When I first met Phyllis Kalinowski, she was already dead.
She had a hole above her left eye, where she had just been struck by lightning.
And, lightning notwithstanding, I had just been intending to stroll along that beach and swim in that ocean. Instead, I crouched by her and did transference of consciousness (powa) until the first responders arrived.
This is a beach I have never been on before. It was several miles from where I normally swim. We only chanced upon it because there was a big storm. When we were walking onto our normal beach, everyone else was walking off it, even though it wasn’t raining yet; and two women warned us rather sternly: “Don’t go out there.” So we didn’t, as they seemed to us like Tara. But still we felt strangely impelled to drive around looking for another beach, and it looked a bit less dark and thunderous further south.
You can probably tell from my wandering around in a storm that I always assumed the whole “you can get struck by lightning” thing was grossly exaggerated. But, as one of the first responders told me:
“It happens all the time around here.”
The most dangerous time is before the rain starts – once you’re wet, the lightning apparently glances off you.
Nowhere is safe. Phyllis was feet away from the idyllic Gulf of Mexico where, like us, she clearly thought she could get away with a stroll. She wasn’t yet headed toward shelter – and she unfortunately happened to be the highest lightning conductor on the beach. She had fallen flat on her face. Her friend, finding her like that, turned her over onto her back. Then, I imagine, her friend screamed – and when we first saw her she was hurrying away as fast as she could, wailing. She was being comforted by an older stranger, and I was wondering at the incongruity of someone dressed in a swimsuit on a beautiful beach being this stricken. Why did she go to the beach in the first place if she was this distraught? And, if something had upset her since she got to the beach, what could it possibly have been? Seeing us approach, she said in an odd echo, “You don’t want to go down there!”, but then said not another word as the woman led her away.
We expected to see something as we walked over the sand bank, but we were not expecting Phyllis. Another stranger, a man, had offered to guard the body while waiting for the first responders. He looked very uncomfortable and stood at some distance away. Other than that, no one else was on the beach. I felt very sorry for Phyllis – her friend was hysterical and this man clearly didn’t want to be there. She needed some peace around her, so we went close to her to meditate and pray.
Her arms and hands were flung out, relaxed. Despite the big hole in it, her face did not look scared. It must have been instant death. Mysteriously, her sunglasses had not fallen off. This did not look like someone asleep though. Her consciousness had clearly departed, hopefully through her upper chakras, leaving just her flesh. There is literally all the difference in the world between a dead body and a live one. I could tell from her face that she was not much older than me. According to the news reports the following day, she was 51. Her body had strong tan lines so I assumed she was a Florida native – it turned out she came from Brandon and had gone to the beach that day with her old friend to shell and swim.
The flashing lights and sirens heralded the approach of the first responders. They felt her pulse, nothing. She was already cool to the touch. They opened her eyelids, and her eyes “looking” at me were hazel brown and quite, quite unseeing. They cut her swimsuit off, with a view to restarting her heart. This is nothing she was expecting when she woke up that morning. It was nothing she was expecting even twenty minutes earlier. The indignity of her flesh, cherished and guarded throughout her life, now laid bare; I looked away then. Their efforts did no good anyway, she was still dead. They covered her with a yellow plastic sheet. Professional, swift — they were used to dead bodies, this much was clear, though a couple of the younger paramedics couldn’t disguise a look of surprise when they first saw her wound.
Karma strikes again
Phyllis and us had the karma to be on that beach at (almost) the same time. How did we come to this moment? We clearly had some connection with her—strange, fleeting, but hopefully helpful as it led to a transference of consciousness and many prayers being made. When and how did we meet in the past? How did she create the causes to have so many Buddhists praying for her?
According to all the papers and news shows, Phyllis was a great person. “She was just wonderful, she was so giving to everybody’. “Those who knew the wife and mother of two described her as an energetic, outgoing and compassionate woman.”
Do you ever wonder why we have chance meetings, and what is their meaning? How many people are there in our karmic circle, whom we share life with every day – 5, 10, 20, 100? How many family members, friends, and colleagues? Then how many millions of people do we meet for one minute or two minutes during the course of our lives, nodding at each other on the street, or having a momentary conversation about something that may or may not be meaningful to both of us? Yet at the same time we have entwined karma and a deep connection with each one of them, dating back lifetimes.
Our meetings, however brief, need never be superficial or insignificant. There is always something positive we can do with our mind when others cross our path. As P said on Tuesday, as we watched the people walk by in Liverpool One, “People-watching is so meaningful if you use Dharma!” There is a beautiful verse in Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:
Therefore, in whatever I do,
I will never cause harm to others;
And whenever anyone encounters me,
May it never be meaningless for them.
I am so sad for Phyllis and her family and friends, but I am glad we were there that surreal day. She helped me deepen my experience of the truth of Dharma and I hope, thanks to the Buddhas and other friends, that I was of some use to her.
A lot of people saw my Facebook posting about Phyllis and were praying for her even before her strange death hit the news the following morning.
That same evening, my first foster kitten Oscar died of FIP, just over a year old. I coincidentally had the chance to say goodbye to him when I arrived at Orlando airport a week earlier, as his mum and dad live nearby. Oscar was a beautiful little fellow inside and out and no cat could ever want a more perfect, loving home, so it was very sad. Oscar however created the causes for many Facebook friends to care and pray for him too.
A few days later, Dianne Elliott also died, of a heart attack that was not unexpected given years of poor health, but sudden nonetheless. Dianne was a long-term Buddhist practitioner and a beloved woman, and her funeral (in Barrow last Wednesday) was by far the best one I have ever been to. Although she will be very missed, I think we all felt she had gone to the Pure Land, in keeping with her foremost and most constant wish:
At my deathtime may the Protectors, Heroes, Heroines, and so forth,
Bearing flowers, parasols, and victory banners,
And offering the sweet music of cymbals and so forth,
Lead me to the Land of the Dakinis. ~ Quick Path to Great Bliss
I first met Dianne in Florida too, but we go back many years and share many experiences and good friends, and so the connection is clear. The day before her death, oddly enough, I had ridden her old bicycle and driven past her old apartment, and was thinking of her. I heard the news by text message, but most people heard about her death within hours of it being posted on Facebook, and powas and prayers were made for her worldwide.
A week later, little Losang Tenpa died. Although he had spent his whole short life in Nepal and India, there were hundreds of Westerners who loved him, rooted for him, and prayed for him. All this also through the collective karma of Facebook, where big Losang Tenpa posted moving accounts of the last few hopeful, heroic months and then his sudden, tragic passing. Good article about it here, on the Heart of Compassion blog.
Facebook seems to have increased the number of daily encounters we can make — friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends, or the people (including animals) whom we are asked to help and pray for every day… (It seems everyone can have their fifteen minutes of fame thanks to Facebook…)
All in all I find that Facebook can be pretty meaningful–or as meaningful as I want it to be–if I log on to increase my love, compassion, and sense of connectedness with a wide world web of living beings. Though it can of course be a huge exercise in distraction, it seems in some ways to be the result of good collective speech karma. Dianne’s husband said he felt a bit strange about announcing his wife’s death on Facebook, but the fact is he knew it would do the trick. When I die, I hope to have the good karma to be posted on Facebook too. It is through Facebook, after all, that thousands of people were able to tune in and make strong prayers for Dianne, Phyllis, little Tenpa, and Oscar, within short days or even just hours of their unscheduled departures from this life.