Friday, December 25, 2009

wishing Mom a merry Christmas

I'm not sure how to describe what it was like, on this cold winter's night, to walk alone into the ICU, to don gloves and a gown, to step into Mom's berth, hold her hand, and wish her a merry Christmas. There were tears, there was silence, and outside the window, there was the shadowy East River to remind us of life's constant flow, the erosion that comes with impermanence.

I cleared my sadness-tightened throat and told Mom a few religious stories. First was the Jesus story, since this was Christmas. Ever the pedant, though, I followed that with the story of the Buddha's birth and eventual enlightenment. Finally, I ended with the story about Jang Ja (the Sino-Korean rendering of Chuang-tzu, one of the fathers of philosophical Taoism) and the famous "jeweled turtle shell" incident that ends with Jang Ja barking, "Let me drag my tail in the mud, then!" Maybe I should have added the story about Bodhidharma and his nine-year meditation, but since the legend says he ripped off his eyelids so as not to fall asleep (the lids hit the ground and sprung up as tea plants, which is how tea came to China), I decided to avoid the really gross stuff. I ended by noting that the great religious traditions all deal, each in their own way, with the issues of bondage and liberation. I told Mom, as I had before, that it was OK if she wanted to be free of her suffering; it was OK to leave early.

Mom was the best audience a guy could have: silent and receptive. I had no idea whether she really heard anything I was saying. She certainly wasn't reacting. But I talked all the same. I asked her what the hell we were going to do once she was gone. I promised that I would try to live a happy and fulfilling life, and make others happy as well. I told her not to worry, that we four guys-- Dad and us boys-- were going to be all right, and that that was thanks to her love and care. I told her she was the center of our world and that, just as Scrooge promised to keep Christmas in his heart all the days of the year, I would keep her in my heart, every day, forever.

And even though I had intended to spend only a few minutes with her-- just the time to herald the arrival of Christmas-- I straightened up to leave and found that I just couldn't go. I couldn't. Mom looked so alone there, all by herself next to a huge, dark window. Departure felt like abandonment. So I sat with her for about an hour, holding her swollen hand, stroking her face, wishing I could see some spark of life in her. In the end, though, there was nothing: just the machine going through the motions of artificial respiration, and the whites of Mom's eyes poking out from beneath her partly-opened lids.

Time passed; I finally got up and made ready to leave.

"Be at peace, Mom," I said. "Merry Christmas. I'll see you soon."

I left her there, alone, so tiny and vulnerable in her bed, next to a window through which stared the spectral night. I left her there, alone, to fight the cancer in her skull, the infection in her lungs, and the rest of that vile symphony of bad biological news.

I left her there, feeling as if I had abandoned her.

Merry Christmas, Mom.


People who've had a chance to read my book might not be comforted by my theological point of view, which veered away from classical theism (and any hint of scriptural literalism) long, long ago. If you haven't read the book, a few posts on this blog might give you some hint of where I stand. The insights won't necessarily be reassuring, and if you disagree with them, that's fine. Vive la différence!

Your religious point of view is the most fundamental point of view you have; as such, it's safe to say that logic alone doesn't inform it: it is, instead, a reflection of a deep and primal orientation toward the world and ultimate reality, only retroactively supported by logic. Even atheists have this point of view, though they won't style it "religious," per se: they, too, have some sense of their relationship with reality, and of what reality is. But more important, because the religious point of view is so basic to the human character, it's almost impossible to alter through argument.

My point? Well, my point is simple: some people get nervous when they start reading about other people's religious points of view, but really, they shouldn't. If they have confidence in their convictions, they can face any new perspective without fear. Then again, if they haven't bothered to reflect on their own perspective... maybe they'll be seduced to the dark side. And that would serve them right! Unreflective faith is blind faith, and blind faith is a source of so much of the world's trouble. As my mother used to say when I was a kid-- and this is the only theological utterance she's ever made-- "God gave you a brain!" (This theology was usually uttered in anger or disgust, but it has a wider application than the mere scolding of youthful stupidity. It's great that we are feeling beings, but we also need to think. Catholics, at least since 1998, use the Latin formulation fides et ratio (faith and reason) to encapsulate the marriage of heart and head in the face of the Absolute; East Asia encapsulates it in the Chinese character 心, pronounced "shim" in Korean, "hsin" in Chinese, and "shin" in Japanese-- which means both mind and heart.)

Without further ado, then-- religion-related posts for Christmas (read at your own risk):

1. On petitionary prayer

2. On miracles-- starting with the fourth paragraph

3. On the claim that "The Christmas tree is a pagan symbol!"

4. On that horrible, horrible exclamation, "Merry Christmas!"

5. On mixing and matching religions-- a comment that I left over at my buddy Mike's blog, which he saw fit to highlight as a separate post.


1 comment:

Nomad said...


This, my friend, is one of the most beautiful pieces you've written.
During Christmass mass, I was thinking of you and your family and I looked around me at all the families attending service and thought, "do they know, do they really know how blessed they are?"