Ananda once said to the Buddha, “Lord, may you not pass away in this miserable little town of wattle-and-daub, right in the jungle in the back of beyond! . . . [T]here are other great cities . . . where they will provide for your funeral in proper style.”
“Ananda, don’t call it a miserable little town of wattle-and-daub, right in the jungle in the back of beyond!”
—Mahaparinibbana Sutta 5:17
In the dream, it is 1973. My father and I are bringing my mother’s body to the A&P grocery store. Fortunately, no one sees us carry her from the car to the market. It is twilight, or dawn. An in-between time.
It’s a crazy thing to do, but we are shocked and stricken. In the dream, as in life, she was only fifty when she died. I was eighteen. Little had prepared me for my mother’s stroke, happening so suddenly, on her birthday. For two weeks she lay brain dead, hooked up to a breathing machine until she died of pneumonia.
My father’s hand is curled inside mine, like a child’s. We have probably come to the A&P because of Ann, the cashier my mother always chose. In a few words or glances, the two women would let each other know how they each were doing, even though Ann’s hand would never stop punching the register and my mother would be plucking bills from her wallet. But there would be a moment at the end when Ann’s shiny brown eyes would look straight into my mother’s eyes and my mother would reach up a little self-consciously and touch her hair. This was how I knew they mattered to each other.
And so my father and I have come bearing my mother to this place where she mattered, in a friendly, commonplace way.
Inside the closed store, a stockboy sets aside his broom and meets us at the door. He wheels my mother away on a produce cart, as if this were the most ordinary situation in the world: a teenager and her father dropping off a corpse. After a while, we realize the cart has appeared beside the dumpsters near the back of the store. A royal blue cloth has been draped over it. I am grateful to the stockboy for that touch of blue.
When I had that dream, I was nearly the age my mother was when she died. Despite the dream’s oddness, it felt true to what I had actually experienced in the immediate aftermath of my mother’s death. It was all there: the sense of not knowing what to do, the desire to do something that would dignify my mother’s ordinary life, the difficulty of finding an appropriate form of grieving, my youthful inexperience. Gone were the things I found so awful at the real-life funeral—the smelly gladiolas; the reluctant minister scraping together a service for a woman he never knew; the lipstick on my mother’s mouth, poorly covering how its once lovely shape had been twisted by the mouthpiece of the ventilator.
As I recall the dream now, I can still feel its hope for a better ending. For many years, I yearned to redo my mother’s passing, to finally make it right. When, through my Buddhist practice, I came across the tale of Ananda urging his teacher to find a better place to die, I recognized myself. Like Ananda with the Buddha, I was wanting a “better” death and burial for my mother.
At eighteen, I had no idea how to arrange a funeral, never mind make it expressive or beautiful. My father and I fumbled our way through the paperwork, barely comprehending the formalities. When the mortician led us downstairs to the coffin showroom, at first all I could absorb was the sheen of fluorescent light on the plastic fibers of the indoor-outdoor carpeting. I peeked at the caskets, arranged from the least to most expensive in a baffling array of choices. There were brushed-metallic coffins in powder blue and pink champagne; there was finely polished maple, cherry, mahogany. Did we want lace? Pleated tucks? Cloth-covered buttons? Ruffles? Silk, satin or linen? How about a grave liner to protect the casket?
I turned to my father, who was as bewildered as I. What would my mother want, we wondered. My mother who was always skimping, repairing holes in her underwear even when she could afford to buy new. Yet recently, after years of saving, she had splurged on a cherrywood desk. My father and I mumbled together confusedly: a cherrywood coffin seemed both expensive and heartbreaking . . . but we chose it anyway. Later, it would be the one thing about this funeral that seemed right.
Nothing else did. I cringed for years whenever I thought of the eight-track speakers on the wall above the coffin, scratching out churchy organ music for my mother who hadn’t set foot in a service for years, who would probably have preferred Peggy Lee singing “Is That All There Is?”
Less than a week before my mother’s stroke, she and I had been puttering around her hospital room, getting her ready to go home in case the doctor gave his okay. She was recovering nicely, it seemed, from a major but supposedly not life-threatening surgery. The room felt almost cozy, and my mother was more cheerful than usual. Used to feeling isolated as a suburban housewife, she had been enjoying the company of the nurses, whom she’d been helping make beds when she’d regained her strength. I loved hearing her joke with them. I hadn’t seen so much vitality in her since I was little. I felt as though I had my mother back, out of her cocoon, unfurling like a monarch in full color.
She sat on the edge of the bed and said she wanted to tell me something, maybe the most important thing she had ever told me. She had her slippers in her hands, and as she gathered herself, she looked down at them, lining up the soles. I sat down nervously. My mother was not prone to pronouncements.
“I have always tried to teach you to plan ahead, to live for tomorrow,” she said. “Being in the hospital has made me realize that I was wrong—wrong in how I lived, and wrong in what I taught you.”
She looked straight into my eyes. “You have to live right now, in the present.”
I felt shaky inside. My mother rarely admitted she was wrong about anything, never mind her whole life! It was almost intolerable for me. I wanted to take her hand, reassure her that everything was all right.
I don’t know if I actually took her hand, but I do know I sat there next to her, letting the moment stand. There was nowhere else to go with it, except the rest of my life.
Later, remembering that moment, I would think of my mother as my first Dharma teacher.
She had her stroke a few days after that conversation.
Occasionally after her death, I created imaginary memorials for my mother. I pictured myself and my friends sculpting, painting and singing things both gritty and lovely. We would meditate too, then comb the fields for flowers that we’d weave into each other’s graying hair.
As time passed, and more of my peers faced mortality, I felt less alone with loss than I had at eighteen. My longing for better endings no longer seemed unique but rather part of the whole samsaric world of birth and death. That my mother or our family could not outrun, buy off, seduce or bargain away death, could not arrange it to our liking, was simply the way things were.
Still, when my Tibetan friend and thangka painting teacher, Jamyong Singye, invited a small group of students to join him on pilgrimage to Kathmandu Valley, I jumped at the opportunity. Our destination would be a sacred confluence of rivers regarded by both Buddhists and Hindus as one of the world’s most auspicious sites for cremation. Shakyamuni himself is said to bless the transition of those whose ashes are left at Teku Dhovan and those who offer some particle of their own or their loved ones’ living bodies.
For the next few months I collected snippets of hair, baby teeth, fur, feathers and nail trimmings from my dear ones, both human and animal. As I packed, I wondered, what would customs officials make of my little bundle? My mind kept drifting to photos of Tibetan sky burials: a corpse bundled onto the back of a mourner, blue Himalayan sky above. Yogin-butchers waiting beside a juniper fire, tools for flaying and dismembering in their hands. Vultures jostling each other, eager for bones.
This wasn’t what we were signing up for, but I found myself wishing that it were. I wanted something raw, thorough and effective.
In other words, something different from my mother’s burial.
And then I wanted to leave it behind.
When our minivan finally pulled up to the banks of the Bagmati River, it was a late afternoon in February. On my lap was a horsehead fiddle I had just bought. One of my travelmates had already sat on it and broken the strings.
We were exhausted from our hot afternoon in the narrow streets of Kathmandu amidst men with muscles like twisted iron wheeling bikes piled high with rags or greens; women in neon-bright saris crowding in at streetcorner shrines; beggar children with long dirty nails making hand-to-mouth gestures: Feed me! Cows, wild dogs, sadhus, rickshaw drivers. Everywhere, the sweat and urine smells of humanity.
At one point, we’d idled in traffic, eye-level with severed goat heads, chickens, slabs of meat piled high on a table and covered with flies and dust. We were on a pilgrimage to face dying, but this was a bit too fresh. For much of this trip I had been filled with vitality, but doubts were creeping in. I could sense my agoraphobic mother beside me, tapping out a Pall Mall on the heel of her hand.
What the hell are you doing here? she says.
We get out of the van and head for the nearly dry floodplain at Teku Dhovan. Music blares as we walk past a dozen men lounging on rock slabs, smoking, talking and playing boomboxes while watching their water buffalo.
Self-consciously, we pick our way over the rocks and between cowpies: five middle-aged white women, a four-year-old boy and Singye, our Tibetan friend, teacher, former monk. With no other women in sight, and certainly no Westerners, we are obviously the most happening thing around. Men get up to follow us, apparently egging each other on.
Off we go, a dozen of us now, trooping toward the junction of the Bagmati and Vishnumati, gravel crunching under our feet. Power lines cut the sky, which is a rosy ocher from smog and dust. I’m definitely getting a parking-lot feeling rather than a mountain high. But parallel to us, up on the riverbank, tendrils of smoke curl from a small cremation ghat, at first barely distinguishable from the mildew-streaked apartment buildings and cinderblock houses nearby. Then we see the tattered prayer flags blowing in the wind.
We walk on. The actual confluence of rivers suddenly comes into view, the Bagmati swilling lugubriously around the contours of the tired land, joining up with its little sister for extra umph and a darkening of currents. We stand on the bank, watching ribbons of water turn under and up.
“Okay,” says Singye. “I think this is good.”
He folds his hands and begins saying prayers in Tibetan. We each move off to whichever patch of gravel calls to us. I have my own little coterie of cattletenders, three of whom surround me as I rummage for my dear ones’ offerings, a conch shell and, most precious to me, a tissue with which I had dried the tears trickling from my mother’s eyes while she was in a coma.
I unfold my knife and snip off a lock of my own hair. The men laugh and talk, amused by my strange fumblings, near enough for me to see the pores of their skin and smell their breath. Suddenly face to face with my wish for things to be different, I try to stay with my task, but I am hardly close to the sanctified mood of my original intentions. We are the interlopers here, I remind myself, imagining how I might react if these guys came roaming through my workspace.
We are now experiencing technical difficulties too, for none of us has remembered to bring matches. Gerilyn digs up a lighter, which she thought she left behind. She has quit smoking on this trip, partly to honor her mother, who died of smoking-related causes, as did mine. Dedicating her lighter to this use is very satisfying.
I get out my cherished Kleenex, anchoring a corner of it under the conch since the wind is rising. I cup my hands around the flame, but the tissue doesn’t want to burn. I break into a sweat, for in addition to the men, I can feel my mother breathing down my neck.
What has all this mumbo-jumbo got to do with me? Don’t go to such lengths on my account!
I do eventually set my little offering on fire, but not without having to strike the lighter multiple times, first sheltering the flame with my body, then squatting down to the tissue. Up and down we go in this comical dance, me and the guys, whose companionship is beginning to grow on me. The ritual in which I imagined my mother’s tears and my own joining the ancient rivers of grief connecting all humanity is opening to unexpected tributaries of silliness bordering on the slapstick. No longer trying to let go or work through anything, I paw at the gravel, burying the remnants of hair and tissue that have refused to burn. My heart is lightened in a way I could never have designed so perfectly. Even my mother would have approved of the practicality, the swift efficiency of that liberation, after all those years of half-finished grief.
We are long gone down the road from the site, and halfway home to our monastery guesthouse, before it occurs to me that uncharacteristically, I have not looked back once since we pulled away. Instead, my attention is right in this moment with the horsehead fiddle and the kind Newari driver who has fixed it in our absence. I am simply sitting here in the back of beyond, holding the fiddle in my lap, absorbed in a sweet sense of repair.
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