My grandmother Mary, who passed away on October 27th, 2018
Yesterday, my paternal grandmother passed away. After a long life spent singing in the church choir, attending mass, and being the hub for tending to her 8 children and 12 grandchildren, she went the way all of us inevitably will, sifting from form to memory.
She was my last surviving grandparent.
Last night, I lit a fire out back in her honor. And it just so happened that a bundle of my maternal grandmother’s ashes sat beside me. They followed me home from a recent trip I took to see my mom. I never said a proper good-bye to her, when she passed away last December – not in a way that acknowledged that the breath of a life had been transferred back to its source. Her ashes then became symbolic of both of my grandmothers departures.
They became that of Mike’s grandmothers, too.
We added a small handful to the fire, and watched as the ashes both settled into the crackling embers and rose up amid the smoke, which caused the drying elm leaves above to rattle and dance.
We then set out in the darkness of 8pm in the autumnal mountains, to scatter the rest of the ashes. We set some adrift on the Bitterroot River and laid the remainder to rest in a grassy field surrounded by ponderosas.
A blessing to you all.
You gave us life.
You carried us on the same backs of all those who came before us.
We as your grandchildren are your continuation.
Now, we carry you forward,
on the same backs of all those who still remain,
and will soon follow in our footsteps.
My grandmother & grandfather’s continuation of grandchildren
The Buddha said: If we keep death in front of us, if we are aware of it, we will live better lives.
Last fall, in preparation for a session of walking meditation that our sangha hosted at a local cemetery, I fashioned together a card-sized collage of pictures of friends and family members who’ve passed away, whether recently or many years ago. I continue to use this collage card as a bookmark in my spiral-bound notebook journal, which I write personal account entries in a few times a month. Encountering this bookmark of collaged pictures affords me the ability to practice staying in touch with the preciousness of life, by keeping death in front of me.
At the time of putting the collage together, I also saw fit to include three people who were still alive but nearing the end of their currently held life-cycle: my grandmother Claire, who’s since passed away, and my grandmother Mary and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, who are both still very much alive. I included these individuals as a practice of deepening my sense of gratitude and also further developing my ever-growing understanding of impermanence.
It’s easy to think that calling to mind our loved ones that have passed away will be too painful. It’s easy to avoid connecting with the memories of our dearly departed friends and family members and to occupy our minds with a cascade of other matters. But when we develop a way to actively practice staying in relationship with those who’ve passed away – with the nature and reality of death itself – the initial pain that will likely crop up for us will have the opportunity to become transformed into a furthering opening of the heart.
At first, and for a little while, it was uncomfortable for me to look at the collage card I put together. To connect with the images and memories of so many loved ones who’ve passed away was rather startling and unsettling. But, once again, everything takes practice. Truly. Now that I’ve been encountering this card – one side collage and one side a picture of my friends David and Alison from their joint memorial service last summer – on a regular, ongoing basis, I’m finding that the discomfort has largely dissipated.
Today I went to a Celebration of Life service for a woman who passed away a week ago from cancer. I had never met her but knew her wife from sangha and retreating together. Since I hadn’t known the woman who passed away I got the privilege and honor of learning about her via friends and family during the service today. She was a vibrant person full of humor, adventure, talent, and community spirit who loved gardening, animals, traveling, music, singing, dancing, taking pictures, biking, and writing poetry. It was a gift to hear about her through the love and memories of those who cared most for her. I was inspired and uplifted by the life she led.
As the warm autumn light shone in through the church windows there was joy, laughter, and tears amid those who had come together to cherish, remember, and mourn this sweet woman. How grateful I am to have participated in this celebration of life. To be called to remember how precious life is – how important friends and family are – how important doing what we love is – how quickly things can change – and how much there is to celebrate!