BY DANIEL WOO – When I was in elementary school, my grandfather remarried a few years after my grandmother died. His new wife had a young daughter, Lorraine, from an earlier marriage. Lorraine had a rare childhood terminal disease. My parents told me to be kind to her. So during visits I learned to restrain my words and actions regardless of how I felt about Lorraine’s words or behavior. After she died, my focus turned to other things and over time I forgot Lorraine.
I forgot about the dying.
Decades later I began to remember what I had forgotten.
I knew not the taste of sorrow,
But loved to mount the high towers;
I loved to mount the high towers
To compose a new song, urging myself to talk about sorrow.
Now that I have known all the taste of sorrow,
I would like to talk about it,
I would like to talk about it,
And say merely: ‘It is chilly; what a fine autumn!’
- Xin QiJi (translated by Lu Wu-chi)
In early February 2011 my dad was hospitalized and then moved to a short term convalescent facility. He later was moved to nursing and hospice care.
In mid-February, I was there when Dad had a moment of lucidity. He said he was experiencing his final passage and that he accepted this. As Dad spoke I experienced a complete letting go – all that was between us had gone. No past burdened the present. A weight left me.
Dad’s mind did not remain lucid for long. His physical form was diminishing. I visited and sat by him in sorrow, while also marvelling at what we humans and other life forms only have temporarily – life.
When Dad struggled to sleep I practiced metta (loving-kindness) and tonglen meditations for him, my mom, my brother, their friends and all sentient beings, all the while holding one of Dad’s hands. As my breathing calmed, so did his. One time, as I held one of Dad’s hands, his remaining eye shed tears.
On March 12 during a visit, Dad, Mom and I watched two episodes of “I Love Lucy.” I had suggested early on in my visits that they change the television channels from news and angry commentators and find comedies. Dad could barely see out of one eye, couldn’t hear much and comprehended little. When I started laughing at Lucy’s shenanigans so did Mom, and then Dad started laughing upon seeing our laughter. A part of Dad’s spirit shone.
This was the first time in about six weeks that I saw Dad’s face light up. It was the first time in over forty years that I’d seen his face free of anger.
A week later as my dad exhibited rapid loss of mind and “consciousness,” I smiled and nodded when he pointed to and tried to describe lights and signs that only he could see. In one visit he repeated every few minutes, “Technology should not be hidden” and “Technology is not the answer.” I did not try to dispute what he was saying but looked at him in his one eye and smiled. Sometimes he noticed and smiled back as if grateful that someone recognized him.
Another week passed and dad’s anger reemerged. Anger can be a common element of advanced dementia but in his case, Dad seemingly had always been angry. He had become more bitter, resentful and joyless in the years before his hospitalization.
Anger’s Birth and Death
A combat pilot flying P-51 Mustangs during the civil war in China, Dad volunteered for crashes to rescue any surviving pilots or to gather their bodies. He was the sole survivor among over 80 pilots with whom he flew in squadrons. I did not appreciate what he had gone through or his anger until the last decade. Dad was of a generation and a culture where feelings were not expressed.
During my visits I waved, smiled and said hello to other residents and patients. Those who could nodded, smiled or waved back and lit up when recognized.
Another week later, Mom told me that Dad was speaking in Chinese to his father and mother, both of whom died decades ago. Dad asked Mom when his mother would return. Mom said she would rejoin him. Hearing this, I prayed and meditated for Dad to have a peaceful reunion with his parents.
Friday evening, April 15, Mom’s last words to Dad were, “You can go. I’ll be alright. I love you.” Dad died at approximately 2:05 am the next morning.
Six days earlier he no longer recognized me and by Thursday, he no longer could communicate any recognition of Mom. Dad’s connection with anything outside of his body was tenuous and he was suffering.
The Simple Truth
While Dad was dying, I contemplated how we can squander time and space when caught up in afflictive, negative and deadly emotions such as anger and fear. They displace joy, forgiveness and love.
As I have practiced walking the Buddhist eight-fold path, I’ve experienced continuing realizations that afflictive, negative and deadly emotions are false. They do not have a life of their own, are not inevitable, are not caused by others or anything else, and are not permanent. They neither need to rule anyone nor darken life.
I’ve learned that we all have an innate and existing capacity for kindness, forgiveness, compassion, acceptance, tolerance, patience and wisdom. When our lives become expressions of these qualities, joy is right here.
So joy is a verb, and a universal truth. It shows through how we live, which includes sitting with the dying. When I remember my dad now, I smile at how he laughed while we were watching “I Love Lucy” in the nursing home.
“Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha!” (“Gone gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all hail!”) This is the great mantra of the Heart Sutra (“Heart of the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom”).
“May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May all beings never be separated from the supreme joy that is beyond all sorrow.
May all beings abide in equanimity free from attachment and aversion.”
(The Four Immeasurables)
Daniel D. Woo woke up to an understanding that suffering is not ended until view, intention and action are changed. Dan practices law in Seattle, Washington. You can reach him via Facebook or Linkedin.
Read Daniel’s previous articles for Soul’s Code: The heart whisperer and The best advice, ever, for those who have been abused.
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