I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”
(From Mary Oliver’s In Blackwater Woods)
To me, living mindfully is living inside the space of what actually is, instead of what we think it should be. It took me years of pain to learn this. Yet, I believe grace and pain are two sides of the same coin. We cannot have one without the other.
Years ago, I began to watch my mother slip away from Alzheimer’s. In an attempt to heal the broken fragments of my heart, I started seeing a Buddhist therapist. His Upper West Side apartment was home to an art mural as large as the wall itself. It was a painting of different colored dots. That’s all.
Sitting in front of him, I did not know where to begin. So I told him about my mother. About the cupboards she would not close and the toilets she would not flush. About her obsession with writing things down. How she would call me fifteen times a day begging me to remind her how to turn a light on, or give her my phone number again (which she had just dialed).
I spoke of the car crashes, the calls from the police, how I had to take her license away. How she screamed at me when I came home, because she was frightened. Sometimes it is the people we love the most who we hurt the most.
I didn’t know then how many more layers of my mother would fall away.
Soon I would have to remove her from her home.
More and more came that I could not control.
My mother was leaving me.
She could not write my name.
Sometimes she could not say it.
Funny how we never know the sweetness of something until it’s gone.
My therapist would listen to all this, and he would not say anything for a long time. Finally he said, “You must cultivate more spaces in between thoughts. In the spaces, the gaps, you will find your sanity.”
So I began practicing meditation.
I did not know that in training my mind to live more in the gap, rather than the thoughts, I would also be training myself to be with my mother as she WAS, not as I wished her to be. Grace happens when we surrender.
My mother and I loved going to the ocean together It was a tradition we continued after my father died. A year into my mother’s diagnosis, I planned a trip to Cape Cod. She used a walker because the Alzheimer’s had targeted her parietal lobe, making it difficult for her to walk and see and relate spatially to her surroundings.
Once settled into the B&B, I somehow got us, her walker, two beach chairs and a big bag onto the beach. God was helping me on that one (and yes I believe in God). It was noon and the August sun beat down hard. We found some cover under a tarp with picnic tables. I set my mom up there with her books and magazines and gave her a popsicle.
“I’m right here mom,” I said, pointing to the sand just a few feet away.
“Before you lay in the sand, can you find my notebook?” she asked.
A former college professor, her notebook was her sacred object. She kept every person’s name, number, and address, as well random pieces of papers in there. Her handwriting was not even legible, but she stubbornly wrote down things she was afraid she would forget constantly. She insisted on having it with her at all times.
I dug it out for her. Then I lay down. The hot sun felt so good.
I suddenly jolted up to the sound of my mother screaming.
I looked up and there she was. Fervently sweeping her arms across the blue sky, reaching high, then low turning in circles, her hands frantically trying to reach out and grab the pages that swirled in wild, ecstatic motion.
Her notebook had blown away. Page upon page, floating out to sea.
I got up and tried to catch the papers, too. We frantically kept reaching, but I finally stopped.
The pages couldn’t be caught.
Just like her mind couldn’t be caught.
They were both leaving us.
The colors of the ocean. The green of my mother’s eyes. The sound of her laughter. The whiteness of the pages against the different colored sailboats in the background are vivid in my mind.
Last December, a decade later from that day at the beach, I rocked my dying mother in my arms at hospice. Pneumonia had come quickly and she was septic. It had affected her organs. She would not live long.
I believe she stayed long enough for me to tell her,
“It’s Ok, Mama. You can go. I will be all right. You have made me so strong. We must let go. It’s all right.”
Within the hour, she was released from her tired body.
A few months before, I’d burst into her room at the nursing home with a plant, singing, cleaning her room. I sang loudly. I cleaned fervently. It was a way to feel like I had control, when I had none. A way to channel my pain, my fear.
My mother sat in her wheelchair and warmly, like a mother soothing her little baby in the crib, said, ‘shhhhhhhh.”
She was always teaching me to just be with her.
Just be with her.
Being is enough.
(Ram Dass says we are all just walking each other home.
I think it’s true).
Rachel is a NYC-based professional actress and yoga teacher. She has taught yoga to inner city youth in the Bronx, people suffering with dementia, playwrights and artists at the New Dramatists, and in several office spaces. She has yoga certifications from Liberation Prison Yoga, where she worked with women just released from Rikers Island, Yoga Works and Anatomy Studies for Yoga Teachers. She also completed intensive meditation and pranayama training at Jivamukti Yoga School and the Shambhala Center.