It had happened. The phone call I had dreaded for twenty years, from the time I had moved to the U.S had arrived. The phone call that brought the news I didn’t want to hear.
My dad was in the hospital.
Arrangements were made. Within 24 hours, I was by his side, all the while communicating with the very competent doctors who were caring for him. I sat by his side day and night, slept on the couch in the hospital room, held his hand, kissed his cheek, cried profusely, chanted mantras, meditated with him and for him, played his favorite songs and videos of his grandkids talking and screaming. “Can you hear us, Daddy?” Every so often, usually in the dead of night, he would open his eyes. I’d rush to his side. We would look at each other, unspoken words conveyed on the unbreakable thread of love that flowed between us. These were sacred moments – just us, held in the warmth of the dark and silent night. He smiled. I cried. He knew. I knew.
Within 3 weeks, a gaping hole remained where he was.
It was the middle of the night. I was watching him breathe and drifted off into a fitful sleep. Minutes later, I was woken by a sound in my disturbing dream. I opened my eyes just in time to see him take his last breath.
My dad. My hero and role model. My biggest fan and greatest supporter. He was gone.
The grief was paralyzing. For months, I was nearly catatonic, unable to sustain joy or creativity except for brief periods. Daddy. The word would arise and take me to the shadowy depths of sorrow. He was on my mind all the time. Can you hear me, Dad? Can you feel my love for you? I knew that if he could see me in distress, he’d be hurting. How strange it is that we must worry about upsetting someone by grieving them!
While my sadhana continued, I wasn’t interested in making it a crutch for this necessary phase of life, or using it to not feel what needed to be felt. Submitting to the overwhelm was the only way. It ripped through my heart and my body, bringing up years of sadness, which I’d held in check during his prolonged and progressive illness. It now came up in waves. For years, I’d resolutely put on the doctor hat to stay strong for my family. This doctor had made some tough decisions on his behalf, the kind of decisions she makes every single day with all her patients. The doctor had been the pillar of strength – for him and for all who cared for him.
Finally, that hat could be discarded. The daughter could emerge. She was now free to break down. The strong pillar could crumble. And it did, into a pile of dust.
Absence and Presence
The thing about inner silence is that once it is cultivated and nurtured, it never goes away. It becomes the norm, the way of life. Discursive thoughts and incessant mind chatter simply don’t occur even in the throes of major life changes. Not even when grief takes you in her arms and sucks the joy out of you. The emotion can be allowed to arise fully, without the drama of mind stories. The sensations can be allowed to pass through without resistance. It’s okay to be catatonic, but such an okay-ness doesn’t arise from reasoning, intellectualization, or justification. It’s okay because it simply is. There is no plotting for a future, where there is an anticipation of a reward for going through it.
Importantly, there is no wanting of something different than what is. I missed my dad. I missed the years of his life that were lost to dementia. At no point, however, did it occur to me that things should be different. This came as a surprising realization. I wasn’t wishing for my dad to be here, or that he shouldn’t have had the illness. This is another side effect of inner silence. One just loses the ability to speculate. What “could be” or “could’ve been” stops making any sense.
Grief, like any other powerful emotion, has the ability to wash clean our lens of perception – if we give it the opportunity to teach us.
When the acuteness of the pain began to subside, it began its teaching. What is the pain about, really? I sat with this for a long time, asking for guidance to be shown, allowing the question dissolve. The answers would come.
One day, I was walking by his picture in my room when it hit me. I was grieving his absence. The word rolled around in the velvety folds of my mind. Absence. The opposite of presence. What really is presence?
When we look into the issue, we see that when we say we miss someone, we are referring to memories. When I think about my dad, flashes of images come up on the canvas of my mind…
Him standing in the rain outside my school when I was in second grade. The man who delivered our lunches had been sick, so my mom had called my dad at work to come home, pick up my lunch and drive to my school that was about 45 minutes away, and make sure I was fed. He did just that. I’ll never forget the image of my dad soaking in the rain, clutching a lunch box, all so his little girl wouldn’t go hungry. We sat on the bench in the covered area. The love pouring from his eyes as I ate had enveloped me in warmth. I adored this man.
Him weeping as the train pulled away from the station. My parents had helped me move into my medical school dorm. It was the first time I’d be away from home. My dad, who never hid his emotions, broke down when it was time for them to leave. I remember it well. I didn’t eat for days because I missed him so much.
Him yelling at me when I was disciplining one of my young daughters. She was throwing a tantrum and I firmly said, “No.” He was furious that his beloved grandchild was being admonished (never mind that the one admonishing was his beloved daughter!).
What are memories, after all? He challenged me from the picture frame to go deeper into inquiry. Thoughts, of course. And they arise now. They aren’t actually events happening now. And they will always be available. Even if he was physically around, it would make no difference to these memories. I know this, because I’ve cherished them while being in the same room with him.
What about making more memories? Isn’t that what relationships are mostly about?
Any memories that “could” be made are speculations. They don’t exist. And as stated above, the quiet mind has no ability to speculate on imagined outcomes.
The greatest difficulty arises from not having a physical body to experience. I agonized over not being able to see his face, smell his cologne, hug him, pick out his clothes… On deep introspection, these are speculations too. I wasn’t able to see his face, smell his cologne, hug him or pick out his clothes all the time, except when we were together for brief periods. And although the heart mourned for what was lost, those memories were still there.
My mind had frozen him in these memory frames, but in reality, he and I and the world had changed constantly. He had aged. I had grown up. Our roles had reversed; somewhere along the way, I had become the caregiver. Even by the time I was in fifth grade, the second-grade memory was already an old memory frame. And although that memory frame remains fresh forty years later, it makes no sense to grieve it. It will always be fresh, even when I’m old and grey.
Do we really miss the person that leaves us, or do we miss not making more memories with them? When I sit down with this, I see that if I do away with memories and ideas about creating more memories, my dad has never left me. In fact, he is in my very DNA. And not just because of the genetic material he contributed to my cells. His teachings, his wisdom, his infectious laughter, his legendary sense of humor, and his kindness live on in me, having become part of me. But here’s the thing – even when they were shaping me, they were memories.
The actual interaction we have with someone is momentary. What lives on long after is the memory of it.
Fleeting interactions. Lasting memories. Memories are what make a home and a family, with its complex pot of love and conflict. Even when we live with someone for 50 years, the interactions we have with them are fleeting. The memories are what make the interactions last. And love is what makes the memories last. Love adds that soft filter to the memory frame, making the incident so deliciously sweet and worthy of recall decades after the event.
The love is here to stay. I’ll carry that love in my heart for the rest of my life, dispersing it widely along the way. Because that’s how my dad lived and made himself a part of my DNA and that of everyone he knew. He dispersed love in every interaction, adding that soft filter to every memory frame. And he lives on through the love that goes out through me into the world.
As I think of him with a smile on his birthday (he would have been 77 today), I feel a deep relaxation into knowing with certainty that we never really lose those that we love because they become assimilated into who we become.