A guest post by Miriam Boleyn-Fitzgerald, author of Pictures of the Mind: What the New Neuroscience Tells Us About Who We Are.
I saw my dad a month before he died. We went for breakfast at the restaurant where he liked to meet when I came through town — a place by the highway with bottomless coffee, deep-fat fryers that could second as hot tubs, and smiling waitresses who checked on you every three minutes. Dad was not in the best of health at the time, but he was still trying to make being alive work. I had no reason to believe that this would be the last time I’d ever see him. On a whim, though, I decided to give him the book I was reading.
It was not uncommon for me to share books with my dad, but this one was especially hard to cough up. It was Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s Joy of Living. I hadn’t finished it yet, and it was helping me limp through our visit with a modicum of patience and goodwill. My dad had been especially contrary that morning. We had just been discussing his new habit of smoking directly adjacent to his oxygen tank — and how it might not be emblematic of his clearest thinking ever — and his “I’ll do what I please, young lady” attitude was not putting me in one of my most generous moods. But something told me to fork the book over anyway.
I am pretty sure he knew I didn’t feel like sharing. He took a few minutes to tease me; he was not a man who believed in organized religion or spiritual hierarchy of any kind, and there was Rinpoche, smiling handsomely on the cover in his flowing red monk’s robes. But Dad surprised me by making less fun of me than I had expected him to, and eventually he just said, “Well, if you really think you can part with it.”
You could say that it was the last gift I gave my father, but in truth, it was the other way around. I missed having that book within reach for about a month, and then Dad died. I was the first member of the family to arrive to tend to his belongings (he lived far away from all of his children), and as soon as I saw the room where he had been living, it was clear to me that he had known he was dying — and soon. He had arranged his belongings in a very purposeful manner. Apart from a few pieces of simple furniture, there were two objects visible in the room: a lamp on the dresser, and underneath that, Rinpoche’s book. There were boxes and boxes of books in his closet, but this book, he was letting me know, was different.
I walked over and picked it up. Bob, the friend with whom he had been staying, saw me turning it over in my hands as I let the meaning of its conscious placement sink in. “Now that’s one he really got a kick out of,” Bob said. “I’d come upon him reading it at all hours of the night.”
In the weeks after my father’s death, there were plenty of moments I would not have minded anyone witnessing. There were other moments I would rather have hidden from the world. The former category included all the hours I spent caretaking—making arrangements so that others wouldn’t have to, driving a long distance to take care of my younger brother, responding to all of my son Aidan’s great questions about death, feeling the open, generous, expansive heart and mental clarity that can result from being reminded of the extreme vulnerability of everything we love. And then several days into the experience, I hit a wall. I got tired of taking care of people. I wanted to turn off my computer and phone and not allow anyone else to ask another single thing of me. People were counting on me, and I felt selfish for wishing they would all just go away. I felt small and cramped and extraordinarily ungenerous. I liked the other “me” much better.
It helped me claw my way out of that funk of self-loathing to reflect on how fortunate I was. I really had been fortunate. I had been able to call my dad on his birthday, just a few days before he died. I had been able to hear him say, “I love you,” and to say “I love you” back and to know that I meant it and to know that he heard it.
About a week after Dad died, my four-year-old son, Aidan, asked why I was still so sad. I told him yes, I was still sad about Grandpa being gone — but as I am characteristically incapable of leaving things without a sugar coating — I also said that I was happy that Grandpa had such a wonderful grandson whom he was very proud of and loved very much.
“Mama,” he said, “how can Grandpa still love me? He’s not here anymore.”
“True,” I said, swallowing tears. “But the love is here, remember? It doesn’t go anywhere. You know that⎯right here.” I patted his chest.
“Yeah,” he said. “But Grandpa sure has gone somewhere.” He shrugged and giggled. “I don’t know where, but somewhere.”
In the wake of the loss, I felt a renewed urgency to deepen my meditation practice. I learned that an established insight meditation group was offering a weekend retreat just a few hours’ drive from home. This would be the last retreat offered locally for six months. I took the leap.
Aidan asked me why I needed to go away for two whole nights, and I told him that it was because it would make me a better mommy. He looked at me like, “Well. In that case.”
I drove for three hours to a pristine lake under pines and stillness somewhere in the middle of Wisconsin, and I sat silently with about 25 fellow meditators and a bunch of brown deer. Steam lifted off the lake into the sun. My mind had been so loud with grief that I had forgotten how peaceful a noisy flock of geese can be.
I didn’t know anyone at the retreat, except that I did. I knew that we all wanted to be happy and to feel at ease in our lives. I knew that we all knew it, and that we wanted to share it.
Before the retreat was over, I also learned that a remarkable number of us had recently experienced the loss of a loved one. During the few group sharing times near the end of the retreat, we spoke of our dear family members and friends, and I got to tell the story of my dad and Rinpoche’s book to a group of people who knew what it meant to me: that in the last weeks of his life, Dad had struck up a relationship with a practice that probably helped him manage his physical and mental suffering, that possibly even helped him wind down this life with the relief and joy of connecting with his naturally contented heart.
Many parents at the retreat spoke of how the majority of our suffering as caregivers comes from trying to prevent our children’s suffering, and from the fact that mostly, it can’t be done. Older parents spoke of the extreme emotional challenge of trying to protect preteens and teens who have no desire to be protected — who actually feel disempowered, insulted, even harmed by their parents’ attempts to care for them. I thought of my dad and my younger self and how fiercely I fought him when he tried to protect me from boys who treated me carelessly, and I hoped that I, too, would find the courage to set unpopular limits when it was time to protect my own children.
I chose to go to that retreat not knowing how it would feel to process the loss of a loved one with a group of perfect strangers, but I went anyway, knowing that I needed a sustained period of practice even if I wasn’t able to connect with a single soul. As it turned out, the entire experience was like tripping and falling into the lap of a family. It was feeling like a leaf coming loose in a storm and discovering that I was connected to countless other leaves, all trying to negotiate the weather together, all trying to shield each other from the elements as best we could. I cried the whole way home from relief. That feeling of belonging was what I had been missing in my daily life, having moved to a small city in the Midwest where (at the time) there was no established sangha.
I had gotten by just fine without a community of fellow practitioners up to that point, but it was, I now knew, the reason I had walked around pretending to be less vulnerable than I am, hiding a feeling of loneliness in my chest big enough to yank my heart through. I had forgotten how to be with a group of people who could understand me without needing to know the details of my personal circumstances. It was the sort of experience I wanted badly for my children, even if they didn’t know there was anything to miss.
When I got home from the retreat, Aidan and I hugged for the rest of the day. We went everywhere together, holding hands.
Miriam Boleyn-Fitzgerald is the author of Pictures of the Mind: What the New Neuroscience Tells Us About Who We Are, which connects new brain imaging research to the Buddhist concept of no-self. She co-leads a Vipassana sitting group with her husband in Appleton, Wisconsin, where she is working on a collection of stories about her less-than-perfect attempts to learn the dharma from her two strictest (and sweetest) mindfulness teachers, her sons.