Friday, March 2, 2012

Forgetting and Remembering - Others as the Buddha

Don't try to be too wise; don't always try to search for something profound to say. You don't have to do or say anything to make things better. Just be there as fully as you can. And if you are feeling a lot of anxiety and fear, and don't know what to do, admit that openly to the dying person and ask his or her help.

From The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche

I was surprised that the “Caregiver’s Guide” pamphlet from the hospice service (providing care to my sister dying of cancer in Texas – see previous blog entry) had two quotes from recognizably Buddhist writers – one was Jack Kornfield and the other Sogyal Rinpoche. The latter’s quote in the pamphlet was short so I Googled it to read a fuller version (see

Being here fully is just not happening. I find myself forgetting every little thing, even things that used to be routine with me. I try to write down important things dealing with my sister’s care, but the sheets of paper and sticky notes are all piled here and there in disarray – as the to-do list gets longer. And I’m not talking to my sister about my fears and anxieties, since she lets me know she has enough on her mind and doesn’t want to hear my troubles.

As much as we say we want to be “there” for someone – we are elsewhere a lot of the time. And the internet makes it easy to be other places mentally while you are physically in one place. I’ve been taking care of a lot of temple correspondence by e-mail, mostly about the Buddhism Intro class which I’ve postponed a week. Yesterday my husband e-mailed me a scan of the handwritten note sent to me by a temple member, Mr. J, an elderly Japanese American.

When I read Mr. J’s note I realized I completely forgot about performing a memorial service on the anniversary of his wife’s death as he had requested a month ago. Mr. J had been hospitalized for a while and was not up for the drive from the western suburbs to the temple, so I offered to go to his house to do the memorial service and asked his son to set it up. The son called me later and said his father didn’t want that and so I intended to comply with Mr. J’s original instructions to just do the chanting on the date without his presence.

(Photo by Joanne Kamo)

As it turned out I had to come to Texas to deal with my sister’s declining health and the memorial date of Mr. J’s wife had come and gone. Mr. J wrote the note as a reminder to me of his original request but he began reminiscing about her death twelve years ago: “I took her to the hospital for heart valve replacement. We had never thought it would be the end that night. We made a recovery room for her by the window so she can see birds and squirrels. Never entered our mind of the outcome that day. I thank you for being there that night.”

That night when my husband and I went to the hospital we saw Mrs. J was unconscious and hooked up to a breathing machine. At one point the family said it was getting late for us and nothing much was happening – I wanted to go home and get to bed but my husband said he had a feeling we should stay a little longer. We stayed and maybe it was about an hour or so later when I saw the monitor by Mrs. J’s bed go “flatline” and the alarm went off. It was the first time I was in the presence of a person at the moment of death. After the medical personnel completed their procedures, the family gathered around Mrs. J’s body and I conducted the Makura-gyo (“pillow sutra”) service. [Customarily the service is done within a day after the death since ministers are called after the fact and often end up doing the service at the funeral home.]

After reading Mr. J’s note, I got out the chanting pages I tuck away in my appointment book and I went to a window in my sister’s house that looks out on her back yard, thinking of the recovery room Mrs. J’s family had set up for her. I saw birds landing and flying around the patio with all the plants my sister had cared for. I didn’t have a bell with me, so for the gong-striking parts of the chant, I tapped with my fingers on a metallic angel figure that was by the window. A couple days late, but I performed the memorial service for Mrs. J – grateful to be reminded of what I had forgotten: tariki, the power beyond self.

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