This account by Graham Gambie’s widow, Anne Doneman, reveals the peace of mind experienced by a meditator who has reaped the benefits of Dhamma. It was excerpted from a longer piece originally published in Realizing Change—Vipassana Meditation in Action, Vipassana Research Institute, July 2003, p. 168.
We returned home to Australia in February and in May conducted a 10-day course. Graham appeared to be in a state of near-total collapse at the beginning of the course. In the meditation hall, he was barely conscious on the dais and when he gave instructions he could not construct a sentence correctly. At night his breathing was barely audible. Our concern grew, and so we telephoned a neurologist in Sydney and made an appointment for the day the course ended, intending to fly to New Zealand on the following day.
Fortunately, by Day 10 Graham was fully alert and apparently totally recovered. After the course we traveled to Sydney and met the neurologist, who initially dismissed the lapse as probable short-term memory loss from which white-collar workers sometimes suffer. However, he ordered a CT brain scan, and while waiting for the results Graham and I enjoyed a special lunch. We returned to the neurologist who, without saying a word, took the films from their folder and placed them on a display panel. He pointed out a tumor that filled what seemed to be 50 percent of the brain’s left hemisphere. On top of the tumor was a very large cyst.
I was numb and uncomprehending. Yes, we would cancel our air tickets to New Zealand. Yes, we could get Graham directly into hospital that afternoon. The numbness turned to tears as I phoned to arrange accommodation with dear friends in Sydney. I wasn’t making sense explaining to them what was happening, so Graham took the telephone and made the arrangements himself. He was calm and collected.
While getting Graham into hospital and making sure he was comfortable, I somehow managed to be outwardly cheerful. But as soon as I left his company I was in tears again. That night, as I meditated, a deep sense of peace arose that was to stay with me throughout Graham’s ordeal. It was not the peace that comes from rationalization or intellectualization; it was just something that “kicked in.”
Within two days Graham was under the scalpel. The surgeons were not able to remove the entire tumor and, consequently, the prognosis was not good. The neurosurgeon told us that, due to the nature of the tumor, an astrocytoma, he had a maximum of five years to live—and by the end, mentally, he would be a vegetable.
Such news was devastating, yet he took it in his stride. I once heard him say to visitors, “How can I be attached to this body and mind when they are constantly changing? There is nothing to hold onto.” Fellow journalists, workmates, police contacts, and those whom he knew through meditation came to visit him. One colleague remarked, “I came expecting to see a body on the bed and to console him. Instead I ended up telling him all about my problems and forgot about his.”
The days passed—and I am grateful to have spent every one of them at his side. He was discharged from hospital but within 10 days was back in again. He was having difficulty with his legs, which had become so tender that he could barely walk.
On the morning of June 27, six weeks after the tumor had been diagnosed, I arrived at the hospital. All I could think of was that I really wanted to be close to him that day—there would be no popping out to run errands. We had a lovely time together, and that night while saying goodbye I felt I couldn’t get close enough to him. I hopped up on the side of the bed and began to put on lipstick. He asked, “Why?” I said I wanted to look nice for him. He then went on to say the sweetest things about what a wonderful wife I was and how he felt. I was happy and he was happy. We said goodbye.
After dinner that night I was enjoying the last sip of a hot chocolate. I took a breath and at that moment experienced a deep sense of absolute peace and tranquility. The phone rang, a junior nurse calling—could I come quickly? Graham was having a heart attack (later found to have been caused by a blood clot). But it was clear that there was really no need to hurry. He was gone.
It was Friday, late. As I traveled to the hospital, neon lights were shining and people were out strolling, window shopping, eating. Feelings of fear and vulnerability arose. Such a casual picture of life could not be trusted. What seemed so real, so permanent, was an illusion. We were all walking on very thin ice, blind to the fact that we could fall through at any moment.
I arrived at the hospital and went upstairs to the room where we had exchanged words only hours before. It was deserted, but I was immediately struck by the vibrancy of the atmosphere. It was entirely clear that no one was there. Though Graham’s body lay on the bed, it looked like a cast-off coat that could no longer serve its owner. This was all that remained of the person with whom I had just spent four very special years of my life.
What a wonderful life he had lived. I received letters from people who knew him in the past, each one recounting something that Graham had done to help them. I heard how, when he was traveling in India, he would give his last rupee to someone who needed it, how he used to feed street children with money he received from a small investment he had. When I realized how much he had loved and helped others during the time we had together, it became evident that the wonderful good deeds he had performed had all gone with him.
There were no more tears. How could there be tears? The relationship had come full circle. There was nothing left unsaid or unresolved. Yes, it had been the hardest thing I had ever done, but the fruits were so great and so numerous. I was truly fortunate to have briefly shared my life with such a human being.
At the funeral the pews were full and people lined the walls. They came from all persuasions, from all walks of life, each with his or her own personal reason for being there. It was strange to return home to see his clothes just as he had left them, and to know that there was no one to claim ownership.
Phuṭṭhassa lokadhammehi, cittaṃ yassa na kampati, asokaṃ virajaṃ khemaṃ; etaṃ maṅgalamuttamaṃ.
When faced with life’s vicissitudes, one’s mind is unshaken,
free from sorrow, impurity or fear.
This is the highest welfare.
—Maṇgala Sutta, Sutta Nipāta 2.271
Handadāni, bhikkhave, āmantayāmi vo, vayadhammā saṅkhārā,
Now, monks, I exhort you:
All conditioned things have the nature of decay.
Strive on diligently.
—Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya 2.185