...reflections from a Compassionate Listener

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Walking with Death, by Leah Green

Ten years ago, I discovered a beautiful guided mediation created by Joanna Macy, based on the four divine abodes of the Buddha, and I began to use it in my trainings. At one point in the exercise, you gaze in silence into the eyes of a partner, imagining that you have known this partner through all time and all relations: as a parent, as a child, as lovers, and as an enemy. The meditation - in its entirety - helps us experience the depth of our interconnectedness and awakens compassion for ourselves and others.

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the power of this practice as strongly as I have over these past two months. My mother is dying, and with the turning of this wheel, our relationship has transformed - following an unspoken, natural order, where parent and child switch roles. And I find myself once again like a new mother, often with a fierce desire to take care of her needs and ease her discomforts.

For all those who have walked this path of losing a parent, my compassion flows out to you with new eyes. Like childbirth, there is no way I could possibly have known the taste and texture of this experience before walking this road myself. It is a unique experience for each person, and grief is often a common denominator. Wise teachers remind us that in our grief is our praise, because we can only grieve that which we love. 

Grief comes in powerful, rolling waves. Sometimes the waves are gentle and they fill my heart with a kind of soft heat and light. Sometimes the waves are intense and knock me over. There’s no predicting when or where they will come, but I am learning to open to these waves, and the powerful opportunities they bring for praising and celebrating my mother’s life.

As I watch my mother turn inward day by day, losing her strength, losing her grip on her memory and other physical processes, there is also a more subtle process going on. It’s as if the onion-like layers of her self – her persona and personality, are shedding. And as these layers drop away, her essence shines more brightly. I see her with fresh eyes – I see the loving woman who so easily connects heart to heart with people; who hears their stories; who wants to bring a smile to their face. I see the gentle mother who did the best she could. There is nothing to forgive – there is only praise for her good intentions and for the greatest gift that a child can possibly receive in life – unconditional love.

As my mother is surrounded now by loving family and friends, it’s as if she is storing up all the love that she can for her great journey home. And we become her midwives – holding vigil with her and offering her the comforts that we can: scratching her back (her greatest joy), reading poetry, playing soft music, feeding her ice chips and sips of ginger ale, massaging her feet, sharing simple stories from our lives, holding her hand while she sleeps. Through it all, she is still joking – still making us and the hospice nurses laugh sometimes.

As I feel her struggle to let go of her attachments and surrender to the great mystery, I witness the immense courage that it takes for her to let go of all that she has loved in life. These days, there are moments when I see the beauty around me with a new intensity – as if I’m seeing it all for her, too. And I know that this is preparation for my own death as well - as I, too, must find the strength and courage to say goodbye.

by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go 
so you know how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend. 

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Easthampton, MA with Yael Petretti, October 16/17
Raleigh, NC with Jan Hutton, October 16/17
Bainbridge Island, WA with Leah Green, October 23/24
Baltimore, MD, with Amy Rakusin and Phil Fratesi, December 11/12
Seattle, WA with Andrea Cohen and Susan Partnow, December 11/12


Nina said...

Beautiful writing, Leah. Brings tears to my eyes as I remember my own mother leaving. Thinking of you.

Cathy Keene Merchant said...

This is beautiful, Leah. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and essence with us during this difficult time. My heart goes out to you.

Avril said...

Oh Leah....how I wish I had your power of expression! And how powerfully your words speak to me as I try to understand the strange no-man's-land that my own mother is traversing - and try to find peace amid the fear and unrest it stirs up in me. You are a shining example of what a daughter should be!

maria said...

Thanks for sharing, Leah. Having walked with my own mother, my father, and my brother as they made this journey, I have a sense of how it might be for you. Being with someone you love as they transition is a huge deepening into life and the mystery of letting go and holding on. Your word are so eloquent. I know you are feeling things so strongly. Your big heart must be stretched to capacity. Hang in there, honey. Love,

Jan Miller said...

Thanks for this - it reminds me of my own last days with my father - although I did not realize (although maybe he did) that he was dying. My mom and I thought he was recovering from surgery. These are precious times for you, even though the leavetaking is painful. Thank you for sharing the beauty of your journey with us. Thinking of you,

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