About one year ago, I crossed the path of a neurosurgeon in his late forties at Novena Hospital, and this post is about that epiphany moment I had with him.
Here's a little background of that chance meeting that lasted no more than a few minutes.
I was there for my brother-in-law who was living his last days before he passed on from a brain tumour.
It was a strange meeting with the neurosurgeon because I do not know him at that time. We had not met before. But when our path crossed, he paused, turned to me and asked, "You're Michael right?"
I nodded and smiled, a strained smile. At that time, I was rushing to the hospital lobby where the family had gathered together for a private meeting to talk about whether to bring my brother-in-law home from the hospital to spend the remainder of his days.
After the exchange of pleasantries, the neurosurgeon started the chat by telling me that he knew my brother. They were from the same school, ACS, and in the same church.
Fumbling to fill in the blanks, I asked him why he was there. He told me he worked in the hospital. He said nothing more than that, and thereafter we shook hands and left.
After we parted ways, I had a flashback of my brother telling me about this neurosurgeon. My brother said that they were in the same cell and he had read some of my ventilations on Facebook and this blog.
Subsequently, I discovered that he too was diagnosed with a terminal illness. But he lived his life on his own terms and refused the scalpel so that he could keep his hair. Like my brother-in-law, he held on to his faith till the very end. And just a few days ago, this neurosurgeon passed away leaving behind his wife and children. He was only 49.
I found out about his death on Facebook and read about what his many friends had written about him, remembering him as a loyal friend, a passionate doctor, an excellent partner, a giver, a humble man, a loving husband, and a devoted father.
That night, when I learned about his passing, I felt a sense of existential numbness, the same feeling I felt the day after my brother-in-law passed away last October.
In fact, I actually woke up in the wee hours of the next morning to reflect about life, more specifically, about death (because you can't think about life without thinking about death for it is said that death concentrates the mind wonderfully, if not frighteningly at times).
I imagine that if I would to write a letter to death as if he were a person, what would I say to him? How would I start the letter?
I guess I would start my letter in a confrontational style, and here's how I will do it - bearing in mind that I am fully aware of my own fragile mortality and how death has taken countless of endearing lives away so blindly and suddenly.
"Dear death, let me just say that I think you are a coward.
You remind me of a gut-less process server who slips quit notices into the cracks of life's doorways in the unwholesome hours of the night and then bolts off without waiting for any acknowledgement from or offering any explanation to the intended recipient.
You do not have the courage to stay behind to put a human face to the dreaded message you bring to an otherwise happy family, a loving father, a passionate friend. Your cowardice has no sympathy, no mercy.
Sometimes I believe you deliberately time it in such a way and manner so as to extract the maximum pain from a heart that deserves the best that life has to offer because it is a heart that has the courage to fight you to the end.
Your timing is as cruel as your intent and your hand is as cold as your dark plan. Sometimes I wish death upon you, but then, you are already dead in a way that there is no earthly life in you to kill, or to take.
Is that why you want to end life so blindly, so tragically, so untimely, so painfully? Do you then take pleasure in other people's displeasure, joy in other's sorrow, and hope in other's demise?
Have you no humanity in mind to ease the rite of passage for those who have all the reasons in this world to marshal to persuade you that they ought to fall under the exception to the rule of your unmerited and untimely death notices?
What game are you playing with a life so young that yearns only to grow, to discover, to savour, to wonder, and to live just a few decades more? What dice are you throwing with a life so inspirational and generous at heart whose extended existence on earth would have continued to bless many others beyond words can describe?
Oh death, how do you sleep at night? Do you even have a conscience? Have you not heard or seen the tears in funerals, the cries of loved ones, the wails of a broken heart, and the struggles of the dying valiantly resisting your advances?
Come on death, I challenge you to experience but one day what the many have to go through in a week, a month, or even a year after you slip your dreaded notices into their doorsteps. Be a man and face this challenge!
Let me end this letter to put on record that you are still a coward to me, and a heartless one. I have little respect and regards, if at all, for you. And please, don't bother to reply to me because most times words are just words. They can't bring back a life you have taken. Neither can they extend it.
In a world of such imaginary correspondence, you can expect the unexpected. And here is death's reply to my letter as I bring this post to a close.
"Dear Michael, you have said many less-than-complimentary things about me, to put it mildly.
I can't say that you are not honest about what you have written. I also can't say that you have no grounds to say what you have said.
It's your right to say or write them and I respect that. I do. But I have only one thing to add to your letter as I leave the rest alone for now.
I noticed in your letter to me that you have spoken little about life when you spoke about me, death.
I can understand your preoccupation though, even frustration, and it is all directed at me, and me alone. Your fear of your own mortality is readily palpable from your own words. I get the message, really, I do, however undiplomatically they were conveyed.
But you are forgetting that you can't live life fully without me. This may sound preposterous and jarring to the earthly senses (and I can expect another angry letter from you?), but the reality is this: life does not stand alone.
In fact, every life is merely a visitor here. We tend to forget that. So, the pain is made worse when a visitor thinks he is here for good, just like a tenant may think that he has taken over the lease to become the landlord.
Well, he has not, and let's not have any delusion about that.
Mike, you see me as the one who ends life. That is natural. I can't deny that. But let me challenge you (as you have challenged me) to think of me as someone who deepens life.
Life herself has come to terms with that challenge, and you may as well start to think about me that way. I trust that it may just open wide the horizon of a new lease of life for you.
Because, if you look at it from that angle, life is really no more than unavoidable death from the perspective of those who had really lived. So, have you then lived your life to the fullest mike? Are you ready for me, or have accepted me in your overall plan?
Mike, I choose to reply to you because if you truly live your life to the fullest, pursuing the things that matter, putting love, faith and hope first in all that you dedicate your heart to, and always looking forward to each new day as they come by, or even before they come by, then trust me when I say that I am no threat to you. I may even be a welcoming friend to you - that is, someone you will factor in in your course of living.
In fact, should you live your life that way, flourishing in your own time with contentment beyond what the superficial things of this world can ever satisfy, then my arrival, notwithstanding its suddenness, will not be that irreconcilable for you and your loved ones over time.
For the wound that time heals also matures the soul as time unveils.
In the end, the end is never the end because I am powerless to cause a life that has lived to its fullest to be extinguished in the hearts and minds of those for whom this life has touched deeply and so selflessly. You focused too much on what I take, but little on what I can give. My true power is in deepening a life, not just taking it.
And trust me mike, the real coward is one who has yet to live his life.
And trust me mike, the real coward is one who has yet to live his life.
So, if you see living as a life extended, then learn my friend to see death as a life deepened to inspire, and be remembered for all time.
In other words, the mortal rite of passage is not so much to ease the way for the departing, but to brighten the day with hope and faith as the dying passes the unquenchable torch of a life so well lived to his loved ones.
Mike, let me end here by saying that there is no perfect time to die. When it comes, it comes. And I will surely come. You can bet your life on that.
But there is always a perfect time to live, and that is every moment you are alive to savour and make the most of it. That in itself is perfect enough.
And like it or not, my dear friend, I am always there to remind you about it.
Death, a messenger for life."
Goodbye, my friend and brother-in-law.
It is the bond of love first given at Calvary.
And will endure for eternity.
Till we meet again in due season,
Enjoy the fullest of His peace.
With our Prince of Peace.