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The Last Time I Was in Shavasana Pose…

The last time I was in shavasana pose was in July 2014, the day before I was to drive from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Kansas City for the third time that summer, this time for the funeral of my great-aunt Irene. And I bet that almost anyone, finding themselves in “corpse pose” just after the death of a loved one, would find it hard not to think of that specific corpse. I did. When you cry lying on your back, the first tear on each side creates the path, and all the next tears trace the same path over and over again, until there’s a mess of salt water wetting the hair in a puddle behind your ears.

I don’t remember if I cried at the funeral. I do know that I got very very busy with work right after I got back home. I think of Irene often, but I think of her life, not her death. I wear the earrings I have that were hers a lot; I was very sad when I thought I might have lost my favorites and thrilled when I found them again just last night. I put them on this morning and wore them to the Zen retreat my son and I went to in Indianapolis.

Before the retreat began, there was a yoga class in the zendo. I’m no yogi. The only reason I was at yoga classes at all the summer of 2014 was that my kids were going to be in Europe with their dad and stepmom for three weeks, and so I bought a 40-day all-you-can-yoga pass so that I would miss them less. In fact, I made two trips to Kansas City while they were gone, once to say good-bye and once for the funeral.  But today I thought, why not do the yoga class—it will make sitting all day easier. So I pushed and twisted and strained my body through the sun salutations and the stretchy this and the warrior that and was saved from possible disaster by a friendly assist from the teacher with a yoga block. Fine. No problem.

And then it was time for corpse pose, and here came the tears again, one fat tear rolling down each side, followed by others and others and others.  How I miss you, Irene. “Now remember to focus on your grieving,” the teacher said. Of course he said “breathing,” but I heard “grieving” and for a split-second thought: “Oh, it’s not just me?”

We started the retreat with chanting Kwan Seum Bosal, which is the Korean name for the bodhisattva of compassion. In the middle of the chant, there is a very repetitive section where we simply chant “Kwan Seum Bosal” over and over again. My mind wandered back to Irene and to how ordinary her life was.  I read an obituary recently for a professor who taught at my alma mater, and it was frankly astonishing. Honor after honor, award after award, achievement after achievement. I often see my friends memorializing their loved ones on social media with testimonies to how fierce and funny and amazing and brave and and and the loved one was. There was nothing particularly flashy about Irene. She was my grandmother after my mom’s mom died when I was five. She played organ. She was smart and very very tidy. She went to church. She took care of my great-uncle and made sure he ate things that would keep him from having another heart attack. She loved her seven siblings and all their families and her two sons and my mom and my mom’s family. She made Thanksgiving dinner for the first thirty-three years of my life. She and my great-uncle had a camper with a map on the back that showed all the states they had visited. My sister and I loved to hang out in the camper when we were at their house. Why do I miss her today? Because she was kind and gentle.

[Irene’s obituary]

During the break before lunch, I sat by the fire and stared at the flames and thought of her long slow dying for the first time in years. I saw her alive twice that summer, an early summer trip with my kids, when we didn’t know how near the end was, and then alone later, when I knew it was good-bye.

And yet, I couldn’t say good-bye. It felt rude to speak of it. And I was afraid of her dying-ness; I didn’t know what to do about her weak and old and sick and dying body. And so I was polite and reserved and felt the time ticking by while I was a coward.

An African man, Aboudie, worked at the nursing home; I don’t know what his job title was. Aboudie opened the door for me to encounter my much-loved aunt for the last time in my life honestly. The second day I was there, Irene took Aboudie’s hand in hers, looked him in the eye, and thanked him for all he had done for her. He smiled and gripped her hands and said, “We all have to die sometime.” I remembered Gerasim in Leo Tolstoy’s story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” the one character who faces Ivan Ilyich’s dying-ness with unselfish equanimity:

Ivan Ilyich felt good only with Gerasim. It felt good to him when Gerasim held his legs up, sometimes all night long, and refused to go to sleep, saying: “Please don’t worry, Ivan Ilyich, I’ll still get some sleep”; or when, suddenly addressing him familiarly, he added: “Maybe if you weren’t sick, but why not be a help?” Gerasim alone did not lie, everything showed that he alone understood what it was all about, and did not find it necessary to conceal it, and simply pitied his emaciated, weakened master. Once he even said straight out, as Ivan Ilyich was sending him away: “We’ll all die. Why not take the trouble?”—expressing by that that he was not burdened by his trouble precisely because he was bearing it for a dying man and hoped that when his time came someone would go to the same trouble for him. (76)

I sat by her bedside, thinking. If Aboudie was like Gerasim, I was like Ivan Ilyich’s family, tiptoeing around the truth because it seemed somehow impolite to acknowledge it. And of course, Ivan Ilyich’s family are a bunch of assholes who make his death harder. I envied the fact that Aboudie got to have a moment with Irene, and that I might not. So I overcame the disinclination to be honest and sobbed, “Oh, Irene, I love you so much! I’m going to miss you so much!”  She exclaimed, “Well, I love you, too! I always have!”

I did better after that. I held her hands. I played old songs for her on my iPhone. Once when she had a coughing fit, I dove into her bed to prop her upright with my back until some nurse’s aides could come help.

Staring into the fire today, I relived everything I could remember about those days, and the tears kept rolling down my face. A young Taiwanese woman who is studying to be a healer was sitting next to me,  and she was worried about me. “If you are suffering, throw that suffering into the fire.”

“I’m not suffering,” I assured her.

“If you are angry, you can burn that up in the fire.”

“I’m not angry.” I paused. “I’m not angry. I’m not suffering. I just cry a lot.”

What I might have said, channeling Zen Master Seung Sahn, could be: When you’re sad, just be sad.  When you’re happy, just be happy. I spend so much time when I’m sad arguing with myself about whether or not I should be sad, but it’s better when I remind myself to just be sad and not think about it so much. When I remember to do this, I’m sad for a while, and then I stop being sad. Simple.

“Now remember to focus on your grieving.” I must have gotten interrupted in my grieving in 2014 when I came back from the funeral and immediately started work co-chairing a horrific time-suck of a university-wide committee (the dreaded USAP, for coworkers reading this). Or maybe I did it myself, turned it all off when I left the yoga studio that day in 2014 and went home to pack, not knowing that the key to reopen my mourning would be the shavasana pose.


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