I arrived back in Victoria yesterday evening after a month in the Canary Islands, the south coast of Spain and France, and a week in Paris. After the fitful sleep and predawn awakening typical of jet lag, I went out this morning shortly after daybreak to walk along the city’s Inner Harbour. Unexpectedly, looking out at a beloved place, I started to cry. I so wanted to find a place of beauty and potential for growth to call home, and indeed I have done that. But I wanted to have that without the accompanying loss I have experienced this year with the death of my son. I wanted this without that.
I hope both of my sons, from wherever they are, listened as I poured my heart out, telling them that I hoped they knew that I had been the best mother I could be, and that any way in which I might not have been the audience they needed as they neared the end of their time here in this world was because I needed to protect the part of myself that would have to go on without them. I bore them into a world that would not love them enough, with minds and bodies that would betray them. A world in which my role at its core would be to give them the absolute faith that they were indeed loved, despite all of that. Yes, like everyone else who has had a part of their guts ripped out by such losses, I feel guilty about thriving, at the same time I know that is what my own spirit calls on me to do now that my beloved children no longer need assurance of my love.
Only when I let my heart be this open does the universe reply. I pulled out my camera to record the early light over the harbour, and frowned because there was this log marring the image I wanted to retain. Then I realized that the log was the message. How long ago had it begun its journey from seed to a soft green shoot, to a tree on the rocky shoreline somewhere north of here? How long had its roots clung to the crevices before it lost its battle with the pounding surf and fallen into the sea? From then, how long until it had been stripped down to just this last bit of itself?
Every living thing comes from somewhere and takes a journey to somewhere else. Sometimes the journey is long and hard enough to strip us bare. ‘That’s how mine feels much of the time these days,” I said to myself. And just then, an otter poked its head out of the water, lolled for a moment, and disappeared. In another way the journey is all about the present, because that is how we live it. I don’t know how an otter’s mind works, but my guess is it doesn’t focus on more than what juicy morsels lay under the surface of the water. No past, no future. Those are our burdens, though they both exist only in our heads.
Having these thoughts, I was calm again, ready for my spirit to tell me what it had been thinking while the rest of me had been too busy to stop and ponder. What is emerging as a theme for me in this period while I adjust to the new reality of life without Ivan, is a stronger sense of compassion. In Singapore, my friend Megan bought me a statue of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, whom I first fell for because of his awesome name and then later for his message as he sits, one leg dangling, overlooking the world with the beatific smile of love beyond measure. I find myself stopping before every image of the Buddha I see now, asking for greater patience and more compassion, which I am beginning to understand are intrinsically linked.
After Adriano died, I found a message a math professor at the community college he was attending had sent to him, telling him how disappointed he had been that Adriano had not finished the class because he had been doing so well. More that two decades later, my eyes still well up as I think of this, because that is how true compassion works. It’s no more than genuinely noticing others and finding something to brighten their path. I took this message to heart in my own teaching and asked myself a simple question whenever a stressed student came to me: “How would I want a professor to act if this were Adriano standing at his/her office door?” Or, as a mentor once said, the only real question to ask is, “what would I do if I loved this student?”
Since Ivan died, I have felt a surge of compassion, perhaps coming from a need for an outlet for maternal instincts that now have no place to go. I try harder to see the crew on ships, and other people just going about jobs in roles that often make them close to invisible, as people connected by webs of caring to friends and family I can’t see, who worry about them, rejoice with them, and sustain them. Maybe just by knowing their name without looking at their name tag, I am supporting them on behalf of those who love them and cannot be there. It breaks my heart to read messages on Ivan’s Facebook page, to see how many people really did care about him when he thought he had no one except me. Maybe it falls to me—to all of us really—to make amends for how hard the world can be by treating everyone as beloved.
Strange how that piece of driftwood became a sermon about compassion. But there’s one more realization it brought me. Often people talk about how great a life I have, traveling everywhere, free to be wherever I want to be, without much in the way of obligations. Yes, all that is true. But the part that would make no one want to trade places is what I had to lose in order to be in this position—the security and familiarity of a home, for one thing. The loss of my entire family and a beloved husband. Most people don’t even want to try that on for size for even an instant.
I had to lose everything in order to be where I am. In this chapter of my life, stripped bare, may I continue to grow in compassion for all sentient beings struggling with the difficulties of their own journeys.
May I be a guard for those who need protection;
A guide for those on the path;
A boat, a raft, a bridge for those who wish to cross the flood,
May I be a lamp in the darkness;
A resting place for the weary,
A healing medicine for all who are sick.
For as long as the earth and sky endure,
May I assist until all living beings are awakened.