It has been just over two months since I lasted posted on here but in that short time my whole world has been turned upside down. I look outside the window, noting that Spring has made a tardy appearance and that the foliage on the trees outside my office have burst forth in a verdant display of abundance. Yet, I can't help feeling a touch of indignation that the world continues to go about its business and the sun still shines. This may sound like an odd statement but, as I have recently discovered, when there is a shift of cataclysmic proportions in your own private corner of the universe, you are left with the sensation that this should somehow be reflected in the wider world and a feeling of bafflement and annoyance that it is not. There has been a seismic shift in my world and nothing will ever be the same again, but the earth carries on circling round the sun and the seasons continue their unaltered, centuries-old course.
Someone once wrote that grief is the price we pay for love and this is a lesson I have learnt well over the past four decades of my life but none of the losses I have experienced to date compare with what awaits me. I realise now that I have been lucky because although I have had my share of heartache, I have never had to face losing someone who is at the heart of my world. There are certain people in our lives who are irreplaceable but whose presence we tend to take for granted; ironically, we sometimes only fully appreciate how valuable they are when faced with their imminent loss. A mother is one such person.
In my particular case, my mother is more than a mother: she is also my best friend, the person who knows me better than anyone and the only person who will ever love me unconditionally, no matter what. I have not always had an easy relationship with this strong-willed lady– two feisty and determined women such as us are bound to clash at times – but, in recent years, we have forged a solid bond founded on mutual admiration and appreciation and a strong sense of complicity. Over time, my mother and I have learnt to look after and look out for one another and this has made both our lives easier and more pleasurable. We have supported each other through some rough times but we have also shared some wonderful times, feasting on each other’s triumphs as though they were our own. In view of all this, I quite simply cannot begin to imagine my life without her.
On this subject, it seems to me that there must be an inbuilt feature in the hardwiring of the human brain that prevents us from dwelling too much on the fact that life must eventually come to an end and that things cannot continue indefinitely as we have always known them. This feature undoubtedly serves a useful purpose – particularly as it prevents us from becoming excessively melancholy, allowing us to go about the routine business of our lives without experiencing too much existential angst. However, despite the undoubted usefulness of this form of self-protective denial, it definitely has a downside: namely that when we are suddenly and abruptly forced to confront our own mortality or that of a loved one, it tends to come as an almighty shock.
Yet, despite the shock and the sorrow of the last few weeks, at times the unmistakeable glimmer of the proverbial ‘silver lining’ has illuminated the dark clouds surrounding my family. To begin with, I have received a valuable lesson in the importance and value of courage. In the circumstances, it is remarkable that the one to deliver this lesson has been my mother herself, who - to her everlasting credit - has remained strong, composed and selfless throughout all of this. I have never once seen her indulge in self-pity or give way to despair and her focus has remained unwaveringly upbeat and positive. Knowing her as I do, I would have expected nothing less of her in this situation; nonetheless, her strength and composure in the face of personal adversity are remarkable because the fact of the matter is this: if my life has been turned upside down, hers has changed forever in the space of just 14 days. Observing the grace and dignity with which she has handled this situation, I can only hope that I might have inherited some of the qualities of this remarkable lady.
It is often at the most challenging of times that people draw together and, true to form, my extended family has sprung into action to offer a very welcome transatlantic network of support and comfort. In addition, my relationship with my brother has unexpectedly transformed itself. Until recently, we had never been close but the shared difficulties of the last few weeks have given us a sense of common purpose and unity. I have also been fortunate to count on the support of my ‘other’ family - made up of a close-knit circle of close friends who I regard as honorary siblings. Despite the geographical distance between us, they never fail to step up to the mark when help is needed. Within a couple of hours of sending a simple four-word text along the lines of “help, I need you!” its recipient, who happened to be on a business trip in Petra, Jordan had got out of whatever she was doing and called me. She was so keen to offer her support in any way she could that she offered to come and clean the toilet bowl in my parents’ house, bless her!
However, throughout the highs and lows of the last few life-altering weeks, my greatest source of strength and wisdom – keeping me on course throughout all the turbulence - has been my Buddhist faith. I have come to appreciate just how fortunate I am to follow a philosophy that offers pragmatic yet profound guidance on how to cope with life, especially when the going gets tough. This is truly the greatest of blessings because my Buddhist prayers enabled me to maintain a connection with my mother during the period when she was attached to various machines and fighting for her life - making direction communication impossible. Throughout this time, I felt an unwavering conviction that she could feel the vibrations of my daimoku (Buddhist chants) and I knew that they were having a positive impact on her physical and psychological state. She later told me that she knew that she was not battling alone: she felt my prayers. She also felt the healing energy from the prayers of all our beloved friends and family who were earnestly praying for her in their respective corners of the world. We were not all praying to the same God - or in my case, to any God at all - but in the final analysis, Buddhist prayers, Christian prayers, Muslim prayers are all one in the same, as long as they are offered with a loving intention. This is the wonderful thing about prayer: it has the transformative and restorative power to deliver hope, light and life to the darkest of situations. Sadly, there is a lot of confusion about prayer: some people seem to think that it is an irrational attempt to bargain with a non-existent Divine being, others confuse it with positive thinking. Yet ultimately, prayer is Action and my mother most definitely sensed the effects of that most loving of actions when she most needed it.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have learnt to live in and appreciate the present moment, taking each day as it comes and giving thanks for it. Moreover, despite my sorrow and fearfulness about the future, my faith has given me the courage to never give up. Buddhism always reminds me that no matter how insignificant and powerless I may feel, I have the capacity to affect whatever situation I may find myself in – no matter how difficult – in a positive way
I would like to end this post with a quote from Nichiren Daishonin.
Though one might point at the earth and miss it, though one might bind up the sky, though the tides might cease to ebb and flow and the sun rises in the west, it could never come about that the prayers of the practitioner of the Lotus Sutra Sutra would go unanswered.
(Passage from “On Prayer”, The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin)