Learning to die in Miami
By Hyon O’Brien
Some years ago, I read ``Waiting for Snow in Havana,” a memoir by Carlos Eire, a Cuban boy who left Fidel Castro’s Cuba in 1962 at the age of 11 in the ``Operation Peter Pan” airlift of over 14,000 children to the United States. This book brought tears to my eyes as I related to his homesickness for his lost country and his longing for his lost childhood in a new place separated from his parents.
Listening to the radio during a recent long drive from Miami Beach to Washington, D.C., we happened to catch an interview on National Public Radio with the author on his new book, ``Learning to Die in Miami,” a sequel to Waiting for Snow in Havana. (This author has a knack for unusual and memorable titles).
I promptly got the book onto my Kindle and gobbled it up in no time. What caught my imagination is the ``dying” part of the story. As an 11-year-old boy deposited in the United States without his parents, Carlos tells us that he died many deaths in the course of becoming an American.
In this case the ``deaths” he refers to are the acts of letting go of the past. He realizes that letting go of the loss, the past, his attachment to Cuba and his parents and all that represented his childhood was an unavoidable door, the only possible exit through which he had to walk if he was to have a new life.
The story the author weaves are the series of those symbolic deaths and letting go. Out of those surrenders Carlos emerges mature, reborn, and free. He was able to be at peace and transcend the pain of the immense sense of loss only when he let go of what he was holding onto.
For me, this subject of death has a certain fascination. In some sense, I am also going through a dying period these days by coming to the United States (Miami, no less) and once more leaving behind my homeland, Korea. In 1969 when I left Korea for the first time, I went through this metaphorical death without knowing how to articulate that passage.
This time around, I am doing it with my eyes open, with full awareness to what’s happening. To arrive at a place where I could be free to enter a new chapter, I am learning to let go all my attachments and it is not easy.
The other aspect of the subject of death that I am confronting more readily these days is the matter of physical death - the ultimate annihilation of our body, the state where a medical examiner declares that the person is dead, gone, dust to dust.
It is good and right for all of us mortals to think about the end and come to terms with it. Leonardo Da Vinci provides excellent guidance toward owning the idea of death: ``While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.”
What do we fear the most about death? How will we prepare for it? When will we be at peace with the subject of death?
Mark Twain reminds us that ``the fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” Well, that’s more easily said than done.
In last Sunday’s sermon we heard the story of Quincy Jones, an African-American composer, conductor, record producer, musical arranger, film-maker, and TV producer. With his five decades in the entertainment industry in America, Quincy Jones is probably best known as the producer of the album ``Thriller” by pop icon Michael Jackson. In 1985 he was able to draw the most famous recording artists of the day into a studio to create the music video ``We are the World” to raise money for Ethiopian famine victims.
When people marveled at his ability to carry off such an amazing feat, coordinating the talents of so many difficult and demanding people, he explained that he simply put a simple sign on the entrance of the studio: ``Check Your Ego at the Door.” The preacher went on to say to the congregation: “If we want to live a life of service for God, we need to learn to get rid of our ego.”
He has a point there. When we die to our self and let go of self-interest and the self-seeking way of life, we can be truly free to serve others and ultimately oneself in the process. What Jesus said is so true: whoever loses life will gain it.
We will do well if we can bear in mind every day what the 14th- century monk Thomas à Kempis said: ``You ought in every deed and every thought act as if you were to die this day.”
Hyon O'Brien is a former reference librarian in the United States. She can be reached at email@example.com.