Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Day 98: Four Years

My mother loved knowledge. So many of the memories I have of her are anchored in her desire to learn more about the world around her, about herself, and about the bigger mystery that she was convinced is at play all around us, functioning in ways we cannot simply measure and calculate in the hope of understanding. She was an avid reader, her love of books a natural extension of her love of knowledge. She was also an avid student, and toward the end of her life, this place, Grace Cathedral, became her favorite classroom, in which she studied her favorite subjects – God, the great unknowns of the before and after, and perhaps most of all, the meaning behind her experience as a woman alive in this world. In a word, faith.

Faith was a very hard thing for me to find as my mother fought her cancer. To be honest, I was already pre-programmed with something of a faith filter, because as much as my mother loved to learn, she also loved to teach, and her favorite pupils? Myself and my brother. Be it proper table manners or tips on how to recycle correctly, my mother made sure we both received our lessons any moment we seemed available to receive them. And yes, while some of the lessons were simple and grounded in the day to day, the lessons she was most eager to teach us were those of faith. We were not always the most receptive of students. Her talk of holy beings, of afterlives and prior lives and traditions and ceremony, often times failed to connect simply because I was not convinced, and because I had the notion that those most valuable teachings must be taught to myself.

As mom got closer and closer to her final moments, I ground up against faith. I knew eventually I would. Mom’s last months were as difficult to witness as they were beautiful, and I could not bring myself to place faith in the process. I, like many of the people around me, was terrified that mom’s passing was going to be one that would be incredibly painful to witness, because I could not bring myself to trust that she would make her peace. As I wrote in my journal August 6th of this year, “Being with her… and being caught in the power and influence of her fear, made us all realize that this is probably not going to be a graceful passing. It could be a terror-stricken, wild eyes searching everyone's face for help that cannot be given, tethered to the insufficient oxygen machine, I don't want to die! death. Bearing witness to that from a place of total powerlessness is going to be the hardest thing I’m ever going to have to do. In many ways, it already is.” I fought with my own fear that what I wrote would come to pass, and hoped that mom would somehow remember and embody one of the most important teachings she received here, when, months before, we met with Dean Jones at his office and spent some time together talking. Mom had questions, as she always did, and most important among them was the question of what, more than anything else, could she could do for me and my brother to help us in this process. “Have a good death,” was the answer he gave her.

The last 24 hours of mom's life found me in peaceful grief amidst moments of complete and perfect beauty, the most beauty I have ever experienced. She had taken to her bed, and settled in to a semi-conscious state, the sound of her breathing rhythmic and unnerving both. It was powerful - unedited and raw and rare because the moment of someone's passing can never be experienced again, and you all know it, and you know what it means in your head but when it is actually happening some other part of life entirely opens its door to you briefly, to let you walk through, and when the door closes you've taken it back through with you, and no part of your prior knowing could have given that to you. It was the time in which my fear and faith and love all came together and sat in that room with me, all around me, and together we were involved.

Fifteen minutes before I held my mother as she took her last breaths I spoke silently to her. "I love you mom." She was at a place where I trusted she could hear me but did not expect any sort of a reply. But she did reply. She opened her tired eyes, looking around confused at all of it, seeming lost now in the land of the living, a land she was in the process of leaving, until she saw me. "I love you too." The words dragged themselves across her dry tongue and out her slack mouth, reaching me in a broken mumble but I understood them and in her eyes the fogginess and confusion was completely lifted and she looked at me with purpose and urgency, and she was there in her entirety, and she was so beautiful, and there was no fear. I think I started to cry and smile as I held her hand. She next turned to my brother, and with the same eyes looked at him and repeated the words. "I love you." Again, we all heard them. "I love you mama." He took her other hand. She closed her eyes. Shortly thereafter, she died with both of us at her side. They were the last words we ever shared.

Did I find my faith? I don’t know, but I do know something that was not open before has now been swung wide and other parts of life are coming in. Those parts of life mom loved so much to question and talk about and try and teach me. I guess I have to laugh, because in her ever determined way, mom once again waited for what she saw to be an opportune time to share her love of learning with me in the form of one final, perfect lesson. I have no doubt that mom saw the fear I had as much as she was aware of her own fear, and in having the good death that Dean Jones had spoken to her about, a good death in the midst of my doubt, she allowed me to trust in something bigger than myself, something I could not entirely understand, and open the door to all of that that she found to be so essential and beautiful. It makes me smile, and I like to think it has something to do with the smile that eventually came to settle on her face hours after she passed. That Mona Lisa smile that seemed to say, “Don’t worry about me, I’m just fine, and I’m on to my next lessons, the ones I couldn’t study before, as much as I wanted to, and the ones you all, in time, will come to study too." 
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Delivered at my mother's memorial service on Saturday, October 13th, 2007 at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, the day after her 58th birthday. She passed away September 7th, 2007 at 4:48 in the afternoon after a five and a half year battle with lung cancer.

1 comment:

  1. Quinn this is beautiful. It taps into so much of how I felt when I watched my dad die last fall, and it brings me a little more peace. Thank you for sharing this.