Thursday, December 7, 2017

GOODBYE, TONI! (Musings on the dreaded scourge called cancer)

Toni Kasim dedicated her life to speaking up for community issues

On the night of June 4th, 2008, around 10PM I suddenly had the urge to call Toni Kasim. But I figured I'd better call her in the day, as she might be already asleep. In the morning the first SMS I received informed me Toni Kasim died around dawn.

She had been battling duodenal cancer for several months. I only heard the news just before the March 8th elections, when she withdrew as a parliamentary candidate under PKR. Word got to me that her health wasn't all that good. I only learned it was cancer when Toni's buddy Shanon Shah posted an update on the Artisproactiv forum. I rang her mobile and had a brief chat with her, told her I would come visit her soon.

Well, that visit never happened. And I really ought to have tried calling her last night. If she was able to speak, I could have said a proper goodbye to her. But then, I wouldn't have known she was ready to check out. Toni Kasim was only 41.

Not too long ago, another friend I rarely bump into succumbed to cancer at the age of 44. Her name was Seha and I first met her when she was starting out as a singer with a group called Freedom. I remember her one visit to my bamboo hut back in 1996 or thereabouts when she had just married a fella named Chris Lund. I was shocked to read about Seha's passing in the New Straits Times in October 2006. Didn't even know she had two kids...

Toni Kasim's funeral is today but I won't be there to send her off. A few years ago another very dear friend died of cancer after a valiant fight that dragged on for two years. He was only 42, married a couple of years, and his name was Jesse Hang - but we all called him Chief, after he had an epiphany and saw the profile of an Indian chief etched on a rock near his favorite spot in the river. Following that incident Jesse began to report amazing revelations and was undoubtedly the first of many visitors to experience satori at Magick River.

Chief first showed up back in 1992 soon after I relocated from KL to establish a small community called Magick River in the Pertak Forest Reserve. He quickly became a regular and used to come up every week with a few sarongs, a pair of shorts, and a couple of T-shirts in a rucksack stuffed with packets of instant noodles and other goodies. Chief and I enjoyed our ritual midnight supper of Maggi mee under a full moon, listening to the undines' silvery voices that sounded, by day, like the river's neverending song.

When Chief told us he had been diagnosed with Stage Three lymphatic cancer, we figured he had a good chance of transcending the disease, as he was among the most enlightened members of Magick River. Indeed, Chief was the closest thing we've had to a resident Zen master. Anyway, he tried a variety of therapies - beginning with chiqong and special diets, including shark's cartilage. After a year, when the cancer kept growing, Chief turned himself in for chemotherapy. However, the one therapy that might have helped him he resolutely avoided - and that was emotional clearing. He had always been a private person and found it hard to expose his innermost feelings, especially to strangers.

When we first met Chief had just quit a job as a remisier and was looking into the possibility of managing a mango orchard. After several visits to Magick River, he began to get excited about painting and storytelling - and he turned out to be very imaginative at both. Anyway, during the last few months of his life, Chief began to draw his entire extended family together, by uniting them in their efforts to help him fight the cancer. Gradually, he began to explain the process of life, death, and rebirth to his clan - and when they saw how calmly he faced the prospect of his own death, many of them were spontaneously elevated in their consciousness.

Chief came from a family in Pahang that had enriched itself with logging and sawmilling. It was as if he had taken on all the negative karma of their destructive business to save them from even more serious consequences. In any case, Chief's death on 6 May 2003 was the most uplifting and graceful exit I have ever witnessed. The night before he departed I went to see him with my family and we sat in silence with him for about 15 minutes. Then as we got up to leave and I held his hand for the last time, he smiled beatifically at all of us and quipped: "Hey, there go my rainbow warriors!"

In the final months before he left his body, the cancer had caused Chief's handsome features to become deformed and discolored. His face had puffed up and gone dark and it was quite a struggle for him to maintain a façade of cheerfulness. The cancer was like a demon trying to colonize Chief's physical body - and succeeding despite the expensive chemotherapy and whatnot. However, several hours after Chief let go of his body, the cancer died with him and released its grip on his physical form, which reverted to its original state. When I looked upon Chief's face for the last time as he lay in his coffin, nattily dressed like some Falun Gong leader, he looked serene and victorious - and his face was no longer deformed or discolored. Hordes of tiny white moths danced around the fluorescent tubes at his wake - and when we scattered his ashes in his beloved river, there were thousands of yellow butterflies everywhere we looked.


That evening after the ash-scattering ceremony at Magick River, a few of Chief's closest friends stayed on to celebrate the passing of a great soul - and all of us were in telepathic contact with him as he reveled in his newfound freedom as Universal Intelligence. All these years after his death, I only have to think of Chief and I will spot a butterfly or rainbow - for those were his favorite symbols of life's mysterious beauty.

This blog was inspired by news of Toni Kasim's passing early on the morning of 4 June 2008, and I was prompted to remember with profound affection several other friends who were taken by cancer in their prime. I have other friends who are in the midst of battling various forms of cancer. I wish I could take away their cancer with a wave of my magick wand. It's always easier to dispense advice than follow it, and I have long pondered on the significance of this dreaded disease - what are its origins and are there ways to avoid it?

I have heard of so many alternative therapies - including the famous case of Norman Cousins (right), who experienced a miraculous total remission simply by refusing to feel morose after getting diagnosed with a terminal disease. Instead he began to watch hour after hour of the Marx Brothers just to enjoy a therapeutic daily dose of bellylaughs.

Two of my early musical heroes - Frank Zappa and George Harrison - died of prostrate cancer in their late 50s. Somebody told me recently that prostate cancer only happens to those who don't ejaculate frequently. I guess I'm unlikely to succumb to this particular affliction!

Measuring an artificially induced tumor in a laboratory mouse

Anyway, thinking holistically about cancers and tumors inevitably brings me to a vision of the web of life that connects us all, from the subatomic to the supergalactic levels. I've always felt that the temporary ego membrane that separates each of us from every other thing in existence can be compared to a suit of armor. The armor is designed to protect us from injury in battle; however, if we begin to live inside our own character armoring without frequently stepping out of it and becoming vulnerable, the armor turns into a psychological prison within which we experience a sense of isolation from the ebb and flow of life. After a few decades our sense of individuality can become so accentuated that we no longer feel we are integral parts of a far bigger lifeform - or series of lifeforms. Perhaps that sense of individualized selfhood - when overemphasized - is the seed of what subsequently develops into a full-blown tumor.

What, after all, is a tumor? It's a cluster of cells that have disconnected themselves from the rest of the body. Just as in any overly large city, there will usually be a small colony of social misfits (often the economically disadvantaged) who will cluster together in ghettoes and turn the area into a Crime Zone where the first rule of survival is everyone for himself or herself.

This suggests that cancers and tumors are an aberrant side-effect of the powerful force of individuation underlying the process of cell division. When division and separation (centrifugal motion) is allowed to continue without being offset by conscious experience of unification and cohesiveness (centripetal motion), among the potential long-term effects are disintegrative diseases like cancer and leukemia.

Prevention, as most folks know, is far better than cure. So let's start practising Unity Consciousness RIGHT NOW!

[First posted 4 June 2008]

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