With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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The past rushes into the room, breathless, dressed in something outrageous she just threw together. Only the past would show up this way.
More than twenty years as editor: big bite of nothing. And here I am, still chewing. Still confusing words with reality. Still convinced I’m loved for what I’ve accomplished, or because I’m a faithful husband (as long as I’m faithful).
Yesterday there was a funeral service at the church across the street. I learned that the man who died was exactly my age; his heart gave out in the middle of a family reunion.
“You look pretty shaky up there,” said the emperor of China to the Zen master sitting in a tree. “You look pretty shaky down there,” the master replied.
In Death’s big kitchen, there’s plenty of room for everyone to sit and talk. There’s always a pot of black tea and thick slices of something that tastes like bread.
For most of her life, my mother insisted on being the center of attention, on dominating every conversation. I avoided eating out with her because she’d insult the waiter or complain about the food. But, as her illness progressed, she became quieter and less argumentative. Even though she was occasionally confused, and struggled to find words and finish sentences, she seemed more peaceful. She expressed appreciation for little things, like being taken out to dinner. At the Chinese restaurant near the nursing home, I sat beside her; I fed her.
Burdened by her own life, how little comfort she took in mine. Yet her devotion was unwavering. As a child, I never missed a meal, always had clean clothes to wear to school, never had to suffer alone through an illness. Even as an adult, struggling to make it on my own, I could count on her help.
I’d forget that as a teenager she lost her mother to cancer. That she was abandoned by her father, raped by her uncle. That she had to drop out of school after the ninth grade and go to work. There was no therapist to help her deal with her confusion and her pain. She built her own defenses, built them so high that I often couldn’t see over them; so I built my own.
I couldn’t lay down my weapons. Well, my sword, but not my shield.
One morning, a month before she died, I felt her presence while I was meditating, as if she had slipped into the room. I started to cry. She’s close to death, I realized. Then I remembered, So am I. Here for just a moment.
Even though we decided on cremation, the mortician tried to sell us a hard-wood casket. Was choosing an inexpensive box a sign of disrespect? In Bali, corpses are burned in coffins carved into the shape of animals: half-elephants and half-fish for ordinary people; bulls for noblemen; winged lions for kings.
It surprised my sister that I wanted to accompany the body to the crematory. The mortician wasn’t overjoyed about it either. But I needed to see the coffin pushed into the furnace, the door slammed shut, the valve turned to ignite the flames. It made my mother’s death final, unarguable, more vivid than any metaphor.
To accept that life is meaningful is different from the futile attempt to assign meaning to it. “To not understand the meaning of anything,” Stephen Schwartz wrote, “can bring us profound joy. Fear comes from the meanings we ascribe to what we see.”
I dream that Stephen is showing me beautiful underwater rock formations. He explains that they aren’t the result of random forces, that nature isn’t soulless, that, just as these rocks are shaped by conscious intent, so are we.
I thought I could never understand my life unless I understood my mother’s life. How much I don’t understand, while this heart goes on beating.