A few years ago, when his wife’s Alzheimer’s progressed to the point where they could no longer be together, my Grandfather, who’d never been seriously ill in his life, began a spiral into depression and frailty. His tendency toward self-pity and mistrust only made things worse. He started falling down and deteriorated to the point of needing to leave his beloved home and move into an assisted living facility. Some days were better than others, but he continued to lose weight; and hope; and joy.
Visiting him was a challenge.
In August he developed severe stomach pain which turned out to be the result of a twisted mass in his colon. My uncle was out of town so it fell to me to take Granddad to the doctor, which turned into a trip to the ER, admission to the hospital, surgery and eventual death. I’m glad I got to be there for him; to lean on the rail of his bedside in the ER at 1am listening to exhausted prayers that his sons would get their inheritance; to say “I love you” before surgery; to provide some form of comfort as he tried to recover; to hold his cold hand as he shook, emaciated and ashen; to count the spaces between breaths as he lay peaceful in the warm hospice bed; to kiss his forehead; to return the next morning and place his wedding ring on his lifeless hand; to receive the flag draped over his coffin — I did not know they look you in the eyes.
They say compassion leads to Love; but to have compassion is to “suffer with.” How do pain and suffering possibly lead to an experience of Love? Pain and suffering create cracks in the planet. Pain and suffering break in, break down, breach the perimeter — the barriers we erect to protect ourselves from the very things we cannot guard against. The result of this breaking? A new landscape, raw and vulnerable. But this breaking, this breach of the perimeter doesn’t have to be a breaking down. It can be a breaking open.
Here I must pause and say that I did not invent the idea of “breaking open,” nor do I know who did. I heard it mentioned in a teacher training.
The experience of being with my Grandfather as he died broke me open in ways I am only beginning to navigate. Each time I would visit him, no matter how difficult it may have been, I was overwhelmed with compassion for this man in pain; the remembrance of which helped me move beyond frustration at his unpleasant behavior, at the annoyance of one more task to squeeze into my day and gave me the strength to return. I say remembrance because it was something I had to choose to bring to mind. It’s embarrassing how easy it is to forget, or worse, simply ignore the suffering of others because the suffering forces me, even for a moment, to move beyond self-centered ways of living. (Obviously there is a balance to strike here, we don’t want to dwell so much on the pain and suffering of others that we neglect ourselves.) Through compassion for his pain and his suffering the dutiful love I felt for my Grandfather transformed into a more mature Love born from the recognition of his Soul.
There are other openings.
Because there was a good bit of time when I didn’t want to live (or couldn’t because of illness), I’ve cultivated the capacity to delight in the little things in life: the pas de deux of the wind and the leaves, the smell of garlic and onions in the sauté pain, the deep innocent eyes of my dog; these small treasures were often the only things that kept me from checking out. They’d bring me back from the edge, remind me that there is more than my darkened mind could see. I might not have been able to live from that place of more but I knew it was there. Now, after his death, I find the sensuality and grace of the world heightened. My periphery catches smaller details that illuminate the Whole: the falling of a single leaf, the quick flight of a bird, the sound of water sliding down my throat, or creaks in the chair on which I sit. When I am too focused on my next task, this noticing shocks me — how could have missed that particular grove of Red Maple trees?
Most of the time I feel a little slushy, like the boundaries of my body and soul are kind of spilling around without any clear direction. When I was with my Grandfather in his final days I found myself standing taller, feeling stronger, more connected and together; not because I was doing anything heroic or adult, but because I was acting from my Heart, from a place of real Love. In general, I also feel this cohesion when I teach or meditate. But in the interactions with my Grandfather there was a certain gravitas to this standing tall. In teaching, it’s lighter, more playful.
Love breaks us open in so many ways and on so many levels: a slow permutation of the membranes, a quiet shift over time; a deep earthquake that shakes our very foundation or a moment of ecstasy that sends us into manic delight. Each breaking open reveals a whole new experience of Love which leaves Its vivid imprint on the Soul, changing us forever; if only we’ll have the courage to let It in.
~ For Granddad, with Love