My mom is luminescent. Her skin is paper thin now, so transparent that you can see the light of her shining through. Oliver says she looks like a glowing pupa, preparing to emerge from a cocoon. From time to time she twitches. Her limbs are bone thin, bent, and brittle as an insect’s. Her fingers curl like claws. Occasionally, a myoclonic spasm wracks her, and when it subsides, her hands lift as though on strings, reaching for something in the air. When she opens her eyes they are blind, but I believe she can see me. I believe she knows I’m sitting here beside her.
We’re all waiting. There’s no such thing as a dead person, Buddhists say. Only a dead body. I believe this is true.
Oliver’s image is accurate, too. Mom’s life force is pupal, curled and waiting for change. When the time comes, her spirit will shed the skin of this old body, but for now, she twitches in anticipation of her next incarnation. Maybe she will metamorphose into someone else’s mom. She was an excellent mother, and it would be nice if some other daughter or son could have the benefit of her for a lifetime.
“You’re the best mom I ever had,” I whisper into her ear.
It’s an old joke. I can see the curve of her cheek lift in what is left of her smile, or maybe I’m just imagining it.
She wasn’t always a mom. She came to it fairly late in life, after she had already gotten a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Yale. Her dissertation topic was “Eighth Century Japanese Verb Morphology.” She was forty years old when she married my father, forty-two when she had me, and after that, her career in linguistics dwindled and then died out altogether. It was the 1950’s after all. Women weren’t supposed to have careers and be wives and mothers, too, and besides, Yale wasn't hiring women.
Maybe now she’s finally done with mothering and will move on to something else.
A few weeks ago she moved beyond language entirely. Or was it earlier? I don’t remember. The unfolding of her illness has been so achingly protracted, as one by one her words began to disappear. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1997, but she’s been forgetting for much longer.
Here are the things she has forgotten: how to talk, how to eat, how to walk, how to sit down. When she forgets, you have to propel her, drawing her toward a chair, turning her around and pressing down upon her shoulders. Sometimes you have to reach down and press behind her knees. Eventually she sits, but it is always a struggle. Sitting scares her. Sitting is uncertain, an act of faith and courage, like bungee jumping.
Then again, some days she astonishes everyone, strolls out of her room on her own, sits down and feeds herself dinner.
But that was last week. She won’t astonish like that anymore, and neither will she forget. As I’ve been writing this, somewhere in between paragraphs or sentences or words, my mom has died.
It happened very quickly. Her eyes popped open, really wide, but this time I knew for sure she wasn’t seeing. Her breathing changed, becoming shallow and jagged. I put my arms around her. Oliver touched her forehead. Her eyelids fluttered and slowly closed, and the light began to drain from her face. The breath was leaving her, and for a while she hung there, subtle and liminal, and then she was gone. Her life was over, and this brutally terminal fact was both unimaginable and unacceptable.
How can this life, which has persisted here, on this earth, for over ninety years, be over? Just like that? The mind balks, refuses to accept this information. In moments in-between, the imagination trembles.
We stayed with her afterwards in case her spirit was still around. I bathed her, and Oliver helped me dress her. I tucked a couple of clean, folded tissues into the cuff of her shirt, where she liked to keep them. She was still warm. We sat beside her bed, sat zazen for a while, and then we told our memories of her. By the time we left, hours later, her body was cold.
That was on Monday night. The cremation took place on Friday. She didn’t want a funeral. She was ninety and had outlived most of her friends, and the ones who survived her lived far away. So it was just me and Oliver, come to see her off.
Several days had passed, and I was a little scared about how she might look, but when we were led into the anteroom of the crematorium, where she was laid out under a sheet in a cardboard box, I just felt really happy to see her again. We’d brought some of her favorite things to put in the box with her: photographs and letters and cards from friends and family; an old crocheted lap robe that she’d especially liked; her favorite sneakers and her mittens; a couple of bars of chocolate. Emory boards. Scotch tape. A watercolor painting. Flowers. Oliver wanted tropical flowers, from Hawaii because she’d grown up there, so we’d bought anthuriums from Hilo, and ginger, and tea leaves and a big bird of paradise.
We pulled up a chair beside her and made a little altar with the flowers, and a card with her name, and a small statue of the Buddha that had belonged to her parents. I’d brought a photograph of my mom, taken when she was a young professor in Honolulu, looking beautiful and strong. We lit a candle and offered incense, and then we sat zazen again and chanted for her. The Ten Verses Of Infinite Life. The Heart Sutra—form is emptiness, emptiness is form…
When we were finished, we kissed her good bye, and she looked nice in the box with all her things. Comfortable. We called the funeral director. They wheeled her into the crematorium and put the top on the box, and we watched as they slid her into the retort, which looked like a giant kiln. We turned the dial to start it up. She was so tiny, the director said, only 74 pounds, it wouldn’t take long. A couple of hours. We could pick up her ashes after two.
We took a walk around the memorial garden outside, which was next to the funeral home. It was a beautiful morning. The Pacific sky was streaked with clouds, but the sun was shining through, and everything was wet and sparkling and golden. Big Douglas firs, the kind my mom used to love, surrounded the garden. All the deciduous trees had turned colors, and their yellow and orange foliage looked brilliant against the darkness of the conifers. The grass was littered with bright fallen leaves. We walked around the pond, following the path until we could see the chimney of the crematorium. We watched for a while. There was no smoke coming from it, but we could see a dense column of shimmering heat, which was all that was left of my mother’s body as she became air. Oliver said that in this form she could ride the jet stream back to Hilo. I liked that.
My mom was exceedingly practical. She was a woman who didn't go to her own mother's funeral because she thought it was silly to travel all the way back to Japan to sit on her knees on the floor in a cold temple, when her mother was already dead. She feared she’d become so Americanized that she wouldn’t know how to behave at a Buddhist funeral, and she didn’t want to embarrass the relatives. Mostly, though, ceremony didn't mean much to her. She was practical and entirely unsentimental.
If my mom had a spiritual practice, I never knew about it. Her parents, my grandparents, were both Buddhists, and I used to tell her about my Zen meditation retreats. She always listened with interest, but I could tell she thought it was odd, as though meditation were a recessive trait, a kind of atavistic tug toward the ancestral faith. To her, I was the Zen equivalent of a Born-Again.
Still, in her attitude toward life, you could sense the early influence that Buddhism must have had on her. When we used to talk about her Alzheimer’s or her cancer, I’d ask her if she was worried, and her response was always this:
“If worrying would cure me, I would worry as much as I could. But it won’t, so why should I worry?”
This wasn’t denial. She acknowledged that the world was often a sad place, and life was full of suffering. She simply felt it wasn't necessary to dwell on it.
"If being sad could change the situation, I would be sad. But it won't change anything, so why should I be sad? It's better to be happy."
You’re absolutely right, mom. I’ll try to remember that.
Masako Yokoyama Lounsbury, 1914 - 2004