On Death and Beginnings
“Dada, come quick! Grandma is not getting up, and papa is just crying. Come quick!” I was woken up abruptly as I lay asleep in bed with a viral infection that morning of August 5. I did not have time to think as I rushed to my parents’ bedroom. My father stood at the foot of their bed and as I entered he looked at me, tears in his eyes as he shook his head saying, “She’s gone.” I turned towards the bed and saw my mother lying still, in the far corner, as if asleep. She had her left arm up over her eyes. Her right hand, bent at the elbow rested on her pillow. I had seen her sleeping in just such a pose on numerous occasions.
I reached out across the bed and touched her arm and knew. It was cold. I shook her gently as I called, “Mom?” Then repeated louder “mom!” shaking her more vigorously. But she lay there, silent and still. The clock on the wall of the bedroom ticked away. But for me, time seemed to stand still at that moment.
The next few hours are a blur. First the emergency medical response team arrived. The medic checked my mum, tried CPR and then turned towards me and said softly, “She’s passed away.” There was nothing he could do. The family doctor who used to treat mum issued the death certificate. Then I called the funeral director and informed my sister living on the other side of the globe in Timor.
By the time I realised just what had happened, my mum’s corpse was taken to the morgue and silence enveloped the house. The fever that had burned through the night was nowhere to be felt. I stood silently in the kitchen and looked over at the empty chair that stood in the corner. The same chair my mum spent most of her day over the past several months, as she stared silently out the kitchen window. We had suspected an onset of dementia. Now, that chair was empty. Faltering, I moved over and sat in it. I saw then, her world, as she had seen it.
Tears welled up as I sat alone in that kitchen as I silently recalled the times past. It was a happy childhood filled with fun and laughter. But stealthily, like a thief in the night, things had changed unbeknownst to any of us. I found conversation increasingly sparse. I continued to love her but somehow could not communicate it.
Now with her passing, these thoughts flooded my mind. Perhaps I was not the son she deserved. My silence fuelled her silence and thus causing her to give up? If only I had…
Three days flew by. On the afternoon of the fourth day, the hearse bearing her coffin pulled up outside our porch. The undertaker opened the rear door, and I got the first glimpse of the coffin. I’ve seen many a coffin in the past. But this one bore someone special. I helped carry it into the house. They opened the lid, and I gazed at her still body. In three days since her death, her body was showing signs of decay. Her face had swollen, partially darkened. Her lips, dark and beginning to crack.
Don’t we love our bodies? It is a good thing. But often we put more stock in our physical bodies as if that were the real us. But who am I? Race, religion, sex, nationality and numerous other artificial boundaries keep us from each other. But in the death of my mum, the futility of a separate “I” became so evident. What lay in the coffin that afternoon was a bubble, a shell that had begun to decay from the moment she took form in this world.
We laid the coffin in the ground that afternoon as I fought to hold back the tears. Family and friends came over to offer their sympathies at my loss. My loss. How true. Do we grieve for the departed? Or do we grieve for ourselves and our loss? The guilt racking our innermost selves? At the death of a loved one, do we not feel sorry for ourselves?
In the days following the passing of my mum, I was a silent wreck. Not so much because of her moving on but I was battling my own demons. What saved me was my zazen practice that I somehow managed to keep up amid the storm wreaking havoc around me.
Seeking reality in the present moment, I realised how futile it was to hold on to the past. Whether pleasure of the good times past or the guilt of recent times. That was simply not reality anymore. Just like the decay beginning to show on my mum’s corpse after just three days in the morgue, these thoughts, these memories – both the pleasant and the unpleasant – were also decaying corpses. And just as it would be futile to hold on to the decaying body of my mum, it was also pointless and foolish to cling on to the thoughts and memories of the past. The Now presented me with This Moment. And This was all that was Real.
Two weeks flew by after my mum’s funeral. The family was seated in the hall of our ancestral home. We missed the presence of mum among us. Dad’s cell phone rang breaking the silence. My sister Selma picked it up. The call was from mum. “Ask mum to come back,” I began to cry begging my sister. But my sister ignored me. I kept repeating, asking her to tell mum to come back home. My sister said something about Thailand. “Tell her we miss her,” I pleaded, “I’ll go bring her back.”
I was sobbing by this time as I leaned forward to listen. Then Mum’s unmistakable voice sounded through the tiny earpiece of the Nokia phone. It was silky, gentle and strong. It was soft and smooth like butter. I had not heard her like this before. She said to us, “It’s so peaceful here. So peaceful,” she repeated. “I am so close to the Lord.” My mum sounded truly calm, undisturbed and young. “I am happy, I am so happy…”
I opened my eyes. Tears were flowing onto my pillow. I checked the clock on the phone. It was 5am, about the time mum passed away a couple of weeks ago. A calm came over me just as dawn was beginning to break. For the first time, I felt truly reconciled with her death. I knew mum was ok and I let her go.
In our culture, we are grieved by death and fear it. But could it be the best thing that could ever happen to us? We see such monumental change all around us in nature. The caterpillar becomes a butterfly. A seed falls to the ground and dies to bear thousands of seeds. The entire universe is in a constant state of change. To be a part of it is to experience this constant change – with no beginnings and no end.
I questioned where is my mum now? And the reality is – don’t know. And my mum, through that phone call, seemed to be telling me, it’s alright. She did not reveal her face but her voice. It is significant. She’s part of a grander universe. Her material body was immaterial. Her voice told me all I needed to know.
I believe she is free, liberated from the shackles of her failing mind and body. She is one with the Universe – in me, with me and around me. Our society fears the unknown. We must have answers to everything, including god, death and afterlife. But firmly grounded in the present moment, there is no fear. This is the only time that truly is real. The present moment Reality is simply – Don’t Know.
On the Sunday before mum passed on, I went to her after lunch as she sat silently in the kitchen on her favourite chair and asked her, “Mum, would you like to watch a video?” Then I added, “I think you’ll like it. It’s a sermon by a Franciscan priest.” I added that last line for good measure as mum never really understood what she called my Zen Buddhist leanings. “Ok,” she answered. I eagerly brought my laptop and started the talk “Becoming Stillness” by Richard Rohr.
With each breath, we take the name of god. We are born into this world taking the name of god. Every moment we live, we take the name of god. Like it or not, our final words will be the name of god. We don’t need to remember that. All we need to do is be still and get out of the way.
It was an hour-long video, but my mum sat and attentively watched the whole talk. In the end, she looked at me and said, “Thank you.” No other words were exchanged. But, somehow, I felt she had finally understood my spirituality. And there was peace between us.
On the evening before she passed on, my mum appeared to be in some pain. But peace seemed to fill her face as she looked at me. She said her lower back ached a bit, but refused to see a doctor. “It’s ok,” she told me, “I’m all right.”
Her last words to my dad at 4 am were, “I’m tired. I want to sleep.” About an hour later, taking the name of god heavily, she passed on, becoming stillness.