Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva doing deep prajna paramita clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions. – Heart Sutra
We are on a death watch at my house. Which is to say, we are on a life watch. Redhead, the fantail I once boasted to be the world’s oldest living goldfish, has become the world’s newest dying goldfish. To watch her transit is a powerful and fitting thing at this hour. And although I kept her alive for so long by absurdly arrogant and heroic measures (see How to Keep a Goldfish Alive in 20 Easy Steps) now I am doing what is even more heroic: letting her disappear into her own insurmountable mystery.
Death surrounds at this time of year. It surrounds at all times, but in these dwindling of days we might see it. We might see it in the surrender of the sun and the swift triumph of night. Feel it in the grip of the wind, the cataclysm of leaves, mud, dirty windshields, paw prints, rain-dank rugs and snot: the whole soggy rot of life’s residue.
Yesterday we observed Obon at the Hazy Moon, a ceremony honoring our departed loved ones. The altar was crowded with photos of more people loved and remembered than have ever stood alive before it. Such is the way, and it is always the way, and it is always sad. Grief is our mother, and when we grieve, we taste her tears. We taste eternity, the brimming fullness from which everything rises and to which everything returns.
I can see the cycle of things that have lately come near:
A mother quaking in bottomless shock after her baby died at birth.
A friend moored in friendship’s final vigil.
A granddaughter answering the clear call of goodbye.
And right here too, come unexpected calls and emails, late word of swift departures and funerals on Thursday at 3. My daughter’s third-grade teacher was stunned six months into her happy retirement by her husband’s sudden crumbling fall into a mean disease. She walked into the school assembly last week, to see and be seen by the children she last cradled, the ones who will be the last to remember her. She whispered her widowed vacancy to me, “It’s the absence, the absence!”
I know that awful yawning space, that thunderclap after a jagged bolt rends the sky. It is the infinite ache of a mother’s heart, the heart we all have whether we are men or women, mothers or not. It is the absence that contains, curiously, our own presence, the tender fearlessness to watch and weep and let angels sleep.
Edited to add: Leave a comment on this post and I’ll include the name of your departed loved one in memorial services I do this week at my backyard altar.
Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is you, the embodiment of infinite compassion.