What follows is a letter that I wrote to my brother Sean Tagert some months ago, after he had posted a very dark and despairing message online, and first mentioned medically assisted death. I hope it provided some comfort to him then; perhaps it can bring some comfort to his friends and family now. Rest in peace, brother.
I read your post on Facebook and knew I had to write. Really I should have written long ago, but life has a way of carrying us quickly along.
I wish I could be there for you now; I wish also that I could have been closer for all these many years. It is curious that throughout my adult life, I have been essentially a bystander to my own family, but then it also seems that this was something decided many years ago. I come for a visit once a year, more or less, and these week-long glimpses are all I really know of my mother and siblings. There are great chapters of your life I know nothing about, whole relationships passed unnoticed, titanic struggles unmarked.
This includes the progress of your ALS, the steady, infinitely cruel erosion of your health and abilities. I literally cannot imagine your suffering. But I am sorry for what you have been made to endure.
With that said, I want also to offer some thoughts on living and dying, as you are, clearly, in extremis. I have no particular experience with death, beyond being certain to experience it eventually; but maybe that’s enough. My hope is to ease your pain: not your physical pain, which is clearly out of reach, but your mental, emotional, and spiritual pain, the turmoil of the heart.
It hurts me to think that I will soon lose my brother, but it hurts me yet more to hear the despair in your voice. It’s not that it’s surprising – as I said, no one but you can know what you’re going through – but now, more than ever, I hope you can feel at peace.
Yes, at peace – peace without limit, like the starry night sky, or the waves of the ocean, or the laughter of a child. I mean a peace beyond the reach of the world’s dust, a peace so deep that when you feel it you know that you have never really been apart from it, because it is you. It is your very flesh and bone, indeed it is a peace beyond flesh and bone. It is the peace of connection: of oneness with all things, just as they are.
This is, from one standpoint, a very Buddhist view, but I trust you will see that it is not just some sectarian doctrine. It’s inherent in being. In the realest, ultimate sense, you are the world. You are the air you breathe, the food you eat; you are the sound of the music, and the feel of the bedsheets; you are the yapping dog and door closing; perhaps most of all, you are the people around you, you are Aidan and Mom and Leah and everyone else.
Ultimately you have no edges, and this is proven true in death. We return from whence we came, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And just as there was a time before you were born, there will be a time after you have died; and seeing this, you will see that existence and nonexistence are essentially the same thing. They’re two sides of the same coin.
So please, don’t say that you’ve failed. In life there is no real failure; there is only the mysterious movement of energy in the present, the unceasing, ever-flowing Tao. Alan Watts said that life ought not be regarded as a journey with a serious end, that may be achieved or not, but should rather be seen as “a musical thing – you were supposed to sing and dance while the music was playing.”
So sing and dance! (Okay, not literally, in your case. 😉) Celebrate your life! Remember the joy you’ve had, and treasure each moment remaining. And if it comes time to end it, do so with all the grace and good humor you can muster. Gather your loved ones together, wish them well, and wave to them as you pass into the great beyond. Dying, as you know better than me, is hard; but death itself, I am certain, is a return to limitless connection, by which I mean limitless joy.
You said that [your son] Aidan would be devastated by your passing. You may of course be right. But it seems to me there is one last gift you can give him, one last lesson you can impart: how to die well.
Life, after all, is a gift. It comes to us free of charge, no strings attached. Each moment, each sensation, each memory, is a blessing. What better, then, than to pass on that gift, to communicate this same spirit of gratitude to those who will follow you?
We have been given many such blessings. I want to end this letter with two, both, as it happens, involving riding in a car with you. The first was in Hawaii, when I was twenty-three or twenty-four and you were twenty-two or so. We were driving back from Kona side, from kayaking at Kealakekua Bay, and the sun had set. Lindsey and I were in the front seat, and you were with Naoko [a Japanese girl staying with us at the time] in the back, asleep or nearly so, with her head on your shoulder. And as we rode along the curving road through the jungle valleys near Hilo, like a car in a dream, Leonard Cohen was playing on the stereo, singing his sad gentle songs:
Who by fire, who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry, merry month of May,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?
The second was more recent, when I visited you in Langley. You drove me to the airport in your convertible, your right hand (though already withering from the ALS) moving the stick shift swiftly through the gears. As we crossed over the Port Mann Bridge, the sun breaking through the clouds and the wind streaming in our hair, I knew very well that this would be the last time I would ride with my brother like this. And it occurred to me then that likewise it was the last time you would ride with me; that your life and my life were, in that brilliant moment, one. Tears streamed down my cheeks behind my sunglasses, though perhaps you didn’t notice; tears are streaming down my cheeks now.
With the greatest love, your brother,