Here is a poem that comes from the funeral ceremony of the Zen tradition of which I am a part.
It is called The Human Route
Coming empty-handed, going empty-handed – that is human.
When you are born, where do you come from?
When you die, where do you go?
Life is like a floating cloud which appears.
Death is like a floating cloud which disappears.
The floating cloud itself originally does not exist.
Life and death, coming and going, are also like that.
But there is one thing which always remains clear.
It is pure and clear, not depending on life and death.
Then what is the one pure and clear thing?
We all are born and we all die.
But what is the one pure and clear thing?
What is the one pure and clear thing? We try to make sense of life and death. What is the one pure and clear thing?
One of my mom’s grandchildren said: I feel like I am supposed to feel sad but everything seems exactly the same.
The sky is still blue. The ocean still roars. What has changed? In some ways, everything still feels the same.
People ask you: How are you feeling? Do you need to talk? But what is there to talk about?
It is confusing. I went for a walk around Greys Mill pond yesterday. It was spectacular. I felt filled with joy. I didn’t feel sad just then at all.
On the other hand, someone told me they went to boarding school at a very young age and I thought sending a child away from its parents seemed so desperately sad and my eyes filled with tears and I had to force myself not to cry.
Grief is like walking across a room with a cup of tea that is too full. You walk carefully because you don’t want it to spill out everywhere and a lot of the time it doesn’t spill. And then for no reason you lose your balance and it spills.
Some of you may not like that I am going to say what I am about to say:
My mom wasn’t always nice. She wasn’t always easy.
Maybe you aren’t supposed to say that during a eulogy. But how can you honor someone if you don’t tell the truth about them? How can you paint their picture if you don’t really see them?
How can you process grief without telling the truth about your feelings?
Last night, the $500 wooden box my mom’s ashes are in was sitting on the kitchen counter. I looked at her for a while. It’s a nice box. It doesn’t say much. I said out loud: “Well, you sure are a lot easier to deal with than you used to be.”
I’m going to tell you a story. Again, it isn’t 100% a nice story. But I am going to tell it anyway. Don’t worry. I’ll come to the nice stories.
My mom used to nag me all the time to come and visit her more.
She’d say, “When are you coming?”
I’d say, “Ask me again next time we speak.”
She’d say, “I’m asking you now.”
Finally, we would talk and I’d say, “Bella and I are going to come the weekend after next.”
She’d say, “Well, bring your own towels.”
I’d say, “No, mom, we are traveling 200 miles. I am not going to bring towels. We will use yours.”
She’d say, “I’ll have to do extra laundry.”
I’d say, “That’s ok, Mama. You will get to see your son and granddaughter, so you won’t mind a little extra laundry.”
When we arrived, she’s say, “Use the towel hanging on the hook.”
I’d say, “Is it clean?”
She’d say, “I’ve barely used it.”
“I’d say no, mama, I am not going to use your dirty towel.”
“But the laundry.”
“If you want people to visit you, Mama, you have to make them feel welcome. One way to make them feel welcome is to offer them clean towels.”
Finally, she would say, “Ok, you can have a clean towel…. But you and Bella have to share it.”
My mom was scared a lot. And anxious. She had a lot of love in her heart but love and anxiety fought each other at times.
I want to tell you another story. I used to have a best friend when I was 12. Craig Carvalho. One time he was staying over. He used to love to stay over because his parents were so uptight and my mom just let us be.
One time–I don’t know how–but he and I got in a milk fight at the dining table. And my mom joined in. She took a glass of milk and she poured it over Craig’s head.
But then–and this is the more amazing part–he took his glass and poured it over her head. He was 12. But somehow she made him feel safe enough to do that.
And we laughed and laughed.
My mom let me be.
She put me in Learning Tree School when I was eight. That was an alternative, parent-teacher cooperative that failed to teach children math or English or science but it did teach them to be themselves and I thrived there.
When I caught eels down at the wharf and tried to sell them door to door, my mom helped. When I wanted to buy chickens to start an egg business, my mom let me.
She was willing to let me be me. She said, “Sometimes I am scared that you will just float off into space.” I’m not quite sure what she meant but she was willing to be with that fear and let me be who I am.
I am very lucky in many ways but particularly in this regard: I can say truly that I am proud of who I am as a person.
That woman, the one who nagged me all the time and wouldn’t give me a clean towel? She gets a lot of the credit for that, for my being able to be proud of myself.
About two years ago, we had a talk. She asked me, “Are there things we need to talk about? Are there things I need to make right?”
I said, “Things were very bad in many ways when I was growing up, Mom, and you can still be quite hard on me, but I am at peace with the things are between us. I don’t take you too seriously any more.”
She said, “You don’t take me seriously?”
I said, “Not too much.”
She said, “Fuck you!”
Then, we laughed.
We were pretty much at peace.
In that conversation, I said to her, “Mom, I worry you haven’t started to prepare for the end of your life.”
I don’t mean her will and all that. That was all incredibly well prepared.
I mean, spiritually. She said she hadn’t. She asked me if I knew what she should do. I didn’t. I told her I would ask my spiritual teachers and I did. But they didn’t tell me anything useful. So I didn’t really get back to her… until about eight weeks ago.
You might know that mom had cancer all over her body by the time she went to hospital two months ago. She was in the hospital for a short time and then she was in a nursing rehab.
The social worker there said, “I asked her what religion she was. She said that she had been Episcopalian, and then Catholic but that now she was Buddhist.”
The social worker went on, “So I said, who can I contact for you? Is there a Buddhist person you want to talk to?”
My mother told the social worker: “My son, Colin. I want him to tell me how to be.”
The social worker told me all that, then she looked at me: “So I guess it’s all on you!” Then we laughed.
I don’t know if the son is supposed to be the hospice chaplain to the mom. And I know for sure my sister worried as I played this role.
But actually, I really liked it. It was intense and intimate in a way my mom had never allowed us to be. For all her neediness, she actually kept people at quite a distance. We had quite a few intimate conversations in the last eight weeks.
One day, she asked me to gather up all her jewelry and bring it. And I did. And we went through it piece by piece and she decided who she wanted to have what. Some of it was her grandmother’s and some her mother’s and some had been given to her.
She told me the stories of all the jewelry. She told me about men she had crushes on. She told me how proud she was of me and my sister. She told me about how nobody thought she could do a good job as a paralegal or as a social worker.
She went to social work school in her 50s, in case you didn’t know.
And she excelled in each of these jobs. She helped an enormous number of people.
I told her this: That I had realized how incredibly hard it must have been to be a divorcee in the town of Westport Massachusetts, raising two small children, in the early 1970s. There were even periods when we were on welfare and food stamps.
I told her she had done a good job. That she had been brave and resilient.
She thanked me for seeing her. I felt so pleased to give her that gift. And so healed to be able to give it to her. What bigger gift than to really see each other?
The other day I started to think about all the people she had helped professionally and how she also really tried to listen and empathize to people around her.
I thought that–as much as she needed repeated proof that the people closest to her loved her–she tried to give that self same thing to others. As a social worker and a friend and as a medicare advocate, she had given people the love she so desperately wanted for herself.
I thought how these things are two sides of the same coin: Her need for love was what made her recognize other people’s need for care and love and that caused her to give it.
She needed it so badly so she gave it so completely.
She needed love so badly so she gave love so completely.
Maybe she couldn’t have been one without the other. Maybe she couldn’t have been generous without being so needy.
In one of our last conversations, I asked her if there was anything she needed to talk about?
She said, “Yes! I need you to tell me how to die.”
We had a long conversation that day, but I did not tell her how to die.
Not until the day the cancer doctor said he saw no point in further treatment.
When we were alone, I asked her, “Do you have any questions?”
She said, “What questions should I have?”
She was irritated. It was funny. Because when her mother was dying she asked her mother, “How do you feel?” and her mother said, “How do you think I’m supposed to feel?”
I tried again. “Well, is there anything you want to talk about?”
She said, “What could there be to talk about?”
I said, “You sound angry, Mama, and I understand. But I don’t think there is time for many more conversations. I wondered if you had something you wanted to say about what the doctor said.”
She said, “Well, I suppose it is kind of a relief.”
“That this will come to an end?”
I said, “Maybe it is a relief too because it kind of gives you permission to stop fighting?”
She said, “That’s true.”
I said, “Mom, you asked me the other day how to die. Do you still want me to tell you what I think?”
She said yes.
I said I don’t know much about dying but that what I intended to do was cultivate deep trust. Trust in what is in each moment. Both in life and in death.
You have to trust, Mama.
I didn’t say this part. But how could life be so incredibly beautiful if death was not also beautiful?
Shakespeare said, “There is nothing good or bad except that thinking makes it so.”
That includes death. Yes, it is unknown and yes it is mysterious and yes we feel completely out of control in the face of it. But does that make it bad?
Albert Einstein said, “Either God is everything or God is nothing.”
That must include death.
A good life requires radical trust.
A good death requires radical trust.
So I told my mom a story. One time one of my Buddhist teachers had said to me, “Let me give you the best piece of advice you will ever get. At the moment of your death, say ‘How can I be of help?’”
What a funny thing to ask as you are dying, “How can I help?”
I said to my mom, that puts me in mind of the end of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar.
Pretty much my entire knowledge of Christianity comes from Jesus Christ Superstar. She actually mustered a laugh at that.
Anyway, at the end of Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus says, “Father, into thy hands I commend my Spirit.”
That means trust. It means let God or the universe or whatever you want to call it use you. It means be at one. It means How can I help?
There is one thing which always remains clear.
It is pure and clear, not depending on life and death.
What is the one pure and clear thing?
One thing stays the same and doesn’t depend on whatever it is we think about life and death.
And we are taught that we can see it. That one pure and clear thing. It is right in front of our eyes at every moment. If we trust our experience and give up our judgements we can see it.
There is a saying in Buddhism: “The great way is not difficult. Just put down your ideas and judgments.”
That is the same as in Christianity and the Abrahamic religions: Thou shalt not make for yourself any idol.
That tells me: I should commend my spirit into the hands of God. Not just when I die, but now.
So I said something like all that to my mom and then she spoke the last words to me that she ever spoke. Maybe it was the lesson of her life. It is certainly a lesson of mine.
After I said the part about commending our spirit into the hand of God, about this question of how to die, she said,
“I guess I just have to let go.”