Death of a Bodhisattva

Bodhisattvas, in case you haven’t heard of them before, are sort of the Buddhist version of saints. They are people who have taken on the project of enlightening themselves and doing it so they may relieve the suffering of others and aid them in enlightening themselves, too. It starts with a vow, just a small one—to save all sentient beings. But saints, at least in the Christian sense, can perform miracles and seem somehow to be more than the rest of us. That is unless we’re talking about the colloquial “my mother is a saint,” which is actually pretty close to Bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas can be otherwise regular folks who help others.

My work as a mental health social worker brought me in contact with many Bodhisattvas. I’ve often said the most wonderful part of my work is just being witness to the courageous hearts and lives of these people. I would never question the whole idea of privacy and confidentiality, as I know that to be able to do the work I do with people it is a necessity. But the challenge is that I can bear witness to that, but can share very little of it. So I see people working small miracles in their daily lives, and that must go untold. Unfortunately it also makes people who are already unseen even more invisible than they already are.

So, I want to tell you about the death of one of these Bodhisattvas, to bear witness to at least one person’s amazing life. I worked with Bob (which is not his real name, and I’ll do whatever I can to blur the details about him) for about 13 years. Sadly he passed away just recently. Unfortunately, I was the one who found him after he’d died in his apartment and not been found for several days. I’ll just say to see someone you knew and cared about like that is something that changes you deeply. I can see why Buddhist monks used to go to meditate in burial grounds, to be made so clearly aware of the matter of death. But that’s all I’ll say about it, because this is not about me. Or even about death. It’s a story of Bob and his life.

Bob was a few years older than me and grew up outside Minneapolis near the suburb I lived in. He’d had a rough adolescence. In fact we talked about how he’d been at, what they called in those days, “the boy’s home,” a detention program for young men who couldn’t stay out of trouble. After that he continued to have problems. It was the 60s, and though some of the drugs we have now that really mess you up weren’t yet popular, one could do enough with alcohol, pot, and acid. He used all those, in what he later came to understand was an attempt to treat his schizophrenia, which no one had noticed or diagnosed.

The schizophrenia, mixed with the drugs, kept him off balance for a few years, and he mainly got into trouble for small crimes. All of it led to what was a defining event in his life. High, and hearing voices, he assaulted his mother, injuring her badly. He ended up after that in a state hospital, eventually under what they still call a mentally ill and dangerous commitment. He would remain on that for 20 more years and spent much time in state hospitals and halfway houses. Medications didn’t work for him, but drugs did, so he continued with that path.

As he tells it, one day a doctor met with him to tell him about a new medication, Clozaril, that seemed to help people who didn’t respond well to existent medications. Bob said the doctor asked him, “If I could give you something that would help you, and make you feel better than even any drugs you use, would you be willing to stop using them?” He said he didn’t hesitate for a moment and said “Damn right I would.”

Bob was like a poster boy for that new medication. His thinking cleared, the voices, hallucinations, and delusions went away, and he stopped drinking and using. He was finally able to leave the hospital, and decided he’d get out of the city. He had a friend he liked to fish with, who lived in the country down on the river. So, Bob moved to the little town here where he lived for another 30 years. He was still under the court’s supervision, but for the first time in many years he felt free. Not just free of the hospital but free of his illness. For those next 30 years he always made sure he did whatever he needed to be able to get the medication that had made all the difference for him.

He moved into a small apartment complex for low income people. He was proud of living on his own. He knew everyone in his building and had bought a car with some social security disability back pay. He loved and babied that car, a bright bronze PT cruiser. I’d often see him around town, and he’d never fail to wave to me. He loved to drive, not even needing to have a destination. I think in a way driving was his meditation. But he also made it his way to help others. Many of his friends and neighbors didn’t have cars, so he spent much of his time driving them wherever they needed to go—the store, the doctor, out to the casino. He was never too busy for anyone who asked him for a ride.

Bob never judged people but did have his limits. One woman whom he’d give a ride to a community lunch we had once told him, on her way back home, that she needed to pick up “just a couple of things” at Walmart. She promised that it would only take a few minutes. She came out after 90 minutes with a full cart. After that, Bob would give her a ride to lunch but never again stopped off along the way for her.

A few years after I started working with Bob, we decided to ask the review board that oversees people under his long-term commitment if he could be released from it. He had to go to the state hospital where he’d spent so many years to be assessed. There was lots of flooding that spring, and we had to keep negotiating closed river crossings and highways to get there in time, but he never became angry or frustrated. He just kept directing me onto the next detour. At the end of the assessment, the doctor told him that he was surprised he’d walked out of the hospital and never come back, because most people didn’t do that. Not understanding that he meant most people failed and had to return, Bob told him, “Well, I didn’t know I could come back for a visit to see you all, or I certainly would have done that.” When he appeared before the special review board, they told him they’d never seen anyone more successful or more deserving of being returned to full rights.

Bob’s relationship with his family, needless to say, was fraught. Even after leaving the hospital he was only able to write or phone his mother, but he did that faithfully. When a few years back she and his sister sent him some family photos, he was so excited. He went and bought a bookcase, to display all the pictures of his mom, dad, siblings, and himself, in a place of honor in his living room. He was frugal, and despite being on a limited income still managed to put aside money regularly. He told me once, “I’m going to show you where I hide my savings. If anything ever happens to me, I want you to promise you’ll see that this money gets to my mother.” I did, though I figured since she was 92 I’d never have to follow through on that promise.

Bob had a sweet tooth. He liked candy, dollar pies, and diet Pepsi. He’d buy those in quantity (actually be bought everything in quantity) so that the crisper drawer in the bottom of his fridge was filled with cans of Pepsi. He kept it on hand to share with anyone who’d accept it. And he’d pass out pies and milk duds to his friends and neighbors. I long ago quit drinking soda pop, making only one exception: when I’d stop by to help him with his bills and medical appointments he’d tell me to pull 2 cans of Pepsi out of the fridge—one for him and one for me.

Bob had some medical problems and could be a little forgetful on occasion. But I will always remember going in with him to the clinic where he’d been going several times a week for chemotherapy infusions (he’d had breast cancer, which never failed to make him laugh and comment that “I never knew men could get that!”) As we wove our way through the clinic, stopping to register and check in with various nurses and stations, he knew every single one of them by name. He asked them how they were doing, and asked questions about their kids or partners. I could tell he’d talked with them numerous times, in detail, when he’d been in there.

He also had broken his ankle in a fall and had to be in a nursing home for a time–which he absolutely couldn’t bear and wanted desperately to get back home. While there he also found out he had some type of aneurysm and had to go in for tests regarding that. The doctors confirmed that he did had a serious aneurysm, and it might kill him one day. But they also told him that it would be riskier to do surgery to try and repair it than to leave it be. He accepted that, and never really mentioned it again. And he was very open about anything that worried him or caused him fear, so I know he just accepted it as something that he couldn’t change, and so never spent any more time on it.

That was what finally got him, apparently. I usually like to tie my stories up, bring them to a good ending. But Bob’s ended suddenly and too soon. Like I said, anyone can be a Bodhisattva. He helped save me just a little bit. And here’s a secret: Bodhisattvas are everywhere. I shared Bob’s story with a friend, Reed, who told me that learning to spot bodhisattvas around her has been vital for her hope to ever act as one. She said for her that offers hope, and heals alienation and disempowerment in the ordinary. For me it’s a bit like when you buy a new car that there seem to be few of, and then everywhere you look on the road you see it. Or looking for a particular type of bird for a long time, and once I see one, the world is filled with them. I’m not sure if my eyes have opened up to what was all around me, or they’ve come to be seen. Either way, the world is changed for me.

So may you begin to see the Bodhisattvas around you. Maybe you’d like to be one too. All it might take to get started is a few cans of diet Pepsi and a dollar pie. I know Bob would like that.

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