Facing a terminal illness with her Buddhist practice, Nat Coll learns how to truly live.
by Nat Coll
COSTA MESA, CALIF.
At 13, I was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, a very aggressive autoimmune disease that led to long-term hospital stays, feeding tubes and 24/7 infusions, along with hundreds of invasive procedures and surgeries along the way. Growing up, I had long, blonde hair, but I lost my hair every other month from ares, so instead of letting it define me, I decided to define it. I’ve been bald for 10 years now, by choice.
Every day is such a roller-coaster. Just in the past nine months, I’ve been septic six times with multi-system organ failure and a whopping 2 percent chance of survival. I’ve had over 50 surgeries and procedures, and over 125 rounds of experimental treatment. Some days, I suffer from excruciating pain. I know my time here is limited.
But I have overcome my fear of death; in fact, I now approach my life with great joy. How could I possibly feel that way? It began when I was introduced to the SGI last year.
I had been raised in a devout religious household. The idea of eternal salvation was ever so comforting. But when I fell in love with a girl, my faith crumbled and so did I. As a pure math major in college, I spent hours in the library searching for answers in books about science and religion, but the more I searched, the less I found.
During my junior year, I went into septic shock and not long after entered my first coma. Truly facing death for the first time terrified me. The idea of turning back to the religion of my childhood seemed comforting at first, but I knew that I wouldn’t be getting the ultimate answers I needed and the acceptance I felt I deserved as a human being.
I began to volunteer at a hospice home for children that had no family of their own—wards of the state—as a way of dealing with the fear of my own terminal illness. I truly saw the dignity of all life, especially in the faces of these children who had been abandoned and yet persevered with unimaginable strength, hope and humor. I am so grateful that I have been able to offer over 250 children the love and comfort they needed to help them pass, often cradling them in my arms as they took their last breath.
There was this one 13-year-old boy who couldn’t move his body or communicate, except with his eyes, but they said everything he needed to. When I spoke to him, I realized he knew exactly what I was saying. When I held him on my lap, it was the most fulfilling energy. His head fell on my shoulder, he finally relaxed. I told him, “I promise, when I get better and you get better, I’m going to adopt you.” He died shortly after that. But I promised myself that if I beat all of my circumstances, I’m going to open a home like that to give kids like him a chance.
Whenever I was well enough, I also volunteered at the local children’s hospital, juggling, performing and bringing laughter where I could. Instead of making my life a pity party, it was just a party! And through all of this, I realized that my disability had become my greatest ability. It was the beginning of my human revolution.
So I decided to go on a spiritual journey, trying a different religion each month. I really threw myself into the ideals of each practice, 100 percent, for 30 days at a time. My life had become this jigsaw puzzle that was almost complete, but I felt I was looking for the final piece in all the wrong boxes.
Then, last spring, SGI Nichiren Buddhism knocked on my front door. No matter where I was or who I was with, the SGI was front and center. With this barrage of invitations from the universe, I gave chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo the same dedication and attention I had given to the other religions I had tried. I went to discussion meetings, made friends and found a supportive group that accepted every part of me. Everything I heard made sense; in fact, it was everything I already believed in. I received the Gohonzon on May 22, 2016.
Rather than praying to eliminate my suffering, I chanted to have my happiness overpower it. And it worked! As I viewed my life though the Mystic Law, I saw it all: my meaning, my purpose, and most importantly to me, a scientifically sound, perfect outlook on my life’s wave in this outstandingly beautiful eternal ocean of life. And just how a wave is a manifestation of the ocean, my life quickly became a manifestation of the Mystic Law, the true essence of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.
Reading SGI President Ikeda’s guidance has been another powerful tool. He writes of his own experience: “I was a rather sickly child. Later, I also suffered from tuberculosis, and the doctor said I might not reach the age of 30. But that experience allowed me to understand the feelings of those afflicted with poor health. It also made me treasure every single moment, never waste a minute and live with all my might, doing everything I could while alive.
“There are many people with healthy bodies whose lives are ailing. And there are also those who suffer from physical illness but whose lives are vibrant. As long as we are alive, we are bound to experience illness of some kind. That’s why having the wisdom to know how to deal successfully with illness is so important” (September 2015 Living Buddhism, p. 53).
Before this practice, I solely gained my strength from outside myself. Now I draw my strength and joy from within. But unlike before I practiced, and even fighting 1,000 times more obstacles, I emerge from every battle stronger than before!
And when I’m too weak to leave my room, I still am not defeated. I spend that time crocheting hats for sick children—the wilder looking, the better. The hats are an expression of the inner joy I feel while I make them. To see the kids wearing these goofy creations, with big smiles on their faces, brings happiness back to me a thousand times over.
I turned 23 on Nov. 17, and I know how lucky I am to have accomplished what takes most an entire lifetime—to have become fearless in the eternal rhythm of life. I am determined that toward Nov. 18, 2018, I will join the gathering of 50,000 youth who are standing with Sensei to honor the dignity of all life. That will be the best birthday present ever!
Nam-myoho-renge-kyo was that final piece of the puzzle I was seeking. Learning to see Buddhahood in myself and others—now this is my greatest ability.