At first it was a shock to see her. She didn't look the same at all. Her face was ashen and all puffed up from the chemotherapy or radiation. Her arms were huge from it, her hair was matted and a different color, her voice had gone all croaky and harsh, and the medication had got her mixed up and disconnected. She'd sit up in bed all of a sudden, beside herself with anger or frustration, and yell to my Aunt Adeline, "No, turn me over, not that way, this way, no, not that way, I said like this, like that." Adeline and my father, and my Aunt Sylvia all looked at one another and at me.
She'd go in and out of consciousness. She'd see things. She'd say, "Don't let them make you do anything you don't want to."
She said, "You all think I'm crazy, but I know what I'm doing."
She said, "Throw away all the envelopes you can."
She said, "Why are you standing around here. It's ridiculous! Scram!"
And she said to me, "You're a cute boy in that shirt."
After a while it was very beautiful to see her living this simple, intense, painful, but somehow noble existence in the six-foot-by-three-foot space of hospital bed that had become her whole life. This bed, together with the unknown realms of space and time through which she was traveling.
She'd say, "Put my shoes in boxes over there." We'd take shifts staying with her around the clock, and I would look forward very much to being with her, to be as intimate with her as I had been as a child and to experience a clearer, purer relationship with her. For a long time I had been a disappointment to her. She loved me very much, and I think, she felt frustrated in some area of her life and so needed me to afford her satisfaction in some way.
But this never happened. I had had an unusual kind of life, and this was hard for her. But now I could stroke her forehead and release the tension building up around her eyes. And I could breathe with her, which would calm her down a little bit. Sometimes, if she were making noise in her breathing, I'd make noise in the same way. But I couldn't do that when others were around. Sometimes she'd sit up suddenly out of her unconsciousness and say to me, "Don't make fun of me." And I'd say, "I'm not making fun of you. I love you." Late at night I could look at her in the lamplight and think of the many ways I could have been nicer to her or how much she'd loved me and how much she had given to me, and I could tell her then how much I loved her and it would make me cry. When she'd suddenly sit up and say, "My hat," or, "Get my shoes, we're going but,"or "Where are the red and green charts, they should beep by now," I'd tell her, "Don't worry about that. Your life is very simple now. Just breathe." And she would lie back down, reassured and calmer.
Gradually, over the course of days and nights, she began to give up everything. First her body became more relaxed, as though it wasn't hers anymore. Then she stopped having any sense of whether she liked or didn't like anything. Then she couldn't tell who anyone was or recognize anything in the room. All of the worries and cares of her life began to mingle in her delirium: her clothes, things she had to do at home or for my father, things at the office where she had worked. One by one she put them down, too. Finally there was only a dim awareness that grew finer and finer as her breath seemed to go more and more deep—more and more inward. It was as if the heavy earth of her body were dissolving into water. Then this water of the moving of her blood dissolved into the fire of images that receded in the distance. The fiery images dissolved into air and the air into space, endless space and endless consciousness.
My father cried and said, "It isn't fair," just as my sons, arguing with one another or carefully watching each other divide some special food might say "It isn't fair."
I knew she was gone but it didn't really make any sense that she was gone. She didn't go anywhere. And the gone that she was was really no different from the gone that she had usually been to me my whole adult life and even during my life as a child. In one way she was gone, but in another way she was very present. We stood there looking at her. She looked very noble, and we were all in awe of her. Then everyone wanted to leave, and I said, "Is it all right if I stay with her a while?" Yes it was, and they left.
It was nearly dawn. The light coming in the window was lovely and my mother looked lovely in the light. Her skin was a different color than it had ever been before. It looked very soft and gentle. I could see that she had many freckles on her face. I had never before noticed that she had freckles. I felt like talking to her. I said, "Don't be confused!"
Then quietly I recited the Heart Sutra: Form is emptiness, emptiness is form, everything that is form is emptiness, everything that is emptiness, form. Further, there is no eye no ear no nose no tongue no body and no mind. There is no color no sound no smell no taste no touch no mental object. And it says: There is nothing to have and the mind is no hindrance. It ends: Gone, gone, gone, completely gone, gone beyond everything. I have recited this sutra thousands of times but never had I felt so clearly as now what it meant then.
I looked out the window. The Florida hospital lawns were pale green in the dawn light, very quiet and pure, as if brand new, with no one around. My mother was all right. She had everything she needed. Far away on the lawn a workman appeared and tried to start a lawnmower. It took many pulls to get it going. Then silently and slowly he began to push it back and forth across the lawn.
Mama was all right. But it was going to be hard for the world with all its struggle and fragility and beauty to get along without her. It was then that I cried a lot for the world that didn't know any peace and perhaps never would.
Norman Fischer is a poet and Zen priest who lives at Green Gulch Farm, a Zen center in California, where he is the head of the practice program.