Today my mother’s caregiver Saint Patricia and I were shaking our heads at the deepening tragedies unfolding in Afghanistan. I said “People shouldn’t treat each other like this.” In between resisting spoonfuls of high-caloried shake, my mother, a 70lb speck in her huge medical bed, whispered her agreement: “No, they shouldn’t”. Patricia then summed up the problem in three words:
Not enough love.
Patricia knows this because she is one of the most faithful and loving people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. She is a devout Christian from Jamaica, and since she arrived to take care of my mother, who is in hospice care at home, our London apartment has frequently been filled with prayer and happy smiles. I have been here for almost two months looking after my parents, and me and Patricia are fast friends. She inspires me to greater efforts in my own spiritual practice, for when she is not caring patiently for my adorable but “Nooo! Don’t touch me!!!” mom, she is reading the Bible or leading her prayer group or giving good advice to her church friends and large family. She doesn’t watch TV or read magazines, she sets the alarm for 11pm to join in another hour of prayer, and she never loses out on a moment to close her eyes and talk to God. She has practically moved in with us – staying way more than her hours, not so much because she needs to but because she wants to. Oh, and she also cooks for homeless people in her spare time.
We haven’t gotten into deep philosophical discussions, but she and I share a lot of the same views. About karma, for example — when various nurses were queuing up one day to see my mom, despite a nationwide shortage of care, Patricia said: “When you cast your bread out on the water, it comes back later to you. She is blessed.” Peering curiously at us both the other day, my mother remarked out of the blue, “You are both exactly the same!” Given that Patricia is an elderly Jamaican she met only two months ago and I am her daughter, that could seem a curious statement. But we understood and said so. “Yes, we speak the same language,” said Patricia, to which my mother whispered, “I am glad you understand what I mean.”
Here’s something I noted down a month ago: “Sitting here holding my mom’s hand, Patricia is absorbed in prayer on the chair across the room – she is praying for me and my family (we are on top of her group’s prayer list!), and little does she know that she is on top of my prayer list too. She would love for me to be a Christian and, whereas I don’t mind her being a Christian, I do want her to go to a Pure Land. Whose prayers will prevail?!? (mine).”
How did we stumble upon such a gift? In the summer my mother had come out of hospital and was being taken care of 3 x a day by the NHS team. Most of our Somalian carers would work from 7am to 8pm, sometimes for 6 or even 7 days a week, and then go home to take care of their husbands and kids – I was in awe. But with their over-subscribed schedule, they usually had only 20 minutes or so to sort out my mom before they needed to get to their next patient. So I was a bit surprised one morning when I came down the quiet staircase a bit later than usual, expecting to find my mom alone in her bed and get her up to breakfast, only to find a woman sitting companionably with her at the kitchen table while she slowly ate her porridge. “How long have you been here?” She looked at her watch. “About an hour and a quarter.” This was Diana.
This was the same day I was to start sleuthing for a private carer for my mother. I had a bunch of agencies lined up to talk to but, on a hunch, impressed by Diana’s good heart, I asked if she could recommend anyone. “Me”, she said. So that was it. And it turned out that she comes as a package with her 69-year-old mother, Patricia. Fast forward five months, and “We are family”.
They started work when I was back in America, and the moment I stepped back through their doorway in Highgate Diana told me, “We love your mother. We are here to give her blessings. We want her to have a peaceful death. Do you understand what I mean?” I did and I do.
They give my 87-year-old dad blessings too, generally sensing when to be sympathetic and when to laugh at his occasional (understandable) grumpiness. As well as this challenging period with his beloved wife of 62 years, he has been in a lot of pain with sciatica. “Your lower back is older than you are”, his doctor told him today, based on his MRI – probably due to substantial wear and tear over an illustrious, athletic past and days now spent on the sofa. However, Patricia helps him keep things in perspective because she also has a sore right leg and a bad back (not to mention a blind eye), but “We are alive, Michael!” When he groans loudly that he doesn’t like the pain, Patricia might say in her strong West Indian accent, “Who does, Michael? But we are very fortunate and we are blessed, praise the Lord.” My dad’s dad was a vicar, and so was his dad before him, and so on, dating back who knows how long. My dad broke the mould by becoming a diplomat, but he has some faith and patient acceptance, which Patricia is able to bring out better — it turns out — than his annoying daughter can.
Back to the bedside/global stage … we were agreeing that the problems of our sad and complicated world come from a lack of love, compassion, and wisdom. How many complications could and would be solved if everyone was loving each other and had faith in something deeper than themselves?
And one of the best ways to develop love is to stop focusing on others’ faults til we make them into Other, and instead focus on their good qualities and kindness until we experience how we’re all in this together.
The kindness of mothers
To this end, Buddha taught a meditation on the kindness of mothers, where we start by remembering the innumerable kindnesses shown us by our current mother, and then extend this appreciation to the mothers of all our lives.
It is so easy to take our mother’s kindness for granted. Plus it is all their fault if anything untoward happens to us. Even if they do everything almost perfectly, like my mother arguably has done, it is quite normal to exaggeratedly blame them for our own deficiencies or problems even well into adulthood. So we can meditate on the kindness of mothers in detail to redress that balance. This is an open-ended meditation that we need to make personal to our own mother or chief caregiver of this life. But here are a few ideas.
Even our own body (about which we’re constantly thinking, “Me! Me! Mine! Get off!”) came from (Biology 101) bits of our parents’ bodies. My mother said yesterday, in one of those moments of clarity that shine through her dementia: “I taught you how to say please and thank you. I made you.” Coincidentally a friend had given me some long socks to give her, so this was just the right moment to do that, for the socks say, “I made a good kid.” She loves these socks. Although she no longer needs them because she no longer walks, they are hanging decoratively at the end of her bed.
To begin with, our mother let us stay in her womb. Not room, womb! Inside her own body?!!!! We are body snatchers. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched Alien? At some point an alien gets into Sigourney Weaver and takes over her body – my main (only) memories of that movie are of her desperately trying to claw this thing out from her stomach. I would do the same if someone jumped into my body and started growing. But that’s basically what we did to our mother! We dived in there at conception and started to grow. Her stomach got bigger and bigger! But she didn’t mind! She had no idea who she was getting, we might have been a deranged psychopath for all she knew. But she was fine about it.
If a complete stranger turned up at your house and said, “Can I stay in your spare room for the next 18 years? Oh, and can I eat all your food, ruin your sleep, use up your life savings, stop you having fun with your friends, be absurdly ungrateful, and provide you with a constant source of anxiety until the day you die?” … would you be like, “Oh yes! Please come in, come in!” Our mother did that. We take it for granted, but we were perfect strangers from another life and she could easily have gotten rid of us. She owed us nothing.
Because of this kindness we are here today. That’s enough to feel indebted, even if she had to give us up at birth, and even if she was massively deluded thereafter. A friend of mine was adopted at birth and one day Geshe Kelsang said to him: ‘You have two kind mothers. The one who gave you your body and the other who brought you up.”
My mother said yesterday, “Who is that beautiful girl!”, and I told her she made me.
Whether or not our birth mother brought us up, we can go onto consider the kindness of whoever did. Without them, we wouldn’t have had any clothes. We would have starved to death. We would have walked under a truck. We would have drowned in the bath. We would not have known how to talk or walk or eat or write. Remember the horror stories coming out of the Romanian orphanages back in 1989, where the children were left on their own in filthy cots all day, and how it damaged them physically and psychologically beyond repair? That didn’t happen to us, thanks to our mother.
Without this tiny woman lying here, I wouldn’t be writing this because (a) she read to me so copiously aged 2 onwards that I learned to love words, (b) she kept making me go to school, and (c) she paid for me to do a typing course. Oh, and my fingers come from her too. These days, rigid in bed, she often worries, “I don’t know what to do. What am I supposed to be doing?” I tell her there is nothing left to do, especially where I am concerned. You have done it all already.
For the full meditation on the kindness of mothers, please check out Joyful Path of Good Fortune or Meaningful to Behold.
If it wasn’t for mums, I think our society would be completely unhinged. I sometimes think that this love is all that is keeping things together and relatively civilized. It is the glue in the family, the glue in community. If we took all that motherly love away, our world would literally fall apart today, wouldn’t it?
Even if our mother was deluded, it is only due to her kindness that we are alive to complain about it. Without our mother, we wouldn’t be sitting here learning how to forgive others or develop love by thinking about others’ kindness. Our opportunity to attain the bliss of enlightenment itself is thanks to our mother. Sitting here next to my sleeping mother, I think how what I owe her – physically, mentally, spiritually — is immeasurable. Probably unpayable, unless I hurry up and attain enlightenment.
Please pray for my mom. Her name is Sally. May she always be peaceful and happy. May she abide in Guru Tara’s heart.