Jacqueline Kramer, author of Buddha Mom-the Path of Mindful Mothering and 10 Spiritual Practices for Busy parents, has been studying and practicing Buddhism for over 30 years in the Sri Lankan Theravadin tradition and Zen for 8 years. When she became pregnant with her daughter she applied Buddhist principles to her pregnancy, birthing and mothering to good effect. This led to her books and teachings. In 2008 Jacqueline received the Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award at the U.N. day for women in Thailand for her work teaching Buddhism to mothers. She is the director of the Hearth Foundation – www.hearth-foundation.org, which offers online lay Buddhist practice classes designed for mothers, a monthly newsletter and other resources for today’s mothers seeking spiritual support and inspiration. Hearth has students in Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, Europe, the US, Canada and throughout the world. She is past vice president of Alliance for Bikkhunis, has been on their editorial board, and actively supports female monasticism. Jacqueline is currently studying koans with John Tarrant, writing on femininity and Buddhsim for Turning Wheel, and other magazines, and developing teachings informed by feminine spirituality. Jacqueline lives in Sonoma County, California.
My friend Marcie lay dying in an intensive care unit high on top of a San Francisco hill. I met Marcie about two years ago. We hit it off right away but didn’t have the opportunity to get to know each other very well before she discovered she had leukemia. She was fighting to stay alive for most of our short time together. It’s interesting how life delivered us to one another, so intimately, during this short sacred time.
Her husband, John, arranged for people to stay with Marcie in the hospital night and day so that when she opened her eyes someone would be there. Friday was my night. While preparing to leave for the hospital I packed a number of books-some poetry, the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and, remembering how we shared an interest in feminine spirituality, a book of women’s enlightenment poems. I came prepared to read to her, be silent or anything else she might choose. Marcie chose silence so I curled up on the hard, plastic chair in that small cubicle with thin curtains separating us from an other worldly mix of patients struggling for their lives and young nurses and interns talking often and loudly to a background of beeping machines. I tried to sleep whenever Marcie dozed off. Every couple of hours an eager young nurse came in, turned on the bright lights and talked to Marcie in a loud voice. “I’m giving you some medicine to raise your blood pressure. Your doctors said, because of your infection, your blood pressure needs to be brought up, not down”, and other information Marcie did not need to be woken up at 2AM to hear. I remembered, from my days in nursing school, how nurses are taught to describe what they are doing and get the patient’s permission before executing any invasive procedure. Marcie’s young nurse was dutifully performing what she had learned in nursing school but she had not yet learned how to abandon the good for the better.
I have a tendency to want to fix things. I noticed this tendency rear its head up as I sat in silence with Marcie. What could I say to my friend who was dying? She was in excruciating pain, she couldn’t speak because of a tracheal tube inserted in her throat and she was transitioning from fighting to stay alive to letting go of the life she loved. I stroked her head and looked into her eyes. When her eyes closed and her breathing became even I went back to my hard plastic seat and tried to get some sleep. Each time I dipped into unconsciousness I dreamed of Marcie- dreams in which she woke up, well, rested and beautiful. We were spending a wordless, intimate evening together. I let my intuition lead the way and, through an emptiness of instructions, it guided me to just be there. I don’t know whether our time together was helpful to Marcie or not but, in this practice of listening closely in order to discern the next move and follow that move with confidence, I trusted that this was what was needed.
My shift was up at 6AM. Looking Marcie in the eyes I said, “This is the hardest part you’re going through now. Things will shift, it will get light and beautiful.” I know this is true but somehow, looking into Marcie’s doubtful face as she lay there in the middle of the worst part, I had trouble saying so with confidence. She closed her eyes. I walked out of the cubicle, through the electric doors of the ICU, down the elevator and out the automatic glass doors to the street.
Walking to the hospital parking lot, I felt the cold air on my face. It felt like ice cream and new growth ferns. Driving down the hill I saw a guy taking out his garbage on 19th avenue. I wondered if he had any idea how lucky he was to be able to go outside and shelep his garbage to the curb. This fresh intimacy with death brought the treasures of life into sharp relief. It reminded me of how things look when I open my eyes after meditation. Everything was crisp, clear, alive.
Is it any wonder that the Buddha talked extensively about death and offered a variety of contemplations on death? Monks and nuns were guided to meditate in burial grounds and picture their body parts, one by one, oozing, stiff and malodorous, not to be gross, but to create a visceral awareness of the body’s impermanence. What better way to experience impermanence and be reminded to cherish this brief time in a body than to contemplate the day when it will no longer be there. As I drove through San Francisco on that crystal clear morning, part of me remained with Marcie in the ICU. The contrast between that small, dark room filled with medical equipment and stale air, and a blue sky meeting the turquoise bay sprinkled with a burnt orange Golden Gate Bridge, buildings snug up against one another, offices and shops, people running to get their morning coffee from local roasters, and the smell of green parks, and wet sod was striking. Everything was alive and beautiful! I saw a construction worker on the bridge, his steamy breath hit the morning chill, and I wondered whether he appreciated being out in the fresh air, working, moving his limbs, smelling the pines and garbage.
On the other side of this strange blessing bestowed by an evening spent with my dying friend was a cherishing of the passing moments. Rather than being morbid or depressing, the experience actually helped me see everything in my life more clearly, listen to my next move more closely, appreciate being myself more fully. There is nothing left to hang onto when we are jolted into the realization that we will eventually loose everything. Our life goes by so quickly, how much of it is merely walked through, not really lived? How much time is wasted trying to change ourselves and others, thinking about what we wish we had or wish we didn’t have, or just being spaced out. When we become aware, really aware, that our time is running out, whether it be in minutes, hours, days, years or decades, we are not so apt to waste what little time there is and more apt to cherish the moments. Taking out the trash becomes an act of gratitude for feet that can walk.Marcie died less than a week after our visit. I am grateful to her for allowing me to share in her passing. It’s human to turn death into an abstraction, to not really believe it will happen to us. Being with Marcie reminded me, down to my bones, to fully appreciate the reality of this precious human opportunity, just as it is.