The VigilanceVoice

Wednesday-- February 20, 2002
—Ground Zero Plus 162

The Wake Of Death & Life
Cliff McKenzie
Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News

        GROUND ZERO, New York City, Feb. 20--I went to my buddy's wake last night.  It was a place where Death meets Life, and Life meets Death.   There were tears of sadness, tears of joy.  There was the Alpha and Omega of human existence.  Guy's casket sat draped in flowers, symbols of the blossoming of the soul.  At first, I didn't smell them.  My "death" shields were up.
        I've seen much death in my life--most of it brutal, unnecessary, wasteful.
        In Vietnam I learned death was cheap.  War always cheapens life.
        I remember walking along and the guy next to me exploding, his body chewed to pieces by an enemy mine.   I've walked through many graveyards in war, strewn with mangled bodies, some your own buddies, some strange figures whose culture and appearance bodes so distant from yours you grow to ignore their humanness, their "right to live."  Concrete grows around your heart and sets fast and hard and thick.
        I've seen people tortured to death--slowly with great malice and ugliness--by the hands of what some might call the "devil" or the "beast."   Those who see too much death build a shell around them to protect themselves for death's shattering pain, its frightening reality.  At least I did.  I cannot speak for all, but I assume others must also protect themselves in similar ways.
       Over the years I've sat vigilant by many deathbeds.  I was a cancer victim--colon cancer and became a survivor.  During my year-long chemotherapy I would talk to those next to me being administered toxic chemotherapy designed to kill the cancer cells. For many, the "cure" also kills the spirit to live.  It weakens one's body and mind.  The majority in treatment were on their last legs, counting minutes, breaths, heartbeats.  Most were frightened about dying.   I had shut off fear's emotional valve to my soul off many years before. In its place was a coldness, a detachment from death.  I refused to appreciate the  "pain of death."  I would look at their frightened faces and hope I never was afraid to die--that I would be exempt from the Terrorism of death--its fear, its intimidation, its complacency.  I didn't think I could afford its cost.
       Two years ago when I came to New York City I was walking along a narrow street next to Saint Luke's Hospital when I caught something falling from the corner of my eye   Instinctively, I came to a quick halt as a body splattered less than ten feet from where I stood.   A young man had jumped from a hospital window.   He was naked except for a bloody gown.  I stood looking at the lifeless body, the pool of blood swirling around him.  
       Again, that numbness enveloped me, a sort of Zen state in which a red-hot spear could have been thrust into my guts and I wouldn't have felt it.  I dialed 911, reported it, and then went on my way.  (I waited until the doctors and nurses rushed out of the hospital to the site before I left.)
       On September 11th, 2001, as I stood at Ground Zero with my neck arched watching people leaping from the burning buildings and heard the "new-to-death" gasping around me as the horror of the scene smacked into their minds, I felt the concrete around my emotions stiffen.   I was detached, disenfranchised from my feelings, pickled in the formaldehyde of death's emptiness, its vacuum.  
      Even when the buildings crumbled and the earth shook as though it were the end of the world and people screamed "we're all going to die," I felt an icy refusal to accept the pain of death, or its ability to boil my emotions to the surface, to strike fear in my heart, to cause me to panic, to make me feel sadness or happiness.   Instead, more concrete muffled my heart, hardening it for what I thought was my "final moment."
      Guy's wake was a jackhammer. 
      It cracked the wall around my emotions--it shattered a life of resolute "death denial."     I felt a sincere joy and happiness for him knowing that his spirit had been freed, that he was alive in ways we who are trapped in the gravity of our bodies and the challenges of our mortality can never truly experience. 
      Guy had become an intimate friend over the past year.  We met Christmas Day, 2000.  I was giving a talk on Christmas morning to a small group that meets every Monday, regardless of holidays.  We became close friends over the next fourteen months.  We evolved into "soul buddies."
       We were separated by only a year in our ages.  Our backgrounds were vastly different in some ways, and in others, we were cut from the same cloth.   We had both struggled throughout life to achieve a sense of personal worth from the inside out.   He had been chauffeur for over thirty years, driving the rich and famous about.   I had been on a journey to become rich and famous, and when I reached the peak of my desires, I found an emptiness atop the mountain of fame and fortunes, and fell down its backside, tumbling and crashing like some angry child who finally gets the toy of his dreams only to find that it doesn't work--it doesn't fill the void within.  Some say I was a victim of success.
       We talked a lot about the process of a man's evolution from within.   We focused on our mutual struggles to break free of our "demons" and to be "set free" so we could enjoy the life we lived minute-by-minute.  We enjoyed a common purpose--to be free of the bondage of "self."   We sought to appreciate life on a prima facia basis, without guilt, remorse or sadness for our empty pasts, or fruitless searches for personal meaning.  The process we employed required us to shed our fears, our intimidations, our complacencies, our resentments, angers, victimizations which comprised an army of Internal Terrorists who had been forming cells within us for over a half a century.
      Believing the chains of human selfishness could be broken was our finish line, our Gold Medal if we reached it.  We worked together to break those bonds of pride, anger, greed, lust, envy, gluttony and sloth and to replace each with its opposite-- humility for our pride, acceptance for our anger, gratitude for our greed, love for our lust, enthusiasm for our envy, giving for our gluttony, and service to offset our sloth.  
       It wasn't an easy task.  I had been working on it for twelve years.  Nothing worthwhile is, they say.   Perseverance and Vigilance is the key.  Competing is the victory.
      The week before Guy died we ate breakfast together at Alice's, a small, quaint Polish place on Avenue A in the East Village.  He told me he understood what soul freedom meant to him.   He shared excitedly that he could "feel" it in his heart.  
       I sat like a sponge, soaking up his revelation, his transfiguration.  He beamed.   Inside, he said, the concrete around his soul had been cracked.  Freedom had carried the chunks of it away.  I could see life sparkling in his eyes as he shared his epiphany with me.  I call it "soul light," the same light I had seen in the eyes of many in the deathbed whose bodies had been ravaged by cancer or some other deadly disease.  In the hollow of their eyes radiated this special light, as though a flashlight were shining up from deep within the soul.   I always felt a chill when I leaned over their bed and looked in their eyes, for it was as though they were a lighthouse and their beacon of life searched for those lost wandering souls at sea whose hearts were still strapped in thick walls of concrete as mine was, and in the final moment they were exposing to me the possibility that one day my eyes might shine as theirs, that one day I might break the bonds of human frailty that kept me from "feeling" or "grieving" death.
        I saw that beacon in Guy's eyes that day.   I knew his soul was free.   I was envious.
       As I sat in the viewing room where Guy's casket was draped by richly colored flowers, and observed the buzz of people--friends, relatives, loved ones--circling his casket, hugging, smiling, some crying, others reverently observing-- I thought I could hear Guy's Voice ringing in my ears.
       "You're free too, Cliff."  
       Guy was like that.   He always seemed to care more about others than himself.  When I first met him, I chalked his "service attitude" up as part of his role, his acting out his job.   But that was a misnomer.  Guy was a giver, not a servant.   He lived for the joy of helping others, caring less about himself than for them.   He lived a life of humility, putting others before himself, sacrificing his own personal freedom for others.   Others could see that in him, but he could not see it in himself.   He was blind to his own humanness.   Until that day in Alice's, a week prior to his death.   He had finally looked in the mirror and seen inside.  He had the courage and conviction to not be intimidated by his value.   I had never been able to do that.  I could only see my flaws, my defects.   Guy saw his heart.
      "You're free too, Cliff."
      I rose from the chair where I had been sitting watching Guy's friends come and go, and walked over to the casket.  A kneeler in front of his casket beckoned me.  I'm not a religious man so I took a deep breath and knelt before it, nervous, unsure of my intentions.    As I let my mind flow free of my own Terrorisms of Death, I felt something stirring in my chest.   It felt like a tapping, a chisel.   Guy, through his spirit, was helping pound the cement from my heart.  It was in keeping with his style--helping others from the grave.  I wanted to shuck the feeling, chalk it up to emotional drunkenness--but I let it flow through me.   I surrendered to the belief that Life and Death were one, that if there were Sentinels of Vigilance that Guy was worthy of being one.   I didn't deny the feeling.
      A tear swelled in my eye.
      I felt the loss of a friend.  I felt the joy of knowing he was spiritually free.  I allowed him into my heart.
      When I stood, I felt a great weight lifted from my shoulders.   I felt the mortality of life.    I felt the Dead had come to Life--and that Guy was taking my fears, my intimidations, my complacencies with him--his final gift to an old "soul buddy."  

     Go To Feb. 19--Vigilance Of Screwdriver Terrorism

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