The Dance of Joy and Sorrow

I had the great good fortune of having a close and loving relationship with my parents. My childhood, like any other, had its share of traumas and trials. But it was always, unquestionably filled with affection and encouragement. As I grew into adulthood and began exploring the world in ways that were foreign to Mom and Dad—hitchhiking around the country, diving into metaphysics and Eastern philosophy—they worried, but never wavered in their belief and trust in me.

But it wasn’t until now, almost seven years and four years after their deaths, that I feel like I’m beginning to understand and appreciate the gift that they were.

I say this not in the sense of the classic bluegrass song lyric, “You don’t miss your water till your well runs dry.” I do miss them, of course. But what I mean is that their deaths have been an unexpected gift, just as their living was. First, because their deaths were so clearly extensions of their lives; and second, because rather than emphasizing our separation, their deaths revealed unequivocally our ongoing connections: They’re still here in so many ways.

I realize this may sound like ouija board stuff, but it isn’t. This isn’t paranormal. It’s the ordinary, and piercingly poignant experience of loving someone deeply and watching them reach the end of their life. And then experiencing life continue on—in some ways without them, but also and equally, still with them.

It’s the dance of joy and sorrow.

I was with my mother the night before she died. I held my father’s hand as he slipped away. Each in their own way, they approached death willingly, even happily. Much of that was because of their deep and abiding faith in life after death. But it was also because they recognized and appreciated the gift they’d been given—living into their nineties, seventy-two of which had been spent together.

When I sat with Mom late into her last night, in her most lucid moments, she was filled with wonder. “Oh, so that’s how it goes!” was one of the last things she said to me. Dad, always the quiet one, never said a word on his last morning. He was already far away, waiting for Mom to come for him.

Both of them come to me from time to time, usually individually, occasionally together. In dreams, I sometimes sing with Mom again. Just last night, Dad gave me a haircut. For the last thirty years, I’ve worn it long—well below my shoulders. In the dream, (I thought) he was supposed to just trim the ends. He ended up cutting it short, like he had when I was small, sitting on a stool in the kitchen. Apparently some disagreements aren’t automatically resolved in the after life.

That term, after life, is part of our problem. We don’t have adequate, accurate language for life and death. Our words reinforce the idea that life and death are separate and diametrically opposed states. It reminds me of the conflict we have with heart and mind. We struggle to reconcile our emotional and mental natures. Some people always advise to “follow your heart.” Others consistently counsel to “think it through.” Most of us vacillate somewhere between the two.

In traditional Chinese medicine, this conflict flows from a false duality. In that system, heartmind is a single word because heartmind is a single, unified whole.

I suspect that life and death (or lifedeath) is a similar relationship. Our concepts, supported by our language, divide them into two separate states when in reality they appear (to me) as fluid phases of a single, unified whole. I don’t have empirical evidence or quantifiable facts to back this up, but subjectively it rings true.

There’s no denying the wrenching loss that comes with a death. But in my experience, what also comes is more life. Some of it is obviously different, given the absence of physical presence. But some of it is the same, given the familiar heartmind connection we still feel and share; and some of it is lighter, wider, and less confined.

It’s a dance of joy and sorrow.

Growing up in my parents’ house, one of the filters through which I learned to view the world was how they lived their lives. But I also recognized at an early age that some of my view was just that—my view of the world, seen through my eyes. In the same way, one of the filters through which I’m learning to view death and its role in the world and in my life is how my parents died. But these are my eyes, my heartmind, and so my evolving view. It’s a dance.

Thank you, Mom and Dad.

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