I’ve Never Been to Paris, Thoughts on Death and the Afterlife

When I saw my mother, I didn’t know it was going to be for the last time.  Cancer had whittled away her vital persona to a limp, lifeless, form on the bed, bones pushing against flaccid skin.

 

I walked into my parents’ bedroom, something I had done hundreds, thousands, of times before. Not like this, though. Not dreading to see what cancer had taken from my mother this time.

 

She was actually awake, her eyelids closed to the sun streaming through the french doors. Sitting up, it seemed as though she were dreaming of a happier time in her life.

 

“Hey Mom,” I softly offered.

 

She slowly opened her eyes, focused and smiled. “Ah, my dear Brooke. How are you today?”

 

“I’m fine, mom. How are you feeling?”

 

The cancer had gotten a strong hold on my mother, so much so that she was on morphine for the pain. In those days, it wasn’t a constant morphine drip. She was given a certain amount at intervals to control the pain.

 

I was the only person in the family she could talk to about dying, leaving, heaven, and hell. My father, God bless him, was in denial that mom was going to die. He was, until the end when she passed away in his tearful embrace, resolute that she was going to get better. My brother and two sisters were more realistic than dad. Admittedly we all were holding different levels of hope for a miracle. It was difficult for all to address the inevitable, that our mother was dying. She wasn’t going to be here much longer.

 

For some reason unbeknownst to me, I was able and still am, to discuss such topics with neutrality. Even though I loved my mother, didn’t want her to go, I could offer her this time, my time, to hear her thoughts about this process she was going through. Somehow, I could maintain equanimity throughout.

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“Most times, I don’t feel tremendous pain, although sometimes I do. I wish I could go outside, and with the sun’s warmth on my body, walk the beach while feeling the sand between my toes.”

 

I nodded, understanding her love of the Florida coast, collecting shells, wandering for endless miles along the shore. There was silence between us as I reached for her foot and gently began to rub it. I needed to touch her, to convey my love to her, and this seemed the best way. Minutes passed by as she closed her eyes once again, allowing my touch to relax her.

 

She quietly spoke, keeping her eyes closed, “I’ve never been to Paris.”

 

I took a big inhale, acknowledging this statement. I kept my contact with her toes and responded, “I know mom. However, once you leave this body, you will be able to travel effortlessly to Paris, Madrid, Sydney, wherever you want. The world will be your oyster.”

 

She smiled at the last statement. She and my father used to say this to us as children…that we could do anything, the world was our oyster. Presently mom’s oyster world was a bed, bed pan, visits from close family (a proud woman, she didn’t want her friends to see her in this condition), broths, and a large bottle of morphine.

 

She turned her head to the dresser, covered with medical paperwork, clean nighties, the previous meal on a tray, untouched, and the bottle of morphine. With a laser like stare, she declared, “I know if I drank that whole bottle, I would die.”

 

I again inhaled deeply, aware of her thinking, “Yes mom, you probably would.”

 

“Then give it to me, Brooke. Give me the bottle. Then leave.”

 

“ Mom, I can’t do that,” I pleaded. “I can’t be an accessory to your death.”

 

“Do you like seeing me like this?” she demanded.

 

“No, but…”

 

“Give me the bottle. Then, as you said, I can go to Paris, go to Madrid, anywhere I want to. Let’s end this now, so I can go on.”

 

I felt the harsh stinging of tears forming in my eyes. I understood her point of view, yet there was no way I could support her suicide. “Mom, I can’t, I’m so sorry, I can’t assist you like that. How would I be able to face dad, and my siblings, much less your friends and relatives?”

 

She turned her head away from the coveted drug, and looked right at me, with amazingly clear eyes, “I know, my Brooke, I know.”

 

I laid my head down in her lap and cried as she gently stroked my head. I soon stopped and realized that she had gone to sleep, with her boney frail hand on my shoulder. I gently lifted it off me, kissed it, and placed it on her lap. I kissed her forehead softly, and turned to walk out of the room. “Have a safe trip, angel,” she said with her eyes closed and a smile.

 

“I will , Mom. Love you.”

 

“Love you, too.”

 

That was the last time I saw her alive. I had to fly out of the country for work the next day. Two weeks later, she passed away in my father’s arms.

 

I was left with questions. As I watched my sobbing father, distraught brother, and other males from my family carry her coffin out of the church, I found myself asking, Where do we go when we die?  Which theory is correct? Is there a bardo  (the intermediate state between death and rebirth) as in Buddhism? Is that where mom was, waiting for her next rebirth?

 

Or perhaps she was in purgatory, the Christian belief of an in-between state for the majority of people waiting for heaven, a time of cleansing from sin and preparing for heaven. Although I must admit, she had put up with dad, so I had to think that if there were a heaven, she was already ensconced there on a silk cushion with a halo!

 

Do we have many lives as espoused in Hinduism and Buddhism, or one life as expressed in the Judeo-Christian view?

 

What happens after we leave the physical body? I know that many religions, whether they believe in the soul’s existence in another world like Christianity, Islam, and many pagan belief systems, or in reincarnation like many forms of Hinduism and Buddhism, believe that one’s status in the afterlife is a reward or punishment for their conduct during life. But this view elicits a good/bad behavior judgement, and is that correct? We are told that God/Creator doesn’t judge, so how could there be punishment or reward?

 

Is there a place called hell? I was pretty sure that my mother wasn’t there, however are “wrong doers” hurriedly shuttled there after death? Are the ultimate evil people not offered a waiting period in purgatory? Again, who makes this judgement of good and evil? Is there good and evil in this world and beyond or is that a construct of the ego in order to elicit positive societal behavior?

 

Or perhaps, as in some Roman Catholics believe, hell is a spiritual state of being separated from God for eternity. This rings more true to me than an actual place of eternal extreme heat.

 

I decided to continue the search in discovering were my mother possibly went. I dug further and turned to the Hindu perspective on death and after life. Hinduism teaches that any attempt to find permanent happiness in this world is maya (an illusion). Hindus believe that a person’s atman or spirit is permanent and cannot change, while the physical body is not permanent and can change. The atman is reborn many times, this is called samsara or reincarnation.

 

According to this religion, my mother’s spirit was being readied to be reborn again, if in fact she hadn’t attained enlightenment. The Buddhists have a similar belief in a cycle of death and rebirth called samsara. Through karma and eventual enlightenment, the hope is to escape samsara and achieve nirvana, which is an end to suffering.

 

This explanation made sense to my logical mind, and gave me hope that I just might bump into my mother during my life time. Perhaps as a child, or an animal.

 

Interfaith minister and life coach, Judith Johnson, offers this Buddhist view on death, “An unenlightened mind sees death as defeat — a tragedy. These (Buddhist) teachings show us it is really an extraordinary opportunity for transformation and personal liberation. When we die, it is only the end of one cycle finishing — the delusions of this life will end if we allow it. However, those who hold tight to their illusions don’t allow for their liberation to take place. Those who allow it not only surrender to the death of their bodies but they allow their ordinary mind to die with all its delusions as well. Milarepa described it this way: “In horror of death, I took to the mountains. Meditating again and again on the uncertainty of the hour of death, I captured the fortress of the deathless unending nature of mind. Now all fear of death is done and gone.” 1

 

It seems that the letting go not only of the physical body but also the mind or mental body, produces a much easier transition to the next life. Or to heaven. Or maybe to hell.

 

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Jack Kornfield, author, Buddhist monk and one of the leaders in bringing Buddhism to the West, wrote an interesting poem called “Reverse Living”:

 

I think that the life cycle is backwards.

You should die first, get it out of the way.

Then you live in an old-age home.

You are kicked out when you’re too young.

You get a gold watch and you go to work.

You work forty years until you are young enough to enjoy your retirement. You go to college, you party until you’re ready for high school.

You become a little kid, you play, you have no responsibilities.

You become a little boy or a little girl.

You go back to the womb.

You spend your last nine months floating.

And you finish off as a gleam in someone’s eye.2

 

I like the line, “You get kicked out when you’re too young.” I thought of my mother in pictures as a young woman. There was so much hope and vitality in her smiles. This poem seems a gentler trek through life, I think.

 

In his book, “The Wise Heart”, Mr.Kornfield relates a story between the Buddha and a wanderer who asks the Buddha about what happens after death. The Buddha’s response was a series of questions. “If there is a future life, how would you live?”

 

The questioner answered, “If there are future lives, I would want to be mindful in order to sow seeds for future wisdom. And I would want to live with generosity and compassion, because they bring happiness now and because they sow the seeds for abundance in the future.”

 

“Just so,” said the Buddha. Then he went on: “And if there are no future lives, how would you live?”

 

The questioner reflected and then answered in the same way: “If this were my only life, I would also want to live with mindfulness, so as not to miss anything. And I would want to live with generosity and compassion because they bring happiness here and now and because I will not be able to keep anything in the end.”

 

“Just so,” acknowledged the Buddha. Eliciting the same answers to those two questions, the Buddha demonstrated that living wisely does not depend on belief in an afterlife.””3

 

I didn’t figure out where my mother went after her physical death. Her remains were buried according to Christian tradition. I’d like to think that she is happy either in heaven, or in her next lifetime. I hope to find out when I make that journey, whether it is a final one, or one of continuation.

 

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© Brooke Becker, 2016

 

 

Bibliography

  1. Judith Johnson, Author, Speaker, Life Coach and Interfaith Minister, www.huffingtonpost.com/judith-johnson/tibetan-buddhist-teaching_b_5353998.html
  2. Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, p. 284,Bantam Books/Random House, 2000
  3. Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart, pg 157, Bantam Dell/Random House, 2008
  4. Images by Genevie Fernandes (2016) – Tantallon Castle and Linlithgow Castle in Scotland

 


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