By Susan Glogovac I left Vietnam late on the afternoon of April 12th, arriving at the airport to see off our friends from Chile and Europe who were traveling together as far as Kuala Lumpur. When they disappeared from view, I was alone for the first time in over six weeks, with no gray or brown robes in sight. Yet I felt the presence of the Sangha very deeply. It surrounded me as I began to think about home, particularly of my dear nephew, a young man living for over nine years with ALS, a disease that was gradually taking its toll. My family hadn’t mentioned much about him in our numerous e-mails. I hadn’t wanted to ask, and yet he was with me throughout the retreat. He was the one I held close each time the brothers and sisters sang, “Namo Avalokiteshvara.”
Within three days of arriving home, I was on a plane to Colorado to visit my nephew and join in the celebration of my mother’s ninetieth birthday. What was to be a joyous occasion was soon transformed into something quite different. My mother fell, breaking her arm and badly bruising her face. Then we learned that in just two days, on Sunday morning, my nephew was to begin his journey from this life as we know it. I felt my equanimity slipping away, replaced by the sorrow of what was to come. I sat alone that night. Focusing on my breath, I slowly eased into a place of stillness, readying myself for the days to come.
We spent Saturday afternoon saying our good-byes to him. It wasn’t easy. He is my hero and I knew I would miss his physical presence. Yet I felt that all my weeks of practice with the Sangha had given me the peace and solidity I needed to be with him for him. Thay’s teachings on no-birth no-death, and on accompanying the dying made it possible for me to wish him a peaceful journey without any fear. I held him close and could feel his peace as well. I shared with him some of my happiest memories of our times together. His eyes sparkled.
My nephew once was asked what he thought about heaven. He replied, “I think it’s like graduating to God.” But for me, he already had manifested his God-like nature in his patience, acceptance, and surrender without complaint to his illness, and in his joy of living in a body that increasingly was unable to support him. In graduating to God long ago, he allowed the lives he touched to awaken just a little bit more to the God within, to the Buddha within. This was a gift he gave to me.
Family and friends arrived early Sunday morning. I did walking meditation before we gathered, and periodically during the day and evening as the process unfolded, which helped me maintain a center of calm. I joined in massaging his hands and feet. I silently sang to him “Namo Avalokiteshvara,” and I could hear the monastic brothers and sisters and our lay Sangha in Hue, Hanoi, and Binh Dinh singing with me. Throughout, I felt the love and support of our Sangha, and while my practice is far from perfect, I was able to bring into the room the peace and stability I had developed on the retreat. During the night, I followed my nephew’s breath as it gradually eased and the time between breaths lengthened. And finally, with only his parents present, he passed from this life early the next morning.
Several months have passed. To some, it might look as though very little has changed. My mother’s arm has mended, her bruises faded. Our family has returned to the busyness of life, much as before. Yet I am aware that my nephew’s transformation has been my transformation as well. I am taking more time to be with family and friends. My heart is more open. There are times when the tenderness is almost too much to bear. More shared tears and joy, more awareness of life in the present moment. This too is a gift my nephew gave me.
Susan Glogovac, Wonderful Calling of the Heart, lives in Long Beach, California and practices with the Los Angeles Compassionate Heart Sangha. A retired psychology professor, she now serves her community as a mediator in victim-offender reconciliation cases.