“Operator? Operator. Please put me through to my daughter.” Her voice is pleading to my voicemail message, her words say, “Time is collapsing into itself and I am lost and alone.”
“Operator, can you hear me? My daughter’s name is Lynette. Please tell her I called. I need to speak to her. Please.”
It’s 11 PM and I’ve just come home from a long day at work. I’m torn by an urgency to drive the 2 hours to her home or call my brother who is only 20 minutes from her. He answers his phone, groggy and disoriented. I explain the message and my concern, voice steady, knowing any rise in inflection will trigger some long-buried familial mine. He’s patiently explaining to me that there is nothing to worry about. Mum just has a problem with… his voice tails off. “I don’t know if you will understand this but it has to do with her mind.”
For as long as I can remember, my mind has been my worst enemy. It didn’t seem to play by any rules of engagement I understood. Or if it did, those rules changed so it was the only one who ever won a debate, discussion, or a challenge. When explaining mindfulness concepts of letting go negative thoughts, I was fond of telling my patients that there was no point getting into a debate with one’s mind; after all I had yet to win an argument with mine. It was highly skilled at the Art of War, used unconventional tactics, and I was always rendered defenseless in a matter of nanoseconds.
I like to think I come by these features honestly. My father worried incessantly about what people thought of him, of us, fearful that anything happening in our vicinity would be blamed on us. He lived in a perpetual state of disaster preparedness. My mother approached everything with the assumption that she already knew the outcome would not be to her liking and manipulated its evolution. She lived in a perpetual state of conflict preparedness. Out of their stances to the world, I distilled a view that somehow we were not worthy of safety, generosity, or kindness. Somehow the world would conspire to take away what was precious. Somehow everything I achieved was only because it wasn’t a real contest, the best candidates had dropped out, or it was a joke. But it didn’t matter anyway because even achievements gained under such conditions would be stripped away.
My mind thrived on this fodder of shame, unworthiness, and dark secrets of who I “really” was. My father wrote in my book of quotes, “Trifles make perfection but perfection is no trifle.” I lived by this, focusing on details but in my fear all details were important. Lacking discernment, I drove family, friends, and research assistants to distraction. Mainly, I drove myself into despair, a progressively deepening dark crater that took up most of the area around my heart and closed off my throat. My coping skills amounted to living in over-drive and narrowing my world so my dirty secret that I was doomed to fail would not get out.
Over the years of working with people who deal with post-trauma reactions, I’ve come to understand that my family and I have struggled with the same symptoms. My parents survived World War II and the occupation of Burma (Myanmar) by the Japanese, Allied Forces, and later the military junta. The stories they told around the dinner table were literally “war stories” and this predated our understanding that hearing these stories would be a form of secondary trauma. I remember events and experiences that I now understand shaped my vulnerability and reaction to perceived control and isolation. We each carried these clusters of suffering in us which would work their way out over the years. For me, the depth of my own suffering revealed itself one morning, after several years of meditative practice. I realized I had woken up and not felt regret that I had not died in my sleep. The dark crater had emptied and there was a spaciousness I could enter without being engulfed by fear.
Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
Transcendental meditation classes were all the rage when I was an undergraduate Science student and I attended faithfully, more hold onto my boy friend than any interest in enlightenment. I lost the boy friend anyway but the practice stuck and over the years evolved into a practice of Buddhism. My father was thrilled by my explorations; his mother was a devout Buddhist. My mother was nonplussed; it didn’t seem productive to sit around and navel-gaze. To her it was just another data point in a vast database proving my inherently lazy, pointless, and selfish life. For me, it ranged from a great stress management tool to an excruciating half-hour of listening to my critical and obsessive mind tell me my mother was right.
By the time I allowed myself to try a lovingkindness meditation, I was desperate to find some distance from that unrelenting inner voice. I figured if I could at least out-shout it with kind mantras, I’d break its grip. One of my Buddhist teachers suggested it would be a bridge to compassion, transiting from befriending myself to being present to my pain without recriminations. I just wanted the noise to stop but what did I have to lose? For two years, I sat and practiced self-kindness: May I be free from suffering. May I be at peace. May I see all my actions as arising from my limitations. May I see my limitations as simply human. Seeing and experiencing my failings as part of a common humanity loosened the grip of the inner critic. It also opened me to the realization that my demanding stance with others was rooted in my own fears. Somehow I believed that the only way to feel safe was to control the outer environment because certainly I felt no control over my inner environment. But the world was not creating my sense of danger; I was through an inner critic that was misguided in over-protecting me from failure. Before cultivating compassion for others, I had to learn to soften to myself. Self-compassion required me to cultivate a gentler way of relating with myself, to tolerate and calm the inner reactivity, and to take responsibility for having created my own experience.
This useful space opened up just in time. In 2002, my father died after an eight-year struggle with the travelling cancer cells that eventually lodged in his brain. I didn’t lose him. He let go and I too opened my hand. At his funeral service, I saw one of those early moments of my mother’s own letting go. I wanted to name it then, dementia, but it was hard to differentiate from the stress of losing a partner of 65 years. Over the next three years, however, it became clear that this was now an inexorable march to an unknowable endpoint. Other than death. Death is always a known variable.
By the time she was admitted to a hospital for a geriatric assessment, I had learned to surrender to helplessness at how it was unfolding. Her neighbors called to say she was sweeping the street in her nightgown. Her cardiologist insisted her memory was intact and old people just remember in funny ways. She insisted the plastic flowers were flourishing from her constant watering and the fresh orchids had been grown in her friend’s backyard. After seeing her granddaughter’s graduation picture with cap and gown, she worried if it was too soon for “the child” to decide to ordain.
The geriatric assessment showed a long history of strokes that had rendered her brain a scarred mass of thick braids and knots. As we struggled to understand the consequences for her, she remained relentless in trying to escape the hospital. I opted for distraction and walked her to a dead-end corridor and we sat in the vinyl sofa shoved into a dark corner. She railed at me. I was useless, should never have been born, unable to do anything right, a waste of a life. “Like your father,” she whispered into my face, her own contorted with anger and bereft of hope. My heart ripped apart and yet was wide open. Not with love or kindness but with a profound recognition. Here I was in the seat beside me! My critical mind made real, embodied. This was not my mother in the true sense of the word. This was the propaganda of our family. Under threat, we resorted to motivating heroic acts through severe beatings, through a form of “show me differently!”
Feeling impotent and defensive, I retorted something early in her tirade and caught myself. This was not a way to staunch my suffering or hers. May you be free from suffering. May we meet this pain with steadiness. May I honor my practice and your motherhood. I sat, trying my hardest to be fully present yet knowing that I needed help as internally my practice eroded. A nurse, hearing the exchange, reassured me medication was on its way. It took three hours. A friend later said, “Three hours? And you feel you lost the battle to be compassionate by uttering one retort and thinking a million? You need to lose sooner than three hours!”
Losing and letting go. Elizabeth Bishop wrote piercingly of this in her poem, in One Art.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
We fear losing our capacity for kindness, for love, for respect. These don’t seem “filled with the intent to be lost” but they invariably are through the vagaries of our self-control. And, in the context of losing our parents and all they represent, it can seem like a disaster.
This is especially true if we hold to cultural myths of how to love our parents and be with them with compassion and equanimity. When we set those standards, we set ourselves up for failure each time we become impatient, snappy, sharp, critical, and confused. We roll out the red carpet for our inner critic when we hold to beliefs that we somehow transcend the hardwiring of our childhood experiences just because they grow old and we retain our cogency (insofar as we do).
Bishop entreats us to practice losing so we master it; it is after all a necessary art. But it’s not the keys, the books, or the favorite t-shirt that we learn to lose. True, those are the forms to which we become attached and many a Zen master will encourage the losing of that attachment as one’s practice. However, these attachments, tendrils that weave around us, form the shape of our identity, our way of knowing self, other, and the world. In my deepest hopelessness and rank fear, I saw myself as unable to know who I was in any moment and thereby rendered powerless to act on my own behalf. This, I feared losing.
The loss is the hardest practice. And it happened one day, a day I count as the happiest of my life. She had been a resident at this home for several years, moving among the other residents like a wind-up toy determined to be the social convener, the advocate, the soothing hand. The staff and residents (most anyway) loved her and explained away her outbursts of violence. This was a huge challenge for me, as I slowly had to let go of my need to speak the truth of her actions. “This is who she really is,” I wanted to scream when they excused her outbursts. “This is not the dementia!” But that only served my agenda and took me back down old pathways that lead to dark and dangerous neighborhoods. I had to lose that map, that knowing of myself as victim and her as abuser.
I came regularly each Sunday to take her for lunch. For the most part, she enjoyed the outing and tended to have greater self-control in public. On this fateful day, she turned to greet me when I walked into her room; never knowing her mood, I had developed a tentativeness about those initial moments. “Oh, there you are!” she sang out. “I thought it was my daughter.” She was excited that we were going out, happy that I came so often to care for her, and grateful for the new clothes I had brought earlier. “Not like my daughter who never brings me anything!” she sighed.
It was inevitable and irrevocable. I was gone from her mind. She had mastered the art of losing, it seemed, and in losing her daughter, she had set herself free of all the disappointments, regrets, and rancor of who I was to her. Simultaneously, she was gone from my mind. The mother of whom I had but one gentle, joyous memory. The woman who was insatiable in her need for approval and vicarious success. The one who was enshrined for super-heroic performance in saving the family from death and later destitution, leaving no room for anyone else who had pulled along with her. Gone. Mother-daughter. Gone.
When I’m asked if it was hard to watch my mother decline further and further into delusion, I respond that all that needed to be lost was lost and in that space I found the mother I always wanted and deserved. The mother who held my hand as we walked across the parking lot. The mother who loved the restaurant I picked and laughed about my preferences in food. The mother who asked how my children were doing (I only have one but it didn’t matter by then) and whether I was working too hard. The mother who looked at my husband and said to me, “Don’t let him go. He’s a good man.” The mother who held my face in her hands, leaned in to bump foreheads, and giggled like a child.
When she was dying, I sat by her bedside and spoke to her of our joys and love. I chanted the name of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, a thousand times. I sat in meditation on the floor at the foot of her bed, sensing into each part of my body and willing hers to let go. This prayer emerged from that moment:
These are my mother’s toes
which raised her up to reach for all that was needed,
a flower, a cup, a bag of cookies, a dream.
These are my mother’s feet
which strode through the house shaping everything to be beautiful,
which carried me as an infant, then a child, taking me across the tarmac
to meet my father returning from his journey.
This is my mother’s womb
which carried me before I was I,
which embraced me with warmth and nourishment,
which released me into the world with gentleness and grace.
This is my mother’s heart
which sent her life’s blood flowing into me,
filling my body with potential and passion.
These are my mother’s lungs
which purified the toxins from the air,
which gave me life.
This is my mother’s face
which conveyed her love and laughter,
which spoke her words and heard mine.
These are my mother’s hands
which held me firmly walking across the street,
which stirred the soups and stews, the curries and rice,
laying out the heritage of gathering at tables and in kitchens.
These are my mother’s shoulders
which bore the weight of loves and loss,
which never learned to shrug or cast off a burden,
carrying everything with equanimity and fearlessness.
This is my mother’s brain
which created the intricate relationships of her life,
weaving the net that holds us all.
 Tao te Ching: Chapter Eleven, Lao Tsu, transl. by Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English, Vintage Books, NY 1997
 Self-compassion is defined by Kristen Neff as comprised of self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.
 See the practice Soften-Soothe-Allow by Christopher Germer.
 One Art: Letters selected and edited by Robert Giroux. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: NY, 1994