I was sitting on a toilet in California when I found out my father died.
My cell phone rang at 5 a.m. “Oh, Damn, I forgot to call Dad to tell him we arrived safely in California.” I wiped the sleep from my eyes, headed off to the bathroom and dialed my voicemail. It was my mother, something was wrong.
The physical sensation of the emotion came immediately; heaviness in my throat, shortness of breath. I closed my eyes, took 5 deep breaths with my hands over my throat, and allowed the tears to well up and spill over my face. I recalled that true physical emotion lasts 90 seconds, everything after that is a result of our mental construct; our reacting to the thoughts surrounding the emotion or situation. After about 90 seconds I started to think that theory was just crap – I was still in pain, physical and emotional pain.
I continued on by breathing deeply and noticing what I was feeling in my body (the essence of the mindfulness practice), and after a few moments I was able to bring my attention to my daughter. I told her what happened, we held each other, and I got to the business of getting us back to Massachusetts as quickly as possible.
I stood at the airport counter for two hours organizing our flights.
On the inside I was noticing my breath, counting my breath, breathing deeply, and reminding myself “I am standing on two feet, I am breathing in, I am breathing out”, and what I wanted was a big sign to hang around my neck that said, “My father just died, please excuse any outward displays of emotion”. This sign would have been helpful as we sat at the gate in Philadelphia, the day before father’s day, as I noticed a sign “purchase a gift for dad” and completely lost my sense of the present moment, as I retreated into the comfort of a cup of coffee, released into an ugly cry, and felt gratitude for my daughter and our (possibly hysterical) laughter at my lack of presence and need for a sign.
The last time I saw my father was the weekend before we left for California The previous visit, had been seven months ago, the longest span since moving to my present home in Ohio in 2012. This weekend, my daughter and I drove from Ohio to Massachusetts to attend our cousin’s high school graduation and birthday party. The first day was spent catching up, just the four of us, me, my daughter, my mom and my dad; we had a lovely lunch and frozen yogurt, walked around town, watched a movie on an old sofa bed, and most importantly, we laughed and laughed. The second day, Sunday morning, my dad and I, both lovers of the early morning, took a walk, just the two of us; walking and talking with the sun shining and the birds singing. It was a lovely mid-June day!
We said goodbye to my parents in my cousin’s foyer ending our weekend together, after the morning walk with my father, at the family party; my cousin’s graduation and birthday party. As I look back on the events of the weekend, I am reminded of the many times (I have been in the daily practice of yoga and mindfulness for the last five years) as I stood in a long line at the grocery store embracing the opportunity to breathe deeply or practice a Lovingkindness meditation, I wondered, how is this practice changing me? Is twisting my body around on a yoga mat creating a more meaningful life experience? Now I know that my mindfulness practice supported a weekend with my father, a weekend which turned out to be my last; a weekend when I was fully present.
Being fully present looks like listening deeply.
My father and I walked and talked. I enjoyed the simple pleasure of hearing him and being with him. I listened to his family stories – and we laughed, and laughed.
We talked town gossip, wandered to the oldest covered bridge, (And laughed, again, at how it wasn’t really the oldest covered bridge. It was rebuilt after a fire a number of years ago), stopped by the river to inspect the new boat launch, and paused to watch the waterfalls and discuss where the Blue Heron had been hanging out to fish lately; all simple and pure moments of joy.
And presence also includes a keen awareness; a deep awareness of the physical, emotional and intuitive sensations of your body. I expressed my joy at being with my parents, and frequently gave them big kisses and told them how much I missed them. When the time came to say goodbye, it was with my entire self, fully present and centered in love.
I remember, the moment my mother told me my father had died, alongside the shock, there was something else, an acceptance. I accepted and released any desire for things to be other then they were in that moment. I embraced the pain in all the ways it showed up, and continues to show up, and I do so without struggling against it. This is the gift of the mindfulness practice; a resilience to settle in this moment to feel both the joy and the sorrow, and to even to accept that sometimes, the best thing to do is drink coffee.