Reflections from a Recent Adventure with Life and Death
It’s amazing how time keeps moving on leaving behind subtle traces of learning to be picked up and placed in such a way so as to complete the puzzle. My life was almost turned upside down when I was diagnosed with a rare cancer mutation of the blood. No form of medication was available in India and whatever was to be imported was super expensive but more importantly not proven, so I would be in the initial line of guinea pigs. The only other alternative was a bone marrow transplant, which was possible if we found the right match in the family. Now after 9 months into the process and on path to complete recovery, I decided to step back and take a look at some of the learning that stood out during this process.
Everything is a process of weaving back into wholeness
Only last week we received a beautiful card and a shawl from a lovely person named Catherine living in America. My wife and I couldn’t stop crying for several hours holding this beautiful piece of stunningly well knitted shawl. Every thread spoke of its warmth and love and every knot a prayer for healing. Even the message was full of love and left with us a learning of a lifetime. Our only wish at this time was to be used as a thread to connect heart to heart and share the warmth that we received ever so lovingly. What was even more beautiful is that we were being weaved all along into wholeness without our realization till we looked a little into the distant past.
When we decided to go ahead with the tests for mapping the DNA for marrow transplant, we were very vary of the results as in the recent past a very dear friend did the mapping for his brother and the result was not positive. I have two siblings – a brother and a sister. As nature had planned it, my sister whose blood group was different than mine turned out to be a 100% match and my brother with whom I shared the same blood group did not match. The probability of matching at the first go with immediate siblings is so rare that the doctor called us to share the good news. Prior to admission and committing to a year long process with chances of success ranging from 50-70%, I decided to have some fun by meeting my farmer friends and other friends in the community in my hometown. There were hugs, tears, prayer circles and more importantly the faith that nothing can happen to me. One even went to the extent to say that ‘nothing incurable can come to souls like yours. You are surrounded by universal grace and all our prayers’. Little did we understand then what it truly meant until we saw the big picture.
What are the odds that your wife goes on a completely open to trust pilgrimage across the country for more than half a year only to meet an old couple in Kerala (down south in India) whose son will turn out to be our heamato-oncologist doing the bone marrow transplant. Who could ever fathom that my sister who had then recently lost her husband to cancer, would find hope in her life to save her brother from cancer. Even if we were to stretch our imagination to the maximum, little would we know that my sister would find a noble friend in my doctor’s brother with a future possibility of sharing the rest of their life together? Even to be able to see this in this lifetime is truly a blessing!
That is when I was reminded of the well-known Sanskrit sloka –
Om shanti, shanti, shanti
That is the whole, this is the whole;
from the whole, the whole becomes manifest;
taking away the whole from the whole,
the whole remains.
Om. Peace! Peace! Peace!
As we now understand, we were probably torn from our internal fabric, our true essence, our being and all this play was just to ‘weave it back into wholeness’.
The overwhelming feeling of grace is the closest to nothingness
There are very few times when you are completely drenched and enveloped in the feeling of grace. One such incident that left my mind paralyzed (in a good sense J) was this. As part of the process, one is administered Chemotherapy for the first week of the treatment for the bone marrow to stop making new cells as their DNA had the cancerous mutation. After this new stem cells from the donor are administered. Between the reduction of existing cells and the development of the new cells from the bone marrow there is usually a lag of 9-10 days. During this time a spiritual leader (again from the same ashram as the old couple in Kerala) was visiting Pune. My wife requested if he could come home and chant for a while and bless our home. That time for me at the hospital was the most critical one as I was on day 9 with my counts not growing and reaching its lowest ever. My platelets were at 2000, white blood cells at 100 and haemoglobin at 3.
So Swamiji (as we addressed him) comes home and so does my doctor as he is also very close to Swamiji. I was connected by Skype and we got talking. He was asking about my health and I responded with whatever energy I had. That is when he turned to my doctor and asked “How much stem cells have you administered?” and the doctor replied “Say about 330 ml.” Swamiji pauses for a while and asks him again “How many cells would that be?” The doctor patiently thought, did some calculations and said “about 3.3 million cells”. That is when Swamiji smiled and said “Oh, 3 million ‘Ram naam’ in those cells, what can possibly go wrong.” We all had tears in our eyes, realizing how he was looking at everything as an element of the divine while we tend to look at all things fragmented. As soon as this thought crossed my heart, we felt I was truly in the line of grace showered with so much love and drenched in its never ending flow. The next day my platelets were 20,000, white blood cells 2,000 and so on. In just four days, all counts moved up by a multiple of 3.
That’s when we truly realized our fragmented thought processes, our belief for ‘our’ or ‘my understanding’ to be right and when that crashes to something as beautiful and loving as grace, everything just melts into nothingness. You literally start staring at a blank canvas.
Deep compassion effortlessly leads to non-attachment
When our cup of compassion is full, the ability to let go becomes effortless. When life is at the edge and we are faced with the question of survival, there is a certain clinging and a very deep sensation attached to it. One is not free. True freedom comes with gratitude, overflowing into compassion, leading to built up of so much love that all other things literally weed out and one feels so light at the end of that understanding. We cannot wait for that understanding to be seeded in, it just dawns and if one is aware, it sinks in, else just passes on.
Every time a new drug, chemo, blood, platelets, etc., was administered, my wife was given a form to sign. The form stated that if anything ever happened to me in the above process, the hospital was not to be held responsible. Frankly, even the hospital was right in doing this. How can one promise an outcome dependent on the forces of nature? My blood group was changing from O+ to B+ and in this process, an intrusion like a medicine or a new blood with its numerous anti-gene antibodies could trigger any reaction that one cannot fathom. It could even lead to death. We saw that in two cases right in front of our eyes. I can’t imagine what my wife must have gone through every time she had to sign this form. Once she even lovingly fought with the doctor, and asked him with teary eyes – “Would you sign if it was one of your close family members?” Nobody had answers to difficult questions like this one. One day, we were talking about the role of God in our life and how grateful we were to feel his presence moment to moment. That is when it hit us that all the doctors, nurses, staff, etc., were all ‘nimitta’ (designated) to carry out this task. Doctors’ life was not easy at all and so were the lives of nurses and staff. We realized that there was really nothing the doctor could do beyond a point and he was left to the mercy of nature like all of us. That was the seeding of compassion for everyone around.
Every single day the blood was monitored to see the progress and I was so attached to the results that my mood for the day depended on the results. I would literally hound the junior doctors for results. My mind had become so attached to the goal that it would blind me to everything else. I didn’t enjoy my food, my mood sucked, wouldn’t talk to anyone and just go into one big negative spiral. With that huge act of grace, the understanding of ‘nimitta’ dawned upon us and we became detached with the results to the point that we started making fun of it. Blessed with an auditor’s mind, i would memorize all the numbers for 2 weeks in a row only to rattle them off to the senior doctor when he would enquire about a particular date. All of us would then break into a huge laugh. When you develop deep compassion for others, there is a complete sense of non-ownership with the outcomes and you start looking at everything objectively, designated to be done by someone. The universal alignment could choose anybody for the task and all one can see is the outcome. If one creates immense compassion to the ‘nimitta’ then the outcomes become irrelevant. We realized even between my wife and I that the more we are committed in a deeply compassionate way, we tend to give more and more freedom of expression to each other.
One can walk fearlessly into death only when one’s being is childlike
My best friends in the hospital are these two young monks – Om and Aksa. Om is six and Aksa, five. Our transplants have happened at different times; however we still meet every Tuesday for our weekly checkups. All of us have this line which runs 50 cm into the body to meet the artery. It’s called the cavafix line. I have it in my arm and they have it on their chest – yes – chest, as kids tend to play a lot with their hands, their lines are short and connected directly to the main blood line. Every Tuesday we all walk into the Heamat – day care almost at similar times. Aksa is mostly to my right and Om to my left. It’s almost a sight when they meet me. They show off their new dress or a gifted car or a new handkerchief and it’s a delight to watch them fully engrossed in their toys or watching a cartoon called ‘Chota Bheem’ (incidentally my favourite too). Even as you meet them in the hospital lobby, they walk as if they own the place. No waiting line, they directly enter the doctors cabin to say ‘Hi’ and laugh and shyly close the door. They sit at medical counters while their moms pick up their weekly dose of medicines and the kids would audit them. One would even shout, “No mom, this one should be a yellow pill not a red one” and the mom would obediently check with the medical guy only to find that he had given a higher dose and the kid was indeed right about the colour.
But the best learning happened when all of us go through the weekly procedure of our bandage being completely ripped open and have the cavafix line cleaned. Even as an adult, I must admit that sometimes I am in tears as the bandage pulls with it some hair, some skin and it’s not easy. These two kids are quiet till the procedure begins. Then they leave out a loud cry when it’s being done unable to bear the pain. This was also my biggest test of equanimity. They would cling on to their mothers’ arms and even go to the extent that they hate the nurse. This is the same nurse to whom they would show off their new toy and tell everyone that she was her best friend. The funniest part is, as soon as the procedure is over, Om would still be crying but would tell his mom – “I am hungry, give me something to eat” and Aksa would clean her tears and put the small purdah that she was made to wear, being from the Muslim tradition and say “Mom, I need to go to the bathroom.” I remember carrying this pain for days in my head till I met these two little monks who taught me to live moment to moment.
They fearlessly walked the path of life and death only when they had the innocence to let go of the pain and start living their joyous self. In a moment, they would cry, the next moment – eat, sleep, laugh, share stories and hold very little memories from the past. For them, everyday was a new day not bothering what their counts were, whether they had fever the earlier week or not, whether one was suffering from cough and cold and so on. For them it was business as usual with the same smile and the same joy. Something only the kids can teach.
Paths are ignited only with faith and devotion on either side
Till last year, I was experimenting with different service opportunities and found that the closest to my heart, was working with farmers. Nevertheless, there was still a gaping hole in my levels of surrender to the same. I was in flux even when I walked into the transplant about what I wanted to do. There was something missing in finding the thing that was closest to your essence. This is where I learnt my biggest lesson in faith. The doc had to share with me the consequences of my report (about the deadly mutation) and the way forward. I presume my wife had already spoken to him earlier and looked like I was in for a deep counselling session. I told the doctor that I was ready to face whatever the consequences may be and I didn’t want to go through any treatment. He looked into my eye with a certain confidence, a surety, a concerned brother’s look and said “Look, get through with this in a year and serve the farmers for 20 more years”. My wife looked at me and nodded in agreement and said “Trust him, he’s right”. I closed my eyes for a second only to open and say yes. Yes! meant a lot of things. One, I was agreeing to go through all the chemo, transplant, painful procedures, etc., and secondly, saying yes to either making it or not at the end of it all. But once we have faith, the universe aligns all the processes. Someone paid forward my charges for Ayurvedic medicines that would help me prepare for the chemo, an NGO would raise funds for my treatment, my sister who had just lost her husband a couple months ago got his insurance money which turned out to be the exact amount that would be used for the treatment. The community raised quite a huge sum and suddenly there was abundance all around. Everyday we would wake up to a new trick the universe would’ve played on us only to help us melt our egos more and more and surrender completely with faith.
The other thing I learnt during this process was the power of prayers. Sinking deep in devotion, I found my essence. Not the religious kind of devotion but a kind of power that constantly reminded that you are taken care of already, just play your part. It did take a while to understand this with bouts of negative spirals and emotional outbursts but in the end, devotion stood apart to hold me really strong. We would get messages from all around the world about someone fasting for a day, someone sitting in meditation and sending metta or an old missionary mother saying with so much grace “I don’t know with age how long I can pray but I definitely promise 3 hours each day”. 3 hours everyday!!! While some held circles, my farmer friends held community prayers and a few other friends from villages held a bhajan night to pray for my health. My sister would constantly keep chanting ‘Ram naam’ while serving me at the hospital. When I say constantly, it meant for about 5-6 hrs non-stop. During a puja at home, she even painted ‘Ram naam(s)’ on a stunning ochre cloth. Suddenly amongst all this, there was an overwhelming feeling of being taken over by the power of devotion and when I came home, I started listening to chants, songs, lectures gifted by friends in the community. Slowly and steadily it grew on me and I started singing along, humming along only to get to a slightly better understanding about life and all of consciousness.
Faith and devotion have ever since remained so deeply ingrained in my being that I feel to have found my essence. One naturally tends to become more effortless in their pursuit of day to day tasks. The eternal faith that one is being taken care of moment to moment helps one push more boundaries to serve more and more without any expectation or self doubt. One is no longer a slave of the circumstances; instead each one has a choice to make fearless decisions with an expanded freedom.
Affinities cannot be polarized
As soon as people heard about my condition and future treatment, there were scores of emails, messages, phone calls, skype calls on how they were with us during the whole process with constant prayers and help of any kind. There is one incident that we cannot just not take away from our hearts. One day, I was in severe need of platelets. My wife messaged the entire community in Pune and within a couple of hours, people started calling up and lining up for tests. After a series of rejections, we found out the minimum criteria for donation so we started informing that they check their haemoglobin and weight before coming here. A mother and son came all the way from a place 20 kms away after doing the haemoglobin and other tests with a certain surety of being able to donate platelets as her son had a very athletic body. On arriving, the lab did some tests and said that his platelet count was 1,75,000 and the minimum requirement was 1,80,000, so we can’t take it from him. The mother was so disappointed that she called up my wife and said, “Please request them to take the platelets, I will feed him properly, take good care of him when I get back home but for now, please ask the lab to take his platelets as Po requires it so badly”. At that time, we felt so moved when my wife narrated the story that both of us were in tears as we’ve never seen someone who would feel so hurt that she was not able to serve at that moment.
One more incident was during my home coming. A group of noble friends decided to give me a surprise on my return home. Three of them in particular travelled all the way from Mumbai and Ahmedabad to paint love on the walls of our home. There was a huge painting in our living room, healing symbols in our bedroom and the portrait of a monk in prayer with my favourite verse written below in free hand, oil paint dripping love. I was literally in for a super sweet shock when I walked in from the hospital.
The second time a group of friends across the country surprised me on my 100th day post transplant. It was so funny because I was supposed to be in quarantine and about 15 of ‘Noble’ (according to the doc, they were irresponsible J) friends. But what a beautiful day and lovely circle of sharing. It was great meeting everyone after a long haul.
Looking back today, with my counts stable, no trace of the mutation in the blood and immunity at decent levels, it all seems like a distant dream with fond memories and tons of learning. Can I hold a view about religion when an Anglican church takes 8 months to weave the shawl, old Missionary sisters committing to 3 hours of prayer or a Jewish boss who stood like a rock amongst all this, Aksa, a Muslim girl teaching me some fine lessons in life, a Buddhist monk whose prayer beads bless me each day or my mom’s teacher who chanted several verses from the Vedas to pray for me or the countless Ram jaap that was showered each day. Can I hold a view about prayers, meditation, bhakti, fasting, sweets off food, circles, and healing chants; when everything seemed like a blessing? Brothers, sisters, my spouse, mom, noble friends, neighbours, strangers and all of the doctors and staff literally becoming one family to make we walk into a new life. Which one do I say is better than the other? Can I distinguish between my mom and other moms who prayed for me? Aren’t the sisters the same when one shared her blood and others their heart and art and the one who drove for over 100 miles just to meet a Chinese doctor for an alternative medicine?
At a juncture where one sees this wholeness, there is no duality, no presence of the other. If I am a miracle of life, so is everyone and if we all are one, how can affinities be polarized?