Monday, November 17, 2014

The Gift of Tears

My mother, Leona Carroll Ireland, died 7 years ago. I was preparing for a talk tonight at the Portola Camp zendo about Hsiang-Yen, and remembered this piece that I wrote when my mother began what would be the last years of her life. I dedicate it to you, Mother, and to all our mothers.

May 10th, 2009 
I woke up this morning missing my mother who has been dead now for several years. Given the contentious quality of our relationship for most of our 60 years together, I am surprised that oftentimes I find tears in my eyes when I think of her. I still remember phone calls where she slammed down the receiver, our long periods of not speaking, her steely resolve that I was going to somehow go straight, and marry. We were locked in an absolute stalemate for almost 20 years.

In the last short years before she died, I got really lucky, or was blessed, when I was able to touch the pain these behaviors were covering. That alone took away their power to hurt, and allowed me to experience a kind of love that I could not have imagined. This is what I write about this Mother’s Day morning.

There is a famous story in zen about a monk, Hsiang-yen, who, by most standards applied to monks, was a failure. He worked away in his teacher's monastery expecting nothing - and he got nothing; he sat long hours in meditation - nothing; he did rounds of begging – right, again only scraps; he got thrown out of the hojo every time he presented himself before his teacher to check out how he was doing because he didn’t seem to be absorbing much. A hopeless case. So after many years of getting nowhere, his teacher died. Convinced that realization was beyond his capabilities, he retired to a remote temple where he tended his teacher’s grave. One day, the story continues, as he was raking the stones in the garden, (I like to imagine the ones you see in the fancy books with perfectly ordered lines in the rocks,) a small stone bounced off the garden wall with a Ping! Just that sound, and his mind gulped in all his training in a single instant, and he understood. He got his life.

Even someone who has never practiced long days of meditation can understand the appeal of this monk's story. Everyone I know has some dilemma like this in his or her life. For me my relationship with my mother was a huge conundrum. This is the story of how it began to unravel.

I flew to Tucson to be with my mother after her first serious heart episode. It was decided that she would get a pacemaker, that the doctor would electrically jolt her heart and, hopefully, restore a normal rhythm. 

Then the elements of a really bad melodrama unfold. My father’s disappeared for several days when he couldn't take anymore, my mother brawled with her sister and a buffed nursing attendant as she tried to put on her clothes to leave: she is going to go out into the street and hail a cab to take her home given that no one in her family seems willing to yield to her command and return her to a normal life. Eventually a compassionate case manager calmed her, and mother agreed to the procedure. The drama to follow can be a quick note in the margin: family crisis; harsh words exchanged in anger; the heart specialist looked like the 14 year prodigy, Doogie Howser M.D., on the TV (I’m not kidding. He really did look like a teenager). I started to laugh ... "this kid is going to thread electrodes to my mother’s heart? What is she going to think?” She thought he was cute and refused treatment in the operating room. Back to square one. That evening we try again.

Before her surgery, food and water are restricted. She can only have small ice shavings. I hold a plastic cup and gently spoon the ice shavings on her tongue. For what might be her last moments of life, I am with my mother, just her, just this spoonful, just this ice, just my breath and hers, just her pleasure in ice and water. It is very sweet and I feel like the good son. I hear the ice click against the side of the plastic cup as I scoop it up. If nothing else about zen meditation, it does train you to be present in the moment. And that moment I decide it will be enough, it will have to be enough, for this particular gay son and his mother.

The medical procedure goes as well as any scripted denouement on Doogie Howser. We couldn’t have hoped for more: the patient gets well; the family crisis is temporarily resolved when the stubborn mother agrees to go to the nursing home; the father returns, shaken, humbled but unharmed, forgiven and loved; my sister has taken over managing the mother’s care. And I board Frontier Air for the return trip to San Francisco.

After the exchange of pleasantries, I discover that my seatmates are going to San Francisco to be reunited with their birth mother whom they have never met (how could I make this up?), and I tell them that I have been at my mother’s sick bed. We are in flight. Staring out the window as we flew over the Rockies, across the desert and into the sky over Death Valley, I lapse into a brown study, and sit mesmerized by the wonder of the world. The flight attendant offers me a second Diet Coke with ice. My orphaned seat-mates pass it to me. I take a big gulp, and, when I swirl the ice around the cup, it clinks against the edge. In an instant my mind tumbles and I am no longer "me" in a plane over Death Valley, but I am in my mother’s life--I mean really, not some theoretical proposition--all of it, her hopes her pain her struggles her fear her birth her death, and I burst into tears and sob. My orphan seat mate understands something about finding mothers: she just reaches out and gently touches my arm, holding me connected to the breathing world as my mind flies away. Any trace of resentment, regret, bitterness, or recrimination about the way my mother treated me at any time in our lives together evaporates. She is just my mother, and I am finally able to enter into the mystery and wonder of being a son.

The plane lands in San Francisco. I mumble good-bye to my seat-mates whose mother that gave them birth is waiting at the gate. I wish them well and I walk back into my life, praying that everybody be lucky enough to find out who their mothers really are, to be able to step into their lives, and to cry when they are gone.

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