All that glitters is not gold

 With panic in her eyes, Aubree said:

“I feel like I’m losing control of my life! I have to go! Let me go! I need to go to my house!”

And Jim gently replied:

“I’m so sorry. That is what it feels like when we are dying. But please don’t worry, you are here with us now. You are too confused to leave; it is not safe to let you go. We are going to take care of you.”

With that, he turned on the prayer playlist Aubree always wanted by her side – nowadays it was on pretty loud all night at her request to remind her of her Spiritual Guide when she fell unconscious, because her greatest fear was forgetting him when she died.

1. deception heartJim and his wife Karin have been taking extraordinarily good care of Aubree for well over a year now, day and night – it used to be just weekends but towards the end they kindly took her into their house full-time because hospice was not a possibility. (The reason it was not a possibility is because her disturbed sister would not release the name of her oncologist and, despite calling every hospital in town, Jim was not able to locate him. It was maddening.)

Jim offered her the anti-seizure medicine she has been taking for two years, but she gagged and choked and said she couldn’t swallow any pills. “Don’t worry”, he said again, as he crushed her Ativan and put it in her food, which for the past year has amounted to approximately a tiny bit of mush per day. She had to eat something, and the meds were to help her with the seizures. But this time she was really freaking out. She was very confused, it seemed, and she snapped at them uncharacteristically, “Let me go! You have kidnapped me!!!”

A modern-day Upala

Aubree’s story is incredible. Here are some of the salient details she wrote herself when requesting prayers:

“I was diagnosed with cancer almost a year ago, am an epileptic, and will likely die very soon. My seizures have been so bad that I have been resuscitated 3 times recently, my breathing is very labored, I am usually unable to eat more than a tablespoon a day, and I have a lot of physical pain. I have had nightmares and fearful flashbacks most of my adult life, ever since a violent attack in College, but these lessened considerably when I met dharma 2 years ago. However, with my illness, it is hard for me to have a formal meditation practice and I struggle to keep a peaceful mind, but I am trying to keep you at my heart at all times. Please be with me when I die and guide me through death and rebirth.   

I want everyone to be happy and not to suffer. I feel so lucky and know there are many other living beings with more suffering. I especially want my family to be happy, but they are having a difficult time letting go. Please pray for my mother who is struggling with losing me. She is unhappy and responding to the situation poorly and recently tried to kill me 3 times out of delusion, once by kicking me in the stomach while I was unconscious, once by pushing me down stairs, and once by stabbing me in my side. My sister also is struggling with me dying and needed to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. My brothers are very sad and are unable to accept the situation and let me go. I want them all to be happy and to find peace. Please keep them all in your prayers.”

And it is not just her mother, sister, and brothers. A little while ago Aubree went missing for a week, at the end of which time she texted to say that her father had been keeping her locked up at his house and wouldn’t let her have her phone nor read any Dharma books. She said she was now terrified of him as well.

2. sadnessA few months ago her best childhood friend was on her way to visiting her when she went missing for 4 days. It was a scary 4 days, at the end of which time her friend’s body was tragically discovered by a state trooper in Texas – she had gone off her meds and committed suicide. So sad. She was supposed to be getting married next month.

Something dramatic happened pretty much every week – including too many brinks of death to count. Aubree was a modern-day Upala (see Joyful Path of Good Fortune). We all hoped that this was Aubree’s incredible purification too, and that she was swiftly earning her place in the Pure Land.

It was painful for all of us to watch Aubree dying like this, experiencing so many epileptic or PNES seizures lying clenched and shaking on the floor, so many night terrors, so much head-banging pain, some of which Jim successfully treated with acupuncture –needles stuck in an inch and a half, up to 50 at a time, because she said she couldn’t feel them. This treatment would take hours, and she would look like a pin cushion. When we first met her, she would have hellish-sounding night terrors every single night, reliving the trauma of her abduction and rape, and she’d wake up very frightened. It felt as if she was living in both the human world and an occasional hell at the same time – but at least these terrors largely subsided a few months after meeting Dharma.

And so many trips to the ER, where we watched them pump her full with Ativan or resuscitate her and then send her home with another big bill. Her grueling chemo treatments causing her to vomit and lose her hair, her arm in a sling for weeks after her mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, the bruises from falling into walls, the mini-strokes and increasing confusion, the stab wounds inflicted by her alcoholic mother (now thankfully in jail). She could not walk without support, she needed constant attention. She could hardly talk by the end, barely a whisper, and she weighed 90 lbs; but still through all of this she smiled radiantly and inspired us all with her courage and good humor. She bought out a good deal of compassion in her spiritual community, and no one felt like complaining when she was around because, frankly, compared to her what did any of us have to complain about?! And she never complained – in her quavering voice she would call herself “the luckiest person in the world” and all she ever said she wanted was for us to pray for her poor, deluded, suffering family.

4. hurricane reflection

It was also amazing how many Festivals, teachings, and retreats she managed to get to, and how many NKT luminaries she managed to meet. Plus her story captured the heart, and she had hundreds of people praying for her.

It was not just us caring for her. Her brother in law, Tom, was a deaf mute and busy traveling, but for months he was able to arrange her visiting schedule all the way from Houston and the road. I texted and emailed back and forth with him several times, and Karin and Jim had hundreds of communications with him and Aubree’s sister. I also was in communication with her full time caregiver Matt, and a couple of other friends. They would keep us informed with messages like:

“Aubree has had severe seizures and breathing issues. She is confused and upset. Please pray.

Aubree’s sister here!   Let’s plan on a visit Friday at 11.  We will confirm with you.  Aubree has been unwell and I am hoping we do not have any issues that cause us to be at hospital again.  She is looking forward to seeing you.

Aubree thinks she is actively dying. Her experience of her body has changed significantly, she wasn’t able to get out bed at all today (was at our house), and has been having very long and difficult seizures and intense pain. She was with her brothers this last week and was admitted into the hospital (against her wishes) and was resuscitated (her brothers ignored her DNR because they were scared). That would have been it, but the CPR brought her back, however she doesn’t want CPR again, and says she is ready to die. 

Aubree is with her friend Kayla, who thinks she is dying. Aubree has stopped breathing and is changing color.

By yesterday evening she didn’t even know who she was. I would call her name and she would look at me and say “Aubree?” while touching her chest then say “am I Aubree?”

Her pain increased alarmingly last night. She has had intense liver area pain. At midnight we woke up to her screaming (I didn’t think she had such a strong voice left) “HELP ME, HELP ME!” while crying and curled up in a ball. She is not on pain meds now because they interfered with her seizure meds.”

I was surprised and frankly a little relieved that Aubree never had a seizure on my watch, and, even though she did choke and go blue a couple of times, she rallied before I had to call an ambulance. And I am even more relieved that I never had to obey her end of life care document. This slightly spooky manifesto was drawn up recently by her medical power of attorney, Jim, after she pleaded for no more medical interventions; and it called for her visitors to just hold her, turn up the playlist, and let her die right there and then.

Interesting

3. all that glitters is not goldWe wrote to tell Venerable Geshe-la she was dying, perhaps would die that very day, and could he give her a message. A couple of leisurely days later he wrote back and told her to read and contemplate Modern Buddhism.

That was a surprise. She was lying on her deathbed and couldn’t read at all! And Modern Buddhism is a long book!

Clearly she was not as close to death as we had thought. But her visitors duly took turns reading her Modern Buddhism for the next several weeks. Which she loved, though her health continued to decline.

The unravelling

The kidnapping accusation was a dilemma because last Friday Karin and Jim felt obliged to let Aubree go back to her empty house and wait for her brother-in-law to fly in and take her back to Houston. We did see her on Saturday, after Tom had dropped her off at her house to pick up some things, and she seemed a bit better, though still weak and confused. We then spent the weekend texting Tom back and forth, trying to meet up with him to figure out what was best to do, but we never managed to meet. Then her disturbed sister Jude flew into town and all hell broke loose. It seemed that Tom was the only sane member of the family left, and the only hope for Aubree, and it was frustrating that we couldn’t talk to him on the phone because of his deafness.

Some extracts of messages from Tom sent last Monday:

“Hi! Tom here. I need to reschedule the time. I can’t leave Aubree and Jude to meet you. Aubree is not doing well…. Do either of you sign? Jude is falling apart. … Things with Aubree are spiraling quickly… Jude is struggling. Feeling like I can’t leave them right now…. Family is being weird. I want to shoot for 4 but Aubree is really not doing well and Jude has fallen apart.”

Then something strange happened.

One of Aubree’s work colleagues happened to get in touch, and Jim sent her one of Tom’s health updates. This was what she replied:

“Tom has not emailed so thank you. It is very strange. I see her and talk to her occasionally at work and she is 100% Aubree. Lucid and clear and intelligent and focused. If I hadn’t seen her in the late afternoon/evening those couple days, I wouldn’t believe that report on how she is doing. It is really hard to believe. She is still working during the day and that is a bit strange but probably good for her.  I am trying to arrange to meet her for lunch one day so I can check in with her. She absolutely will not acknowledge that anything is wrong while she is in work mode so I can’t talk to her or see how she is feeling or even offer her support. That is hard but I’m trying to respect her need for compartmentalizing.” 

When, Jim asked, was she last at work?!!!?!!!@!

5. self-deception“On Monday” was the reply. She drove there, apparently. And on Friday evening she had two drinks at the bar, to which she had walked completely unaided as usual, and then she wolfed down a huge Mexican meal. (Yes, she must have been pretty hungry after a whole week of mush at Karin and Jim’s.)

The web of deception

With a sinking feeling, Jim started to contact other people whom Aubree had mentioned in passing. Her ex-roommate Lindsay, whom we’d never happened to overlap with at Aubree’s house, surprise, surprise, said: “I lived with Aubree for 2 years, and not once did I see her have a seizure.” Matt the caretaker doesn’t exist — Lindsay had never heard of him, his number was listed as 000-0000.

What about all those emails and texts, I asked Karin in confusion as all this was slowly coming to light — how could Aubree go to work while Tom was with her, he would have noticed?!

“That’s the point. I don’t think there is a Tom.”

That was one of the spookiest moments of my life.

The gig was up, but we still didn’t know the extent of it. We got online and managed to find real emails for Tom and Jude, as opposed to the ones created by Aubree, and even a phone number. Late as it was, Jim called them straightaway.

They were fast asleep in bed in Houston.

And they knew nothing about any of this.

6. tangled webThey called the parents to go pick up Aubree and take her to their house, worried that she would try to kill herself now that it was all over. Turns out her mother is not a murderer nor her father an abuser. Her colluding brothers turn out to be rather innocent as well.

Since then we have all been putting together the pieces, or rather unravelling the web of deception. It has been by turns spooky, surreal, and desperately sad, but also at times absurdly, darkly humorous. Aubree is brilliantly intelligent; we always knew that, even with all her stroke activity. And this was the performance of a lifetime. Did she have spreadsheets; how did she keep all these lies together?! Aubree had every single person she met duped. Everyone, that is, except Geshe-la.

For sure, all of us probably wondered once or twice, “Could this really all be happening to her at this pace? Is she really that ill, how come she hasn’t died yet?” Someone gave her a pain-relieving massage, for example, and was surprised her tumors were not more noticeable. But we pushed these thoughts aside as uncharitable – she only weighs 90lbs for goodness sake, and those seizures are ghastly! And yes, she had some good days where she rallied remarkably to get to things and talk weakly to people – but that must have been all our prayers! Poor brave girl.

Meeting the family

At dinner we sat in a booth at Racines with her murdering mother (supposedly in jail), her psychotic sister (supposedly in a psych ward), and her abusive father. (The only person missing was her deaf-mute long-suffering brother-in-law, who was on a lecture tour.) And these were three of the sweetest people you could imagine. I’d hang out happily with any of them.

7. gold does not glitterWith a family like this, and with several loyal old friends, Aubree has no need to crave attention. Clearly her self-hatred is not rational. I suppose which of our delusions is?

We wondered how the seizures had been so convincing, and her dad explained the time he took her to Yale epilepsy clinic when she was 22 (the last time he saw her have a fit) and they stressed to her that she must never take Ativan as it brought on the seizures. She had been eating it like candy, at least with us, though clearly not at work.

We wondered how she managed to choke and turn blue from not being able to breathe. Her mom, a nurse (somewhat the opposite to a killer), said that Aubree must have been holding her breath.

Impressive willfulness, we all agreed.

But her dad said, “This is so confusing for me. I hate to say this but I think I’d prefer it if she had cancer. At least we could understand that.” And “She is my daughter but I cannot protect her; this is the hardest thing in my life.”

It was her own dad who suggested grimly that this would make a very good 10-part miniseries. I have included only the salient details in this already long article – there is enough material for it. And the weekly suspense has certainly kept a lot of people on the edges of their seats for two years.

Her sister said: “What you showed her, that love, that part was all true, pure. We are so grateful to you.”

We had a good evening – it was helpful for all of us. We even laughed quite a bit. They were so relieved with our reaction, said we were cool. I think Dharma is cool. Knowing about Buddha nature is cool.

And, hey, our prayers worked!!! Aubree is cancer-free! She is no longer dying! What a miracle. And her family have all magically recovered and become loving, reasonable people!!

(There are no inherently existent suffering beings, after all. Wake us up from the nightmare of mistaken appearances, and we are all just fine.)

Also, btw, remember that friend who committed suicide? Happily oblivious to the fact that she is dead, she is getting married next month, and Aubree has been invited to the wedding.

Our road of caring for Aubree has come to an end, and her family are taking it from here. She has confessed to lying. They have hopefully found a good place for her to receive help. I wish them all the best.

Echoes of “Misery”

MiserySee, go back to the first paragraph of this article and read it again, and perhaps you will understand why Aubree was panicking 😉 She was out in the middle of nowhere, far from her house. Two days of pretense was one thing, but this was a week already and she had to get to work, she was ravenous, she was being force-fed pills, and she couldn’t sleep at night because of her medicine-induced seizures and full-volume playlist.

Some lessons learned on this crazy train
Lesson #1 ~ What can we rely on?

At dinner, her sister commented that we must be angry, and we replied truthfully that we were not because we haven’t lost anything, not really, and we gained a great deal from Aubree. And inside there is definitely a dear, lovely person with potential, one that did shine through, despite her desperate need for attention, despite her mental illness.

Jim put it this way yesterday when he spoke to the Sangha:

“Although everything we knew about Aubree was wrong, the love and compassion she brought out of me was true. I had no idea I had these reserves of patience in me and could, for example, survive happily on so little sleep! And therefore I don’t regret it. For me, Aubree was an emanation of all the stages of the path from precious human life, death, and the fears of lower rebirth all the way through to love, compassion, and patience. And now I am learning the greatest lesson of all, the hallucinatory, deceptive nature of samsara. Dharma now is also what is healing any hurt I have.”

Both Jim and Karin have emerged as Bodhisattvas in my book. Their Sangha is impressed with them.

For us

Buddhas emanate whatever we need, and Aubree did bring out the best in us so who knows who she is. Jim quoted the verse from the mind-training teachings:

Even if someone I have helped
And of whom I had great hopes
Nevertheless harms me intentionally
May I see him as my holy Spiritual Guide.

We have lost nothing, even if Aubree has. She has taught us much. As one friend puts it, Aubree was “for us”.

truthSo, other than the wisdom that sees right through it all, including the “polluted memories” as someone sadly put it, what can we rely upon in this crazy mixed up world of illusion? (I address that a bit in this article.) We can rely upon love and compassion. And honesty (see below). We can rely upon the Dharma Jewel of Lamrim.

As Aubree earnestly texted me herself a few months back:

“If negative actions occur in this life despite trying to go for refuge and show compassion, can a precious human life be maintained?”

Even if this is the weirdest route to finding a Spiritual Guide and Dharma that I have ever seen, I am praying that some of the Dharma Aubree professed and seemed to love really did go in, and that it will help her now.

How could you be so stupid? …

… someone at his work asked Jim. Were we duped? Yes, most heartily. Are we embarrassed? Yes, maybe a little. But that was an Oscar-winning performance. She had actual seizures for hours on end. She went blue in the face. She was skin and bone. She held her body differently for days on end, faltered on her legs, talked in a strained way, and so on. Fifteen years ago she pulled another stunt and managed to dupe a whole team of care-workers including a psychologist. And embarrassment doesn’t hurt us. But being mistaken is okay if our hearts are true and we come to realize our mistake. Now we can all work on our wisdom.

In Heart of Wisdom, Geshe Kelsang talks about someone driving in the wrong direction to London and suddenly realizing he has been wrong all along. Finding out about Aubree was one of those heart-stopping moments, WHAT??! Have we really been on this crazy train for two years?

But in fact we have been on a crazy train since beginningless time. As Geshe-la says, when this man realizes he has made a serious mistake, he turns back, and:

… hopefully follows the correct road to London. In a similar way, before realizing emptiness we are following incorrect paths… At present we believe that whatever appears to our mind is truly existent and then we follow the paths of cyclic existence.

It is past time we all got off this crazy train. As Geshe-la says:

We shall know that hitherto we have been completely misled and mistaken. We shall realize that what appeared to us, what we apprehended, and the attitudes we developed were all completely wrong. Then, hopefully, we will begin to follow the path to liberation, the path that really does lead to peace and happiness.

Lesson # 2 ~ Hold space

This drama has increased my will to get into my heart every day and let all the elaborations fall away. Ideally we can learn over time to abide in our very subtle mind mixed with the nature of ultimate truth — bliss and emptiness, Mahamudra. There’s a beautiful line about this in Vajrayogini Tantra:

Then the youth of my mind, exhausted by its elaborations,
Came to rest in the forest hut beyond expression.

Do we not live these days in an overstimulated world of so many false appearances bombarding us daily? Special effects, political echo chambers, virtual reality, video games, all those iSomethings, AI robots, Pokémon Go, self-seeking lies, idle gossip, FOMO, etc, etc, etc. These days, we apparently spend 10+ hours on our screens, much of that precious time sucked into a made-up world one way or another.

But we need peace. We can’t be happy without it. Excited, maybe…  but happy? No. We need to hang out at least some of our time in that forest hut. At the very least we need to allow our otherwise endless distractions to subside through breathing meditation to access the natural peace, clarity, and stillness of our own minds. We need to identify with and enjoy our vast and profound true nature, our Buddha nature. For this to happen, at least a little meditation regularly is crucial.

And this is not just for ourselves. As one friend puts it, we need to “hold space” for everyone. Become a refuge, a Sangha Jewel.

Why instead use the few remaining months we have left to seek out more confusion and trickery? What’s the point?

Lesson # 3 ~ Be honest, always

It is not worth adding extra elaborations to samsara. Better to be scrupulously honest, not deliberately deceiving others by lying. We are all already in a web of deception, so please let’s not make it worse.6. in a time of universal deceit

Our self-protective minds of self-grasping and self-cherishing already have a tendency to weave little lies just to sustain the illusion of a non-existent self, both for ourselves and for others. Sometimes we know we are doing it, sometimes we don’t. Aubree just took this fake identity to a whole new level.

Gotta stop stirring. Some slander is true to utter, and some is false (see Joyful Path). Either way, if our words turn people against each other they are to be avoided. We need to talk about others’ good qualities rather than their faults, see the best in them, bring out the best.

So much of our conversation is gossip and hyperbole! We don’t need to keep talking nonsense with no wish to help others (namely, idle chatter.) We are already wrapped in nonsense.

I find it interesting that these 3 of the 4 non-virtuous actions of speech explained by Buddha (see Joyful Path) — lying, slander, and idle gossip – all have something to do with deceiving or at best distracting each other. Harmony is key to happiness, and distrust kills it. Avoiding these negative verbal actions is especially important in our spiritual communities.

Postscript

Thank you for getting this far. As Aubree once requested: “If you guys want to post photos some place, please do not tag me and if you use names, please be careful.  As you know, my family is crazy and I can’t have things on my webpage.” For different reasons, to really protect the innocent, I have changed all names and withheld all photographic evidence. And, not for the first time, I request your prayers for poor Aubree and her confused and reeling family. But these are different prayers.