by Lydia Penner
ITS ONLY JULY, but I believe that this book will rank for me as the top book of 1999. The subtitle summarizes the story well: "Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya Killam Wilber".
The story traces five years, years where Ken Wilber and Terry Killam meet, fall in love, and marry. After only 10 days of married life, Terry discovered she had cancer. Ultimately death claimed her life, but the path leading to this death was laden with many lessons and hard-won peace. Treya called it "passionate equanimity", passionately yet calmly living in the moment, not pining for what she wished were true, but living at peace with whatever life situation was dealt to her. It was a way of being that led her to change her name to Treya. Terry, she'd always felt, had been a man's name, and she moved from a doing, masculine mode, to a feminine mode. As she wrote in her journal: "To embrace, enfold, include...To stop trying to be a man and rejoice in becoming a woman."
Ken Wilber is the narrator of this sad, hopeful story, telling her story from his perspective, partnered with many of Treya's own journal entries. (Journalling and observing every step of the way was part of the healing process they had decided on.) Besides the compelling story, the book is also strengthened by many jewels of teaching on topics related to their dealings with cancer, such as the nature of illness, a spiritual understanding of suffering and surrender, understanding the strengths and pitfalls of the New Age movement, how to be a support person for a person who has cancer, and many deep, profound Buddhist teachings.
As I read on, I found myself wishing the book would not end, in part because it was such rich reading, but also because I did not want Treya to die! Here was this kind, life-embracing woman facing her own death with composure and joy. Her equanimity did not come easily. She was human and had to face her many fears. But instead of letting herself become a victim, she allowed cancer to immerse her in lessons of surrender and acceptance. And so she became a hero for me, a model of how to live and die magnificently.
During the time in which she began to realize that she might not live to see another spring, she saw that awareness of death had given her "a deliciously keen knife-edge of awareness...a satisfyingly one-pointed focus." And she knew that, whether she lived a short or long time, she carried with her a knowledge of death, "...this goad, this spur, this thorn, reminding me to stay awake ".
When the book finally ended, I cried at the sadness and profundity of this story. I thought of my own sister Hilde, who had died when she was 18, and I said a prayer for her, hoping that she had the kind of peace that Treya found. And I prayed for my own life, and the lives of the people I love, that we might not be afraid to live with openness and humility, learning the lessons that we are set on this earth to learn. The line from a speech Treya gave close to the end of her life says it all, "Because I can no longer ignore death, I pay more attention to life." Treya's story has encouraged me to at least search for the "passionate equanimity" that she found, to pay more attention to life.