Striving to Die Smilingly

A Tribute to Terrell Jones
(25 October 1942 – 15 August 2002)

Terrell Jones, a good friend and fellow Vipassana meditator, died at his home just down the road from Light Morning in mid-August, shortly after having been diagnosed with a rapidly metastasizing melanoma. Many of us in this area are deeply indebted to Terrell. For not only did he introduce us to Vipassana, he also modeled for us the exceedingly rare quality of being able to die well. To leave with awareness. As a small token of my personal appreciation, I’d like to share a few stories about my Vipassana relationship with Terrell.

Terrell in India for a long Vipassana course

 

Noble Chatter (Early 1994)

Terrell and I are walking down to a small cabin on his and Diane’s land. Having just returned from his first 10-day course at the Vipassana Meditation Center in Massachusetts, Terrell had called, asking if I could come by and hear about his experiences. So I rode my bike over. He suggested we talk at the cabin.

Walking beside him through the woods, I’m startled by the bounce in his step and the eager light in his eyes. A far cry, indeed, from the listless, haunted, desperate friend of just two weeks ago. A friend so deeply mired in cravings and confusion, for so long, that he had felt himself to be teetering on the edge of a precipice, about to lose everything that was dear to him-his health, his marriage, and his sanity.

Then someone he knew had recommended Vipassana meditation.

“I’ll try anything,” Terrell had told me just after sending in his application.

We enter the cabin and sit down. For the next five hours, Terrell tells me, in a ceaseless, effortless monologue, about his course. He describes the practice, recapitulates the teachings, enthuses about the center, shares the insights he’d received. He says he now sees how self-centered and self-indulgent he has been.

“But this has changed my life, Robert. This has totally changed my life.”

As the hours go by, and Terrell shows no sign whatsoever of winding down, I’m tempted to wonder if his euphoria might perhaps be drug-induced. Maybe he took a little something when he got home.

“No, no,” he laughs. “That’s all behind me now. Besides, this is better than drugs.”

Much later I learn that Terrell’s post-course eloquence is not all that uncommon. In this Vipassana tradition, students take a vow of silence upon beginning a course. On the tenth day they are released from their vow. Noble Silence gives way to “noble chatter,” and all the feelings, insights and experiences come tumbling out.

Finally, as our marathon session draws to a close, Terrell leans over, seizes my arm, and says, “You’ve got to take one of these courses, Robert. I just know it will be wonderful for you.”

“You’ve already convinced me,” I reply. “You’ve come back a new person. I want to see what you tapped into up there.”

Hear/speak/see no evil (in India)
Hear/speak/see no evil (in India)

Shut Up, Terrell (December, 1995)

I’m sitting slumped on the couch of our community shelter, staring into space, distantly aware of Terrell talking to me from across the room. I have just returned from my first Vipassana course. And I am feeling anything but euphoric.

It had taken well over a year to translate my intent to sit a course into action. Light Morning had been busy finalizing the blueprints for a large new shelter. Then, in June of 1995, Joyce had decided that she wanted to take a course and had returned impressively transformed.

So Terrell and I had decided to drive up to V.M.C. in September and sit a course together. Just before we were to leave, however, Terrell was diagnosed with a melanoma in one of his eyes. It was successfully treated with laser surgery, but we had to withdraw from our course. Finally, another friend (Kent) and I had driven to Massachusetts in early December.

The full story of my first course will have to wait for another day. It was, in short, highly traumatic. I had left V.M.C. hating the place, vowing never to return, and warning Kent, as we drove south through a raging blizzard, that if he even mentioned the word Vipassana on the way home that I would puke all over his truck.

Now I’m sitting numbly on the couch, slipping quickly into what any professional would easily describe as a nervous breakdown, and listening to Terrell gush about what a great course I just had!

“Are you crazy?!” I ask. “Are you deaf?! Didn’t you just hear me tell you what a rotten time I had? How much I hate Vipassana? How I’m never going back?”

“Yes, but how fortunate that such a big sankara came up.”

I shake my head in disbelief. There’s a recollection from the course that sankara means a deeply rooted mental complex. Some kind of karmically reactive energy knot that generates impure thoughts and actions.

But I have completely forgotten that Goenka (who teaches the courses via audio and video tapes) had talked about Vipassana as a path of purification and liberation. During a course, he had said, a “deep surgical operation of the mind” takes place, and big sankaric impurities sometimes come to the surface and are released.

This is what Terrell is trying to convey. But I’m too far gone and want no part of it.

“Shut up, Terrell!!”

He smiles and continues his discourse.

I extend my leg in his direction, interposing my foot between his face and mine, and say, “My foot’s in your face, Terrell. I’m not listening to one more word you say. You and Goenka are both full of shit!”

He grins again and surrenders, but only after telling me one last time what a great course I had. Three intense weeks later I would begin to agree with him.

The Swish of the Horse’s Tail (June, 2002)

Again we’re seated in a living room. Terrell and Diane’s this time. I’m visiting Terrell while Diane goes shopping in Roanoke. He’s looking gaunt but seems to be in good spirits.

He’s telling me about a phrase that he’s recently come upon in the teaching of Buddha and that he finds especially evocative–the swish of the horse’s tail. He shares the image of a horse grazing in a field, tormented by pesky flies. The horse swishes its tail, first one way, then the other. Back and forth. Back and forth. Good times, bad times. Pleasure and pain. Hope and despair. Back and forth goes the horse’s swishing tail.

“Anicca [ah-KNEE-cha],” Terrell says with a smile, using the familiar Vipassana word for the bedrock principle of impermanence. The experiential realization that everything is transitory. That this, too, shall pass.

Then we joke about not looking a gift horse in the mouth. Or in that other part of a horse’s anatomy to which its tail is attached. And about how some gifts come to us quite well disguised.

Just below the philosophical references, however, and the bantering humor, lies the poignancy of the moment. For Terrell is, in all likelihood, dying of cancer. And he’s choosing to die well. He choosing to put his practice into practice.

Several months earlier, Joyce and I had gone over to Terrell and Diane’s for supper. We were planning the first Vipassana course to be held in the Roanoke valley, in late August. Terrell and Victoria, another Vipassana friend, had been instrumental in bringing the intent for the course into focus.

But Terrell wasn’t looking at all good that evening and had hardly eaten anything. He’d been to the doctor several times, complaining of intestinal pain, but had been sent home with the reassuring diagnosis of diverticulitis. With the clarity of hindsight, and especially given Terrell’s prior history of melanoma, one senses the terrible inadequacy of that diagnosis.

Then in May the four of us had driven down to Charlotte, North Carolina, to see Goenka, who was on an extended tour of North America. Joyce and I had sat the one-day course there. Terrell and Diane had served it. Victoria had come in from New York and we had talked more about the upcoming course in Roanoke.

Shortly after returning home, however, Terrell had finally been given the appropriate medical tests. The results showed that his earlier melanoma had reappeared, after all these years, and had metastasized into his vital abdominal organs.

Terrell and Diane, and the rest of us, were stunned. Then, almost immediately (and mercifully), our practices had kicked in. For years we’d been listening to Goenka talk about learning to “die smilingly.”

“Vipassana teaches the art of dying: how to die peacefully, harmoniously. And one learns the art of dying by learning the art of living: how to become master of the present moment…”

So Terrell and I are sitting in his living room, honing our awareness of the fleeting moment, and joking about the swish of the horse’s tail.

“I’m keeping both sides open, Robert. I’m going to pursue whatever experimental therapies I can. I know the odds aren’t so great, but there are spontaneous remissions, and I’m open to that. But I’m also open to this being my time to go. And if it is my time, I want to go well.”

I nod in agreement, feeling surprisingly at ease in the presence of my dying friend, and hearing a soft, unspoken voice saying, “Sadhu, Terrell. Sadhu. [Well said, Terrell. Well said.]”

The Miracle Pilgrimage (Early August, 2002)

Joyce and I are visiting Terrell and Diane, who have just returned from a final journey to V.M.C. to see Goenka. They are radiantly, almost ecstatically happy. Listening to their stories, witnessing their bliss, I suddenly feel the unmistakable touch of the sacred, the numinous, the realm of miracles.

Miraculous because this was a journey that few expected Terrell to even be able to take, let alone complete. And he had come so close to not going.

The past couple of weeks had been rough. The medications that had been prescribed to soften the fierce, jagged edges of Terrell’s pain had rendered him less and less lucid during more and more hours of the day. Sometimes I would come over so that we could do our afternoon sits together. He had appreciated my presence, but couldn’t hold his focus very well, which frustrated him.

“I only wish that I could have had another twenty years of practice to get ready for this,” he would say. “But at least I have a practice. I don’t like to think about where I’d be right now without one.”

Increasingly, though, Terrell had been drifting further and further away. Once I had even slept on a mat at the foot of his bed, not sure that he’d make it through the night, and not wanting Diane to be there alone with him if he didn’t.

During his rare lucid intervals, he would talk about how much he wanted to see Goenka one last time-to pay his respects, to convey the depth of his gratitude, and to simply be in his presence. Since Goenka would be concluding his North American tour at V.M.C. in early August, and would be spending a few days there before flying home to India, Diane had outfitted the back of their van with a comfortable mattress to prepare for the 12-hour journey to Massachusetts.

The journey had not looked promising, though. Even if Terrell survived the drive, would he even know where he was when he got there, or what he was there for?

Then Alta, another longtime friend and fellow Vipassana student, who also happens to be an R.N., had taken a closer look at Terrell’s medications and had decided that the dosage was way too high. After consulting with the physicians, she and Diane had drastically reduced them. The effects were equally dramatic. Terrell’s lucidity had returned almost immediately. Now they were ready for their pilgrimage.

Terrell with Goenka at VMC in early August
Terrell with Goenka at VMC in early August

And what a pilgrimage it had been. As Joyce and I listen to their excited tales, it becomes apparent that their journey had not only gone better than they might have imagined, it had gone better than they could have imagined. It had clearly exceeded whatever they may have hoped for in even their wildest dreams.

For me, the most touching of their stories has to do with the deep mutual gratitude that had flowed between Terrell and Goenka. For Terrell, being able to express his profound appreciation to his teacher had been the driving force behind their trip. He had not been at all prepared, however, to experience an equally deep appreciation coming back the other way.

For Goenka was having the special opportunity to see one of his experienced students taking the practice of Vipassana into the white hot heat of the final moments of his life, and doing so with a lighthearted, even jovial equanimity. It was a striking affirmation that Goenka’s mission to offer Vipassana to the world, and especially to bring it to the West, was bearing fruit.

And he openly expressed his gratitude to Terrell.

“Look at this man,” he had said to a roomful of senior students and teachers. “He’s laughing and he’s dying. He’s dying and he’s laughing. This man understands my teachings.”

To Leave With Awareness (Mid-August, 2002)

I’m meditating in a corner of Terrell’s bedroom. It’s the middle of the night. Diane and Alta and I are taking turns keeping vigil by his bedside. The end isn’t far off.

Terrell’s restless. In and out of a shallow sleep. At one point he suddenly sits up, looks around, and then, seeing me on my meditation cushion, says, “Hi, Robert. I didn’t know you were here.”

We’ve had some good sharings over the past few days. We had been able to find resolution for a long-standing concern that he’d had about the “purity” of my practice, and he’d been enthusiastic about a special 10-day course that I’d be taking in the fall. He had also talked wistfully about the upcoming Roanoke course, due to start in a few days, that he won’t be able to serve.

Other friends had been stopping by as well. All are deeply touched by the grace that Terrell and Diane have been exhibiting in the face of such challenging circumstances. It’s an eloquent testimony to both their Vipassana training and their daily practice.

Later in the night, Terrell awakens again.

“I’m dry as a bone, Robert. I’m dry as a bone.”

“You and the Earth both,” I think, as he gets some chipped ice from a cup by his bed, sucks on it for a while, and then drifts back to sleep. The southeast is in the grips of a prolonged drought. No rain for months. The land is desperately dry.

Morning comes. Terrell has made it through another night. I decide to take a brief break and have breakfast with my Light Morning family, five minutes down the road. I haven’t seen them for days. Midway through the meal, I get a phone call saying that Terrell has just died.

So I drive back. Diane and Alta are quietly awed by the peacefulness of his passing. Just after I had left, Terrell had awakened with some anxiety.

“I know it’s time to go, but I don’t know how!”

“Yes you do,” they had reassured him, each of them taking one of his hands. “Just be aware of your breathing. Follow your breath. You know how.”

So Terrell had settled into anapana, the breath meditation that students practice for the first third of each Vipassana course. After a short time, though, he had lost the focus again.

“I can’t do it!”

“Yes you can, Terrell,” Alta had said. “You have to show us the way. You’re our teacher here. You have to show us how this is done. We need you to show us how this is done, so that we’ll be able to do it, too.”

And with that encouragement, Terrell had been able to relax and to re-focus his awareness on his breathing. His breaths became softer and softer, slower and slower, the out-breaths slightly audible, like a quiet sigh or perhaps a soft chant. Slower. And slower. And then he was gone.

I take my cushion over to Terrell’s bed. Diane and Alta have bathed him and dressed him in his special meditation clothes from India. He’s lying there perfectly still. All restlessness gone.

I settle in beside him and begin to meditate, feeling the richness of our friendship, my gratitude to him for having introduced me to Vipassana, and for supporting me in my practice. And now, for the priceless gift of our last sit together, here on his deathbed. One final, piercing reminder of anicca. This, too, shall pass. I, too, shall pass.

And then, unbelievably, as I’m sitting quietly beside him, it starts to rain. Softly at first. Then harder and harder. It’s beating on the roof. Soaking into the bone-dry Earth. A long, steady, sustained downpour.

“Thanks, Terrell,” I murmur. “Thanks for everything.”

Terrell at VMC in August
Terrell at VMC in August

(A few closing notes: During Diane’s evening sit, on the day that Terrell died, the feeling came to her that in his final out-breaths, “slightly audible, like a quiet sigh or perhaps a soft chant,” Terrell had been taking refuge in the Buddhist Triple Gem. / The first Vipassana course in the Roanoke valley, which Terrell had helped to organize, was well attended and ran smoothly. Two courses have also been scheduled for 2003, in late April and early September. / If you’re interested in learning more about Vipassana meditation, as taught by S.N. Goenka, go to www.dhamma.org.)

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