essays tzaddik stories

how the sages die

Within an hour of his demise, my father looked exactly like a very very dead body. He was already cold. His mouth was open in the midst of his last unfinished sentence. One hour was the time it took me to get there as fast as I could wake up and get across the bridge. My mom was in the next room under her own hospice care. My father died in my mom’s bedroom, not even his own territory. Not even his own apartment. His last words were, “Oh, this isn’t good…”

When I was in college I took a class in Asian Art and Philosophy, and I remember one thing very clearly from the class, though at times I think I dreamed it. It has haunted me ever since. It was that the Confucian sages were judged by that moment of death. That how they died reflected how they had lived. I’ve asked about it since, and none of the experts I know have ever heard of this Confucianist maxim. As I said, maybe I dreamt it while falling asleep over The Analects — although the translation I have is by Arthur Waley, my favorite translator at the time. Maybe it was something the professor said, and it stuck.

But it could have been a dream.

I remember tale after tale of how the sages died. And the parable that demonstrated how each one’s death was a reflection of his life.

And I remember how scared this made me. How each moment became a potential moment of death, and therefore a reflection of how I had lived. Like Big Mama Cass who, rumor had it, had choked on a chicken bone. And being the control freak that I am, I wanted that moment to really reflect who I am and not be embarrassed about it. So, reflecting on how to control every moment is also a reflection on trying to figure out who I am, really, in Confucian terms. What kind of death do you get for thinking so hard and so long about what kind of death you deserve? Especially when you don’t believe any of this crap.

I used to carry the Analects around with me. Of course, before that, I used to carry around Aeschylus’ Oresteian Trilogy. And before that, Durrenmatt. And before that Kafka. And before that, Little Peachling and other Japanese Tales — and there we are, back to translations by Arthur Waley. Nowadays it’s books like How Markets Fail. Bummer. But wait, we’re probably not defined by the books we read, right?

My point is, my dad’s dying words were “Oh, this isn’t good…”. And he died in a room and house not his own. Under the watch of caregivers who bathed him and fed him and helped him stand…

And this is not who he was. Not by a long shot.

“Oh, this isn’t good.” That moment of utterance may have been the first and last time my dad ever said anything potentially negative in his entire life. I was the negative one. And his constant and consistent response had been, “You have no idea of the good someone will bring to the world, or who they will touch, or influence, or change for the better.” And this was in regard to a monster that we knew.

He died in a room and house not his own. My mother’s territory. My mother’s domain. He was too ill to be ‘allowed’ back to his jumble of an apartment, filled with art and artifacts, books and manuscripts, and proposals by desperate artists who saw my dad as their possible salvation. He died, trapped by circumstance, far from the realm of the last fragments of history he was trying to protect.

Under the watch of caregivers who bathed him and fed him and helped him stand … My dad had more ‘healthy meals’ in his last two months of life than he ever had living his own life. And more baths, sponge baths, and cleaning behind the ears than ever before. And no one had ever helped him stand on his own two feet before. Ever. Not even figuratively.

Now maybe I’m being too literal here, but the point is clear: My dad’s death did not at all reflect the way he lived his life. It was its antithesis in almost every way. And in this sense, my father’s death has freed me of my Confucian OCD fear that that moment, when it comes for me, will sum me up in some reductionist flash. Whether I really learn this lesson is yet to be seen.

Meanwhile, however, the Analects can still be right on target:

“When Yen Hui died the Master wailed without restraint. His followers said, Master, you are wailing without restraint! He said, Am I doing so? Well, if any man’s death could justify abandoned wailing, it would surely be this man’s!”

“Tzu-Lu asked how one should serve ghosts and spirits. the Master said, Till you have learnt to serve men, how can you serve ghosts? Tzu-Lu then ventured upon a question about the dead. The Master said, Till you know about the living, how are you to know about the dead?” (Analects, Book XI 9–12b)

I’m good at wailing without restraint (in rare but appropriate moments like this one) … and I’m pretty sure that I know close to nothing about serving men…

Still, on this day, I light a candle for my dad — on this, the first of who knows how many fatherless Father’s Days there are to come.

By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

One reply on “how the sages die”

Thank you so much for this. Having lived through two very different deaths since March, mortality and loss are much on my mind.

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