May 27, 2004
Face to Face
Before he was the Buddha, or Enlightened One, Prince Siddhartha lived a luxurious life behind the walls of his family castle. But each time he ventured out, the legend goes, he discovered the lame, the halt, the dying. His squire, Chandara, convinced him to ignore such things, as the world was full of suffering. Then his wife gave birth, and Siddhartha, at 29, was struck by the inexplicable mysteries of life and death. Late one night, he kissed his sleeping wife and newborn son goodbye and wandered out of the palace with Chandara to find the answer to how one overcomes suffering.
I read this legend in the home of my friends, John and Jip, in Seattle last weekend, and it struck me why I would make a lousy Buddhist. I imagined Siddhartha's wife as she awoke the next day and was told her husband left her and her newborn to find the meaning of human suffering. I imagined what if Siddhartha's wife was Jewish. He did what? He wanted to find out what? Suffering? Let him stay, I'll show him suffering....
My friend John is a school librarian. Jip -- her name is pronounced Jeep, the sound of a young bird -- was born and raised in a village near Chaing Mai in Thailand. She was working as a nurse in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border when she met John, who was teaching English at the camp.
She came with him back to Seattle, where she earned her master's in public health at the University of Washington. They married. Not long afterward, doctors diagnosed Jip with multiple sclerosis.
That was 13 years ago. Now Jip -- a beautiful, bright, luminous, raven-haired and almond-eyed 42-year-old -- is a quadriplegic. She has lost feeling below her chest, lost the use of her arms and legs, and she has gone almost completely blind. Her limp, recalcitrant body is confined to a medieval assortment of wheelchairs, body lifts and standing platforms.
Weekdays, home-care aides come and assist her. Nights and weekends, John tends to her. The financial toll of home-care on a middle-income couple is simply bankrupting.
The emotional toll is something I tried my best to fathom, as I watched John manipulate Jip's spasmodic legs, lift her in and out of their car for a picnic, bring her food and drink. They disappeared behind their bedroom door for hours, as he bathed and dressed her and took her to the bathroom. This was my weekend; this is their life.
They have friends, literally. Their community of Quakers has formed a "care committee" to provide practical and spiritual support. The committee makes sure someone brings over dinner four nights each week. The committee meets on Sunday to help them strategize on medical treatment, deal with mundane errands, help make life-and-death decisions. It is bikur holim, the prescribed act of visiting the sick, taken to yet another level. "They're there for me as much as for Jip," John told me.
John and Jip's home has acquired many of the same books my cousin's apartment had after he was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gherig's disease: "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying," Anne Lamott's "Traveling Mercies," numerous volumes by the Dalai Lama and the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn, books on healing and nutrition.
If there are no atheists in foxholes, there are few dogmatists facing serious illness. In the cereal aisle of American spirituality, people can pick through great traditions to find the little parts that work for them -- antioxidants, acupuncture, meditation, snippets from the kaballah, quotes from Thomas Merton. Whatever works. To be fair, though, Jip was a practicing Buddhist long before she ever walked into a Barnes and Noble.
When John disappeared with Jip into their room, I plunged through their books; I needed them all. Intellectually, I know people have been on this wheel of birth and suffering and death for thousands of years, and no one has figured it out, no one has escaped, and no one has resigned him or herself to it.
Faced with what John and Jip have to endure, I was wondering if any of those books on their shelves offered, well, The Answer. When my cousin was dying, I'd read many of these same books, but the wisdom doesn't stick, and every anguish seems fresh and inexplicable.
I read like a fiend but stopped short when I came to that story of Siddhartha. I know little of Buddhism and apologize in advance for insulting readers who do, but it struck me that John and Jip, by staying put, by facing the suffering in their own home, were on a path as holy and transcendent as any Prince Siddhartha undertook.
If Siddhartha were Jewish, I'd like to believe he would have turned back to the castle to be with his wife and son. The Book of Isaiah speaks of a time when God will "swallow up death forever ... and will wipe away tears from all faces." But that will be then, this is now.
In the face of sorrow, suffering and death, Judaism puts aside the big questions for prescribed practices: rituals, traditions, prayers. Confronting her father's long and difficult illness, historian Deborah Lipstadt reflected once that Jewish traditions are "the exact antithesis of the tendency to separate oneself from reality." Understanding is not the aim. The key is to face it, not fear it.
John, a young and vibrant man devoted in his care to his ailing wife, was the embodiment of that. If Suffering thought it could scare off this son of the Midwest with gentle blue eyes and broad smile, it thought wrong.
As for any Big Answer I sought, the closest I came was on the flight back to Los Angeles. I was watching the movie, "American Splendor," about the middle-aged Jewish American comic book author Harvey Pekar. "Life seems so sweet and so sad," Pekar says, "and so hard to let go of in the end."