“You are the bows from which your children As living arrows are sent forth The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite And he bends you with his might
That his arrows may go swift and far.”
-Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
If she were still in physical form, my mom would have turned 85 today. Throughout the day, I’ve been reflecting on how I can continue her essence and influence in this world through the qualities we shared and the inner work I do that helps to complete or extend what she was able to do and be in her lifetime.
My mom was exceptionally sweet and caring, often putting others first. She was the one everyone went to – the listening ear who always was there for you and had your back. Just like her mother (my grandmother).
But I get the sense that other people’s issues ultimately were too much for her. She absorbed a lot of other people’s pain and suppressed her true feelings. She didn’t express them, to please and keep the peace.
I come from a lineage of exceptionally sweet and caring women who would bend over backwards for you. And I’ve inherited that trait. There have been times in my life when I fought against my wiring and rebelled against my mom. I didn’t want to be like her.
But in some ways, I was. Most of the inner work I’ve done so far in this lifetime has been around developing healthier boundaries. At times, my empathy has been weaponized by others and has caused (me) a lot of suffering. Like my mom, I often kept my feelings to myself, to avoid hurting others or making waves.
My mom was the one everyone turned to – the go-between when people couldn’t talk to each other directly. Since she passed away, it seems I’ve taken over that role, although I don’t want it. I’ve often thought that if this is the position my mother was in and the way she felt, no wonder she got sick.
Several years ago, a relative had a session with a psychic medium who emphasized that my mom is watching out for me and doesn’t want me to follow in her footsteps. She wants me to express what I’m feeling and not hold things inside so much, like she did.
Years after my mother and grandmother died, I’ve come to the realization that all the work I do to communicate more honestly and develop a stronger backbone benefits them, as well. It’s as if they’re standing behind me, rooting me on: “Maybe she’ll be the one to do what we weren’t able to do” and heal the dysfunctional patterns. I feel I’m carrying them with me (like carrying an unborn baby, except kind of in reverse, if that makes any sense) in all the healing work I do, and I find courage to speak my truth instead of holding it in for our sake, not mine alone. Our inner work generates ripples of healing that touch both future and past generations.
I can’t pick up the phone and call them like I used to be able to, but I can express love and relate to them in new ways. This has been one of the great revelations of grieving.
People are often surprised to learn my mom and I didn’t have an easy relationship. When she was alive, I experienced her as sweetly controlling and was busy pushing back against her and trying to be different than her. I didn’t make it particularly easy for her. We were caught in a dynamic. It’s amazing how a relationship can evolve even after one party dies. I feel so close to her now and have tremendous compassion and respect for her.
This morning when I thought about it being my mom’s birthday and how I’d celebrate, a voice in my heart told me to look at today’s card. I have a thick stack of inspirational cards, and at the beginning of every month, I count out enough cards for each day of the month. I don’t look at the cards ahead of time. So after hearing the voice speaking through the telephone of my heart, I went to my card display and moved yesterday’s card to the back of the stack, to reveal today’s card.
It was a cartoon with a speech bubble that read, “I am always here for you,” captioned with the words, “Listen to your inner guide.” I had some music playing in another room, and when I entered that room, the lyrics being sung were, “…words my mother said to me.”
We still celebrate my mom’s birthday – though this year we’re postponing it a couple of days, to include my almost seven-year-old granddaughter. She loves to celebrate my mom’s birthday – not just because of the cake but also to hear the stories. She seems genuinely curious about her great-grandmother and seems to feel connected to her. We’re always telling her how much my mom would have loved her, and it’s so true. It’s uncanny how alike they are! I can’t believe they never knew each other. They would have been like two peas in a pod!
My granddaughter is the kid in school who asks other children if they’re okay and comforts them. She notices and appreciates something about everyone she meets and is highly empathic. She explained to me that one of the “bullies” in school is bullied by his father. One day, his father came to school, and she heard him speak disrespectfully about his son. So she understands why the boy bullies classmates and has compassion for that. We’ve had many conversations about having healthy boundaries with people who don’t treat you right. My deep wish is for her to develop wise (rather than foolish) compassion, sooner than I did.
So all the work I do to have healthy boundaries and not intercept other people’s drama will benefit her as well. Someday when I have passed on, I will stand behind her and root for her arrow to go as far as possible. I can’t imagine wanting anything else.
When my daughter was in labor about to push out my granddaughter, I held up one of her legs. On the final push, I felt my mother behind me, as if she were hugging me from behind, and it seemed to give my daughter a blast of energy to push her out.
I sense very clearly that our ancestors are with us like that, helping us and cheering us on – and that we can call on them whenever we need them. And reciprocally dedicate the merits of our deep, inner work to them. For love continues to evolve and remains a two-way street.
As you probably know by now, Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Zen master, and activist considered to be a father of mindfulness in the West, passed away more than a week ago. He was 95 years old.
I received the news of his passing and subsequent memorial updates via emails from Plum Village, a global community of mindfulness practice centers and monasteries in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh (affectionately called Thay by his students).
Often news of deaths are announced, “with a heavy heart” or “with great sadness”. However, the Plum Village email began: “With a deep mindful breath, we announce the passing of our beloved teacher…”
When I saw the email heading announcing his passing, I experienced an emotional reaction that felt like a jolt of sadness in my body. Then I read on and remembered to breathe.
During the memorial week, I spent a lot of time engaged with the comprehensive Plum Village memorial resources, which includes chants, meditations, teachings, readings, songs, calligraphies, photos, and live-streamed videos. Although there were invitations to connect through the Facebook group, I’m on a month-long Facebook fast, so I didn’t partake in that. However, I imagine much deep, inspired sharing took place there throughout the week.
Invitations for the memorial week from the Plum Village website included:
Practice sitting and walking meditation together
Reflect deeply on the impact Thay’s teachings has upon our lives and on the world as a whole
Generate the energy of mindfulness, peace, and compassion in his memory
Generate loving gratitude
Come back to mindful breathing.
I witnessed via YouTube the daily, memorial events and breathed with the monastic and lay communities gathered to honor him. There were so many chat comments streaming during the live videos, and I felt tapped into and immersed in a global community dedicated to mindfulness, peace, and compassion.
It was a blessing. Like a balm in the midst of the world-as-it-is right now. There is all that topsy-turvy stuff, but there is this, too. How gratifying and enlivening to be part of it.
Honoring Those We’ve Lost
I’ve reflected quite a bit on the losses I’ve grieved in recent years and how my relationship with deceased loved ones has continued to deepen and blossom after their passing. I feel so much more intimately connected with their essence, which is deeper than the shell of personality that has fallen away.
It seems to me the best way to honor and memorialize our loved ones who are no longer with us physically is to become a little more of what we loved about them. To receive some of their beautiful qualities into our own being and radiate them into the world. Doing so allows their essence to continue being expressed in the world. In this sense, we are their continuation – which is an idea that came up a lot during the memorial week and in Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings.
We are the continuation of our beloveds’ flowering in this world. The relationship continues on (and can even improve), along with their essence. Realizing this would make the dying process easier for everyone involved. Death does not the end the person or the relationship.
The River of Life
In addition to being an internationally renowned Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh was also a calligrapher and poet. His calligraphies and poems captured the essence of his mindfulness teachings. The Plum Village website offered some of his calligraphies to download, and I was especially drawn to:
Go as a river
Smile to the cloud in your tea.
I really appreciate the river and nature imagery in his teachings, especially those related to the water cycle, seeing as I’ve lived on the Hudson River for the past 13 years. One thing I’ve learned from talking with others who have lived on a river at some point is that the river becomes part of you and can even form or enrich your spirituality.
It’s been a very cold month here on the Hudson, and I’ve watched the river transform with the arctic temperatures. The frozen parts have expanded further from shore on both sides of the river. However, in front of our house there is still a channel of water flowing visibly down the center, uncovered by ice and snow. Today it’s deep blue, reflecting the clear, blue sky.
Looking out the window, I see flowing water, snow, ice, clouds. As the sun rose this morning, there was peach fog, as well. So many manifestations of the water cycle, which is my favorite metaphor of the our cycle of birth, life, and death.
Thich Nhat Hanh offered a lovely “Story of a River” that resonates deeply with this “river girl”. Here is an exquisite musical meditation of the poem, along with the written text.
Returning to the Breath
During the memorial and funeral services, the commentator reminded us gently to return to the breath. It’s there, like a thread (I see it as a red thread) that runs through our entire life. We lose it as we get immersed in daily life but can find it again in any moment. It’s a lifeline that brings us back to something deeper and more spacious than our personal and collective dramas and the stream of non-stop thinking.
How often are we aware that we are breathing? How often do we actually enjoy it?
I use the Mindfulness Bell in the Plum Village app to remind me to stop and pay attention to my breathing throughout the day. Each time the bell rings (I have it set for every 20 minutes), I become still and take three deep, conscious breaths. I’m grateful for the Mindfulness Bell practice inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings.
He described a mindful breath as “the treat you get to enjoy” when you attend fully to your in-breath and out-breath and offered several gathas, or verses, to accompany breath awareness. For example:
Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.
There are many breathing verses found in the body of his work, that can help us to practice present moment awareness with the breath.
He also taught the art of mindful living, which is bringing mindfulness “off the cushion” and into daily life, to become more aware of what you are doing from moment to moment. In this way, mindfulness is not something you have to try to fit into your life. Instead, you remember to bring mindful, loving awareness to what you are doing, whether it’s brushing your teeth or having a conversation. This helps us cultivate joy and gratitude.
Although it’s not common practice in our society, I showed up for two cremations: my mother’s and my father’s. Both times I was alone. Nobody else was interested in attending the cremation and probably thought I was out of my mind to even ask permission to do so. But the funeral director didn’t bat an eyelash and made arrangements with me about where and when to meet so I could follow the hearse (both times) to the crematory in Bennington. Which looked like a garage attached to the back of a funeral home. (Very different from the imposing mausoleum and crematory I used to walk by every day when I worked at Syracuse University.)
I was invited to push my mother’s cardboard casket into the crematory retort and then push the button to start the flames. After that, I wasn’t invited to stay and didn’t think to ask if I could. I was told when to return. For a while, I sat in my car in the parking lot next to the crematory, visualizing my mother’s body dissolving into light and any impurities or negative karma being transformed and purified into wisdom.
Then I walked around Bennington for hours, alone. I gravitated to a river that runs through town. Later, I walked past a children’s clothing shop with a pretty dress in the window and burst into tears because it’s a shop my mother would have loved. It was surreal walking around an unfamiliar town by myself while my mother’s body burned. I felt sad and lonely. Eventually, I picked up her cremains and drove for an hour back home.
For my father’s cremation, I pushed his cardboard casket into the crematory retort, pushed the button, and then was invited to stay as long as I wanted and to come and go as I wished. I was alone, but it was very meaningful to be there. I was not with my dad when he took his final breath, and being present for his cremation was an opportunity to show up for him and reflect on my life with him and our relationship. After a long while, when it felt complete, I left the crematory and took a walk and a drive. I ended up at the poet, Robert Frost’s, grave, which I didn’t even know was in the cemetery I was drawn to magnetically. Then I received the call to pick up his cremains and returned home.
My two cremation experiences were in stark contrast with Thich Nhat Hanh’s very public cremation and cremation rituals in other countries. It was profound to witness his funeral procession and cremation along with a global sangha. A sea of monastics sat and breathed, chanted, did walking meditation, and listened to poems and songs shared in his honor as the fire burned. They sat and held space the entire time – from one day into the next.
It was a beautiful, albeit somber, shared experience. The commentator reminded us to put our palms together and follow our breath in certain, poignant moments. Which is good advice for life in general.
I lit incense and candles and breathed throughout the whole procession. I was touched by the loveliness of the procession itself and the lush greenery along the route through the monastery grounds. I wondered what it was like for the photographers there and anticipated many incredible images.
When the procession switched from walking to driving, I stood in front of the TV screen, as if I were one of the many bystanders along the route in Vietnam. I felt part of a global community.
My son was home when I watched the funeral procession to the cremation site and the cremation itself. He had plans to be out of town, but the weather kept him home. At times, he sat with me, asked questions, and listened to anything I wanted to share about how Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings helped to form my mindfulness practice and aspiration to teach mindfulness meditation. He was in and out of the room and after a while sat down and asked me how I sense witnessing this will change me.
Great question. I aspire to be a deeper expression of mindfulness, peace, and compassion.
That night, a bitter cold wind howled outside, shaking the trees and the house. I fed logs to the wood stove in the living room as a sacred fire burned on the other side of the planet. The time difference was exactly 12 hours. In Vietnam, it was morning as the cremation began, and the weather was warm and sunny, in stark contrast to our frigid, blustery night.
Just like the community-witnessed cremation was in stark contrast to my solo experiences holding space for my parents’ cremations…which could have been beautiful experiences of sharing, reflecting, storytelling, appreciation, and mindfulness if anyone else had joined me. If our culture wasn’t so standoffish, let-the-professionals-take-care-of-it when it comes to death rituals.
Another answer to my son’s question arose a couple days later: Thich Nhat Hanh’s funeral services and memorial resources have awakened in me new ideas for how we might honor and memorialize deceased loved ones (on a much, much, much smaller scale), beyond the traditional funeral services and obituaries.
I’ve spent the month of January envisioning the new year, becoming clear about what’s most important to me and what wants to be expressed through me. Both a five-day, solo retreat at Light on the Hill Retreat Center and Thich Nhat Hanh’s memorial week took place during my envisioning time and truly enriched the process.
Spiritually-supportive community and friendships came out right at the top of my list of what’s important. It became clear to me that trying to do so much on my own isn’t the way forward. I’m inviting more collaboration and community into my life.
By the end of the memorial week, I had chosen my inspired word for the year: Connect.
I aspire to have more connection and community in my life that values nature, befriending the planet, and cultivating mindfulness, peace, and compassion. I had plenty of spiritual community for a few years, when I participated simultaneously in the Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach and the Hidden Treasure program at Light on the Hill.
While involved in those programs, I also sat with a local dharma group weekly for a while (until it resumed meeting in-person again during the pandemic). As both programs wound down and I had begun teaching mindfulness meditation, I began sitting with another local sangha (spiritual community) in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. My commitments often conflicted with the weekly sits, so I let that go for quite a while. However, realizing how important it is for me to be part of a local sangha and resonating so much with Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, I returned two weeks ago.
That was the day before he passed away. What auspicious timing! The universe nodding yes.
Reflecting on Intention
I often invite participants in my mindfulness meditation programs to bring to mind what drew them to the session and to having a meditation practice. In other words, what’s your Big Why?
Remembering this can really benefit your practice and motivate you to practice when you might not feel like it.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s passing inspired me to remember what and who inspired me to begin meditating so many years ago. He was one of my earliest influences, whom I discovered more than 30 years ago. My spiritual mentor (who is the spiritual director at Light on the Hill) gave his book, Being Peace, to me as a wedding present in the early 90s. I appreciated his emphasis on sitting beautifully, as if on top of a lotus flower, and mindfulness being a source of happiness. Very different from the image of a whack of the Zen master’s stick bringing you back to the here-and-now when your posture slacks!
Throughout the past week, I revisited his books, including several children’s books, that were written in practical, accessible language. These books have been part of my personal library for many, many years. Opening them feels like connecting with an old and very wise friend on the path.
It reminds me that we are participating in a conversation that began before we were born and will continue after we are gone.
It’s been months since I’ve published a new journal entry. In the interim, I’ve been developing talks and meditations for my weekly mindfulness meditation classes and writing for my mailing list. However, this week, I’ve had the urge to share with a broader audience who and what is most predominant in my heart: my cousin Paul and the rest of my Canadian family.
In the spring of 2016, I traveled to the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia for the first time to visit relatives. After a long day of traveling, I was quite tired when I finally arrived at my great-aunt and -uncle’s home, but their son, Paul, was right there to meet me. He was so excited. It was the first time a cousin visited, and it was a big deal for him. A year younger than me, Paul was my dad’s first cousin and therefore my first cousin once removed. (My grandfather was the eldest of a dozen kids, and Paul’s dad was the youngest.) Looking at him was like seeing my grandfather again.
I instantly thought of Paul as a cousin soulmate. He whisked me away to experience sunsets and moonrises during my visit, and when it was time to leave, I didn’t want to. I felt like I had found my tribe.
Two years later, I visited again. Paul and his wife, Janet, picked me up from Vancouver airport, for which I was immensely grateful. (There’s a lot involved in traveling to the Sunshine Coast, especially with photography gear in tow.) We stopped at Granville Island, had lunch overlooking Vancouver harbor, and drove through Stanley Park before making our way to the ferry and his parents’ home in Sechelt. Paul also brought me back to the airport when I left, again stopping and staying overnight in Van.
In between meeting him that first time and saying goodbye at the airport the last time, we spent time together on his father-in-law’s yacht (which was a real treat for me) and smaller prawn boat. He was really in his element on the water. There were dinners together with more family. A trip to the farmers’ market. Cards and texts and phone calls.
I honestly can say that nobody else on this planet made me feel the way Paul did. I felt welcomed, protected, truly cared for, and understood. Spending time with him and family in British Columbia was transformative. It changed my life. I had dreams of somehow, someday getting a visa and spending more time close to my family tribe in British Columbia.
Paul talked often about going to Cape Cod together, where he had fond memories of visiting an uncle (also my dad’s uncle) who had been an artist and an overall fascinating person. He wanted to take me to Hornby Island. We came close to traveling to England together for a family reunion, but it was so last-minute that it didn’t come together. He wanted so much to experience an “American Thanksgiving” and promised he would make the next visit, for that purpose. But then of course Covid came along.
This year, I wished for the U.S.-Canadian border to reopen so the idea of visiting the Sunshine Coast could come back into the realm of possibility. However, there were complications and factors beyond border status that made it unfeasible. So I traveled there often in my heart, where there are no borders aside from the ones we, ourselves, maintain.
Last Friday evening, Paul passed away after suffering a massive heart attack two and a half weeks prior. His obituary is truly touching, complete with poems written by family members.
My heart is heavy with that old visitor, grief, that comes in waves. What I have learned from previous losses is that the heart is an ocean spacious enough to hold all the waves that move through it, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Although I’m accustomed to relating to Paul from a distance, his parents, daughters, sisters, and other family members are not, and my heart goes out to them.
In moments of remembering, I practice breathing in memories of Paul and his beautiful qualities – really filling up with that energy – and breathing out compassion for everyone else grieving his absence. After a few breaths, I extend this out-breath wish (also called metta) to everyone grieving a loss. There are so very many, and we never grieve alone.
This is a different kind of heart wave: the kind that unites us in our common humanity. The deepest losses I’ve experienced have taught me that the heart can become the telephone through which we can communicate even with those who have passed through the veil we call death. May we honor those we’ve lost by embodying what we loved about them, however we can, even if it’s simply recalling their goodness and by doing so, shining a little brighter and allowing their essence to continue rippling in the world. That is the prayer in my heart at the moment.
It was another week of staying home (the eighth, to be precise). And yet, I went on an important journey: to the epicenter of my heart to connect with the aliveness that’s there beneath the sadness/grief/anger/blame. What is it, and what does it ask of me? What does it want me to know?
And I discovered a longing to know that I am making a positive difference in this world. That I’m loving well.
When people come to the end of their life and look back, the questions that they most often ask are not usually, “How much is in my bank account?” or “How many books did I write?” or “What did I build?” or the like. If you have the privilege of being with a person who is aware at the time of his or her death, you find the questions such a person asks are very simple: “Did I love well?” “Did I live fully?” “Did I learn to let go?”
And from “Late Fragment”, Raymond Carver’s last published poem before dying of cancer:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Did I love well? Did my loving matter? Did I feel beloved? Connected?
These are universal yearnings.
One of the greatest realizations I’ve had since my mom passed away six years ago this month is that the seeds of love we plant on this earth are not done growing when our life here has come to an end. Chances are pretty good that you will not live to see them flower fully. Sometimes it’s your very absence that waters them until at last they bloom, and those left behind marvel at what your life has been and all the ways in which your loving has enriched their lives.
My relationship with my mother was complicated when she was alive, for we were so different (and alike) in some ways. I put up walls that wouldn’t let her get too close. She couldn’t have had any way of knowing that those walls were my own vulnerability and had nothing to do with her worth as a mother or human being. I didn’t even realize at the time what they were because I was too enmeshed. In our mother-daughter relationship, I didn’t feel seen, and I’m sure she didn’t, either. We just kept playing our roles. Doing our best but not giving each other what we wanted most. Which I think was the same thing.
Until the end, when those roles and walls dissolved, which was incredibly beautiful.
Although I did my best to help her feel loved and appreciated during the final months of her life, my love and appreciation for my mother didn’t truly blossom until after she took her final breath. She didn’t live to see it. And it probably couldn’t have been any other way.
As a result of my experience, I realize that sometimes you have to be content with planting seeds and have faith in the invisible seeds you sow in the world through the life you live. Through your very presence. Some seeds grow quickly. Others take more time. And we have to be patient. Many seeds won’t send shoots above ground until after we’re gone – from someone’s life or from this earth altogether.
Yes, the seeds of love continue to awaken and grow after we’re gone. When we come to the end of our life, may we understand that it’s not over. The seeds we sowed continue on and will bloom in time. We can’t take our last breath believing it’s the end. There’s so much more yet to come. So many gifts to be found and unwrapped.
When I was doing hospice work in my 20s, one of my patients expressed sadness for not being able to live long enough to see her flowers come up in the spring. I didn’t understand at the time, but her words remained with me, and I think I finally grasp both the literal and metaphorical meaning. Which is why there are tears streaming down my face as I write this.
After we leave this life, our love will continue to grow. Those we leave behind will discover artifacts of our lives and get to know us in new ways. They will find them inside boxes of our belongings and inside themself, as well.
Appreciation and love will deepen. They will feel our presence in so many ways, places, and situations. Our love is our gift to them that endures beyond our lifetime and even into new generations – like the mint plants I transplanted from my mother’s garden a few years ago that now thrive in my own garden (a metaphor in itself). And the lilac bush in my parents’ yard that still blooms even though someone else lives there now.
We interact with those who were friends of our loved ones and through the exchange of smiles and stories see them from different angles, like a flower being illuminated by just the right slant of sunlight.
And we allow ourselves to express the qualities we appreciated most about them, even if we didn’t fully appreciate them when they were alive, when we were trying to be different and set ourselves apart from them (as is often the case with mothers and daughters and with fathers and sons).
There are so many ways in which loving – our most essential nature – continues on.
So if you ever wonder or doubt whether your life and love is of value, know this: It’s not over yet. Even when you take your last breath, there is so much more of your life left to live. So many seeds yet to emerge from underground and be seen.
And the most wonderful thing I’ve learned is that relationships don’t end with death. I’ve never been closer to my mom. I see her sometimes in dreams and feel her presence in certain moments and places. Whenever I need her, she is never further away than my own heart. My heart and dreams are the portals that allow love to flow both ways. At this point, love is all that’s left, and it’s everything.
Yesterday, I went hiking with my husband and decided to stop to take some pictures, so he went on ahead. There was a period of several minutes when I walked alone through the woods. And the most bizarre thing happened: A bird landed on the path a few steps in front of me and walked with me the whole time. It was like walking a dog, but it was a bird. The bird stayed real close to me the whole time and made me giggle. It was a Snow White moment, for sure. But I also wondered if the bird was injured because it didn’t fly away.
Eventually, I saw the blue of my husband’s jacket in the distance, and the moment he came into view, the bird flew off into the woods. It seemed like it had wanted to keep me company as I walked alone – didn’t want me to be alone.
When I told my husband about my bird companion, he reminded me that it’s Mother’s Day weekend, and perhaps it was my mom saying hi. It felt like the bird wanted me to know that I wasn’t walking alone. And I think that if our departed loved ones could give us any message, especially now, it’s that.
They are still with us, and the love continues to bloom. And not only do we get to witness it, but we can dedicate the merits of our own awakening to them.
“What does it mean, say the words, that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it? What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live?”
-Mary Oliver, Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (2005)
This week, my favorite living writer died. So did a high school classmate.
Mary Oliver was 83. Matt Riker was 51. His life was snuffed out by the same illness that took my mom from us nearly five years ago. In November, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Later that month, he visited Dana-Farber and learned his illness was incurable.
According to an article in a local newspaper, several years ago, Matt was very unhappy with the way he was living his life. He decided to turn things around and devoted his life to helping others. The more he helped, the better he felt. On a similar note, two years ago when he was borderline diabetic, he took up running, lost a lot of weight, and got into really good shape.
The point being: When he realized he wasn’t living the life he wanted to live, he found the determination and courage to make changes and turn things around. He even went back to school and received his bachelor’s degree last year. By the time he was diagnosed with advanced stage cancer, he felt at peace with his life and continued to focus on helping others because that’s who he had become.
Matt’s story is a real wake-up call. His transformation is inspiring. When you don’t like the story you’re living, you can do something different and change it.
The weekend before he passed away, there was a celebration in his honor. What a gift to have a celebration of life before someone passes away! It was an opportunity for everyone to say goodbye (even without saying it) and thank-you for happy memories and a life well lived.
I hadn’t seen Matt since high school. After he learned the nature of his illness, I reached out to him, and we shared a memory of being in a choral group together back in high school. I had to drive my son to Albany when the celebration was taking place and made it just in time. Matt looked in my eyes, said my name, gave me a hug, and a few moments later, two companions were on either side of him helping him make his way out of the building so he could rest.
After he left the celebration, a classmate who had gone running with Matt in the fall expressed disbelief. Such rapid physical decline is hard to wrap your head around. When I saw him at the celebration, he appeared as my mother did a week or two before she passed away. I did not expect him to make it to the end of the month. He only made it a week.
When an acquaintance your age or younger passes away, it wakes you up. It might inspire you to appreciate your life and your loved ones more. You might step back, take stock, and consider what’s most important and whether you are living your life in harmony with that.
I realized this week that I’ve gotten a little off-course and lost sight of what’s most important. I’ve been too busy and haven’t been spending as much time in nature as I need to. Haven’t had much time for those who mean the most to me. My heart yearns for more nature connection, more writing, more photography, and more quality time with loved ones. These activities feed my soul. They are my true Work.
What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live? The answers to these inquiries are within each of us, in our heart center. Our heart is a compass that keeps us on course if we allow it to guide us. Its wisdom helps us to gauge how closely our life is aligned with our true Dharma. Then we can make some course adjustments if need be.
I believe that however long or short our lifetime is, it’s exactly as it should be. Even when death seems to come too soon or too suddenly, there are no accidents. If it’s your time, the universe will make sure you are in the right place. In other words, beyond the personal, senseless tragedy of loss, there is another level on which all is well. These dense bodies we live in only allow us to see a portion of the picture.
The thing is, we don’t know when our time will come. There are things I still want to accomplish, and I’ll bet the same is true for you. Things I don’t want to leave undone. When a friend of mine published her first book, she exclaimed, “I can die now!” That’s what I’m talking about: Don’t die with your song/book/etc. still within you.
Matt’s death awakened everyone his life touched. It inspired me to think about how I spend my time and why, and to take inventory of the Big Picture, just like he did several years ago.
Mary Oliver passed away four days after Matt, on Thursday.
Thursday morning, I HAD to sit on the riverbank (despite the cold weather) as the sun rose and listen to the music of the delicate plates of ice sailing down the river and colliding with piles of other shards. It’s one of my very favorite songs.
It’s no wonder I couldn’t resist the call to be in nature, astonished and filled with appreciation for the visual poetry surrounding me, though I wasn’t aware yet of the significance of the day. All I knew at the time was that it felt like the first real breath I had taken all week, and I could barely feel the cold because I was doing something that set my soul on fire.
When I heard the news that evening, it all made sense: Her soul was passing through. I wonder what she would have scribbled in her notebook about that morning’s frozen splendor on the Hudson.
Spending time on the river’s edge that morning and learning about the two deaths only a few days apart served the same purpose: They awakened me from the trance of routine and reminded me of what’s most important and what I need to make time for. What I did make time for until a few months ago when I took on another part-time job. (And next month, I will add yet another thing to my plate when I start a two-year mindfulness meditation teacher certification program, which I have yearned to do for years.)
I realized I need to spend more time steeped in gratitude on the water’s edge or elsewhere in nature with my camera in hand and my senses wide open. More time listening to what drifts through the air and bubbles up from within, and taking dictation. More time developing the services I’m trained for and feel passionate about. The Universe has delivered some very clear and consistent messages about moving forward with that NOW, not later. If not now, when?
I had to admit to myself that I’m doing too much. My schedule is too full. Even though I enjoy and appreciate everything I’m doing, something’s gotta give within the continuum that spans from enjoyment to the deeper pull that sets my soul on fire.
Those whose deaths jolt us out of the trance of daily life remind us to make time during our “one wild and precious life” for what is most essential. To not look beyond our own heart to discern what that is.
What an enriching and joyful process it’s been going through pictures spanning my dad’s whole life and reading the cards and online condolences through which people described him based on the context within which they knew him best. Over the past two weeks, this process has helped me to see him in a much greater context above and beyond the particular relationship I had with him—which also differed from the relationship either of my siblings had with him.
Every relationship is unique, and every life is composed of different relationships and chapters through which we express ourselves in different ways, much like a multifaceted crystal that is held to the light and turned to see the different angles from which the light shines through it. And yet, there are some qualities that remain more or less consistent at the core.
With my dad, some core descriptions that came up repeatedly included:
Warm and friendly
I remember being at his USAirways retirement celebration about 15 years ago, which provided me with my first glimpse of who he was in a broader context, beyond just “my dad.” When it was his turn to speak, he was quite a storyteller. And funny! I’d never experienced that side of him before! Those were some of the traits that endeared him to so many.
He also could be stubborn, and that’s a side I saw a lot. As he was in the hospital on what would be his deathbed, I commented to my son about how stubborn he was being as we left ICU one day. His “stubbornness” seemed to frustrate me more than anyone else and usually had something to do with him not being receptive to my ideas and how I was trying to help him. Holding tightly to previously established preferences and opinions. But my son suggested that he was dignified, rather than stubborn. My dad was determined to do things his way. A true Taurus!
He loved his hot dogs and ice cream and refused to follow a diabetic diet. He refused to have a fistula put in his arm in preparation for the increasingly likely event of kidney failure and a regimen of dialysis to keep him alive. He wanted nothing to do with a life without hot dogs or a life centered around time-consuming dialysis treatments and not being able to go to the YMCA to exercise and socialize. This summer, whenever he told me he had a hot dog for dinner or that friends brought him one or two when they visited him, my heart smiled because I understood my dad was an old dog who wasn’t about to learn new tricks and that he was choosing quality of life over longevity. His quality of life took a great blow when my mom died, and wherever he could find moments of happiness and comfort…was good, in my opinion.
One day back in February 2013, he was exercising at the YMCA and went into cardiac arrest. When I was on my way to the hospital with my mom, all we knew was that they used the defibrillator to get his heart started again, but it was very shaky. We didn’t know if we would arrive at the hospital to find him alive or dead. When we arrived, he was in the care of one of my best childhood friends, and we were able to talk to him. He was about to be transported to another hospital, and again, we didn’t know if he would survive the ambulance ride. But when we arrived at Albany Medical Center, he was alive and in good hands. He ended up surviving quadruple bypass surgery. Our family is so grateful for the YMCA staff, who gave us an extra 3 ½ years with him. For some reason, it wasn’t his time then.
In his novel, Illusions, Richard Bach wrote:
“Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t.”
Always one to look for meaning, I often contemplated why my dad didn’t die that day. What was he still here on earth to learn, experience, or do?
At the time of my dad’s cardiac episode, we had no idea that my mom had pancreatic cancer. She was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer by the end of the year and passed away within six months of being diagnosed. But in between my dad’s cardiac episode and my mom’s death, they were able to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary together at Disney World.
Losing his wife of 50 years – his best friend and soulmate – was so hard on my dad, and I’m sure that was obvious to everyone who knew him. His life would never be the same. Yet, I believe she needed to leave when she did so he could experience some things and grow in ways he wouldn’t have been able to grow otherwise. For example, he had a more direct relationship with my siblings and me when our extroverted mom wasn’t in the picture doing most of the communicating. And I think that was really important for him and for us. We had nearly 2 ½ years to do that. During that time, he was able to meet his first great-grandchild (my granddaughter) and see his grandson (my son) graduate from high school.
Two weeks before my dad finally went to the doctor for foot pain that kept getting worse this summer, a friend contacted me late at night to tell me that he walked past a particular music venue and saw my dad sitting in there alone. I reminded him that’s where my parents used to go to listen to music and added that my mom is probably there with him in spirit. My friend replied that my dad looked really sad, and I said it’s because he doesn’t realize she’s there with him. Understanding how difficult and painful it was for my dad to walk, I was surprised he went through the trouble of finding parking in downtown Saratoga Springs during the busy, summer tourist season and walking to the venue. He must have had a strong purpose or longing to go there.
A few days before he went to the doctor, my husband dreamed my parents were dancing together. It was one of those dreams that felt more real than real, if you know what I mean. My mom was in full, vivid color, looking so happy and vibrant as she danced. Although she was dancing with my dad, he was in black and white and didn’t seem to realize she was there dancing with him. Surprised to see my mom, Jack exclaimed, “You’re not supposed to be here!” And my mom replied, “Well, I am! And I always have been.”
* * * *
Things aren’t always what they seem. Sometimes what seems to be a cruel twist of fate is merciful. We just can’t see the whole picture from where we stand.
A diabetic with significant cardiac history, my dad had a rough summer that included six-hour bypass surgery to correct a circulation issue in his leg. That was followed by a recovery period, and in the midst of recovering, he ended up back in the hospital for a sore on his foot that resulted in his little toe being amputated and another recovery period. After being discharged from the hospital, he spent a couple of weeks at a rehab center and in less than a week after being discharged from the rehab center came down with the pneumonia that claimed his life.
During the last few weeks of his life, I worried about how my siblings (one local, one not) and I would care for our dad when he got out of rehab and was being his stubborn or willful or dignified self. Like when my dad and I came back inside after our first wheelchair excursion outside of the rehab center on a beautiful day, I dashed into the restroom for about 15 seconds, only to find him wheeling himself down the hallway toward the main entrance when I reemerged. A custodian witnessed it and had a look of combined shock and amusement on her face. I felt like the parent of a toddler, who must be ever-vigilant. It was a strange feeling to have in relation to my dad.
I became anxious about how he would fare living on his own in his split-level house with stairs all over the place. On the way home from rehab, I reminded him that there was a walker on each level of the house that he was supposed to use, and he exclaimed that he wasn’t going to use any walkers and then took off like a racehorse when we arrived home. Again, I felt like an anxious parent trying to get him to follow doctor’s orders that he claimed he never remembered hearing. How could I help him when he wouldn’t do what he was supposed to do?
I wondered how long this would go on, how long he would need a caregiver at the house, and whether he would need to go into a long-term care facility at some point. But throughout this time, I kept hearing my mom’s voice in my head assuring me: Don’t worry.This isn’t going to take long. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but two days before he died, when he was back in the hospital being treated for pneumonia and congestive heart failure, I found a dead cardinal in my driveway. I’d never seen a dead cardinal before, and my dad loved cardinals. When I saw the cardinal, I had a sinking feeling that he was not going to make it this time. And although my mortal heart was breaking, my intuition assured me that it’s okay because it’s his time.
My dad would not have wanted to live a life in which his freedom was restricted. In the end, it seems his swift death was merciful. He didn’t have to languish in a nursing home or undergo dialysis. He didn’t have to observe another wedding anniversary without his beloved wife and passed on in time to spend their October 19th anniversary together in spirit.
As much as I will miss my dad, I realize that losing our parents is part of the natural course of human life. In recent years, some of my friends have had to face the tragedy of losing a child, and a couple of my kindergarten students suffered the sudden loss of a parent. I have not lost a child, and I am not a child who has lost a parent. What I am experiencing is within the natural cycle of life. It is to be expected.
My parents loved each other so much, and although he kept going the best he could, my dad’s life would never be the same again after losing my mom. With a love like that, it’s not unusual for the surviving spouse to follow close behind. So I really feel it was my dad’s time to go. In the end, pneumonia wasn’t a thief that came along and stole him from us before his time. It was a swift, merciful ride to the other side that saved him from declining health, a restricted lifestyle, and continued mourning. That he was able to avoid that kind of pain and suffering brings me peace.