On April 1, I was sitting in a meeting of Zen teachers in Rhode Island (yes, Zen teachers have meetings) with several folks patched in by speakerphone (yes, it felt antediluvian, but Skype is unreliable).
At the end of the meeting, one of the people patching in, Anne Rudloe from Panacea, Fla., spoke up. She hadn’t traveled to the meeting because she was gravely ill with cancer and wanted to tell us how much we meant to her, how grateful she was for Zen practice and for our friendship, and that it was unlikely she would live to see us again. Twenty-six days later, she was dead.
Anne said all this as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world. She told us she would be dead soon in the same way you might tell someone you were about to brush your teeth.
You know that song from “The Lion King,” “Circle of Life”? The rest of us give lip service to it, but Anne attained it in her bones.
We all know that life is predicated on death, but for most of us this is a kind of abstract knowledge. We tend to find the thought of our own personal extinction as a body here on earth absolutely terrifying. Or depressing. Or, if we believe in heaven and are certain we will get there, joyful. Or maybe simply confusing. But however we find it, we find it special, difficult to grasp and hard to accept. Our own death is a Certifiable Big Deal.
Not Anne. Anne was a marine biologist, and it is from that down-to-earth point of view that she intimately saw everything as part of everything else.
Here she is in a video about sea grasses: “This is a sea urchin … it is a grazer out here, it feeds on the sea grass and it feeds on the dead pieces of sea grass. This is a predatory snail, it feeds on other mollusks and it in turn is eaten by some of the larger snails out here …” And when she finally gets to the sea grasses, she tells you all the little mollusks you find living on them. She was incapable of mentioning any creature without mentioning how it fit in with other creatures.
And then there’s her remarkable video “The Nature of Cancer,” made four years ago after her first round of treatment. Explaining how death is essential for life, she says,“If Mozart had never died, Stravinsky could never have appeared.” She speaks of “the brilliance of the process,” of “a vaster and extraordinary reality.” She says this cheerfully, without any kind of fuss. This is simply how things are.
Two days before she died, a mutual friend called her to ask about a practical matter. “When I’m gone, talk to my husband about it,” she said, as if dying was like going off to, say, Brazil. Or the grocery store.
Maybe it is. For now, there is nothing left to say except: Goodbye, Anne. You are greatly missed.