Befriending the Death in Life
Driving from our home in Santa Cruz, CA southward on Highway 101, Mark and I are on our way to celebrate his Mom 80th Birthday. She has lived as a widow for over 20 years. Traveling alongside the Pacific Ocean we round the curve just north of Santa Barbara when the song, “The Streets of Laredo” comes on the radio.
I am transported back to January 1998, at the bedside of Mark’s Dad, Tom Riley. After riding a rollercoaster of chemotherapy treatments and cancer interventions, he is now set up in the center of the home – the TV room - as hospice has taken over.
It is dark outside. I have brought my guitar to sing a few songs to comfort him in his pain. He now has gone completely blind and his hearing is the only faculty left to connect to the outside world. Most often he speaks of the intensity of pain and the longing for it all to be over. Suddenly, in the quiet, with Mark and I sitting together with him there he starts to sing:
“As I walked out on the streets of Laredo.
As I walked out on Laredo one day,
I spied a poor cowboy wrapped in white linen,
Wrapped in white linen as cold as the clay.”
Leaning in, we look up at each other in amazement. To my knowledge, Tom was not a singer, though he was a robust church-goer and deeply devoted Catholic. Here he is now offering us a glimpse into his whole life that was encapsulated in the song.
"I can see by your outfit that you are a cowboy."
These words he did say as I boldly walked by.
"Come an' sit down beside me an' hear my sad story.
"I'm shot in the breast an' I know I must die."
This death moment has been an on-going inquiry in my life. Emilie Conrad, our beloved Continuum teacher, used to exclaim that the essential requirement to become a Continuum teacher was to die a thousand deaths. For over 3 decades many of us made pilgrimages to the Dream Temple of Fluid Transformation that Continuum offered to us. Each long retreat held many moments of dying and being born again…cell by cell, psyche by psyche.
"It was once in the saddle, I used to go dashing.
"Once in the saddle, I used to go gay.
"First to the card-house and then down to Rose's.
"But I'm shot in the breast and I'm dying today."
What does it mean to be fully alive and open to the possibility of the next breath being your last, living with Death always on your shoulder?
"Get six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin.
"Six dance-hall maidens to bear up my pall.
"Throw bunches of roses all over my coffin.
"Roses to deaden the clods as they fall."
It isn’t until Tom is singing about the roses that I know he is not just having a memory but is transporting us through his passing with a song to soften the blows for all of us. He knows every word. We have no idea what to do. He sings on:
"Then beat the drum slowly, play the Fife lowly.
"Play the dead march as you carry me along.
"Take me to the green valley, lay the sod o'er me,
"I'm a young cowboy and I know I've done wrong."
"Then go write a letter to my gray-haired mother,
"An' tell her the cowboy that she loved has gone.
I think to myself: “Ok we can do that…we can sing….we can honor the whole life of your creation Tom.” Hearing The truth of this song AND ITS PERFECTION FOR THE MOMENT startles, opens and wrenches us. We are in the raw truth of a meaningful moment. Alive at the edge.
Places where Tom’s life had been snagged by resentment and fear are folded into his singing.
"But please not one word of the man who had killed me.
"Don't mention his name and his name will pass on."
When thus he had spoken, the hot sun was setting.
The streets of Laredo grew cold as the clay.
We took the young cowboy down to the green valley,
And there stands his marker, we made, to this day.
We beat the drum slowly and played the Fife lowly,
Played the dead march as we carried him along.
Down in the green valley, laid the sod o'er him.
He was a young cowboy and he said he'd done wrong.
For now, over two decades later, we are forever marked by this moment and the wisdom of his strong finish as we head into our own aging years. Alive at the edge, befriending the death in life.