Flying through the clouds over London, I am imagining all of us flying in the higher sky of the Dharmakaya. How wonderful it’ll be when everyone is enjoying bodies of wisdom light, their clumsy fleshy bodies no longer holding them in.
Our bodies are cages. These past two weeks with my mother have brought this home to me because she is trapped in a body of skin and bones that is twisting due to Parkinsons, with tissue-paper skin that tears too easily. Her left leg is bent up so her foot is by her waist. Her arms and hands are curled into her heart. Her inner winds seem to be very slowly, very gradually, and by and large very gently absorbing into her heart, her limbs pointing the way.
I have been telling her that she is not her body nor her confused brain, just light and love shining out of her, and therefore everything is good, she doesn’t need to worry about anything at all, she will be okay. Sometimes she is listening and she agrees. It is soon time to fly free. She seems unaware of her body except when anyone goes anywhere near it to clean it or change the dressings, when she screams bloody murder. She doesn’t mind her hands being gently held, and sometimes her grip on your finger is tight. Sometimes she can be lucid and knowing, even making us laugh; at other times it is impossible to know what is going on inside her, her eyes looking but not seeing anything that I can see. Sometimes she is sad and sometimes she is scared and sometimes she feels alone. But I can only hope and pray that she is getting all these obstacles out of the way now so that nothing will hold her back when Guru Tara and the Dakinis come for her.
I have to trust that she will be peaceful when the time comes because I may not be there in person. I have spent about 4 months in north London with her and my father on and off since last Summer – postponing return flights last year because it looked like she really was on her way out of here. But the quality of her care is unbelievable, love and faith surround her day and night. She eats like a queen, small but balanced mushed up meals made from fresh ingredients – Patricia thinks nothing of getting on a bus in her free time to go find “My baby” some decent spinach. So although she is still on hospice care at home, no one can say how long she has.
I spoke of Saint Patricia here and I’m now even more appreciative for how lucky Sally and all of us are to have found her at this point in life. Her kind heart and good advice mean that she’s in high demand at her church, making it all the more unusual that we’ve created the causes for Sally to be her top priority. Paid by the NHS for 2 hours a day, she is rarely at the house for fewer than 8. Plus every other night. Along with her daughter Diana and now another carer called Melissa who pop in and out, our home is filled with Caribbean cooking and easy conversation. I got to eat fried plantains every day. Diana is even a chef!!! It is so sustaining for my father, too.
Dad and I were concerned when the NHS said Patricia needed to be replaced in the daytime by two nurses dropping in every few hours because Patricia is 70 and cannot do all the heavy lifting (though it hasn’t stopped her trying.). However, what has actually happened is that Patricia is still here and we now have Melissa as well. In awe of Patricia’s way of being, Melissa asked her which church she goes to; and then started attending it herself. Melissa and Patrica aka “Mum” sit companionably in the kitchen, sometimes doing prayers; and she treats “Sally Wally” with the same loving attention as her new mentor. Along with other carers who pop in and out, district nurses three times a week, and the conscientious GP calling every Tuesday, although it is not always plain sailing I am overall astonished at the NHS level of care.
Sometimes people worry about who will look after them when they are old and dying. Sometimes they even give this as the main reason for getting married and having kids, lol, because they don’t want to be alone. But as far as I’m concerned that’s no insurance because what happens to us at this vulnerable time in our life, and whether or not we are loved and cared for, depends on the karma we have created in caring for others — not on how many kids or how much money we have.
While in New York in January, a friend told me about an aging billionaire couple who feel worried and lonely — they don’t know who they can trust to look after them who will actually care about them as opposed to their money. That made me think.
I pray for these carers constantly as they are the support and infrastructure for both my parents, physical and mental. They are emanations in the mandala that I meditate on all the time when I am there in person and also when I’m not.
My 87-year-old dad is of course quite sad, but he would be a whole lot sadder if it was just him and his poor wife with harried drop-in nurses on their way to somewhere else.
Our mother is our anchor to this life in so many ways. A friend who lost his mother relatively quickly at Xmas told me how adrift he feels. I have had more time than many to get used to the idea of my mother not being here because she has been slowly leaving for years – quite often she is still present with that sweet smile, but at other times she is dead to this world, either asleep or with her open eyes unfocusing.
And there is that visceral knowledge that Buddha got this so right — aging, decay, sickness, and death are terrible. Rebirth can be even worse. This is just one of countless deathbed scenes playing across time and space. Everyone loses their parents sooner or later; is it ever pleasant?
Aging is like an immovable mountain.
Decay is like an immovable mountain.
Sickness is like an immovable mountain.
Death is like an immovable mountain. ~ Sutra Addressed to a King
No matter how much we try to put them off, or put off thinking about them, they all collapse in upon us sooner or later.
If you’re not interested in spirituality and open to seeing the big picture, what do you do when your mother is diminished to this? Look away? Distract yourself? Pretend it’s not so bad? Start drinking? Stop visiting? Take comfort in the small things while despairing in the small hours?
Neighbors, friends, and relatives have been kind, dropping in with flowers or a ready-cooked meal and saying a quick hello. One of their old friends burst into tears when he saw her, and people genuinely care. Yet I also notice that a lot of visitors (not all) don’t really know how to be around this and don’t want to stay too long. Some of this may be because no one is getting any younger or fitter, and these scenes can therefore be depressing reminders. Perhaps it’s also understandable in that it takes a while to get on a wavelength with someone who is on the threshold. You have to be prepared to sit there in companionable silence. But I know full well that Sally loves it when people do take the time to sit with her, perhaps hold her hand; and she doesn’t mind at all if they don’t know what to say. She doesn’t have much to say either. What are you supposed to say about death?! What are you supposed to say about life, for that matter – what does this life even mean for someone on the threshold of death? Love is the only language that translates at times like this. I will remember this for other dying people.
A good heart brings good results
I have learned that when we’re naturally cherishing others such that we’re not bothering to think about ourselves at all for a welcome change, a peace descends and we don’t feel terrible at all — quite the opposite, we feel fine. We feel strong. We have acceptance. I can see with my basically very sweet dad for example that when he is tuned into Sally and her needs he stays compassionate, relaxed, and brave. And when he is groaning and moaning about his own pains and other worries (sometimes so loudly that even my mother raises her eyebrows and tells him to shut up, lol), he is not all that easy to be around – including, of course, being around himself. He is not alone in this, obviously. There is no escape for any of us when our self-cherishing is strong; we are all well and truly stuck with our boring old selves.
Now that she no longer can, I realize how much my mother helped my dad these 60+ years, including stopping him from worrying and fretting, helping him to stay in the moment. And he has also been uncomplainingly protective of her, especially during these long illnesses, even though it has meant that he cannot travel or do a lot of the things he enjoys. They have both stayed in this for better and for worse. It feels like real love — exchanging self with others — and moral discipline.
Meantime, how do carers everywhere keep going with their gruelling schedules, commutes, and low pay? A good heart always brings good results, as Venerable Geshe-la says. Patricia told me yesterday that this is not just a job to her and she never watches the clock unless she has a doctor’s appointment or something (this much was already obvious). She said she is devoted to Sally and so her strength and energy come through that, even when she is bone tired and weary.
May you be blessed
Her resilience and patience also come from her faith that everything is God’s will. The other day Sally said she couldn’t see God, whereupon both Patricia and Melissa (and me, lol) piped up that he was everywhere. It is because I feel that way too about the Buddhas that Patricia and I get each other, despite the fact that I do Tara prayers with my mom and Patricia does hymns. It is probably why Patricia tells me that I am a very blessed person and that all I needed to bring over from Denver was my light. And this period has increased my faith in the ability of different religions to bring Buddha nature out of people when they are genuinely tuned into enlightenment/God.
Patricia does prayers from 11-12.30 every single night, even when she is exhausted. She is aware of the news and is praying for the current “wickedness”, but I haven’t seen her read the papers or watch TV – in her off time she is bent over her Bible or joining in prayers on the phone. She has a number of health issues, a cousin once stole her entire business back in Jamaica, and she has even lost two sons. But her faith has made her pretty unshakeable and blessings come pouring out of her. Uninhibited, too, in showing her faith, something I could probably learn from her. For example, the first day we met her she said very little as Diana was setting it all up. But as she was leaving she came up to us one by one and said, simply but with conviction, “God bless you. May you be blessed.” We were grinning after her visit.
Buddha bless you. May you be blessed.
Dharma is the truth
I could not actually bear it if my mother was this failing body and brain. But that is not her. Not at all. Nor is she just the sum of all her spectacular kindnesses to me – no one has ever been kinder to me in this life. (She is the reason I am able to write about her now – she made me learn to type and she also gave me these hands.) She goes far deeper, as I have tried to tell her. She is infinite pure awareness. She is Mother Tara herself. All that matters to me is that she is always happy and free. I intend to carry her in my mind to enlightenment and beyond. And if her, then why not all my other mothers as well.
I have learned that Dharma is the truth. That the Lamrim meditations are 100% effective – all 21 of them have been helping with this situation. That generating as a Buddha, identified with the enlightened reality of bliss and emptiness, for Sally’s sake and the sake of all my kind mothers makes everything wonderful and powerful, including the ability to make a difference to this world through prayers. That this deep compassion I feel for her is yet another gift from my mother. That even in the midst of an incredibly unstable world we have nothing to worry about if we decide to keep the faith. For why should Buddhists have less faith than Patricia, who knows full well that God will look after her and those she loves.
Last night, my last night in London, Julie texted “I sang a song for your mummy” — Amazing Grace. I played it 4 times and Sally touchingly enough sang along, she knew a lot of the words.
That was something. I will send it to Patricia so she can play it for my mother again.