My last remaining uncle died a few weeks ago. Orbra Gullette was 84 years old, living in Wilmore, Kentucky, a few miles from my home town Lexington.
Orbra was a quiet, unassuming, generous man with a sharper mind than he let on, and a very funny sense of humor. He was my father's brother, and when he passed away, it was the end of a generation.
When I was growing up, I would have rather been at Orbra's house than anywhere on earth. His wonderful wife, my Aunt Jane, would welcome me with an embrace that was physical as well as emotional. You never called to tell them you were coming, you just dropped in, and people still do. My cousin Mike was just a couple of years younger than me, and we ran all over that small town and in the surrounding fields playing. Our parents would buy us machetes and bb guns and pellet guns and then tell us to go out and play. In the 1950's and 60's, boys and dogs ran free, and that's the way it should be. It was a wonderful world.
Orbra's death represents something profound. On my mother's and father's sides, all my grandparents are dead, and all their children are dead. My generation is next in line.
I was watching a Kung Fu TV show recently, when the Master told Caine the secret to living with wisdom. He said:
- First, learn how to live
- Second, learn how not to kill
- Third, learn how to live with death
- Fourth, learn how to die.
One of the tests of character is how you deal with loss as you get older. You start your life learning how to live. As a martial artist, you learn how to kill and then how not to kill.
As you get older and you begin losing friends, grandparents, then parents, aunts, and uncles, you begin struggling with your mortality and you attempt to fill the void that these important people leave in your life. If you're really unlucky, as I was, you lose a child. At that point, you must learn to live with death or else give it all up.
Finally, we all get to the point when we must learn to die. All the Gullette men that I've known have kept their minds intact until the moment of death. My Uncle Robert Gullette asked the hospice nurse if the strange feelings he was experiencing was something new or just part of the process. She turned to him and said, "Mr. Gullette, your journey is nearing an end." He said something like, "I see." And he died right then.
Learning to die, in my opinion, is to lose your fear of death. I suppose you get to the point if you live long enough that most of the people your age are gone, and death seems to be more acceptable. Losing everyone in your generation, as many people do when they live to 90 or 100, has to be very difficult.
Learning to die, in my opinion, is also a test of your beliefs. I believe that when we die, we return to the state of nothingness we were in before we were born. It was perfect peace, and the thought of returning to that state has a great amount of comfort to it.
I hope that I maintain my beliefs when the time comes, rather than making a last-minute grab at salvation from an unseen spirit. I want death with dignity on my own terms.
My daughters are 26 and 30 years old. I plan on doing tai chi, hsing-i and bagua until I can't move any longer. I'm hoping that will be around age 100. Until then, I'll try to fill the void left by the people I love who pass on. I know that my life will never be the same, and life will never be as good, when I can't go to Uncle Orbra's house and when I can't be embraced by Aunt Jane. She's still there, in her 80's, loving everyone who walks through the door, but her mind and body are failing, and it won't be long until I'll never feel that embrace again.
My mother died in June, as I was moving to Tampa. Since then, when I've appeared in the news, I've wanted to send her a copy, and then I realize I can't. I want her to visit and show me places we went in St. Petersburg when I was a child. But she can't visit. She's gone.
The very presence of death, which you feel more and more as you get older and lose people like this, gives life more value. Losing the people you love teaches you a lesson.
That lesson came to me in a dream a few months ago when suddenly, my father was standing in front of me. My dad was a funny, laid-back guy who died in 1989 at age 61. I don't dream about him very often anymore, but when I do, the dreams are all the same. I rush to him, I hug him and tell him how much I miss him. I always wake up crying.
In the dream I had a few months ago, something different happened. I saw my dad and I rushed up to him and hugged him. Then I whispered in his ear, "Every moment is precious."
And then I woke up. The dream and the words haunted me.
This lesson was on my mind as I drove away from Wilmore and back to Tampa after Uncle Orbra's funeral. The words kept going through my mind -- every moment is precious.
Perhaps I've gone full circle, and in understanding this principle, I've learned how to live.