My mother sang and laughed. She had dark hair that gradually turned silver. She felt that no matter how little the money or how bad the loss, it was OK to have fun.
She loved a good joke, but her sarcastic tongue could strip you naked on the spot. When my niece turned sixteen and started wearing tight slacks, my mother would say, in front of company, “What are you wearing those pants up into the crack of your ass for? You’ll get them all brown.”
Feeling my way toward some understanding of the mystery of death, I find that I must begin by talking about my mother. She was my beginning, at least in this life. Her appearance in my room immediately after she died in a hospital, one-hundred-eighty miles away, was the only time I can say with certainty that I interacted with a “ghost” while I was wide awake. For me, this amounts to experiential proof that the mind continues beyond the body.
The emotional current between us turned out to be far stronger and richer than I ever knew; yet it remained largely unspoken, until a month before she passed away. In our old family photos, my father and brothers are relating to the camera; my mother and I are relating to each other. I am astonished, now, to go back through those albums and see how often this is true: with six or eight people in the picture, I am nearly always standing beside her; she tousles my hair, we grin at each other, I lean on her shoulder, she puts her arm around my waist.
In my late twenties I dreamed that I saw her in the moment when she first knew she was carrying me. It was a multi-layered dream that began as an anxiety drama about taking a personality test for employment, which I rejected, fleeing through eighteenth-century velvet-lined French provincial drawing rooms, up grand staircases, pursued by test wardens determined to track me down and lock me away. I kept waking into another level of dream, believing each time that I had really awakened.
In a second level, I had a serious auto accident and woke to a third level, in a hospital by the sea. My father told me that I had been in a coma for six months. I panicked and got up to leave, against his advice. Outside the hospital, everything was from the 1940s: the cars, the shops, the fashions in the windows. I went into a bank and saw my mother as a young woman, preparing to make a withdrawal. I caught her eye, and a look of recognition began to brighten her face, as though we were lovers long separated by circumstances beyond our control, discovering each other by accident in a crowd. Then, as when you find that you have made a mistake, and the face you see is only a stranger’s, the recognition was held back, and she stepped into the line in front of the teller’s cage. She did not know me yet — but I knew her. At that moment I realized she was pregnant with me.
Then I found my grandmother in church; I asked her who she was, and if her daughter’s name was Emily (my mother), and if Emily had a son (my older brother) who was almost four years old. She answered yes, yes. I raised my index finger dramatically: I was going to reveal my name and birthdate, becoming the first baby in history to make his own birth announcement. I had just said the words, “Well, I . . .” when a man in black, slipping out of the pew behind us, raised his index finger dramatically, parodying my gesture, and said, “Well, you . . . better go back where you came from.”
Instantaneously I woke up, with total recall at every level of a dream that felt like it had lasted for months. I had not been in a coma after all, and it took me several minutes to realize that I was home in bed. It was late afternoon. I wept, and every hair on my body stood up straight.
During the next fourteen years after the dream, I was divorced twice. My mother loved my first wife like a daughter and took our separation very hard; indeed, she had watched us grow up together and fall in love. She plied me with heart-rending tales of how my toddler son wailed for his father; the one time that I complained about paying child support, she said, “Don’t you want those children to have shoes for their feet and mittens for their little hands?”
“Hello,” she would say, calling me on the phone, “do you know who this is?”
“Of course, Ma, how could I not know that?”
She used to make surprise visits to my messy apartment when I was sunk in depression, and say, “This place is a mess. Why don’t you have your girlfriends do your dishes for you? And why haven’t you been down to see me lately?”
“Big doings, Ma.”
“Big doings, I know about your big doings. Big screwings, you mean. You can fool those young women, but you can’t fool your mother.”
She eyed the length of my trousers, which were a bit short. “Wearin’ your flood pants again?”
She raised four boys. The two youngest were adopted; she lost her third baby a few years after having me, and was unable to conceive again. The older of the adopted children was an emotionally disturbed orphan who used to bang his own head deliberately, until blood poured out of his nose, and the kitchen looked like we had slaughtered a goat on the floor. No one else wanted this child; my mother took him so that he would not be sent to an institution, where, she felt, he would get no love at all. Confronted with his terrifying head-banging tantrums, which others had been unable to cure, she simply filled a saucepan with cold water and pitched it into his face. The surprise created a momentary gap of silence.
“There now,” she said. “Are you gonna be quiet?”
“Yeah,” he whimpered, clutching a ragdoll.
“OK, open your mouth and let me feed you.”
He did. She dried his face with a towel and put ice on his flattened nose and split lips. Within a few weeks, she had broken him of the tantrums. He would follow her around, clinging to her skirt, and he screamed pitifully if she went out of his sight. He called her “Moo.” He could not yet say “Ma.”
Children were the center of her life, but even so, we must have been a lot of work, and she was not uniformly happy about that. When I was twelve, she said to me, “I read a story once about this old woman who was always cooking and cleaning to feed this great gang of boys, and all their dogs, until one day she dropped dead in the yard, and the dogs ate her corpse. So even in death she was still feeding them. Is that what’s gonna happen to me, when I’m worn out and can’t work anymore?”
Once, we saw a sci-fi movie about a meat-eating plant, raised in a laboratory, that grew uncontrollably and kept yelling, “Feed me! Feed me!” It broke the doors down and began eating the lab assistants. After that, whenever we clomped into the house saying, “Hey Ma, what’s for supper?” she would wave her arms like tentacles, imitating the plant, growling, “Feed me, Ma! Feed me!”
Yet, after we grew up, she took her grandchildren as often as she could get her hands on them. She brought up one of her granddaughters, and took my oldest son every summer for five years. When he was a baby, she used to wheel him around town in a carriage, delighted because onlookers sometimes thought he was hers. “It must be so nice to have a baby this late in life,” they would say to her.
“Yeah,” she nodded, giving my first wife a grateful, conspiratorial wink.
“Imagine the poor children of the world who have no mothers and eat out of some garbage dump!” she used to say, watching television coverage of Biafra and Vietnam. “Oh! It twists my insides just to think of it!”
Brian, my youngest adopted brother, grew up to be a drug addict and small-scale dealer, and broke her heart many times. He was a difficult child — hyperactive, sleepless, uncontrollable, handsome. They had screaming battles that left both of them in tears. He was the infant whom she took to replace her third baby, who had died at birth; her history with him was all the more painful and poignant for that reason. During his period as an addict, when he had sunk to the bottom — having gone so far as to steal her diamond ring for drugs — my father used to nail the windows shut to keep him from entering the house. My mother would unlock the cellar window so Brian could sneak in and sleep on the couch, in case he had nowhere else to go. Sometimes he was so stoned he would leave shopping bags full of pot in the middle of the living room; she hid them for him, to prevent my father from handing them over to the police.
After Brian was allowed to return, she never knew whether to set a plate for him at the supper table: he was so impulsive, he might decide to take off for Mexico on his way to work. He borrowed money from her often; taking her last ten dollars, he would say, “Blessings, Ma, blessings.”
He went through numerous rehabilitations and religious conversions. Taking a sudden trip to the west coast, he was killed in a car accident at the age of twenty-eight. She dabbed at her eyes for a while, and then some kind of utterly unsentimental, panoramic resignation passed over her face, as though she were seeing his whole life in an instant, from the day the state social worker first placed him in her arms. “One thing we know now for sure,” said my mother. “Brian won’t be home for supper.”
She kept his picture in the dining room. Every year, she sent anonymous donations to the church that had helped him, accompanied by a one-word note: “Blessings.”
The most enduring tragedy of her life was her marriage. It was not a marriage, but a war that lasted forty-nine years, interrupted by periods of truce.
My father cared deeply about his children. He held jobs even during the Depression. He fed and clothed us, paid the rent, helped us in school; but he was domineering to my mother, and seductive toward her friends. She tried to leave him several times, but always came back, saying, “Here I am, boys. I’m all bark and no bite.” During one of their worst arguments, my father dragged her down the stairs by the feet to make her “listen to reason.” She went limp. As her head bounced on each step, she said, “Do you think this is a dignified example of decency and family happiness to set for our children?”
After twenty adult years of laying doctrinal and ideological trips on her, finally, speaking quite simply out of my own experience of pain, I had managed to say something that she could use and respect.
More and more, she began to rely on me for a listening ear. When I arrived for a visit, she would wait until everyone else had greeted me; then she would pour a drink and sit me down at the kitchen table and talk. She would talk for as long as I would sit still. My mother did not lack for friends, but she wanted me for an audience. She told me innumerable stories of her family history, handed down for generations in Nova Scotia, her frustrations in her marriage, her jokes, the books that she read, her opinions of everyone in the family. If my father interrupted to challenge her, she held up a middle finger and said, “That’s for you.” Then she turned it sideways and added, “That’s for your horse.”
Through the years of listening to her, I usually tried to draw her into whatever system of ideas I had decided was the magical solution to human suffering during that period of my life. As a young man, I wanted to make her over into a Socialist. Later, I wanted to convert her to Buddhism. She would listen to my rap long enough to get the essential message, and then respond with a needle-sharp comment that exposed the self-deception and aggression concealed within the panacea:
“Come the Revolution — whether you like it or not — you’ll have peaches and cream.”
“No, Ma, you’re missing the point.”
“Well, dear, whatever you are is fine with me. If you kill anybody, they probably deserve to die. But are you gonna take care of your poor mother in her old age?”
After I began to practice meditation, she used to introduce me as “my son the guru.” She said, “Will you teach me how to levitate, dear? Come to think of it, teach your father, he hasn’t risen for the last ten years.”
I gave her books that I thought would help, by Wayne Dyer, Simone de Beauvoir, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
“Hello,” she said, calling me on the phone, “do you know who this is?”
“Ma, I would know your voice anywhere.”
“I thought you would like to know that in my humble opinion, that Wayne Dyer is dynamite. You’ve created a revolution around here, let me tell you. I don’t need anyone’s approval, they can all kiss my arse.”
Sometimes we talked about death. She believed in ghosts and claimed to have received messages from dead relatives through spiritualist mediums. I remained skeptical. “When I’m dead, you’ll feel me around,” she said. “I’ll haunt you for a while, you’ll know I’m here.”
In her sixties, wearing bifocals and floral pants-suits, she grew obsessively bitter about old age, and about having to spend it with my father.
“Imagine,” she said, “him not allowing me to kiss that little baby before I had to give it up to be buried forever in the ground!” After thirty-five years, she was brooding still about the loss of her third child. “And I put up with that! I let him do that to me!”
She turned to me and said, “How can I stand him, Steve? I have no connection with him at all. The older he gets, the worse he is. He used to have some good qualities. Sometimes we could sit alone together and he would read to me. There was some kind of softness in him I could touch. That’s all gone. Nothing but that ugliness is left. He’ll live a long time. Those old Butterfields, they drink and smoke and swear and fart and they live forever — they’re pickled in their own nastiness. And their feet stink. My God, when he takes off his shoes, you just about have to hold a rag over your face. And he won’t take a bath. The more I nag him about it, the longer he waits. His father was the same way. I’m surprised Clara didn’t brew him a hemlock tea. Old Dad Butterfield. Used to come in fresh from the barn, boots all covered with rabbit shit, stinking to high heaven, and he’d say, ‘Woman! Lie down on the bed and lift up your dress. That’s all you’re good for! That’s all any woman is good for!’ I won’t live that long anyway. I got so tired of taking care of my mother, I wanted her to drop dead. These old people that have the nerve to live on and on — what the hell for? They can’t feed themselves, they can’t go to the toilet by themselves — why don’t they have the decency to die?”
“Basically, Ma,” I said, “old age sucks.”
She touched my arm. “I went to let out a little gas in the mall the other day — I was shopping for a new outfit for Jenny — and guess what? It wasn’t gas.” She laughed sheepishly.
“Do you want a divorce? If you wanted to consider that, I would help you. I’m an expert on it by now.”
“Well, I talked that over with my doctor. He calls it geriatric divorce. We’d be giving up a lot. You know, we still have a seven-percent mortgage on this house. You can’t find anything for that money. I’d be in some little apartment, and I wouldn’t have my garden and my cats, and your father does serve me breakfast and tea. I was always thinking, ‘It will get better, when you kids get into high school, when I start my job, when I retire.’ Now here I am, at the end of the line, and what have I got? I go to the store and shit my pants, and come home and smell your father’s feet.”
“Listen, my dear,” she said to the granddaughter she had raised, “take the cash and let the credit go. Make your fortune while you still have a body to make it with. That’s what I would do if I had it to do over again. Now I couldn’t make twenty-five cents in an army camp.”
My father fell off a ladder and lay on the ground clutching his heart. My mother walked toward him, slowly. “Well?” she said. “Are you dead or alive?”
“I’ll live to see you into your grave,” he said. “You can depend on it.”
He went into the hospital for a heart bypass operation. He was also in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, a fact which my mother had long known, but could not get her children to accept. She wanted to have his brain scanned. My older brother was adamantly opposed to this, fearing that she was trying to railroad our father into a nursing home in order to get control of their house. She was crushed and turned to me for support.
Instead of responding to my mother’s need very simply, with unconditional affection, I chose that moment to tell her that she and my father had tried to draw us into their marital quarrels for forty years, and I would not take sides. I loved both of them, I told her; I loved her very much, but I did not want to be lined up against anyone else. My focus was on myself and my own position as a child with divided loyalties, rather than on her. This was hardly a crime, but it was something much less than the selfless love I might have offered.
Her eyes filled with tears. She said, “You’re all ingrates, every one of you. I should have had daughters. You wait, I’ll croak first and you boys will have to look after him. See how you like that.”
Soon after this incident, I learned that I had sarcoidosis, a disabling and degenerative lung disease. She was keenly interested in the symptoms and asked me about them on every visit. “How is your chest?” she nagged. “Have you been to the doctor about your lungs? What did he say? Are you taking care of yourself? You’re not still smoking, I hope.”
After my father recovered, she had a heart attack and lay in her bed all night, quietly, with a dying heart. In the morning she went to the hospital. I visited her there. My father came in. He had forgotten to buy the Valentine’s Day cards she had asked him for, and he hadn’t made their Medex premium payment. Even with one-third of her heart muscle dead, she was fixated on getting Valentine cards out to the children and grandchildren. She and my father began to fight. I ordered them to stop, and he left. She turned toward me and said, “You see how he is? He’ll never change. I’m just gonna go home, and watch the spring come in, and take care of my flowers, and plan how to kill him.”
I held her hand. I said, “Mother, please, you have to let go of this hatred. It’s killing you. I don’t want to lose you. I love you very much. Please let go of it.”
“I know, dear. I listen to what you say, but when I’m with him I can’t stop. I would have left him years ago but I couldn’t leave you kids. What would you boys have done with some old stepfather? He’s your father. I didn’t want to take him away from you. And I worry so much about the grandchildren.”
“Ma, we’re past forty now, our children are our responsibility, not yours. All that hatred and worry and anger inside of you, that is a child crying to be loved. If you saw an abandoned child crying in the street, you would give it love — that’s how you always were with us. You loved us and sacrificed for us and put us first for so long — now put yourself first. Love that child inside of you, the same way you have loved us. If you feel hatred, it’s all right. Forgive yourself. Hatred is pain. You’re a child in pain. Treat yourself the way you would care for one of us.”
She lay on her side, with her cheek resting on her hand, contemplating me quietly through her bifocals. “Thank you, dear, I’ll do what you say. Please take care of your chest.”
After twenty adult years of laying doctrinal and ideological trips on her, finally, speaking quite simply out of my own experience of pain, I had managed to say something that she could use and respect.
She came home and lay sick in bed. I went back to my home in Vermont. She called me on the phone. “Hello, dear, do you know who this is?”
“Ma, how could I not know that? How are you getting along with Dad? Are you still fighting? If you are, I’m gonna come and get you.” I had nothing to live in at the time but a single room with a futon on a bare plank floor.
“No, he’s been pretty good, I’ve got him waiting on me. That’s my revenge, you know. He has to give me baths and bring me all my meals in bed.”
She told my first wife, whom she still loved like a daughter, that I had promised I would come and get her if things stayed bad for her at home.
“Where would he take you?” my ex-wife laughed.
“Why,” said my mother, “to your house, of course.”
She wanted to know if I was coming for my birthday on March 17. I said I might be spending it with my first wife and the children, but I would come and visit her immediately afterward. She heard that as a “yes,” and had herself driven to the beauty parlor to get her hair fixed.
Coming into the world, my whole body passed through hers in that painful, insulting, screaming, singing, miraculous process called birth. The intimacy of sexual union seems almost casual by comparison.
Now there was a return to my old habit of holding back. I had driven a thousand miles that week, and I wanted to put off the one-hundred-eighty-mile trip for a few more days. “I might not be down until the 20th,” I said, but her voice sounded so querulously urgent that it was like a knife in my stomach.
On March 16 she had another heart attack and went into a coma. I drove at once to the hospital, where she was being kept alive by a breathing machine. Her heart was too weak to circulate the fluids in her tissues, and they were swelling up. I stood over the bed, looking down at the exposed fillings in her teeth, and the breasts, flat now, that had nourished me in the first year of my life.
I wanted to say volumes to her, but there was a lump in my throat, and my mind went blank. I spoke into her ear. All I could say was, “Please come back one more time and talk to me. I love you, Ma.” I wanted to plead with her to recover, but maybe she wanted to die. I had already told her to do what she wanted now, not what her children demanded of her. Who was I, at this moment, to burden her with another demand?
I returned the next day. Her eyes were fluttering and rolling beneath the lids, and she was sighing, occasionally, between the breaths controlled by the machine. I told her I had come down for my birthday after all. I said, “Ma, this is Steve; it’s the 17th of March and I’m here. Please come back one more time. But in case you don’t come back — thank you for the gift of life; it’s worth it. Go toward the bright lights, and have a good trip. I’m with you.” She didn’t wake up. Her eyes continued to roll, and her head moved.
My father was sitting in the living room, watching the Clancy Brothers on television. “She’s not coming back,” he said. “She’s gone. She’s dead as a doornail.” He sounded like he was talking about some old dog in the yard.
I went home. I wanted to be alone. I felt like I had been run over by a road grader. I lay down, and the memories began to click off one after the other. They were all infant memories that I had never been aware of before: my mother held me, tickled me, changed my diaper, sang to me, powdered my behind, gave me baths. Coming into the world, my whole body passed through hers in that painful, insulting, screaming, singing, miraculous process called birth. The intimacy of sexual union seems almost casual by comparison. For my birthday, because it was St. Patrick’s Day, she always gave me something green: green frosting on the cake, green cards, green candles, leprechauns peering over green shamrocks.
Then came the vivid memory of that strange dream: there she was again, standing in line at the bank, a young woman. She saw me for an instant and her face brightened with recognition. The scene froze: that beautiful face — a clear, eidetic image — was like a still shot at the end of a movie. Within five minutes my brother called. She had just died.
I lit my Buddhist shrine and sat down for meditation. I did a practice called tonglen, imagining her anxiety and pain as a black cloud, taking that into myself, and giving her white light in exchange. This is done on the medium of breath. Half a minute into the practice, my mother’s face appeared in a calyx of light, as though reflected inside a two-foot-wide rose. She came right up to where she was not only touching me, but merging with my flesh. The hairs on my arms tingled, and I felt a wave of momentary panic, thinking, My God, Ma, what are you gonna do to me? In the next instant I thought, Do whatever you want, just stay. She beamed into my chest, and suddenly my lungs opened up and I could inhale a full breath. Take care of your chest. The voice was hers. Then the light moved back, and disappeared. The effect on my lungs lasted for about an hour. I trembled all over, realizing, slowly, that she had transformed my birthday into the anniversary of her death. At long last, I understood the full meaning of the dream. Nothing she ever gave me, except life itself, was as precious as that.
At the funeral I noticed my suit pants in the mirror; they seemed a bit short. Still wearin’ your flood pants, huh?
My father gazed down at her face in the coffin. “After forty-nine years of yakkin’,” he said, “her mouth is finally sewed shut.”
Weeks later, he would narrate how, on the day before her death, she had gotten up, bathed, dressed, combed her hair, and come downstairs to the couch. (It was the last coherent anecdote he told me before his brain came entirely unstrung.)
“I didn’t know you could do that by yourself,” he said to her.
“I didn’t know either,” she said. “And I’ll tell you something else I’m gonna do. Now I’m gonna die.”
“You’re not gonna die!” he said, denying her reality, just as he had denied the death of their baby all those years before.
“You’ll know,” she said, “when it happens.”
I went walking up the railroad tracks near their house. I had walked there at age fourteen, grieving because my parents had just separated me from the girlfriend who would later become my first wife. They had feared that our adolescent passion for each other would result in a disastrous teen pregnancy. My mother had supported the decision, but she was also very kind to me; she was the only person who had a sense of humor about the whole event. “Remember, dear,” she said, “when temptation strikes, take yourself in hand.”
To my girlfriend she said, “A stiff prick knows no conscience.”
When she was past sixty, she said, “Take the advice of your old mother: when you’re old, and your balls are cold, you might want to diddle but it bends in the middle. . . .”
All of that, all of this whole story swept over me, and I realized that she had been dying for the last year, and I hadn’t wanted to see it. Not only that, but I had given her permission to die. I sat down beside the tracks, and did the same thing I had done twenty-nine years before: cried so hard I threw up in the grass.
Three weeks went by. In April, the flowers she had wanted to see were coming up in my father’s yard.
The phone rang. I answered. “Hello,” she said, “do you know who this is?”
“Ma, how could I not know that?”
She named off the children in the family whom I should “look after.” My son would need a new suit for his new job; I should take his baby more often to give his wife a rest, because their marriage was shaky. She chattered on; it was clear that she expected me to be her successor as everybody’s guardian angel. “It’s almost Easter,” she said, “and I just wanted to hear your voice.”
“Ma, you’re dead.”
She laughed gaily. “I know it!”
I woke up. It was early dawn. A cold April wind was blowing rain against the window. In the middle of the desolate field below was an empty chair.
Houdini went crazy when his mother died, chasing and exposing psychic mediums, re-enacting over and over the drama of struggle and escape from the womb, pushing his limits more and more dangerously close to death. I wanted to keep a lighter touch than that.
My mother always laughed at the Oedipus complex. “Remember Oedipus, dears,” she said to her sons, fluttering her eyelashes and raising her eyebrows comically, peering over her bifocals. “He loooooved his mutha!” As the months wore on, my passion for her became like fields of bright roses, blooming away from me in concentric waves; they kept weeping as they bloomed, and could not stop doing either long enough for me to know whether they symbolized grief or joy.
While these emotions pass through my mind again and again with the seasons, I yearn to understand the whole experience. This ordinary life in which she was my mother seems like a crossroads, an intersection of planes from several dimensions where we have different facets of our being.
The body is a temporary focus of energy, like the dot on a screen made by a subatomic quantum which our measurement causes to manifest as a “particle.” Released from the body, my mother’s mind behaves more like a wave, spreading out among her circle of family and friends. Immediately after death, she can appear as a light with a definite shape, and with enough focused energy to affect my lungs. Somewhat later, she can appear only in dreams, within settings that we shared together, such as the ritual telephone call. The wave of her being continues also in our memories, in these words, in the profound way that she stirred my heart and inspired the rest of my journey here.
All of her children and older grandchildren have seen her in dreams; the content of the dreams fits perfectly the nature of the connection she shared with each person in life, and usually communicates something that was left unsaid before she died. One might ask, in seeking to explain the phenomenon of the “ghost,” whether these appearances actually come from her mind, or whether they are simply projections of the still-living dreamer, catalyzed by the sense of loss and guilt that we all feel.
I think the best answer to this question is “both.” She could not appear without our complicity; but the personality, the mind, in the appearance is unmistakably hers. It is a powerful mind, with strong love, strong anger, abiding devotion to her children, deep appreciation for the truth of suffering, and a rich sense of humor that kept sparkling even during episodes of complete misery. Her face, her tone of voice and style of expression always come through very clearly in the dreams. She persists in our lives, like the warmth left from a fire that has gone out. Our memories are the medium; the manifestation which is “her” tunes in through the memories, just as she tuned in through our sense perceptions when she was alive.
She said we would feel her around after she died, and that was the truth: we do. I asked her to come back and talk with me again, and she did. She said we would have to take care of my senile father, and she was right. She wondered, jokingly, if she would be like the old woman eaten by the dogs, and in a sense we are eating her: we portioned out her things, used her money, and still feed on our memories of her to understand ourselves.
The connections and powers of mind must somehow precede time and space for all this to have happened. The accuracy of her predictions and my incarnational dream, repeating itself at the moment of my mother’s death, imply a shared psychic structure that transcends linear time.
Her instantaneous appearance in my room after she died suggests that, outside the body, physical space does not mean the same thing; distance may exist codependently with embodied forms, vanishing or transmuting when consciousness is no longer expressed through them. In the dimensions of speech and sound, for example, “space” becomes silence; in the dimensions of thought, perhaps it is nonconceptual awareness. In the dimensions of birth, death, creation, and change, it might be love.
My mother always laughed at the Oedipus complex. “Remember Oedipus, dears,” she said to her sons, fluttering her eyelashes and raising her eyebrows comically, peering over her bifocals. “He loooooved his mutha!”
When my mother died, immediately we began to repeat the patterns of our family system around the empty place that had been occupied by her: my older brother fought with my father, while I tried to make peace between them, just as we had done in our adolescence thirty years before; my younger, adopted brother (the orphan who used to bang his head on the floor) got drunk and came home to be taken care of, although our mother was no longer there to take care of him; my father, sliding deeper into Alzheimer’s disease, convinced himself that he was still holding a job, supporting everybody, and went to work scraping bark off old logs in the back yard.
Since there is no purpose for those patterns anymore, they disintegrate into the subsystems of our separate lives. New patterns emerge from them: a father who must be cared for, property that must be disposed of, emotional effects that must be contemplated and processed. My mother’s life has spread out into these new patterns, too.
Here and there, I can glimpse the meaning of rebirth without having to imagine a “soul” putting on bodies and taking them off like clothes. Personality is not an entity, but a pattern of reciprocal effects. The continuance of the pattern is what Buddhists mean by “rebirth.” Expressed in these terms, it can be observed and contemplated, like any other phase of life. Rebirth is quite real; we experience it moment to moment. It happens because we make it happen, like eating and sex. It is not an occult mystery, but an ordinary event.
Disembodied, the pattern of mind spreads out into various forms: light, archetypes, memories, dreams, visions, teachings, even weather effects. Vast minds, like those of Christ or Buddha, entering human history, spread without limit and are reborn over and over, simultaneously, in the lives of millions.
If my mother could manifest through intangible appearances, there is no reason why she could not manifest again through a living body. The body itself is another kind of pattern, and becomes real only in relationship to other forms.
A shining, vast, limitless, colorful, pulsating intelligence is released from the entire process, like heat from embers. My mother is a concentric field of roses: they are roses because of the all-embracing passion expressed through our unity and separation; they are widening concentric waves because the passion expands unconditionally; they bloom away from me because the impossibility of keeping her leaves a wake of loneliness; the roses are all on fire, because that pulsating intelligence is the truth, in relation to which “I” am only a single rainbow flame.
To hold nothing back; to let myself burn, until there is nothing left — this is meditation. In that light, the only way I can see her face is to open my eyes.
“Of Lineage and Love” [Issue 186] is a companion piece to this essay.