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Becoming Neil

This month, I have had the privilege of playing Neil in a community theater production of The Quality of Life, a beautifully-written, award-winning play by Jane Anderson. Neil and his wife Jeanette are living in a yurt on their property in the Berkeley Hills in Northern California after losing their house in a wild fire. Neil has cancer, and his options for treatment have run out. “Rather than suffer the kind of prolonged, humiliating and painful death that is common with this disease, he has chosen to take the more humane and dignified path of self-release.” As he says, he is “checking out before the machine starts to crash.”

The play looks at how we perceive death, grief and faith. At its heart, the play is about finding comfort and hope in the face of great loss. It is a story told with humor, compassion, pain and, above all, love. In the process of becoming Neil, I have seen that the quality of life includes grief and that grief is what makes life dear. I put myself in the shoes of a dying man, which is, of course, where I had been all along.

What is Neil’s ethical will? The concept has Biblical roots, but an ethical will may generally be described as an expression of values to be passed down from one generation to the next. Scattered through The Quality of Life, like the treasures they found in the ashes of their home, are clues that reveal Neil’s set of values and that shape his ethical will.

Neil and Jeanette are spiritual, but they are “not part of any organized religion.” Their moral guidance comes not from the Ten Commandments but from “common decency.”

Neil understands the validity of religious beliefs, but he does not believe in damnation. He does not need faith-based rules or dogma to show him what’s right and what’s wrong. It is enough for Neil to know his own heart and to know what is true.

Common decency makes kindness a virtue. Neil believes that it is important to be kind and to be thankful for the kindness of others. He believes that he has a responsibility to try to set things right whenever he finds that he has wronged another with an unkind word.

Though there is pain, there is also beauty in life. Neil delights in that beauty and expresses his joy in the gift that beauty brings. I have imagined Neil’s last words:

Your eyes are kind and your heart is generous. You have been through an unspeakable horror in your life, yet still you see the beauty of a circling hawk and the promise contained in an avocado seed. I celebrate that joy with you, for there is beauty and hopefulness in life. You only have to look for it. People move on, and I wish I knew how to take away the ache. Take care of yourself.

Neil is interested in other points of view. Though he may disagree, he is respectful of the beliefs of others. He pays attention to how his words and actions may affect other people. He is always seeking to find common truth.

We havent always seen eye-to-eye, but I like hearing from the other side! I admire your strong faith and your strong heart. I know that you are not made of stone. In the end, you and I are not so different. Everywhere you look, there is heartbreak, and people move on. But you build things. You hammer in the nails, and you fill the bird feeder. You reach out your hand. I have faith that you will work it out. Life is too precious.

Neal and Jeanette.
[Photo credit: R.S]
Neil and Jeanette toast to having “no fear” of death. His approaching death is not awful, Neil says. “We all have to die. Presidents do it, garbage men do it, lawyers and poets and certified public accountants do it.” He has chosen to end his journey, and he is thankful that he gets to design his own end and that he will die gently with his beloved Jeanette by his side. He wants to “cherish his very last breath” and sees this as “nothing but a privilege and a gift.” He says that he is not afraid of death, and yet he recognizes in himself the “terror and rage that normal people feel.” Life does not let you cheat grief.

Still, Neil loves life, and he refuses to let death make him morbid or morose. He allows himself to be playful, and at times, his personality merges with the archetypal trickster.

In the face of the loss of his own life, leaving everyone and everything he has ever known, Neil finds comfort in Jeanette with every beat of her heart. It is the love between them that he values more than anything else.

I have loved you from that moment when, standing on a boulder in Mexico, I looked down at you and I saw your smile and our eyes met. Your spirit of wild unbounded joy has kept me going through all the years. And now, I dont want to leave you, but people move on. Though my heart breaks as we share our last goodbye, my mind finds peace in a heartbeat. Please know that this less than perfect man loved you. No fear!

Unlike Neil, I do not have cancer. I am not confronted by a terminal disease with no hope of cure. I have not been put in the position of having to make decisions about the end of my journey, but I know that there will be an end. There is wisdom in Neil’s ethical will that resonates in me like a wind chime and that merges in my soul, in my “star stuff,” because I have become Neil.

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Some other stuff for later,

  • 85
    Convirtiendo en NeilThe English version of this post—Becoming Neil—was posted here on March 29, 2016. This Spanish translation is my own and may contain errors. I invite native speakers of the language to comment on my errors and to suggest corrections. Aquí está una traducción en español de Becoming Neil. Me gustaría…
  • 84
    In the hour of my death, would I regret that my life had no meaning? Should that be a regret, after all? It seemed that some people—often those who offered sage advice about aging—advocated a search for meaning in one’s life. It was seemingly a noble cause. If you wanted…
  • 79
    “But our machines have now been running seventy or eighty years, and we must expect that, worn as they are, here a pivot, there a wheel, now a pinion, next a spring, will be giving way; and however we may tinker them up for a while, all will at length…

Hast Seen the White Whale?

I have spent much of the last month aboard the Pequod in the company of Queequeg, Starbuck and a guy who wanted to be called Ishmael, along with an assortment of other rough characters. Ahab was the captain of the whaler, and there was no doubt about that because he expected everyone to follow his will—and everyone did. He was hung up on one particular whale, but I think he pursued not so much the whale as a fish but rather the idea of the whale or the meaning of the whale or his irrational and unquenchable gut-feelings toward that whale.

Ishmael knew a heck of a lot about whales and whaling ships. He shared with me everything he knew about whale anatomy and how to go about slaughtering a whale using simple hand tools. He seemed to know what anyone of note had ever said or thought about whales at any time and for any reason as far back as the days of Jonah. He even had opinions about pictures of whales (most he thought monstrously inaccurate). Don’t get him started—Ishmael would go on and on and on on the subject of whales, and I almost lost patience with him, but there I was, stuck onboard with him. Sharp readers will have caught my reference to the whale as “a fish” and questioned whether a whale is properly described as a fish. Of course, Ishmael had that covered, too: “I take the good old fashioned ground that the whale is a fish, and call upon holy Jonah to back me.” A whale, he said, “is a spouting fish with a horizontal tail,” and for him, that settled the matter. I couldn’t disagree.

So, what was it with Ahab and the white whale, Moby Dick? Theories abound, and there is no consensus. Maybe it was simply revenge, because Ahab had lost a leg in an earlier encounter with the fish. But if you regard Moby Dick metaphorically, it gets more complicated. To some, the whale represented the blank indifference of nature. To others, the whale represented evil. Some saw the white whale as an emissary of a dark spirit-world. Yet others felt that it was Ahab’s obsession that gave the whale significance and turned Ahab into a raging dictator or megalomaniac. Even my rambling friend Ishmael would often refer to the captain as “monomaniac.” If most on board thought the peg-legged captain unstable, none dared say so. Ever-faithful Starbuck may have known him best, but even he could not keep Ahab from his single-minded pursuit of Moby Dick.

In the end, I could not blame Ahab. Sure, he was a little nuts, but who isn’t? And who is to blame Ahab for staying true to himself and for wanting to be the master of his fate and captain of his soul? Wasn’t it right for the captain to burn and rave at close of day, to rage against the dying of the light and not go gentle into that good night? As for the whale, I think Ishmael was onto something. Moby Dick was the ultimate Loose-Fish. As Ishmael explained, the American fishermen have a code: a Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it; a Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it. In this code, he said, can be found the fundamentals of all human jurisprudence:

“What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men’s minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish?”

What was Loose-Fish Moby Dick? Fair game. The whale was not evil and not death, but rather the immutable finiteness of life. That is what Ahab could not help but pursue and risk all to overcome.

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Some other stuff for later,

  • 61
    Becoming NeilThis month, I have had the privilege of playing Neil in a community theater production of The Quality of Life, a beautifully-written, award-winning play by Jane Anderson. Neil and his wife Jeanette are living in a yurt on their property in the Berkeley Hills in Northern California after losing their…
  • 60
    She surprises me every time she shows her face, and yet she has always been with me. Now that I am in exile, I know that she is closer, though perhaps she has always been this close. It may be that the only thing that is different now is that…
  • 56
    I wondered sometimes whether I would lead my life any differently if I knew how old I was. It was a question not unique to exile, but in the time of exile, age was defined by death. At a younger age death had been more abstract than it now seemed.…