My mom passed away several years ago in Ogden, Utah. She had suffered through some pretty demanding situations toward the end of her life, including having part of her leg amputated due to an aneurysm, and I think that in many ways she was ready to go. The events of her final hours have remained with me and will do so until the day that I follow her footsteps to… where? I don't know. Vi Hilbert, a wonderful First Nations Elder, once said, "I know two things about the afterlife. First, that there is one. Second, that I don't know what it is."
My mom was in the hospital, we all knew what was coming. In fact, my father and brothers and I collectively made the decision, based on her wishes, that the hospital staff no longer engage in life saving procedures or treatments. (I am forever grateful that we had clear guidance and consensus.) We were gathered at her side, providing what comfort we could. It was a very difficult time. I was and am blessed to have had a loving and caring mother who put her family first at all times. Even writing this now, after all these years, brings back a tender and sweet and strangely haunting yet comforting sadness.
I don't know if you have heard of or witnessed what is called 'terminal agitation.' It is a very difficult experience, one where in the dying person becomes very restless and, as the name states, very agitated. For my mom this took the form of her continually trying to get out of her hospital bed, amputed leg and all, beckoning with us to come with her.
"Where do you want to go, Mom?"
"I want to go to the place where it's peaceful and quiet."
The beckoning became pleading. "Why won't you come with me? Why are you doing this to me?" It was so heartbreaking to hear these words. We were all at a loss and the agitation that she was so deeply experiencing became our own. My father, my brothers, my wife. We were doing all the "right" things: giving her permission to go, saying we loved her, saying we will be okay. She was surrounded by loving family and in-laws. But none of it worked. A desparation set in. What to do? What to do?
I decided to call the woman who taught me Buddhism, a very incredible nun from Burma, Dr. Rina Sircar. I had studied with her many years and have deeply trusted her wisdom and intuition. I was seeking some sort of advice, any sort of help. Anything that would ease my mom's suffering. I was very fortunate. At the exact moment I called her she was coming down the stairs from her bedroom to begin an all day meditation retreat. I know her schedule very well, having sat in her retreats numerous times. If I had called much earlier or later I would not have been able to talk directly to her. I told her what was happening with my mom and asked what she thought we should do.
Rina, in all of her gentleness, advised me to return to my mom and tell her that it's okay to go, that we love her, that we will be okay. Vocally I thanked her profusely but inwardly my mind was wailing, "Fuck. This is what we've been doing. Is this the best you've got?"
I returned to my mom's side, my family there, all still witlessly watching a nightmare of lossing someone we loved deeply and seeing her in such turmoil. But after a few minutes, slowly my mom's demeanor changed from one of torment to one of a quiet peacefulness, sweet and quiet and soft.
Slowly the light of life within her faded. She was slipping away. Relieved that she was no longer experiencing the agitation, we were still engulfed in the wordless feelings of seeing someone you love die, feelings of losing someone and feeling lost ourselves. And every once in a while Mom would gaze trustingly into a still distance none of us could share with her and say in a tender voice that was both distant and near, "Hello, Old Friend."
In silence we sat around her, each of us experiencing these moments in our own private ways. In silence we all supported her and each other, feeling such a myriad of emotions in swirls that felt incomprehensible and meaningless and yet so human and real and so rich with meaning. From time to time one of us would hold her hand or, bending toward her, sigh our love into her ear. The room took on a different atmosphere, there was a tactile silence in the air. It held a hum that was both gauzelike and empty. Sometimes I think that at times like this we are drawn into a different world, the world she was approaching, our skin sensing almost imperceptible breezes from wherever and whatever it is beyond that threshold.
Eventually one of the nurses asked us to leave the room so she could bathe my mom. We decided to go to the hospital cafeteria. About half way down the hall I decided to go back to my mom's room. I can't remember why exactly. With my wife at my side, we entered the room to see my mom take her last breath. In my heart I kneel to this moment. I will never forget nor will I doubt what I saw. As we looked at her we saw a faint shadow of light lift from her body and dissipate into the surroundings.
Months later I went to San Francisco to participate in a meditation retreat with Rina. It was the first time I had seen her since my mother died. There were numerous people there who I had known for many years, with whom I had shared that meditative place as we sat at Rina's feet. Some would come up to me and offer their condolences. They would tell me how they were there at the meditation the morning my mom died. They told me how right after Rina and I talked on the phone, and just before my mom shifted from that state of incredible agitation to one of peaceful quietude, she went into the meditation hall and told the meditators that my mom was dying. And then she invited all of them to join with her in sending my mom loving kindness.
With love and gratitude...