“When you learn to be with the truth of your suffering and the suffering of those for whom you care in a mindful, compassionate manner, you are ennobled.”
I drove away in tears. It was a sunny day, filled with the sweetness of blue sky and wispy clouds and the promise of spring. Yet I had just deposited my aging and mentally impaired mother at her new assisted living home: my dear, ornery, self-sufficient, country-girl mother, who had worked full time long before it was fashionable, who had raised five children and canned peaches and tomatoes and made frosted Christmas cookies and lemon birthday cakes, who had cleaned the house from top to bottom each week and sewed my clothes and knitted our mittens and still found time to tend her beloved flower garden. I had left this mother alone, terrified, and, in her progressive dementia, profoundly hurt, betrayed, and confused, hitting me as I left her and screaming at me in rage. “I can’t do this!” I cried to the steering wheel and any gods who might be listening. “I can’t do this; I can’t do this.”
It was, of course, true that I couldn’t “do this” if I meant to fix my Mom’s pain or stabilize our life’s changes or alter the circumstances brought about by billions of causes and conditions beyond my personal control. I couldn’t even eliminate my own pain; all of it piled on for me in those days as our lives unraveled. As I continued to look more and more deeply, I saw a part of me who had thought that I could. Or should.
I had thought if I tried hard enough and read enough and studied enough, if I got to be a good enough woman and daughter and wife and mother and friend and therapist, I could “fix” myself and could even get others to fix themselves as well. Further, I had unconsciously believed that if I pursued my own personal psychology enough or if I meditated enough and went on enough spiritual retreats and listened to enough wise teachers, my life and my relationships would somehow work the way I thought they should. I thought I knew what healing was; I thought I could get above and beyond it all. I imagined a self and a life and relationships and a world that fit with my own sweet mental conceptions of how I believed things should be.
As the days went on, I continued to struggle. “Well,” I finally thought, “It’s like this now. Perhaps I can learn something: kindness, maybe…and patience.” I began to investigate my thoughts, my energies, my resources. The inquiry eventually brought me to the depths of my being. To truly learn about healing, I came to see that I first needed to know and allow my pain more deeply and clearly. I realized that I had to be willing to touch – with compassion and not a little confusion – that which was not healed within my own body and mind, my own family and my relationship with my Momma.
My young mother was, indeed, all of the wonderful things I spoke of. Nevertheless, generations of trauma in the families of each of my parents led to a darkness that had surfaced in our family all too often in my growing years. Like most of us in our ordinary human development, I had closed off and closed down around what was too overwhelming for my little developing nervous system to integrate. I developed strategies to try to avoid all of the intense and confusing emotions that were simply too much. I cobbled together a functional and more or less reliable sense of a stable personal self. This worked fine (sort of) as long as I could avoid life experiences that touched into what I had learned to avoid. When my Mom started being irrational and abusive and violent in her dementia, my carefully constructed strategies were more than threatened. I spiraled into an anguish that had long since been buried.
These moments of stored pain can get activated, in one form or another, for all of us. They emerge through awareness of aging or the simple physical vulnerability of these human bodies or the personal daily challenges of family and relationship and hate and love and loss. They show up again for me today as I talk with my friend whose son died so suddenly and as I encounter the more public images of rage and racism and violence from a riot in our nation’s capital. Pain shows up in the isolation and profound losses of our pandemic and in my fears of untrustworthy leaders or of the uncertainty of my earth home’s climate as it seems to flood and burn up around me. It emerges in the surprise surfacing of other long-buried sorrows when a trusted relationship takes a surprising turn.
The Buddha used the metaphor of the “bad-wheel” of an oxcart to describe this profound unsatisfactoriness of ordinary life. It fits my experience of it: my life then and now as trying to ride smoothly even though there is a wheel of my cart that is not grounded well and is therefore out of balance. My experience with my Mom brought me nose to nose with that lurching and ouch-filled ride down the road, complete with my own personal varieties of reaction and avoidance: “I can’t do this.” Phillip Moffitt describes my awareness of those moments as “…an opportunity for the beginning of the most relevant, sophisticated, inspiring, and useful inquiry…” I could conduct in my life.
In those days, the invitation to allow my pain was not abstract or romantic or even simple and it certainly didn’t feel like an opportunity. It was an opening into a world of rage and fear and grief that I had held at a distance for decades. In the midst of my internal stress, there were additional headaches and exhaustion from middle-of-the-night phone calls and so much to do. There was lost clothing to find and medicines to order and shoes to tie just once more. There was her falling yet again and still another sudden race to the emergency room. There were accidents with dirty diapers and long dead flowers to toss and, sometimes, there was watching to see if she was still breathing. There were conflicts and misunderstandings with hospital policies and fears about bills. There were profound confusions and endless mistakes.
Nevertheless, I took up the challenge. I slowly learned how to notice the pains with more kindness: the aches of my body and the tangles of my mind and heart. I realized that, at times, mere solitary presence was not enough; I needed also to turn to helpers and relationships with whom I could slowly notice and bring kindness to the overwhelm. I saw that I needed to bring care to myself, first of all, which only then could overflow to a new relationship with my Mom. Practically, I learned to abandon my image of a perfect daughter and I learned gratitude in allowing my own limits and in simply letting go. I learned to share her care with others and to open and receive the help of my husband and children and so many friends and professionals and brothers who each offered their own unique presence and skill. I learned humility and kindness as I allowed this imperfect body and mind and I made an early and important decision to only try to do what I could truly offer with an open heart.
As Mom and I muddled together through it all, I also learned to receive and cherish the ordinary simplicity and magic of our time together. There were Sunday drives in the country on glorious fall days and shared dishes of peach ice cream. We watched her beloved birds and came home and baked chocolate cookies. We rested in sweet afternoon naps as we held hands and curled up together in her little bed. Learning how to be with it all – and with myself – through those years of her dementia and her final days did, after all, reveal just such an opportunity to receive life’s truly profound gifts, as it turned out, for both of us.
My spiritual and psychological journey with all of that was one of learning to be kind with all that was unfolding, both inside and out. It turned out that it wasn’t impossible, after all. It was just different from what I thought. I had to abandon all sorts of ideas that I had about who I was and what should happen in order for me to be happy. I learned to love – yes, even appreciate – my difficulties as important paths of inquiry. So often they were an invitation to open to a new discovery of what had so long been held in the dark. I learned to come into compassionate presence with painful memories and with the buried energies of my nervous system. I learned to let them teach me, and, in that, to invite me into new dimensions and new choices of wholeness, clarity, kindness, faith, compassion, forgiveness and, sometimes, into robust speech and action.
As I opened and opened and opened still further, I kept finding new layers of confusion and also new layers of previously unknown light. There came to be between my Mom and me a sweetness and a spaciousness of awareness in which all was known and all was deeply well as we rested with one another in love. The way out was, indeed, a noble path, through.