PAINTING THE SKY:
REFLECTIONS ON SICKNESS, OLD AGE AND DEATH
TEACHINGS MY FATHER GAVE TO ME
(WHEN HE WAS EIGHTY AND I FIFTY-TWO)
It wasn't easy for my father to age. To see his hair turn grey, his hairline recede and then gradually disappear, until only a few strands remained. To lose the energy of his youth and feel the weariness and discomfort of his aging body. He was both saddened and angered by this "unexpected" turn of events in his life, and mourned this loss of his body, the form he thought he'd always be.
Unfortunately, old age was not the only infirmity my father was to endure in his golden years. Three years ago, he was diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer's, a degenerative disease of the brain. I watched as he first lost much of his short-term memory, and then his medium and long-term memory began to disappear as well. In other words, he began to lose his sense/memory of his past, a past. Then slowly his reasoning and cognitive functioning began to falter. His ability to think, to process information, to retain, to converse became impaired and impeded. To this loss, he responded with frustration, anger, and despair.
As I watched the changes in my father, I realized I was viewing the disintegration of his self-concept. His idea of himself that he constructed over a lifetime, through a mental process that he had held together by imagining a permanent self that continued over time, moment to moment, year to year. A self that had accomplished this or done that, a self that could remember itself, a self that began here and went there, that was accomplished and productive. He could no longer find that self anywhere. He was lost. He was frightened. He no longer knew he was! Moreover, he had lost the ability to recreate a new self to solve this profound dilemma. He fell into a deep state of depression, alternating between despair, fear and anger. A common emotional state for people with Alzheimer's in our culture.
As I lived with him, observed and listened, I began to realize that something else was beginning to occur. As my father began gradually (and painfully) to accept his condition, he unconsciously started to live more and more in the present moment. The whole apparatus of conceptualization through which he had always related to reality was no longer functioning, and he was just experiencing things directly. I would joke with him that he had attained what many meditators and seekers worked so hard for and he hadn't even tried! I also kept reinforcing that it was okay not to remember, that it was okay to spend a day doing nothing, accomplishing nothing. To spend a day looking, sitting, walking, eating was enough, that he was enough just as he was.
And gradually my father began to change, to soften, to open, and to accept. A complicated man for much of his life, he became simpler and more direct. A man of some hardness and emotional distance became much softer and loving. He would constantly tell us, his family, how much he loved us, and he would ask us to love him. He would want to kiss us and to have us kiss him. A man who would always fall asleep when my mother would take him to a concert of classical music was now in love with music and dance. And every concert and performance he went to was always "the best one ever."
I want to relate a little story that happened two years ago. My father would come to our meditations, sit and listen, and the people in our Dharma group got to know him. One day, one of the men in the group told me that when he had greeted my father before the sitting began, my father had said to him, "Lee, do you love me?" Lee, who is sixty-six, told me this anecdote with tears in his eyes and said that in his whole life, never had a man asked him that question, and it touched him deeply.
I also watched as my father became a child again. All his higher cortical functioning, his social training, his adult self-consciousness fell away. He could now be impulsive, inappropriate, and spontaneous. A man who was never known for his sense of humor, and certainly never the clown, now delighted (sometimes mischievously) in making people laugh, in being a buffoon at times. Music would play, and he would just stand up and dance by himself, impervious to the judgment of others. Like a child, he thought he was just terrific!
Paradoxically, on the one hand, as caregiver, I had to constantly reaffirm to my father that it was all right not to remember, not to think, analyze or judge, not to retain any information for more than a brief moment. And that just to be, to do nothing and accomplish nothing was totally acceptable. Yet, on the other hand, I had a very strong concept supported by fifty plus years of experience and memory, about who and what my father was, is and should be. I had to deal with my own judgments, valuations, self-consciousness and often embarrassment as I watched my familiar father disappear and become someone totally different from all my prior concepts about him. I had to learn to accept, to let go and to love my father in the most challenging and unusual way of my life.
Then, unexpectedly, came death. My father, who had never had a heart problem, had a mild heart attack and was hospitalized in New York. My brother, sister and I came there to be with him and to aid my mother in making some decisions about a course of medical intervention for him. The doctors gave him six months to a year to live. There he lay in cardiac intensive care, hooked up to endless tubes and monitors, and all he wanted to do was "go home." "Just let me get up and I'll come right back," he would say. Then he died. One minute alive and then, all the vital signs disappeared one by one on the monitors. And then we were alone with him. Holding him, stroking him, kissing him. Expressing our gratitude to him for all he had given us and wishing him well on his journey.
There before my eyes, he had exited his body. He was gone. We stayed with him for several hours, his face serene, his body becoming colder and colder. For thirty years I've studied and practiced the Buddha's teaching, and yet never so clearly had the truth of impermanence, of death and deathlessness, of change and changelessness, birth and death been so directly and clearly pointed out. In that hospital room, with my father, mother, brother and sister, a palpable sacredness emerged, a profound experience of Dharma that brought my palms together in deepest gratitude.
Several days later, my father was cremated. We took his ashes to his family plot in Queens, NY and dug a hole by the graves of his mother and father. Lighting incense and chanting the Heart Sutra, my mother, his children and grandchildren, each put a spoonful of his ashes in the hole, said goodbye, and wished for him a speedy and auspicious rebirth.
Your body, cold to my touch,
Your face, peacefully at rest
The candle's wick, all burnt up
Shakyamuni's Truths, totally revealed.
With moist eyes, I receive your final teaching.