I spent a year going back and forth between Dallas and Tyler, Texas. Nearly every weekend I left from work and headed East to help with my parents. I put a lot of miles on my Honda Element that year. My boss was so supportive it is hard to imagine now, looking back, how much she helped, by letting me take time off, work remotely, and whatever needed to happen during that annus horribilus.
For months it was about taking care of business, being at the hospital at 5am to make sure I didn’t miss a chance to speak with the doctors, sleeping on cots, recliners, or inflatable mattresses, showering in the hallway bathrooms when a parent was in ICU, giving up on looking presentable. Giving my sister, Kerrie, a break was my main goal, I told myself. But it was also about feeling like I was doing something, and keeping too busy to feel. She had far too much on her plate for anyone to bear. She was back in college, raising kids whose hearts were broken, supporting both of our sick parents, taking them to doctor’s appointments, taking care of our parents’ finances, her husband’s business support, and her husband had a heart attack during all of that. So I drove. I think I only spent 2 or 3 weekends at home between May 2008 and July 2009.
My Dad, whom we called Pop in his later years, was a really good guy. We didn’t agree on everything but he loved me unconditionally. He loved all of us that way. Family was his favorite thing. He thought a vacation was visiting family. My family never had a vacation that didn’t center around family. Why would you waste that chance? That was his point of view.
I learned of his pancreatic cancer on New Year’s Day, 2009. We always thought Dad would live to be 100. Lots of people in his family did. His parents lived to be 92 and 94. Terminal cancer wasn’t supposed to happen when he was only 79. We were all shocked. He never resigned to it. Dad was not a tall guy, but he was strong. The worst thing that happened to him while he was dying was that he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t get his strength back. He wanted to exercise more. The doctor would explain that he needed to conserve his energy, but he believed that if he could just exercise and get strong again he would get better. He was still asking to be allowed to exercise when he was in the residential hospice center in the last weeks of his life.
When one of my parents was in the hospital, my habit was to bring my laptop and work while I stayed with them so my sister could be at home with her family. I was designing a behavior department for an animal shelter, so I did research and planned and created trainings between chats with Dad and relatives, and discussions with the medical staff.
There came a day in early summer of 2009 when I ran out of steam. The sun was going down outside dad’s window. The nurses insisted on keeping the window shades open so he could see the woods outside. It was a beautiful facility. On this day, I couldn’t work anymore. I couldn’t text, I couldn’t call anyone. I was too tired in my core. I put my laptop away and turned off my phone and just sat in a chair by the window, watching my Dad sleep.
In all the months of driving back and forth on I-20 and sitting in Trinity Mother Frances hospital I had kept myself busy. There was my job. And there was the intensive quizzing of the doctors who were so tired of us. Kerrie and I called ourselves the Sisson Sisters, and were dumbfounded by families we met who didn’t pressure the doctors for more information. To this day when I hear that a family doesn’t have information from their loved ones’ doctors, I think, “They need a Sisson Sister.” We GOT information when we needed it. We demanded it. The doctors learned not to protect us, to just lay it on the line, and be straight with us. It made their lives easier and that’s the only time we left them alone.
But this day in early July, I had finally run out of steam. I now realize that I kept myself so busy as a way to avoid thinking about my intense grief and helplessness. But this day, I couldn’t run any more.
I sat next to the window and watched the light change on Daddy’s face. He was sleeping with the head of his bed propped up. He was so very thin. My heart was raw and worn out. As I watched him sleeping, I couldn’t fight against what was happening anymore.
“Daddy is dying.” I felt it more than thought it. I didn’t cry. I was too tired to cry. So I just felt it. “My Daddy is dying.”
This is his dying time.
This is what it is like for my Dad to die.
Kerrie and I had been so frustrated with Dad because he would not admit he was dying. He wouldn’t talk about it. He wouldn’t discuss funeral plans. He had, after all, already planned their finances so that our mother would never have to worry about anything no matter how long she lived or what happened to her. He had made his plans. Our kinds of plans were too troubling. He didn’t want to die.
But this day, in that hospice room, with the sun setting, I thought, “This is HIS death. This is his. He doesn’t need to die differently for me.”
I just sat immersed in this experience for a long time. I didn’t feel like crying, for once. I just let it be true, finally. I let it stop being a problem to be solved, and just let it be my dad’s dying time. It was my honor, I finally realized, that I get to share some of this important time in his life with him.
I thought, “Daddy is dying. And it’s okay.”
And it was okay. Death is normal. He was having his dying time. I got to be with him during his dying time. It was okay. It was really okay. The weight lifted out of me, and I breathed. Maybe it was the first time I had breathed in a long time.
I wasn’t there when he died, but it was okay. There were lots of tears to come. The death of one’s parents is strange. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. My Dad was the foundation, so there is always something a little bit off balance with him gone. But that’s okay. One thing I’ve learned since then is that finding your balance again is what life is all about. Everything changes. Nothing is permanent. There is no foundation. Not really.
At the end of that year, I joined a meditation center. In January, the sangha’s main teacher, Acharya Moh Hardin, came from Halifax to Dallas to teach us, and I attended the weekend retreat with him. A common practice is for the teacher of a Buddhist retreat to allow attendees to meet with them privately. This is called an interview. In that time we talk with them about our practice, and ask questions. I expressed an interest in taking refuge vows as a Buddhist.
“But you’ve only just begun. There is no rush.” He was completely kind and open.
The acharya, in the sangha, has to approve taking refuge. A sangha is something like a church. It is the group of people that practice together. I felt a little disappointed that it didn’t seem like he was going to let me take refuge yet. I thought, then, that I would take the vow next year. So, I told him the story of that afternoon with my father in his dying time.
Moh said, “This is an advanced teaching.”
I didn’t reply.
“If you want to take refuge, you have my blessing.”
It’s really just refuge in yourself, it turns out. No Buddha Required. You can be your own meditation instructor. All you have to do is stop struggling.