father’s death

Closing the Door

By Mushim Ikeda-Nash On Thursday, April 11, my father, Robert Yoshizo Ikeda, died in his sleep at his home on Lake Anna in Virginia. My son Joshua and I were visiting at the time, mostly to help my mother, who is recovering from lymphoma and needs to be driven back and forth from a hospital in Richmond for blood transfusions. My father was 71 years old and his death was almost completely unexpected by everyone except his doctor, who diagnosed massive cardiac arrest without an examination.

At the time my father died, my mother was in the coronary ward of the hospital in Richmond, receiving some tests and being observed for effects of a new medication to regulate her heart beat. My sister, who lives in Charlottesville only 50 miles away, was in Honolulu delivering a talk, ironically enough, on "Japanese Death Poetry." My brother, an M.D./Ph.D. research scientist, was in Georgia. I felt quite alone when I discovered my father's body on Friday morning. He was lying on his left side; his face and hands were dark blue and very cold and stiff.

My heart was pounding and I began to feel faint. I saw clearly what I needed to do. I left the room, closing the door behind me, and walked slowly around the living room, breathing deeply and slowly. At that moment, I felt the responsibility to become calm and clear for Joshua's sake; he was still sleeping in the family room in the basement and would wake up soon. The sun was shining through the big windows that cover one whole side of the house and open onto a view of the lake. During those moments of walking meditation, I felt that the meditation practices I began in 1981 were resources I could draw upon to stabilize me, even to give me some joy that there was no sign of struggle or suffering in the room where my father's body lay. I knew this would be a stressful day with many pressures and decisions, and I felt that I wanted it to be a good day.

When I felt calm, I went downstairs and woke Josh up. He is seven years old. "Something important has happened," I told him. "Grandpa died last night." He put his head under the blankets, then raised it and said, "Maybe if we go out for a long walk and come back, Grandpa will just be in a deep sleep." I told him that this was not the case, and Grandpa really was dead. I said he needed to put on his clothes, come upstairs and have breakfast, after which I would be very busy making phone calls and arrangements. We had a quiet and peaceful breakfast looking out at the lake, then I called the neighbors and set in motion the official investigation and removal of the body. My brother-in-law, a Jodo Buddhist priest from Brazil, and my five-year-old nephew arrived from Charlottesville to help. As the funeral service men carried my dad out of the house, Josh stood at attention with a toy Japanese sword that my grandpa had sent my brother from Hawaii at least 35 years ago. Although the funeral home men had suggested I take the children into another room, I had asked Josh what he wanted. My father had died very naturally; I did not want it to become a secret and scary process. "I want to watch," he told me. "This is the last time we will see Grandpa in his earthly form."

A light rain began to fall as they loaded my father's body into a van. I placed my palms together and bowed as they closed the doors.

Although my father was against organized religion, we ended up having a small Buddhist funeral, with my brother-in-law, Kensaku Yuba, presiding. This was according to my mother's wishes. Seven days later we held another service with my father's ashes at the lake house. My cousin, Mary Oshima-Nakade, flew in from San Francisco with her two children and her mom, and brought some copies of a service from the Plum Village Chanting Book. As part of the service, I read the "introduction" part of the funeral service, requesting the community to listen calmly and clearly, and to recall that the joy of the children and grandchildren is the joy of the deceased as well. We sang "Breathing In, Breathing Out" together. My husband Chris had flown in from Oakland, and, with Josh sitting on my lap, I felt happy and secure. During Ken's Japanese chanting, which was very beautiful, Joshua and Mary's four-year-old son Ryan both fell asleep on their mother's laps.

I wish to thank all of you for your work in making Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings available to me and to my family. I have always felt profoundly influenced by Thay's emphasis on relaxation, joy, and slowing down the pace of one's life in order to appreciate and feel what is truly around and within us. My father suffered a great deal from massive anxieties, racial discrimination and isolation, financial hardship, anger, and paranoia during his life. He grew up on a farm in Indiana during the Great Depression and was drafted into the U.S. Army shortly after World War II ended. The extent that we were able to create an atmosphere of spiritual support, joy, and loving kindness after he died was of benefit to my whole family and to my father. I really cannot adequately express my gratitude for the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. I bow to all of you.

Mushim Ikeda-Nash lives in Oakland, California with her partner and son. She is a writer and proofreader, and a former nun in the Korean Zen Buddhist tradition.

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