as she lay dying – meditation on my mother’s body

My mother is dying. After 94 years of standing up to a world that was at times brutal and at times incomprehensible to her, she lies here in her hospital bed between starched, warmed sheets, dying. Her awareness has receded into an inner world of visions and a landscape only she can navigate. Her consciousness which is the arising out of contact senses the sheets, the shifting air, the moist toweling of her body every hour. Earth has dissolved into water as her organs release their hold on function. Water has dissolved into fire as the fluids in her body diminish. Fire has dissolved into air as the vital forces dissipate into flowing wind. All that is left is the expansion of air into spaciousness, into that boundless realm of entire being.

We sit vigilantly each day, following her breath, recalling her life. Sati, recollecting, bringing together, re-membering the dispersed parts of her life as grandmother, mother, wife, friend, sister, cousin, daughter. Fearless and fearsome dragon lady who survived a World War, the British and Japanese Occupation of Burma, strode across oceans and cherished roses.

As part of my own process I have spent the mornings and evenings chanting the name of Avalokita, reading the Anathapindika Sutta, and sitting a vigil sesshin. I don’t know how it helps or if it does but that is why we practice – to move beyond the need for something to happen.

This was a meditation that emerged from one sitting as I brought my attention to my feet, intending to scan through to the top of my head and then to scan my mother’s body in turn. As I began, our bodies merged and this became the meditation. I offer it for the grace of her life.

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.

This is my mother’s body.
Sitting, standing, lying down.
This is my mother’s gift
even now.

practice as a present participle

Thich Nhat Hanh is fond of teaching that practice has three elements: continuity, presence in this moment, and happiness.  In these times of continuous travel, it’s easy to become unmoored from my daily practice.  Hotel rooms and early starts are not all that conducive to zazen and intense days with late evenings don’t foster mindful consumption.  I like to think there is no “I” but this no-I is having trouble denying the feelings of fragmentation.  And yet, under the shards and slivers of consciousness runs a steady stream of awareness.  It seems knit together the fragments as a river seamlessly knits two shorelines. 

Today, we woke up to rain, snow pellets, and wild howling winds that curved the pine tree tops into sky hooks.  I gave myself a gift of an hour at the art table, playing with shapes and colours.  Then we packed suitcases – again – becoming more and more efficient about what we really need on this trip, and oh-so-reluctantly headed for the nursing home to visit my mother.

The day before was her 93rd birthday.  My brother and his daughter took her a savoury lunch; we were hosting a zazenkai – a day of mindfulness.  She was born in 1918 – the year that saw Daylight Savings Time initiated and when the Red Sox won the World Series.  The last Carolina parakeet died and the Royal Air Force was formed.  Wars began and ended; and, the Spanish flu killed over 30 million people.  A baby girl was born in Rangoon whose continuation leads to this moment when I am writing, you are reading, and even if the Red Sox don’t revive their successes, this moment of being woven together will be irrevocable.

Facing the large glass window with snow pellets pinging on it, I sat with my mother who is now confined to a wheelchair.  She was angry, railing at a universe I can’t access so empathy is just beyond my reach.  Slowly as the words spill out, shredded and disconnected, I decipher her anger is shame.  She can no longer control her bodily functions and, profound though the dementia may be, she knows, feels the humiliation.  As she cries, I try to hold her, awkwardly embracing over the edges of the wheelchair.

The days, minutes, seconds are easy moments to string together as practice.  Surviving time requires no effort.  What time carries along in its flow is the challenge.  The grief, helplessness, rage, and all those visitors from deep in our lives take a bit more effort to sew together.  At least that’s how it feels until I gain the water and feel that steady flow under the fragments and shards of feelings.  Then there is no effort required because it all falls together as segments of a larger experience.

Thank you for practising,