My Face Before My Mother Was Born

Brother Ruộng Pháp recounts his experience of taking care of his dying grandmother, elucidating the spiritual teachings contained within this challenging situation.

30th July, 2022. This was the day my grandmother chose to shed her human form.

Almost six months to this day, I was allowed by the sangha to go back to Portugal to give support to my grandmother and my family. My grandmother had suffered from a severe stroke a few years earlier and, although she partially recovered, it became increasingly difficult for her to have an independent life. One of her main difficulties was dementia. She started forgetting things and, at some point, it became dangerous for her to live on her own.

The previous year I had already spent some weeks with her. This was the first time I was back home as a monastic. Her dementia was already quite advanced and she did not recognise me. “I know you are family, but I don’t know your name or who you are”, she said. As the days passed she would call me “little monk” or “Mr. Priest,” never referring or relating to me as her grandson. Although sometimes I felt sad witnessing my grandmother’s mental and physical decline, I knew, almost instinctively, that love was the best language I could use. She would find this energy familiar too, for she had boundlessly transmitted it to me and to anyone she came in contact with, infinite love and generosity.

Five months passed and her health worsened. She was now bedridden, emaciated, and in pain. Her cognitive capabilities were declining rapidly. When I arrived at my granny’s apartment, on my following home visit, I could sense in my flesh and bones the depression experienced by all my family members. The atmosphere was thick with suffering and stress, and permeated by the scent of death. This was the first time my mother hadn’t smiled at me upon my return home; she cried instead.

The practice has taught me that everything is dependent on causes and conditions, that nothing exists by itself alone. This helped me to stop and allowed me to look deeper, to breathe with the awareness that whatever I was witnessing was more complex than that which manifested before my eyes.

Knowing that we can only truly learn and grow when we are in touch with the present moment, I took this suffering as a teaching; accepting my grandmother as my teacher. And what a teacher she has been! I promised myself to maintain my awareness on the teaching of the Five Remembrances. After all, old age, sickness, and death were unfolding before my eyes in a very direct way. How could I not keep this awareness?

Days, weeks, and months passed. To take care of my grandmother was a full-time endeavor. Although we had help during the week from the social services, we needed to offer our presence and support in everything else. I could see how I was easily becoming my environment, how interconnected I was with the suffering of my grandma, my mother, other members of the family, and the wider world. The constant stream of news on the television, the rush of the world, the heedless conversations. The inability to connect with our deepest aspiration to heal the wounds caused by our individual and collective traumas. None of these conditions were separated from me.

Fortunately, I could always come back to the basic teachings. I felt so much gratitude for having a teacher like Thay. His teachings are very concrete and conveyed in a very simple manner. I understood that this simplicity comes out from a true and deep realization, brought about by our teacher’s lifetime of practice. The longer he practiced, the simpler and deeper his teachings became.

I sense the sun,
it always shines.
I may not see it, but I know it’s there,
above the dark and smothering clouds.

Thanks to the basic, everyday practices, I could always touch a source of healing. I could apply the practice to whatever I was doing – I did not have to do anything extra. Being aware of my breath was sufficient. Knowing I was walking was enough. By simply being mindful of my body, my feelings, my emotions, and my perceptions, I could be more present and connected to my grandma and my mum. I felt I had more solidity and clarity even in very challenging moments. There was a greater sense of direction and the energy of non-fear in me.

Sickness and death are not beautiful. Society always tries to make it clean and aesthetic. Dead bodies are beautified and groomed so that they resemble the person while they were alive. It is very sanitized. The living body of the grandma in front of me was skeletal, parched, and riddled with marks of a long life of poverty and backbreaking work. How “beautiful” would they make her the day she decided to die?

Disintegration before my eyes.
Still, illusion lingers.

From Angola to Portugal, she carried the history of her life in her flesh and bones – more than that, she carried them in this mind of hers, now afflicted by a ravaging dementia. But even in the midst of so much pain and confusion, she maintained beautiful traces of her boundless love and generosity. Sometimes, when we had to turn her body, she would scream with excruciating pain and become really angry towards whoever had to move her. Only to, in the next moment, fill us with loving hugs and kisses. I could see all those seeds in me too; the anger, the confusion, the deep love and selfless generosity. And I knew also, that at any moment she would breathe her last breath.

On the 30th of July, in the year 2022, at the age of 92, my grandmother died. She was rushed to the hospital with a severe lung infection. She had stopped eating and her breathing became labored. I knew on this day, before she was carried away by the emergency services, that she would not return home. Not in the same form.

Impermanence —
how can I let it impregnate my being,
outside of language,
inside of silence?
Can I embrace it as the bell,
that wakes me up to truth?

I feel very humbled and fortunate for having had the chance to spend a last private moment with her. “Avó!” I called, when I saw her tiny, shriveled body, lying on a hospital bed in the emergency room hallway. Almost in a fetal position, she turned her face to look at me with her clear, dark-brown, almost black eyes. Fully present! I could see that she had recognised me this time. She gazed at me for a moment, eyes locked with mine, in deep connection. Simple. Direct. Awake. We lingered for a moment in this non-verbal communion. In these brief moments she was there, fully present for me. She then rolled her eyes up slightly, eyelids shutting slowly, and turned her face the other way, struggling to breathe. I hugged her gently, my tears running down onto her face. I whispered into her ear,

“It OK grandma, you do not need to struggle anymore. I love you so much! We all love you so much! You can let go now. You have had a long life and you leave a beautiful family. We are your continuation. You continue in us. You already fought so much throughout your entire life. No need to fight anymore. You can rest!”

I left the hospital that night knowing that I would not see my grandmother alive anymore.

Where are you now, my dear grandma?
Why are you hiding behind my face?
Did you hear the little brown wren singing
on the Pitanga tree?

The funeral was simple and short. My family did not want a religious service to be performed. No priest. No religious symbology. They had lost their faith and trust in the Catholic Church long ago. I was the only person who brought a spiritual dimension to that solemn moment. With my saffron sanghati robe, I simply stood there, silent, with tears in my eyes and a gentle attention on my breathing. Contemplating deeply my grandma’s stiff, cold, lifeless body, I could clearly see that she was not only that body. At the moment of the final farewell, I watched my mother put her hand on granny’s cold forehead, the other family members also surrounded the coffin in a perfectly connected circle. At that moment, I wished everyone could see what I could see. Her continuation body, there, right in front of me. She was much, much more than the body lying there. If we took the element “grandmother” out of any of us, we would vanish right there and then.

To my surprise, my family asked me to offer something, just before the body was to be cremated. I invited everyone to be present in that moment of loss and togetherness. I asked everyone to simply follow their breathing and touch the preciousness of life. I then chanted in Portuguese while inviting the small bell. They felt touched and grateful. I felt touched and grateful. And the coffin burned, hidden from view. Only ashes were left.

If only I could wake up
— for a split moment —
to the infinite web of life.
My fear would end.
My sorrow would be no more.

My deepest wish is to integrate this experience with my grandmother in such a way that it impregnates my whole being with the truth of impermanence and interbeing. So that I am able to offer the gift of non-fear to others. I missed this chance when my father died, when I was eighteen. I could not be present for my suffering and the suffering of the ones around me. I could not be present for my father. Now I have the chance to heal the past in the present moment. I have the opportunity to share about the nobility of suffering. Because, if I choose to use it well, endless flowers have the potential to bloom. Life can become more colorful, richer, more precious.

Life continues and I still catch myself looking for grandma’s familiar form. I train myself to see her, peeking and smiling in the red oak leaf. Asking me,

“Are you paying attention, my dear? Can you see me here? What about over there? Haven’t you seen me winking at you when you look into the mirror every morning when you wake up? Can you feel me at the soles of your feet, every time you are present for your steps? Just pay a little more attention, and you will see that I am both your feet and the earth that you tread.”

I can see you in my eyes
and with your eyes,
I see mine.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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