Posts Tagged ‘Death’

A gift, a charm, a fortune

July 10th, 2008    -    18 Comments


It was supposed to be about 115 degrees today but it wasn’t. I’d heard a rumble about it for days. But this morning I shivered under the covers. Outside, a morning breeze danced on my bare arms. I figured it would all ignite at mid-day, but by evening we had a cloak of clouds and a tease of sprinkles. This is the kind of thing I take as a gift, a charm, a fortune. Lacking any other kind, it will do.

A little respite, you see, an oasis in the crossing. I just finished a tough writing gig that had me on my knees for weeks, inching forward through the drifts, making up words about a topic so suffocatingly arid, so dense and intense, that it could only be called “work.” I burrowed into the clattering bones of it this afternoon, wrote a little bit more and shocked myself by being done. A gift, a charm, a fortune. Lacking any other kind, it will do.

We knew it was dying, one of those troublesome turtles that required so much coddling care that I couldn’t help but come to love it. It had stopped growing, stopped eating, stopped moving and then tonight Daddy pronounced it dead. “Mommy,” my daughter called, “Can you light some incense?” She adorned the burial box. My husband turned the earth. She placed a stone and I said the chant. A gift, a charm, a fortune. Lacking any other kind, it will do.

For Jupiter, my good turtle

***
Please remember to leave a comment to enter my giveaway of The Maternal is Political. A gift, a charm, a fortune. Lacking any other kind, won’t it do?

The hereafter

June 11th, 2008    -    26 Comments

I won’t die.
I won’t go anywhere.
I’ll always be here.
But don’t ask me any questions.
I won’t answer.

– The Death Poem of Ikkyu

I’ve been keeping up the memorials this week, lighting incense and saying chants, which are like prayers. You might wonder why. At the bottom of things, “why” is the only question we ever ask.

Why?

Some people are drawn to the spirituality of things, the sentiment, but are not so comfortable with the ceremony, which they don’t understand. I tell people that no one understands ceremony. Not understanding is the ultimate understanding.

Although we might be averse to religious things, to what we see as pomp and posturing and mumbo jumbo, we use ceremony all day long in our everyday activities to keep things sane. We get out of bed in the morning, we eat our breakfast, we brush our teeth, we put one shoe on and then the other. These things are ceremony? You might scoff. But consider how the orderly sequencing of activities dignifies and sustains our lives, keeping us healthy and whole.

And so in our tradition we have ceremony to enliven and activate our intentions. When we remember, we don’t just remember with a thought, that triggers another thought, and another, and back into the shadowy depths of inexpressible despair, we remember with an action. Stepping forward. Lighting incense. Reciting chants and names. The place where we take action – right here – is the place that real transformation occurs. The magic is right in front of us, not in our imaginations.

So I counsel you, if you have someone to remember, if you have grief to bear, express it in ceremony. Mark your calendar and do it – light incense or a candle, say a verse or prayer – without ever knowing why. It is the least that you can do, and it is the very most.

Several years ago, my mother died on April 13.

A year after her death, I showed up one Saturday around April 13 at my Zen Center. A fellow priest came up to me without prompting and said, “Would you like to do a memorial service for your mom?”

I was surprised that he remembered the date. “How did you know?” I responded.

He said, “I’ve been doing services for her all along.”

This is how doing the least thing becomes doing the most. Isn’t it amazing?

We just keep going.

***
All this week, and on the first Sunday of every month to come, I’ll be memorializing lost children and unborn babies in services in my garden. To include the name of a child, just leave a comment. All names and sentiments will be recited. Children from any faith tradition are lovingly included. And I thank you.

The farthest way

June 9th, 2008    -    13 Comments


When death occurred to the child of Marpa, he cried so bitterly that his disciples flocked around him and asked, “Master, didn’t you say that the world is only an illusion? Why are you crying so brokenheartedly just because your son has died?” Marpa answered them, “Yes, everything is an illusion, but the death of a child is the greatest illusion of them all!”

Yesterday I stepped into the garden to do a little weeding before the afternoon memorial ceremony. I saw that a bird feather had fallen just feet away from the Jizo. I knew it wasn’t an accident. Minutes later my husband called to me from the far side of the house.

“The heron is here!”

I heard its sonic wingstroke, like the B-52 of bird flaps, and saw a broad shadow lifting.

Herons feed at our backyard ponds in the spring and fall, so a visit is not unusual, although this was an unusual time of year and time of day. And yet, given the day’s purpose, it was right on schedule. Herons are auspicious guests because they symbolize long life.

Awesomely elegant, herons are nonetheless enraging to us. We stand helpless to protect our fish from the birds’ appetites at dawn and dusk. The flick of the kitchen light in the early morning can trigger a sudden takeoff from waterside, and we’re left with the gut-puddling certainty that we’ve been robbed.

Herons symbolize long life, I wail, for everything but the fish!

I am ashamed to tell you how cruelly, how uselessly, we tried to fight back at the beginning. But that was before I saw what was really happening.

In an instant, you see, a fish is transformed into a bird. Released from one universe and reborn in another. Nothing is lost, but all is transformed. That’s the fact. It takes faith to see it.

The mourning couple brought flowers, pinecones, pictures, candy and tiny treasures to leave behind on our altar of impermanence, which is called the Earth. I gave them the feather to take home. It had drifted down from who knows where to the very place they stood.

And still, we sob.

***
All this week, and on the first Sunday of every month to come, I’ll be memorializing lost children and unborn babies in services in my garden. To include the name of a child, just leave a comment. All names and sentiments will be recited. Children from any faith tradition are lovingly included. And I thank you.

The hardest gone

June 6th, 2008    -    39 Comments


This Sunday I’ll be conducting a memorial ceremony in my garden with a couple who learned, heartbreakingly, that their son would not live after he was born. He was born, and then he died. We will remember and ritualize this passage; we will light incense, stand, chant and cry together.

I am so honored to keep this family company now and forever.

This matter of loss – death– of born and unborn children has been circulating around me of late, and that tells me it is time to take a look at it for myself. All next week I want to share with you writings, customs and practices that can help us face our unfathomable grief. I will be doing a service – a chant – every day next week for this baby, and for every child, unborn or departed. I offer this because of the perfect accident of having a Jizo statue in my garden. You can read more about Jizo here.

If you have the name of a child you would like me to include in my services, please note it in the comments, which you can make anonymously if you prefer. Hereafter, I’ll be conducting children’s memorial services on the first Sunday of every month, and I will include all the names you send. Please consider forwarding this to anyone you think would benefit. The world moves in mysterious ways.

Just the utterance of names and sounds, you see, begins the transformation. Nothing else is required. Nothing else is possible.

And while I will find things to say in my future posts, little I say will likely be as full or rich as this, the inspiration I found lying open in my hands last night:

Silently a flower blooms,
In silence it falls away;

Yet here now, at this moment, at this place,

the whole of the flower, the whole of

the world is blooming.

This is the talk of the flower, the truth

of the blossom;

The glory of eternal life is fully shining here.

– Zenkei Shibayama

Grateful dead

May 30th, 2008    -    4 Comments


From naive simplicity we arrive at more profound simplicity. – Albert Schweitzer

Is there anyone who doesn’t look at this discovery and say, well . . . duh?

***
May you find your own place to rest in peace this weekend. Back to school on Monday with more on my latest learning curve.

Something about my mother

April 13th, 2008    -    33 Comments

She was standing on my front porch, right where I would find her. I rushed up and hugged her. I was so happy, although she was dead. Her body was like ash in my arms, crumbling and decayed. She was dead, but I was not afraid or repulsed. She took me up, like in a flying dream, but not a flying dream. We flew into space, into the vast darkness and pulsing light. I felt celestial wind in my face. It was exhilarating.

I asked, “Is there a heaven?”

She said yes.

“What’s it like?”

Like this, she said, like this.

***

My mother died on April 13, 2001. Seven years, and this is how I remember her.

It was an attribute of her deep Christianity and her final, modest confusion that my mother believed she was dying on Easter, and it was, for her. But for the rest of us it was in the small hours before Good Friday, the dark night after Maundy Thursday, the day commemorating the Last Supper, when Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment to love one another as he had loved them.

***

Not too long ago I chanced upon a telling of what has become a bit of family lore, that my mother, a devoted Lutheran and good churchgoer, had never known that I was Buddhist. She would not have stood for that, the reasoning goes among my relatives, who have mistaken the strength of her faith for hardness.

What is true for me, what I remember, is what my mother said when I told her of my first encounter with my Buddhist teacher and the peace that I had found. What she said then, 15 years ago, was what today I recognize as the ultimate sanction a mother can give.

“Now I don’t have to worry about you anymore.”

***

It’s not that she was flawless. She did a lot of things I know she wished she hadn’t, a few things I wished she hadn’t, and some of them, like marry my difficult dad, she did more than once.

Still, none of that stays.

What stays is something else, something that is replenished with every recollection, with every blink and heartbeat.

When my father died four years after mom, he had just begun to keep company with a sturdy and decent woman. I told her of my dream about my mom and she made it real.

“When you can remember it,” she said, “it’s not a dream. It’s a visit.”

***

My mom brought me right back home, to the front door, and then she said something.

“There’s only one thing I want you to do.”

What is it, I asked. I would have done anything she said. I was filled with immense joy and thankfulness.

“Love Jesus,” my mother said.

I will, I said. I will.

Only later, upon waking, did I wonder. And then I stopped wondering.

***

I am sorry.

I am sorry that I am too often clever, unkind, rude, and critical. Too snide and quick. Sometimes when I am like this it causes others to hurt. Even when it inflicts no outright pain, it causes confusion, and that is the most chronic and enduring pain of all. So for your sake, for my mother’s, and for all of us, I’m sorry.

I offer this reparation not because I am a Buddhist. Not because I was raised a Christian. I say this because I am my mother’s daughter. Being my mother’s daughter is the only way I can know who she might have been, and the only way you can know her is through me. This is how I keep her alive. This is how I keep peace. By loving as she asked me, as she showed me, as Jesus loved.

There are many names, but only one love.

Rest in peace, Mom. You don’t have to worry about me anymore.

***
Artice Patschke Tate
June 20, 1933 – April 13, 2001

Distance calling

February 17th, 2008    -    10 Comments

My parents called one night last week. It was late and I’d been sleeping.

First, my mom got on the line. I recognized her right away although she sounded old and frail. It was so good to hear her.

“We’re coming out,” she said. I understood that she and dad were getting in the car and starting to drive all the way from Texas to California.

“It will take awhile,” she said, “because we have to stop at the pharmacies.”

Somehow that made sense to me. Then my dad spoke.

“Hi honey.” I could tell he was smiling in his weary way. “Are you sure you want us to come?”

I was remembering all this the next day when I drove down Santa Anita Avenue and I saw an old man in the crosswalk. He was stoop shouldered. The breeze made his white hair flare out behind his ears like wings. From the back, he looked exactly like my dad, who died two years ago. Mom went first; soon it will be seven years.

Here’s the thing: I said yes. I really do want them to come, and they’re on their way.

Dreams are not dreams, you know. They are no more dreams than any other dreams we live while we’re awake.

I’m dreaming with my eyes wide open. And I’m watching for what comes.

A good night to see the moon

November 26th, 2007    -    14 Comments

A comment over the weekend had me remembering that my father died two years ago this Thanksgiving. Or rather, he died the day after Thanksgiving, but only because we delayed him on this side of the door until the dinner dishes could be cleared. His death was swift but a long time coming, unexpected but unsurprising, inconvenient but flawlessly executed.

I hope you understand when I say my father’s death was his finest hour. I was proud of him, something I never genuinely felt before.

My mother ran interference for Dad in our lives. Despite her frequent assurances that “Your Daddy really loves you,” my father did not love easily nor was he easy to love. Although no child could be expected to know or compensate for it, my father showed us what a lifelong submersion in pain could look like, and how insidiously it could spread. As soon as I could steady myself on two feet, I kept my distance. For the rest of his life, nearby or not, I cultivated ways to buffer myself. I owe my strength, resilience, independence, intelligence, humor and oddly enough, peace of mind, to him.

My sisters and I would sometimes imagine my father’s decline into illness and incapacitation. We would stew in the cynical certainty that the burden would befall us to be kind to an unkind man and generous to a self-centered scrooge. We weren’t at all sure we could do it.

Suffice it to say that isn’t what happened.

About a year before he died, my father began to do some strange things. He imagined a new life, or death, in a new place, far away. And he set about, with the intention and resolve he had lacked in nearly every other year of his life, to accomplish this. He gave away or sold all the stuff we were so sure we would be saddled with sorting out. He sold his home, the albatross we’d already hung around our necks. He loaded up his dog and his truck and moved to a mountain home where six months later he could no longer breathe.

When I arrived at his bedside, he was not breathing on his own. I sat for two days to the rhythm of the respirator while we waited for a pathology report delayed by the holiday hiatus. There was no hope, nor was there need for any. We saw so clearly the perfect plan and timing, the wisdom, the care, the great responsibility he had stepped forward to shoulder for his life, finally, and his death, and weren’t they one and the same?

The last night, I felt his life rush out like the tide, and I lost my footing. I could not stand. I could not walk. The nurses wondered if I had the flu and if I should go to the ER.

“No,” I said, “it is my father dying.” They could only assume that it was an emotional response. But it wasn’t emotional. It was physical. I clung to my chair like a raft lest I flow out in the undertow. And then I felt, as never before, that my father was me.

When all was said and done, we turned off the machine and death came. It was simple and effortless. It was easy and on time. I spoke prayers, verses and encouragement, and I found out I could. I owe my compassion, faith and fearlessness to him.

I owe him my life, and my dog.

Good night, Daddy.

What’s not there

June 20th, 2007    -    3 Comments


Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there – Miles Davis

Today is Mom’s birthday. She would have been 74.

Yesterday I was sorting stacks of Georgia’s drawings and cards from the very beginning, settling on a new round of keepers, and I found some letters Mom sent in her last year.

We received Karen’s letter today, so I thought I would send a quick reply.

She was a letter writer, a dutiful letter writer. She did this with the diligence of stenography, the now archaic art, which was one of her perfected disciplines. She documented things unarguably well.

Dad and I went out and ate Mexican food on Wednesday night.

Sometimes my sisters and I giggled about the chronography of her letters: the litany of meals and miles, temperatures and rainfalls.

On Thursday, the 11th, I have another chemotherapy. I can expect aftereffects.

She did not adorn; she did not dwell. She did not linger over the things that can never be expressed.

I include some pictures.

They were snapshots of the baby shower her friends had hosted after Georgia’s birth, a treat to sweeten her numbered days.

They aren’t very clear. I thought I would include them so you can share the experience with me.

Oh how I do. How I still do!

She remains my first and last teacher. Everything she never said grows clearer all the time.

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