Thursday, February 28, 2008


Going on a journey
leaving behind everything
even myself


by Lauren Singer*

i am learning that you were stronger
than you ever told any of us.
that what you couldn't say with your sparing voice
you screamed with your fingers.
that you were wiser in your modesty,
in your hesitance, in your truths and muted angers.
that you touched people you never knew,
that you touched all of those you did,
and asked for nothing.

i am learning that fear is braver than acceptance,
that saying nothing in earnest is more profound than empty offerings.
that healing doesn't mean getting used to it
and that moving on does not mean letting go.

i am learning that grown men still play with toys,
and that you were no exception.
that six year old boys
would have been jealous of your action figure collections,
and that teapots and ceramic cats could mean more to me
than diamonds and new cars.

i am learning that you were more perceptive than you let on,
and that you lived inside your head;
created a masterpiece there.
that your books were your life partners,
and your camera was your mistress.
that not all pictures speak a thousand words,
but that yours could break a thousand hearts.

i am learning that you lived more than most of us will understand,
that you taught more than you could possibly have realized.
and that you spoke less than you acted.
that those who knew you as a good man,
now realize you were exceptional.

i am learning that you loved beer as much as sake,
ground beef as much as miso soup.
that you inspired us to be forthcoming and adventurous with our ideas,
and judged no one based on their inhibitions.
that you were forgiving, humble, and tactful
as much as you were intent on speaking your mind.
that you are as much a part of me
as you are a part of the great sky.

i am learning that you are never really gone
because you remain as you lived; everywhere in each of us.
that you are japan, st. marks, london, teaneck, freeport and philadelphia;
and every other place that you were moved, or moved someone else.
that winning the battle does not mean surviving,
but being survived with so much admiration.

and i am learning what you taught me:
that if you go fishing
you catch fish.

and you did, too.

*Michael’s niece

Thinking about my brother

Thinking about my brother Michael’s life, I am reminded of the book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor and psychotherapist, believed unconditionally in the meaning of life and he described three ways in which this meaning could be realized.

The first way is by accomplishing or creating something. Michael’s creativity blossomed over the last two years of his life and stayed with him until his final days. His unique vision could turn a photograph of a washing machine into a work of art and a subject for poetry. Wherever he happened to be – in Japan, suburban New Jersey, or New York’s East Village – he paid attention to things most people would pass by and showed they were worthy of notice. Above all, he was in search of the authentic – in the world and in himself. In photographing people, Michael captured their essence. He approached his subjects humbly, without artifice, and they responded by revealing their inner natures. In his blog, Michael revealed himself in the same way and touched readers all over the world. Michael had to stop taking pictures when his cameras became too heavy for him, but he continued writing until the night before he moved to the hospice. His last blog entry was the moving poem “Fatigue” in which he said “I see the steady progress of death…But, blessing of blessings I can still feel the life spark.”

The second way of finding meaning in life is by appreciating something – a work of nature or culture or a person. Back in 2005, Michael said, “Sometimes, I look upon this disease as a blessing because it has forced me to appreciate things in my life I used to take for granted. Simple things. I still take these things – time, friends, the physical ability to pursue my livelihood, interests and hobbies – for granted. But now, I often catch myself in the act, slow down a bit, and appreciate more. I see the joy in just being able to enjoy a cup of tea. Or having an especially rewarding workout in karate class. Or not feeling guilty about doing absolutely nothing on a Saturday afternoon.” Toward the end of his life, Michael wasn’t taking anything for granted, but what he appreciated above all were love and compassion.

The third way of finding meaning in life is through suffering. Frankl says that when a person is confronted with a terrible fate that cannot be changed, just then, he is given a last chance to actualize the highest value, to fulfill the deepest meaning, the meaning of suffering. The way in which he accepts his fate, the courage he shows, the dignity he displays, is the measure of his human fulfillment. I was with Michael when his doctor told him there was no more that medical science could do for him. Afterwards we went to lunch in a favorite Japanese restaurant where Michael ordered his usual soba noodles. We didn’t talk much. We drank tea. That night, Michael wrote a powerful blog entry. He said, “I need to live this, and to know that I'm living it. I need to be aware. This is important.” The attitude Michael took towards his suffering – his acceptance, courage, and dignity – inspired everyone who came into contact with him. Even those who knew him only in his final days were stirred by his spirit.

Michael’s life was rich with meaning and in living his life the way he did, he taught us all a lot about the meaning of our own lives.

I’d like to close with one of Michael’s poems. It’s called “Reminder to myself.”

Living life to its fullest isn't about
checking off thrills from a list;
It's about being fearless in following my dreams,
courageous in accepting
that some will go unfulfilled
and taking the time
to savor
something as
as a cup

of tea

Beyond words

Thank You

Thank you to everyone who has sent messages of love and compassion for Michael and his family. Your thoughts have been a great comfort to us.

On February 23 we held a memorial service for Michael to celebrate his life. Family, friends, and colleagues gathered to share their thoughts about Michael. Buddhist chants, music, photographs, and karate conveyed those things beyond words.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

March 23, 1962-January 15, 2008

My brother Michael passed away on January 15, surrounded by his family. Though his decline after Thanksgiving was precipitous, his life spark glowed until his final moment. He continued to work until Christmas eve. Christmas day, which he spent with my husband, myself, and my husband’s family, was probably his last good day. We worked with him on making all sorts of necessary arrangements, including finding a good home for his two cats. One of the most harrowing days was December 31, when we struggled and finally succeeded in getting him a prescription for the painkiller he needed. Beginning on January 1 until the end, we were with him virtually 24 hours a day. On January 2, with immense effort, he went to the office of the newspaper where he had worked these past nine years. Confined to a wheelchair, he said goodbye to his awed colleagues. He had told us he couldn't just disappear without a word. We got him home hospice care in his apartment on January 3rd. That was the day Michael wrote the poem “Fatigue” and posted it to his blog.

By January 5, it was clear that Michael needed 24-hour care in a residential hospice. We moved him to the in-patient unit that night, but not before he had his Jukai ceremony, which had been planned for the coming Sunday. Jukai signifies a serious commitment to Zen Buddhism, to the main precepts of Buddhism and to the salvation of all beings. Michael could scarcely lift his head, but he was determined to fulfill this commitment. The priest, friends from his meditation group, and I crowded around his bed. Michael's Dharma name Daiku, which he was given that day, means Great Sky.

Michael wanted to be aware and in his "right mind" until the end. By an amazing force of will, he achieved that objective too. It was only in his last two days that the drugs got the better of him and he slipped into another reality. The hospice care was amazing and inspiring. Caring for Michael through his last days was one of the most profoundly meaningful experiences of my life. But I was far from the only one he touched. Literally hundreds of people were inspired by his spirit, including many who knew him only a brief while.

While he lay dying, the newspaper mounted an exhibit of Michael's photography. The last really happy moment he had was the Thursday before he died. My husband and I went to the opening reception for the exhibit. Along with the photos, there was a beautiful picture of Michael on a huge piece of paper where his colleagues wrote their comments about his work. We brought it back to Michael and he positively glowed when he read it.

It was Michael's wish to be cremated. My husband, I, and Michael's Buddhist priest participated in a simple and beautiful service at the cemetery before the cremation. The rest of the immediate family and many friends participated from their individual homes or wherever they happened to be. Sometime in the spring, my husband and I will be going to Japan to scatter Michael’s ashes according to his wishes.


At his Jukai ceremony, Michael’s Sensei gave him a card inscribed with his Dharma name, Daiku, and this poem:

Do not cling to
This small mind,
This bag of skin.

Open to the great sky
Where there is no birth
and there is no death.

During the Jukai ceremony we all chanted the Gatha Of Atonement:

All evil karma ever committed by me since of old
On account of my beginningless greed, anger and ignorance
Born of my body, speech and consciousness
Now I atone for it all.

We have now atoned for all evil we have ever done, ever spoken or everintended. Through atonement, we are at one with all that exists and we simultaneously forgive all those who have ever harmed us by action, by speechor by intention. We travel forth pure in body, speech and mind.

This chant carried great weight for Michael. And when he saw the pictures taken after the Jukai ceremony, he said, “Those pictures show every good and evil thing I have ever done in my life.”