Tag Archives: grief

Standing Still

It’s been a year of change, and for me this has shown up as being the one who is left behind.

Shortly after my mother died in March, I learned that four unrelated close friends of mine are moving away. One moved three hours away, another back to Texas, and a third one, today, is leaving for Colorado. My fourth friend is still searching for somewhere out of the bay area to land, and I’m confident they will be gone by end of summer.

It happens to us all. Having been left, and having twice been the one leaving, I know it is harder to be left. The person departing is focused forward, on new adventures, on change (most often) of their own design. I know my friends will miss me. It’s just that I feel acutely, right now, how immobile I am. I don’t even necessarily want to move anywhere. It’s just that this pandemic has stopped everything.

My mother’s death still feels abstract. She was 3,000 miles away, and I couldn’t travel to bury her. My friend who is leaving today used to be part of my daily life, but the pandemic shut that down. We’ve still connected by text, Marco Polo, and a few socially distanced walks. The first two options remain.

It’s just hard to wave good-bye when I’m the one standing still.

So it’s time to be gentle, let myself feel sad, and important to not attach to the feeling and get stuck in this story. And maybe it’s time for a little chocolate.

Leave A Little Light On

My mother was fond of indirect lighting. Small, attractive lamps nestled in various corners of her home. She also kept an electric candle shining all night, every night, in her front window. This is a tradition of welcome she loved, so that anyone who passed by in the dark would feel less lonely and lost.

This song resonated with me because it’s about transition, specifically dying and being born. We are tethered to life by an invisible string that eventually breaks. And miraculously, mysteriously, life takes shape and emerges as well. It’s been a little over four months since Mom died. I miss her.

If the video doesn’t work, here is the link.

Pandemic Prayer

In memory of Mary Catherine Nicklas Petro
10/6/1933 – 3/16/2020

mom garden 1966

Pandemic Prayer

We are not all left standing when the war has ended.
It feels like the end times.
For many, it is.
Inhalation is our first act of embodiment.
Exhalation, our last.
One lifetime, millions of breaths
a conversation with all existence.
Where does the spirit go when we die?
Hail Mary, my gentle Momma,
You left; you gave up your breath
before the virus could steal it.
You waged a long campaign to stave off
cancer, old age, and death.
Emancipating your breath
you added the gift of your spirit to all.
Holy Mary, you released your body,
returned to Earth, our suffocating Mother,
in respiratory distress for decades.
Humanity is a virus choking
and drowning our source of life.
When the host dies,
the virus dies too.
Momma, you returned to our Mother
so you could garden with Her,
to try to heal us all.

–Kathryn Harper

Sweet Connections

one serving every day

My mother had a sister who was two years younger than she. My Aunt Reta. The evening of February 27, 2019, eleven days after her 83rd birthday, Reta decided she wanted a bit of ice cream. She got out of her chair to go to the kitchen, and she collapsed. She died of a heart attack.

Last Monday, March 16, my mother was feeling very unwell and in pain (she was terminally ill). She did not want any supper. My father asked her if she wanted some ice cream. She replied that yes, that sounded good. My father helped her to the dining room chair. Before he could get the ice cream, she began to fall over. He caught her, helped her to the floor, called 911 and a neighbor. She died shortly after.

I like to think they are enjoying ice cream together in a parallel universe.

Mourning My Mother

bleeding heart

Bleeding hearts from my parents’ garden

During this school-at-home time, Claire and I decided that our science will be to re-watch Cosmos, presented by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. She last saw it about six years ago. We watched the first episode, about the origin of the universe, and how we are star stuff.

Mom loved knowledge. She loved learning things. She was curious. She loved the natural world and science. We often talked about the mystery of what we were before we were born, and what happens after we die. What were we? How do we become conscious? As I listened to Neil describe the marvelous scale of time, I cried. Just steady tears, not big crying.

My teacher advised me to make a ritual, to follow the mourning practice of Zen Buddhist tradition (which is my practice). She recommended that I chant a sutra (doesn’t matter which one) every day for 7 days, and dedicate it each time to my mother, announcing her full name. Then to do this practice on the 14th, 21st, and 49th day of her death. I chose two: the Daihishin Darani, which is a Japanese chant to Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, and the Heart Sutra (below).

I don’t typically light candles in the house, nor do I burn incense; the scent overwhelms other family members. But then I realized I have the perfect ritual. My daily cup of coffee. Mom loved black coffee, as do I. So I make my pour-over coffee, paying attention to each detail. I talk to Mom as it brews. Once it’s ready, I sit down with coffee and my chant book. I take a sip. Then I say, “I dedicate this sutra to Mary Catherine Nicklas Petro” and begin. I choke on the words as my throat thickens. But I do it, and I don’t think overly much about it. It’s not necessary to think. It’s perhaps even detrimental. The process brings a wisp of peace.

I love you, Momma. I miss you.

MAHA PRAJNA PARAMITA HEART SUTRA

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, doing deep prajna paramita,
Clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions,
Thus completely relieving misfortune and pain,
O Shariputra, form is no other than emptiness,
emptiness is no other than form;
Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form;
Sensation, conception, discrimination,
awareness are likewise like this.
O Shariputra, all dharmas are forms of emptiness,
not born, not destroyed;
Not stained, not pure, without loss, without gain;
So in emptiness there is no form, no sensation,
conception, discrimination, awareness;
No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind;
No color, sound, smell, taste, touch, phenomena;
No realm of sight . . . no realm of consciousness;
No ignorance and no end to ignorance . . .
No old age and death, and no end to old age and death;
No suffering, no cause of suffering, no extinguishing, no path;
No wisdom and no gain. No gain and thus
The bodhisattva lives prajna paramita
With no hindrance in the mind, no hindrance, therefore no fear,
Far beyond deluded thoughts, this is nirvana.
All past, present, and future Buddhas live prajna paramita,
And therefore attain anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.
Therefore know, prajna paramita is
The great mantra, the vivid mantra,
The best mantra, the unsurpassable mantra;
It completely clears all pain — this is the truth, not a lie.
So set forth the Prajna Paramita Mantra,
Set forth this mantra and say:

Gate! Gate! Paragate! Parasamgate!
Bodhi svaha. Prajna Heart Sutra.

A Message From My Mother

In recent conversations, Mom shared with me several poems she would love to be read at her service. Since we don’t know when that will be, due to travel restrictions and pandemic, I thought I’d share here. This is the first one.

Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

–Mary Elizabeth Frye

MacKerricher State Park 2019

mackerricher state park

Transition

My mother, Mary Catherine Nicklas Petro, died today. She was 86 and had two types of cancer. Three years ago, she was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma — her third experience with melanoma. She began Opdivo, an immunotherapy. It was her good fortune that she fell into the 30% for whom the treatment worked. It shrank her tumors to almost nothing. About a year ago, her breast cancer returned. She had a lot of arthritis, mobility issues, and pain. Yet she kept going as long as she could with the Opdivo, because she wanted to contribute to the research on the treatment for the sake of others. The breast cancer returned, though, and she knew she didn’t want aggressive treatment for it. Her body was struggling enough with side effects and ailments.

Mom was getting close to entering hospice. We had imagined more time, a gradual decline, a process where we could see her again and say good-bye. Something happened inside her yesterday that led to a swift end. She is no longer suffering. I had talked to her three days ago, and I am so glad I did. We lived 3,000 miles apart, and for now I must stay put. I live in an epicenter of Covid-19, am sheltering-in-place, and am in a vulnerable group. I don’t want to get it, and I don’t want to carry it to my siblings or my 89-year-old father. I spent a lot of time saying good-bye to my mother over the years, connecting with her, resolving things between us. I grieved some. Yet nothing prepared me for how this is, how it feels. The finality. May we all be peace; may we all be free from suffering.

Mary Catherine Nicklas Petro / October 6, 1933-March 16, 2020

Syracuse 2016

Photo taken April 2016 with my daughter

Bleeding Heart

bleeding heart

Bleeding Heart

My heart is bleeding. It bleeds upward and fills
my mouth up with salt. It bleeds because of a city in ruins,
the chair still warm from sister’s body,
because it will all be irreproducible. My heart
bleeds because of baby bear not finding mama bear and it bleeds
to the tips of my fingers like I painted my nails Crimson.
Sometimes my heart bleeds so much I am a raisin.
It bleeds until I am a quivering ragged clot, bleeds at the ending
with the heroine and her sunken cancer eyes, at the ending
with the plaintive flute over smoke-choked killing fields. I’m bleeding
a river of blood right now and it’s wearing a culvert in me for the blood. My heart
rises up in me, becomes the cork of me and I choke on it. I am bleeding
for you and for me and for the tiny babies and the IED-blown
leg. It bleeds because I’m made that way, all filled up with blood,
my sloppy heart a sponge filled with blood to squeeze onto
any circumstance. Because it is mine, it will always bleed.
My heart bled today. It bled onto the streets
and the steps of city hall. It bled in the pizza parlor with the useless jukebox.
I’ve got so much blood to give inside and outside of any milieu.
Even for a bad zoning decision, I’ll bleed so much you’ll be bleeding,
all of us bleeding in and out like it’s breathing,
or kissing, and because it is righteous and terrible and red.

Carmen Giménez Smith

A Living Continuation

“The day my mother died I wrote in my journal, “A serious misfortune of my life has arrived.” I suffered for more than one year after the passing away of my mother. But one night, in the highlands of Vietnam, I was sleeping in the hut in my hermitage.

I dreamed of my mother. I saw myself sitting with her, and we were having a wonderful talk. She looked young and beautiful, her hair flowing down. It was so pleasant to sit there and talk to her as if she had never died.

When I woke up it was about two in the morning, and I felt very strongly that I had never lost my mother. The impression that my mother was still with me was very clear. I understood then that the idea of having lost my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother is always alive in me.

I opened the door and went outside. The entire hillside was bathed in moonlight. It was a hill covered with tea plants, and my hut was set behind the temple halfway up. Walking slowly in the moonlight through the rows of tea plants, I noticed my mother was still with me. She was the moonlight caressing me as she had done so often, very tender, very sweet… wonderful! Each time my feet touched the earth I knew my mother was there with me.

I knew this body was not mine but a living continuation of my mother and my father and my grandparents and great-grandparents. Of all my ancestors. Those feet that I saw as “my” feet were actually “our” feet. Together my mother and I were leaving footprints in the damp soil.

From that moment on, the idea that I had lost my mother no longer existed. All I had to do was look at the palm of my hand, feel the breeze on my face or the earth under my feet to remember that my mother is always with me, available at any time.”

–Thích Nhat Hanh, No Death, No Fear

Farewell Stella

My dear Fur Person friend, Stella Bella the cat, died today. She was 17 years old. She had tumors in her bladder and on her lung. Sometime I will write about the adventures we had with her, and her many catly qualities. But today, just this.

Farewell Stella

I stroke your fur
no purr
frail limbs give
no resistance
laid out tenderly
no movement
eyes half open
no vision.
It was a good life
a long life
and we let you go
before we wanted
to spare you suffering.
It is the least we could do
for all the joy and love
you gave us.

–Kathryn Harper

DSC05960
DSC05966
DSC05948

No Ordinary Life

No Ordinary Life

Drink some coffee
light a candle
Rain patters
light a candle
Cat purrs
light a candle
A child’s party
light a candle
Eat cake
light a candle
Buy groceries
light a candle
Fold laundry
light a candle
Clean the bathroom
light a candle
Pay bills
light a candle
Read books
light a candle
Sing carols
light a candle
Cuddle and tickle
light a candle
Wrap presents
light a candle
Color and draw
light a candle
Bake cookies
light a candle
Cook dinner
light a candle
Wash dishes
light a candle
Bathe the child
light a candle
Rock and cuddle
light a candle
Sing lullabyes
light a candle

light a candle
light a candle
light a candle
light a candle
light a candle
light a candle
light a candle

light a candle

–Kathryn Harper

In memory of those who died at Sandy Hook.

Candles at Bongeunsa Temple

Photo courtesy of VancityAllie and Creative Commons

There Is No Place Too Small

I’m healthy. My daughter thrives. My marriage is happy. The weather is sunny and mild. We’re not in the middle of a mortgage crisis. We can pay our bills. I have a good social network.

So why have I grown tired, sad, and teary over the course of the day? I was prepared to chide myself for ingratitude, but then I remembered. Tomorrow is an anniversary. It’s been three years, but time doesn’t erase the mark completely. I feel fragile right now. (And my daughter has changed –yet again — these past few days; the cues that used to communicate hunger and exhaustion have changed, she’s eating just about every 90 minutes, and I feel off-kilter in my competence.)

I wrote the following poem a couple of years ago regarding the event.

No Place Too Small

It is easy to know how to meld with so much grief.
With joy there is blindness, rose-colored ignorance,
No body to tend, to anchor one to the earth.
When the world remains intact, you move nimbly,
Caressing the surface of things, noticing little.

But grief burrows in.
It needs only the exposed, wounded soul
To dig in as a tick under skin.
Grief bangs around the cellar, shrieking,
behaves unpredictably, hijacking your eyes
When the store clerk asks how you are. Clutching your
throat when you call the dentist’s office for a cleaning.

You walk now among oblivious humans,
an emotional leper
With lesions rotting your heart.
All of existence has its own death,
It too could slip into a tumor-ridden coma
Adorned with catheter tubes,
And gasp last breaths to the sterile beat
Of a monitor, attended by loved ones.

Since there is no place too small
For grief to infiltrate,
You lie down, surrender, pull it
to every cell of your being.
You take orders, as a dog obeys commands
From an owner; you honor and bear it,
And in this way, endure.

–Kathryn Harper

In Memory

A venerable friend died this morning. My brother and sister-in-law (Aunt LP)’s cat, Theo, died at home of renal failure and old age. He was 14. I was the first person they called in 1993 when they adopted him in kittenhood. He was a damn smart cat, their genius kitty; as my brother said, Theo “knew how the outside was connected to the inside (though he’d never been), how to open doors and cabinets, and how to make us smile.” I’m so sad he’s gone. He was a wonderful furry family member. If you have animal companions at home, give them a little extra love today.

theo

This is a photo of an old photo of Theo I snapped when I first moved to Austin in 1994.

Are we really sure the purring is coming from the kitty and not from our very own hearts?

–Emme Woodhull-Bäche, translated

[thanks to Leah for sharing the quotation]