After my friend Leigh lost her mother, she said that sorrow hit her at strange moments. My own Mom died this year on the Sunday before Mother’s Day. I drove down to N.C. to see her on the preceding Thursday. I entered the medical unit of her retirement home and saw a nurse standing at her station with a very small, gaunt, gray-haired woman lying on a rolling bed next to her in the hallway. I was still several doorways from my Mom’s room but stopped because something about the woman was familiar despite her overall unfamiliarity. I looked at the woman and then back at the nurse, and asked, “Is that Mrs. Gray? B.J. Gray?” My Mom was much changed from the last time I had seen her only two months earlier. After the nurse said, “Yes,” I immediately bent down as if I were kneeling at the bedside of a small child. “Hi Mom,” I said. “It’s Alison, your daughter.” I smoothed back her soft, unruly hair and held her hand. I was trying to provide comfort to a mother who had never asked for any. It was purely instinctual to give solace and love to someone who for the first time in her life seemed defenseless.
She was out in the hallway because the nurse said she had tried to get up and had fallen earlier. She was keeping an eye on her. We wheeled the bed back to her room so that I could spend some private time with her. I held her hand and smoothed her hair again and thanked her for taking good care of her four children, and said that we all loved her. In sangha, we learn to speak from our heart and on that day and at that time, that’s what I could say to my Mom, who I was not sure knew who I was due to the progressive dementia she first began exhibiting a year earlier.
Meditation has taught me how to find calmness in the midst of emotional storms simply by being present. I was bringing all of that meditative muscle memory to bear in being with my Mom and saying goodbye. Sometimes being present means just being silent. It also can mean close listening. That’s tricky, however, with someone who has lost her words.
My Mom did not seem to want my caresses or expressions of thanks. Her overriding emotion was agitation and her desire was to get out of bed. Each time I went to hold her hand, she grasped it not in a desire for warmth or tenderness but as leverage for pulling herself up! Her strength given her diminished condition was remarkable. I did not understand, however, why she wanted to rise since the only understandable words she said during the hours I spent with her were “church” and “I want to get up.” My mother has always been fiercely independent so I misperceived it as a desire simply to get out of bed to prove that she could. Lolling around in bed all day was definitely not her style. Her agitation continued and, after a while, she gave me one of those looks that I knew meant she was frustrated with me. The look actually made me smile since it was some recognition that she did know me!
Only later, when an aide let slip that my Mom had not been changed that morning due to a misunderstanding with the hospice staff did it dawn on me that my Mom wanted to get up for a very practical reason. Finally, an aide arrived and I helped her sponge bathe my Mom and change her diaper which was soiled and had wet through her gown. Despite the circumstances of seeing my Mom so incapacitated, weak and terribly thin, it felt good to be of use to her and the aide, and to let her lean her weary head against my chest. Once changed and back in bed, she settled and fell asleep from the exertion. I stayed a bit longer before saying my final goodbye.
I teared up as I walked back to my car and cried three days later when my sister, Robin, called to say she had passed away. But, my truest sense of sorrow hit me about a week later as I was walking down an aisle of the Whole Foods in Friendship Heights! The prior week had been spent learning about a different side to my Mom from previously unseen love letters between her and my Dad and scrapbook pictures of her in her teens, and 20s in which she walked hand-in-hand with high school friends, laughed in the snow, and showed off her five foot two inches and 90-pound frame under a wide brim hat at Myrtle beach – all of which helped in the writing of an obituary designed to honor her and capture her full 91 years on Earth. All of that, however, was just busyness, a distraction from my sorrow.
Not until the frozen food aisle did I come face-to-face with the essence of my Mom’s love for her children – which was expressed daily, year in and year out, and during holidays in the preparation of meals for my Dad and us as we grew up and eventually away from her. I was in the midst of reflecting on what food I wanted to prepare for an upcoming celebration of my Mom’s life for a small gathering of family planned for June, when tears began rolling down my face as I thought how often that was my Mom’s role and how that was one abiding way she would live on in me. Her presence with me at that moment was tangible and comforting.
According to Buddhist wisdom, the view of immortality, or permanence, is a wrong view. Everything is impermanent; everything is changing. Nothing can be the same forever. So permanence is not the true nature of anything. But to say that when we die there is nothing left is a wrong view too. Immortality and annihilation are also paired opposites. Immortality is a wrong view, because we have not seen anything like that. Everything we observe is impermanent, always changing. But annihilation is also a wrong view. . . .If we have lost someone who is very close to us and we are grieving her death, we have to look again. That person still continues somehow. And we can do something to help her to continue more beautifully. She is still alive, inside us and around us. . . . That is the kind of vision, the kind of insight that is needed to overcome grief. We think that we have lost [her] forever, but that person had not died, has not disappeared. [She] continues in new forms. We have to look deeply to recognize [her] continuation and to support it. “Darling, I know you are there somehow, very real to me. I am breathing for you. I am looking around for you. I enjoy life for you. And I know that you are still there very close to me and you are in me.” We transform our suffering and our fear into awakened insight, and we feel much better. — Thich Nhat Hnah, Fear, Essential Wisdom for Getting through the Storm
Despite the tears, my epiphany in the ice cream section (which is sweet since my Mom loved a small dish of ice cream most nights after dinner) did make me feel better because I recognized her clear love, in a relationship that sometimes seemed devoid of it, and knew that, just as her mother had passed on an expression of love through the sharing of food with her, my Mom had passed along that same gift to her own family. Impermanence truly does simultaneously embrace sorrow and joy. We say goodbye but we also say hello to new forms and understanding.
Betty Jean (“B.J.”) Gray
October 24, 1926 – May 6, 2018
by Alison Gray.