someone who owned an English-speaking mynah bird might provide shelter and food. Despite his desperation, he saw things as they were, not as they seemed.

* * *

All of us realize we will eventually die. Some invent ways to wish away that reality -- reincarnation, heaven, Nirvana, other and varied forms of Paradise. Still, most of us resist death, try to postpone it as long as possible. Some consider it a "sin" to hasten death, even amidst terrible, irremediable suffering and humiliation.

Yet for most of us, most of the time, death is a remote event that doesn't intrude on our activities of daily living. It sits on the mat beside us, and we don't pay attention.

A detached awareness of death can inform and guide us. It would be too much to really "live each day as though it were your last." But in moments of private reflection, or during intimate encounters with people we love or hate, the perspective of mortality lends us discretion and discernment.

Shoo away the pesky grandchild? She won't remain young, and Gramps won't remain at all -- but we'll ignore those realities if we don't pay attention.

Chew out the hapless sales clerk? Simply paying attention illuminates the trivial nature of our pique.

An awareness of death, the knowledge that all things must end, provides us with the insight that since nothing is permanent, we must make the most of those brief encounters during which the transient is real.

The next time you enjoy an apple, savor the gloss, the juice, the taste, the smell, the texture. And go ahead -- eat the seeds.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays. hauxwell@ruraltel.net

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