Monthly Archives: May 2016

Dying and the heart sutra

Peace. Harmony. Laughter. Love.

Peace. Harmony. Laughter. Love.

I can hear snatches of conversations out in the hallway. A man’s voice is asking where are the balls?, a woman’s voice is insisting that she hasn’t paid for lunch while another soothing and calm voice assures her that your pension pays for lunch.

Peace. Harmony. Laughter. Love. I have been repeating those words over and over since I arrived at the long-term care facility where I have been asked to sit with a resident who is dying.

Peace. Harmony. Laughter. Love. It is a heart sutra that one can recite while meditating. I feel it is appropriate to meditate on these words while I sit here.

In the hallway life continues. Life has only slowed down in the confines of this room. The door is open and now I hear the medications wagon roll to the room next to the one where I am sitting and I hear the tap, tap, tap as the charge nurse counts the pills, and I recognize the familiar noise of the pills dispensed into a paper cup. Now she pours the water into a Dixie cup. For sanitary reasons, everything is disposable in the long-term care facility.

I recognize the soft padding of footsteps – silent, rubber-soled shoes of residents and staff. For a macabre moment, flashes of the “sidler” from an episode of Seinfeld enters my consciousness.

Thud. Thud. Wheelchairs on rubber wheels are quiet and unobtrusive as residents propel themselves with their feet.

A resident yells. Quick steps. More soothing words. A quiet blankets the hallway for a few minutes.

A resident’s footsteps are hurried; later, he returns, still hurrying. Again, he repeats the trip down the hallway; and again, returns. The repetition of his hallway journey seems never-ending. The resident’s dementia is relentless and won’t let go.

The man who was looking for the balls wanders past my door – he is now carrying a basket of brightly coloured balls. He, too, repeats the trip past my door, over and over.

The resident who I am sitting beside is still. I look around her room so that I can understand her a little – rooms reflect our personalities, our families and our loves; therefore, rooms are autobiographical.

The machines that were stationed beside her bed are gone – they are superfluous now. My resident is on her final journey – one that is solitary, bereft of things and stuff. This is life at its basic core – she is becoming a shell. Soon she will be formless. Spirit.

Peace. Harmony. Laughter. Love.

The sounds of the hallway. And the silence and quiet in this room. Side by side.

Life and death close by. My mind wanders to my mother’s death. She, too, lived and died her last moments here in this same facility, although in another area of the building.

No one disturbs us. Occasionally the staff check in and linger for a few minutes. Often they whisper words of comfort and love into the sleeping resident’s ear. Their words move me.

I am always humbled when I recognize that words of love come easily when we visit someone who is dying. If only those same words flowed so freely when our loved ones were well and healthy.

Another resident down the hallway is anxious; she is beginning to confront other residents and now they are agitated. But a staff member has intervened and all is well. A few simple words and calmness reigns. Another potential crisis is diverted – peace. Words of comfort heal many sores.


The resident who hurriedly travels back and forth, up and down the hallway has been re-directed to “dust” the hall rails. He is completely transfixed on his task and is polishing the rails until they glean. (There are a myriad of rails to dust – he should be occupied for some time.) Happy to be of service, his face is set in determination and purpose.


A personal support worker (P.S.W.) stops to visit our room. I ask her a question about the resident’s life and she captivates my imagination with tales of the resident’s assertiveness and joie de vivre. We laugh together as we honour this remarkable woman’s life story.

Flash cards in my head. I am remembering my mother’s death: as staff and residents filed into her room to say goodbye, they each took time to tell us stories of our mother (humourous anecdotes) that filled us with tears and laughter. Colour loading: two strokes of paint, one colour beside the other colour, side by side. Laughter. Tears. Joy. Sorrow.

Laughter is a lifeline: it tethers us to one another.


A husband pushes his wife’s wheelchair past our room and I recognize him as he and his wife are often at weekly bingo. He is hunched over and moves very slowly. Very slowly. He is like the many other husbands and wives, family members, who care for their loved ones with dementia. Daily visits that last from early hours until bedtime. That is the norm.

When you volunteer at a long-term care facility long enough, you begin to recognize the unsung heroes in the home. Their health is often jeopardized; their health declining at a faster pace than normal.

When I sit and talk with them, they assure me that there is no other place where they want to be. They consider the long-term care facility their home now, too.

A husband in his 80’s once told me that when he takes a respite from the daily commitment to his wife, that he is lost; he finds himself adrift. And so he returns to the care facility, more at peace and comfortable here (living his commitment to his wife) than in the loneliness and quiet of his home.


This room is filled with love. I see the love in the many family photos that are pinned to the bulletin board, or framed in the cabinet. Cards are filled with heart-felt sentiment; words of family love.

I see my mother in the bed. And I see my father. Now I see my mother-in-law, my aunt and others.

When you look at your loved one, you see that he is also made of stars and carries eternity inside.   Thich Nhat Hanh


Outside I can hear the birdsong. It’s Sunday so I also can hear the church bells in the distance. Down the hall someone is playing an organ and a few are attempting to sing a hymn and in spite of being off-key and discordant, there is a flow. The sounds are comforting. There is a rhythm in this building that I can sense – a heart beat – and I find it comforting.

Peace. Harmony. Laughter. Love.

May Grace surround my resident as she travels her last journey. May Grace surround us as we honour life and interbeing.










Music, tours, and a mother’s pride

My morning rituals – tai chi, meditation, yoga, walk along the river – were interrupted. A phone call from our son who has alerted us that he and his brother will be on the Internet – radio  at 8 am.

Recently our sons took time off their day jobs and visited the east coast in the States where they ‘hooked up’ with some new friends (from Kevin’s website) to connect and make music. My son’s wife is an integral part of his music; they often collaborate.  My other son calls them “a formidable team.” But on this adventure, it is just the two brothers.

As we tuned in, we agreed with the host of the show, our sons’ acoustic guitars made some “beautiful stuff.”

As the notes of their music lingered and rested in our living room, my mind drifted to a time when our sons were in grade eight (a lifetime ago), their taste in music above and beyond our understanding or reach. Later in university, the two of them volunteered on the Uni’s radio station and put in many hours until they were rewarded with their own radio show – late, late night shift (or early morning hours). As a mother, I was puzzled by their acceptance and excitement of the ungodly hour – I saw it as a punishment; they – as the highest reward. The two of them relished the time slot: “Mom, that’s when the true music aficionados listen and appreciate music.”

Their old band, The Riderless,  took to the roads after graduation – they left tracks in the east and in the west of Canada. The five of them improvising both music and gigs as they toured the country.

As parents, we sent unconditional love and pride – they would have preferred cash. They grew tired of sleeping on couches and floors and ordering eggs (the cheapest on the menu) each meal.

Their music isn’t mainstream by intention, they tell me, although I often meditate to it; it’s evocative and its sound fills a space elegantly.

My husband listened to this morning’s offering with an open heart and an open mind, a true music lover. I listened to it as a mother with deep satisfaction and love, recognizing that my sons’ musical life reflects a creativity, a deeply enriched right side of the brain – the side of the brain that many of us want to expand through meditation and mindfulness.

When we can explore and experiment within our art, that is, grab opportunities and push our limits of self, we expand on our gifts and we become more integrated as a whole. I believe that is how we begin to live the life that we were meant to have.

So as I listen to the guitar notes (their gifts) this fine Thursday morning, I am deeply gratified.

Music is soul-satisfying, as my husband often repeats.

Yes. A gift.



Yoga and snow angels

I lay flat on my back and stare up at the ceiling fan. I am in the fish pose in yoga – my body is flat on the floor, my chest is raised off the floor, propped up and supported by my elbows, and my head is pulled under so that the crown of my head is resting on the floor.

I stare up at the ceiling fan which is white and has five blades. My bedroom ceiling is also white. White on white. And now I know the blood is rushing to my head and circulation has increased. I know this because my mind is wandering into weird territory. The white fan looks like a snow angel – the kind that we made in virgin snow falls when I was a kid. The perfect angel outlines demanded pristine snow. As kids, we intuited that trampled snow would screw up our artistic endeavours, similar to attempting to draw on a well-used piece of paper. Blank slate, or go home.

My ceiling is a perfect blank slate. If only it would snow in my bedroom, I think.  Then I could practice my angels. As a kid, I loved making angels – the rhythmic movement to make wings; feeling so free. But it was the expansive white landscape that I was drawn to, much like the attraction of a brand new pad of white foolscap paper – untouched, unspoiled, un-trampled. The possibilities were endless.

But even the benefits of a steady yoga practice will not allow me to make snow angels on my ceiling.

My mind returns to the present.

My neck is arched and is now aching, so I turn my body over and practice the bow.

The bow pose is not my favourite asana; I’d rather practice the sun salutation or savasana. I am particularly fond of savasana – and quite good at it.

When I first was introduced to yoga when I was in my twenties, I thought savasana (we called it the corpse pose or the sponge) was the answer to all my stress. I practiced savasana until I fell asleep. (True, I had twin babies; do I need to say more?)

Today I meditate daily, so I practice savasana less and less. I would rather sit up and meditate than fall asleep.

In my meditation class, our teacher reminds us that only three things can happen when we meditate: our mind is full of thoughts; our mind lets go of the thoughts and just rests; or we fall asleep. If we fall asleep, it is our body telling us that we are tired. Don’t fight it, she reminds us.

The bow pose is not a pretty pose, not like the mountain pose or the tree pose. Those asanas (or postures) are quite elegant, unlike the bow which is rather awkward. My husband walked into our bedroom once when I was practicing the bow – my torso on the floor as my arms and legs stretched out behind me – up and away – into space.

Whoa! I’m outta here, he announced. Like, after forty some years of marriage bliss, he has never noticed that my arms and legs can contort like that.

Snow angels are fundamentally elegant. When we used to lay in the snow (backsides completely soaked), our torsos were still – limbs like wipers, angled the snow away from our bodies. So simple. So beautiful. The trick is to jump up from the ground without spoiling our masterpiece – jump up without moving our feet (and screwing up the lines of the angel) and then taking a huge leap away from the indentation. The best angels were made by those of us who had patience. One had to think it through or all would be lost.

My husband would have made awful snow angels. I instinctively know this to be true. He has no patience. In fact, I bet he was the spoil sport who announced he was going home if the others were going to make snow angels. I can just see him now: If we aren’t going to throw snowballs or play hockey, I’m outta here.

I decide while I practice the twist, that is harsh. Of course, I am also practicing my breathing because yoga is all about the breath, and between holding my breaths (while in the gap) I reflect on forty years of marriage. (Just so you know, one is supposed to let go of all thoughts while in the gap; not reflect on marriage.)

We live in a small house, so we get under each other’s feet sometimes; or under each other’s skin, more accurately.

It didn’t matter where one lived as a kid, whether the back yard or front yard was postage stamp-sized or an acre of land, one could always find a blank slate to make angels. As kids, we were drawn to nature: intuitively, we felt the connection. When we created our snow angels, our bodies were connected to the ground and our gaze was on the sky, the clouds, the horizon. We looked up into the heavens; our beings felt so alive. Expansive.

I wonder if little kids make snow angels today. I wonder if kids even play outside today. I hardly ever see children outside in the snow in our neighbourhood. I should know: I am outside clearing snow nearly every day throughout winter. And I am certainly not aware of any children playing outside.

We are often the only two people on the street clearing snow from the driveway and sidewalks. It’s a quiet and very peaceful time; Zen-like.

One winter when we went to Portugal for a holiday, I had a difficult time hiring a kid on the street to clean our driveway of snow while we were away. When I asked if they would like to make some extra cash, they shrugged their shoulders and said, not really.

While in Portugal I noticed parents and grandparents and children walking together in groups, arm in arm, like Laverne and Shirley. Why don’t we walk arm in arm with our families here in Canada, I used to think? They do in England as I remember my mother and father and our aunts and uncles would sidle up and hook their arms into one another’s whenever we went walking. Which was often. I think it’s obligatory to walk there. Arm in arm. Very enlightened, I used to think. How can anyone hold a grudge or argue with a loved one when they are holding each other up – supporting each other; maintaining each other; sustaining each other?

My yoga practice sustains me. Without it I would be forced into a gym class; worse, an aerobics class. Or step class. Whew, it’s been many, many years since I have taken a step class. I used to like the loud, throbbing music…it motivated me to swing my arms higher and my step wider. Dance class, too. Loved it. Still like to dance in my room when I am all alone.

Now I prefer the solitude of my yoga practice in my home – a class is too distracting for me. For me, yoga is personal; solitary; meditative.

My cobra pose is steady – I am staring up at the white on white again. I breathe three long breaths – that’s about fifteen to twenty seconds for each pose; repeat three more times.

Sixty thousand thoughts a day; that’s how many thoughts we are supposedly filling our minds with. Sixty thousand? I’m not a mathematician, but I think that is almost a thought every second and a half. If I have one long thought (or one long convoluted story that runs through my mind) does that count as multiple thoughts? Or just one long convoluted thought?

When I breathe and count to fifteen or twenty to hold a pose, does counting to twenty count as twenty thoughts?

When I choose to change poses, how many thoughts does that make? One thought or multiple thoughts?

Once again I turn onto my back and begin to lift one leg straight up, and I rotate my foot in small circles; after a minute, I lift my other leg and begin to rotate the other foot. First clockwise and then the other direction, counterclockwise. My ankles say thank you. When you walk more than an hour every day, ankles, feet and legs need to be strong and sturdy. And it doesn’t hurt to throw in a few back exercise poses, too. Thanks to yoga, I am planning on walking every day of the rest of my life.

As I rotate my ankle counterclockwise, I see my mother’s leg outstretched while she lay flat on her bed in the long-term care facility where she once lived. I had walked into her room for a visit one day, and there she was, exercising her ankles in the air. At the time I was so impressed with her ability and determination to stay flexible, even as she wrestled with dementia. Then, her brain was like a locked filing cabinet that she no longer could access.  But somehow she retrieved an old file labelled “yoga” and a thought to keep her ankles strong.

My mother used to practice yoga when I was just a young kid. I often came home from school and would find her flat on the living room floor in front of the television set watching her favourite show, Yoga With Kareen Zebroff.

My mother liked Kareen’s show so much that she ordered her yoga instruction book through the mail. The book “The ABC of Yoga” cost $4.50 retail. How do I know that fact? Because my mother gave me her yoga book when I was a young mother in my late twenties. I have used my mom’s yoga instruction book nearly every day for forty years or so. It’s a coil bound book which lays flat and is perfectly suited for easy reading (even when my body is upside down).

The author’s dedication inside this book reads: To my mother, who started me on the Royal Path of Yoga.

The author of the book thanked her mother in a dedication; I thank my mother who started me on the Royal Path of Yoga, also. And so the circle continues.

My mind needs to rest. Yoga usually is a meditative exercise but today I am filled with so many disparate thoughts – a jumble of them. My blank slate is not so blank; it’s well-trampled.

It’s also very quiet and peaceful in my bedroom, I think. Was I just meditating? Or sleeping? I can’t tell the difference at the moment. I think my head was down, therefore, I must have been dozing. Or dreaming. I do know that my cheeks are wet with tears.

I stare up at the ceiling. Gosh, that fan looks exactly like a snow angel!