Friendship, Sickness, Aging and Death

 

DAY 1:

Dear C., you and I were soul sisters.  I am grateful beyond words for the time we had together on this planet, almost four decades.

When I met you, I was twenty-six, so that made you thirty-three.  You were a single mom to two small children.  I was on the front side of that life possibility, yet the attractions of motherhood were wrapped in fear and hesitation that choked my desire for it.  I moved in to your attic, made a cozy little home for myself despite blistering summers and frigid winters up there at the top!

From there, in your household, I could watch you at close range.  You mothered with poise and instinctive confidence.  You showed me a gentle calm steadiness in matters of child-rearing that helped me to overcome my own lack of confidence and prepare myself, under your tutelage so to speak, to be a parent.

And the bonus to my lessons—getting to know your children, E. and A., from a young age, such a joy!  They were adorable and fun for this attic interloper to watch, play with, and dream of someday having ones like them.

Our friendship from thereon out always included a focus on our children.  Yours were considerably ahead of mine in life’s developmental stages, providing me with a built-in observation deck for what was to come.  You were always a wise elder I could turn to through the cycles of parenting.

 

Day 2:

Dear C., today I am remembering you as a prolific cultivator of friendships.  When you stayed with B. and me in Chicago through one Thanksgiving and Christmas, I remember our dining room table filled with piles of the Christmas cards you were sending far and wide.  You were already quite sick, so the pen was becoming difficult to manage and your beautiful flowing handwriting was reduced to shaky, tight script.  But each one of the cards contained a personal note anyway.  Dozens and dozens of cards.

You always remembered birthdays.  I wonder how many people’s birthdays you remembered and honored with cards, presents…For many years, mine was the occasion for a book (a novel) and a card from you with words of celebration from your heart that I treasured.  The last book you gave me as a gift was a hardback copy of Eudora Welty’s powerhouse of a novel, Losing Battles.  I could not read it for a long time, I was too sad and conflicted about your terrible illness (but that is for another day).  When I did read it, it was too late to share with you my admiration for Welty’s artistry.  Please let me tell you now, it was a stellar gift from you, that book.

And then there was the birthday, your 60th I believe, when you gave presents to all the guests at your party!  Each person got their own, personal, individual present…I have never before or since heard of anyone else who did this.

Your efforts at building friendships paid off royally.  You sat at the center of a diverse and abundant village of love and support from Delaware to New York City to Seattle to Albuquerque to Cleveland to Chicago.  This village sustained you, it sustained all of us who were in it, despite the distances of time and space that separated you from many in your tribe.

 

Day 3:

Dear C., you were such a fabulous cook, able to take what was in the frig and pantry and create an appealing spread—never too much food, you did not care for excess, but nourishing and plentiful fare with an aesthetic of clean, fresh, wholesome, natural, tenderly prepared and delicious.

Actually, one thing did seem like excess at the time.  In those first months of sharing a home with you and your kids I was taken aback at the mounds of butter you added to a bowl of hot potatoes.  Such a small feast of deliciousness—hot potatoes swimming in butter!  I was raised to be sparing with the butter, it added too much fat, fat was unnecessary, bad for you.  It did not take me long under your roof to change my tune.  Butter is a wonderful—delightful—enriching—compliment to potatoes, or a thick slice of bread.  Ah, thank you dear C. for liberating me from the butter police.

Strawberries, too.  You would slice them across the roundness of each berry, mounding the shimmering red coronas into your bowl of granola until the mountain threatened to overflow onto the table when the milk was added.  I was breathless with the abundance of your strawberry passion.  For me, it was, like with butter, a form of abandon, recklessness, exuberance.  I took quickly to your strawberry ways.

 

Day 4:

Dearest C., when you stayed with us for a month or two in Chicago, you were already struggling to have a life outside of the relentless demands the illness placed on your body and mind, but you nevertheless took to cooking dinner for us every night.  You scoured our pantry shelves—lentils…potatoes…a potpourri of vegetables wrinkling in the bottom drawer of the frig.  The vegetables became a simple soup, the lentils, soup also.  The potatoes were transformed into latkes, complete with (mounds of) sour cream and homemade applesauce.

I have forgotten many of the other meals you created that late fall, but I do remember that as you were packing to leave us, we made a list together of all the dinners you made for us and for years, I kept that list and made your dinners again and again.

We were delighted to be fed by you, to have the languishing pantry ingredients put to use with such simple creative flair.  Mostly, we were moved to be cared for by you.  We had fully expected to be the caregivers; we were unprepared to have those tables turned. But you were resolute, you so wanted to contribute on the giving side of whatever equation we all had going on in our heads.

I still make your latkes, and remember.

 

Day 5:

Dear C., I am appreciating the many facets of your life as an artist.  I remember your oil paintings from before I knew you that hung on your walls.  But mostly I was around for your watercolor phase.  I remember that you would paint every day when this was possible.  Flowers were a theme. Your nephew, wrestling in high school, naked young men’s bodies wrapped around each other on the floor, such a challenge these must have been to paint!  I forget what else was in your painting repertoire, I mainly remember your dedication, quiet though sustained through the years, to the form.  I remember your large artist’s folders, full of your works, several of them, that traveled around the country with you as you moved locations.

I always wanted to own one of your watercolors, finally I had a chance to buy one that was being sold by the agency where you worked that supported homeless people to make art.  It is a painting of roses, the climbing ones that grow so easily in New Mexico, where you lived then, in the hot sun and dryness.  “Roses are hard to paint,” I remember you commenting to me about my purchase.  For me, the rose painting I own shows this, your struggle to make the roses come alive, but also, your skillfulness, your triumph with the depiction of rose-ness.

Your painting style is flowing, graceful, understated.  Your celebration of color sings through the work.  You so loved sunshine and you did not love it when the sun went away.  I know this is a primary reason you chose, finally, to live in New Mexico.  In the rose painting, the sun shines brilliantly.  And the roses respond to the sun, just as you did, with their magnificent blooms so alive, so fat with their unfolding.

Then there is the crib-quilt you made for my first baby, from leftover pieces of fabric you had in a box.  The sun shines brightly from that quilt, too.  It shouts with the joy of new life from the pieces of the old.  It captures all the happiness of my first experience of pregnancy, birth and being a mother to an infant, experiences which I shared so intimately with you, my older sister and mother-mentor.

Finally, I cannot speak of you as an artist without acknowledging your work to bring art-making to the homeless population of Albuquerque.  In this way you merged your personal practice of creative becoming with your social values.  I did not appreciate this part of you enough at the time.  It was not until I got up close to the art studio your managed for that community, at the very end of your career, that I stopped for long enough to look and listen and let my respect for what you were doing emerge from what was before me: People with just as much creative impulse as anyone else who were being afforded a space and materials to actualize their artistic visions.

 

Day 6:

Dear C., we first met in a community of political activists in the early 1980’s.  Together within this group, we gave many hours of our lives to organizing for a kinder and more equitable world.  Somewhere in my fifth decade, I discovered Buddhism.  You, at the other end of the country, were also turning toward Buddhist practice.  Our original activist community remained and still remains dedicated to social change.  It was a great comfort to me that you and I were on parallel runways, seeking to address the suffering of the world through presence, acceptance and relinquishment of the self.  This deepened our friendship bond into something that transcended both our social and political connections.  We became spiritual friends.

You became a student of Thich Nhat Hanh and through you I too was exposed to the heart-opening teachings of this living master.  Though you were already in chronic pain from your illness, you had the courage and the commitment to your practice to go to Vietnam with Thay, as he is known within his Sangha.  You were part of a delegation of Americans who accompanied him throughout the Vietnamese countryside, performing rituals to settle the ghosts of those killed during the Vietnam War who had not received proper burials at the time.

I visited you soon after you returned home from this trip.  We sat on your porch for hours, I listening while you told stories of your Vietnam pilgrimage.  It was a coming together of your anti-war activism of the 1970’s with the ancient wisdom tradition of Zen Buddhism.  It was being at the feet of a venerated Master on his first trip back to his homeland in decades.  It was a joy and a triumph for you to be able to make the trip despite the illness.  I felt the power of these experiences as they moved through you, through me, and out into the world.  I am forever grateful for this small connection I have to Thich Nhat Hanh, through you.

It became more difficult to be spiritual friends, to be even just regular friends, as your illness progressed and your circumstances became more untenable.  I was trying so hard to help you, to lessen your suffering through some arrogant beginner’s view I had of Buddhist theory and practice.  You were suffering, I was suffering, and together we struggled to know what to do with all that pain, fear, anger and longing that things be better than they were.  The joy of our shared spiritual values changed into something messy and conflicted.

In the end, we ceased relating to each other through the lens of our separate spiritual practices.  This was for the best.  We found a way to keep being friends, and this alone required plenty of spiritual practice on my part, perhaps on your part as well.  So…I guess that our friendship never stopped being a shared spiritual practice.  It changed, but my connection to you remained as constant effort to accept your life as it was, my response to you as it was.

 

Day 7:

Dear C., During my last trip to see you, you never had a day free of pain and great distress in multiple body systems, though every day we tried to do things; shop for what you needed; take walks; cook nice meals, socialize a bit and strategize together about how to get what you needed from the doctors, about what would be next for you.  But these events and conversations were often disastrous; too physically challenging or too emotionally difficult.

I know we were both trying so hard to bear up, be cheerful, get back to some semblance of what we knew as normal.   In truth, there was no way to get back there.  You were failing, and it made you miserable, scared and angry.  You had become someone I did not know or know how to help.  On the last day of my visit, your blood pressure machine was reading out scary numbers and we called for an ambulance at the same time that my cab for the airport was on its way.  I burst into tears from the guilt and the frustration.

You were fighting to maintain your autonomy but it would be a losing battle.  That little adobe row house would be your last independent living situation.

You showed me how terribly difficult life can become.  It was a shock to me, that degree of agony and anguish you lived with for so long.  There were many times when I wanted to run, hide, deny, reject your experience.  In the end, as you succumbed to nursing home care and your mind as well as your body continued a downward spiral, I felt helpless to do anything for you.

The agony was a shared experience.  Though you bore the most burden, I and perhaps many in your large community suffered your painful decline with you.  When life ended for you on May 21, 2020, I felt released too from what had become such severe limitations to your material existence.

From this place, on the other side of your release, I see that I could not accept either your or my—our—situation as it was.  As you did, I fought against the dying of your light.  I was not OK with being thirteen hundred miles away from you.  I was not OK with your being in a nursing home.  I was not OK with how angry you were at the world, at me, at those who had become your lifeline.  I was not OK with how our last visit had unfolded.  I longed to find a way to be your friend that was graceful, strong, all-giving, without bumps.  I wanted to be a perfect helper, a perfect friend. And I wanted you to be a better sick person too.

Feeling pressured to give and to get something other than what was, there came a time when I could no longer muster the push nor let go of the resentment that these multiple desires spawned.  The next time you asked me to visit, my response was no response.  I was frozen with confusion and guilt and depleted from years of trying too hard to get it right.

I see now, I see it.  I see how delusions of greed and aversion in the face of suffering block all the love that is our deepest longing.  The blocks were lodged in my heart during your last years on earth.  I am sorrier for this than words can describe.  The loss of that precious time feels unbearable.

But now you are gone.  With your leaving, and with writing these letters to you, your life and our friendship have taken their places as beautiful arcs of arising, flourishing, falling apart and ceasing.

Here I sit, knowing that you befriended me in the ways of arising, in the ways of flourishing and also in the ways of suffering and dying. I feel a burden lift, the burden of fear that our love for each other was lost to difficulty, lost to anger and messiness, lost to separation.

Someone in your Sangha shared this song with all of us, your friends, shortly after you died.  I have learned the melody and sing it often now, in your honor.  In our honor.

 

No coming, no going,

No after, no before.

I hold you close to me,

I release you to be so free.

Because I am in you and you are in me,

Because I am in you and you are in me.

 

You are in me, my soul sister.  I have found you again, right here in my heart.

 

 

Humming Bird

Lao Huo Shakya

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