In March my sister, Joy, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After consultations with oncologists and surgeons in Hawai’i she was referred to and accepted into a clinical trial in Portland, Oregon.
After three months in Portland they chose to return home. The outcome of the clinical trial was not favorable so before Joy got too sick to travel they decided to come home. They asked if I would come to Portland and help them board their flight. I offered to accompany them to Hawai’i. On June 26 I left for Portland and the next day we flew to Hawai’i. I stayed nearly three weeks as she transitioned to hospice care. On the third of July, Joy was well enough for the three brothers and Joy to get together at her home. With food on the table, grandkids running around, we sat at the table talking story.
Our experience with my sister is not uncommon. Just in this past year the Betsuin conducted seventy funerals. Each of these lives is cherished by someone. Someone who may have sat with them in a hospital or in a nursing home. Someone who may have learned of a sudden and unexpected death. Someone who grieved when they died. Someone for whom the experiences shared continue to be important and remembered.
Since our family began serving at the Betsuin there have been more than a thousand five hundred funerals conducted here. As a minister of the Betsuin I have officiated more than four hundred of those funerals. I have talked with hundreds of families as they grieved and prepared for a funeral service. Families who invited us to be a part of a profound and deeply personal time in their lives. Your willingness to share as you grieved prepared our family for this time.
In someways I feel like Kisagotami who Shakyamuni helped to understand that death is a part of all our lives. There is another part, however, to the experience of death that I’m sure Shakyamuni helped others to realize: That it is difficult to express what you are experiencing when someone close to you dies. Words and thoughts are inadequate to convey the richness of grief and joy and importance. For Kisagotami she could not believe that her child had died much less express the importance of the shared experiences of her child. Death is a common experience but each individual’s experience is different and unique. I think part of Kisagotami’s realization was acknowledging and accepting the sympathy offered by others. That the sorrow and concern expressed comes from a common, shared experience.
During one of our conversations I told Joy that I often talked about mom and dad in dharma talks and that now I would add her to my repertoire. She smiled. She has an interesting sense of humor. I think she found this thought amusing as I hoped she would.
As I write this article Joy’s body continues to slow down. Losing abilities that she once had. Simple things like standing or hugging or sitting. Even things the body would normally do on its own: healing wounds, digesting food, fighting infections. She’ll have bouts with depression, anxiety, anger. Feelings of gratitude and love for family, for friends, for nembutsu. Energy and functions are withdrawing from her extremities to her body core. Soon there will be no more of these abilities. Her life will come to an end.
When Joy dies the influences of her life will not simply disappear. What we shared will continue to be a part of how I engage the world. When I remember I know I will smile thinking about growing up together or when they came to visit and picked kaki from the front tree. I will remember, gratefully, the time we spent together. My memories of Joy will continue to change and deepen, experiences will be forgotten and remembered, taking on new meaning and significance, as our lives continue to unfold.